America is a very religious nation. But sadly, we’re not a very spiritual one. Mother Teresa’s disquieting words resonate throughout the land: “You in the West have the spiritually poorest of the poor. . . . I find it easy to give a plate of rice to a hungry person . . . but to console or to remove the bitterness, anger, and loneliness that comes from being spiritually deprived, that takes a long time.”[i]
While it is obvious to anyone who graduated from sixth grade that America is reeling from a chronic political crisis, it may not be as apparent that the disabling political warfare is fueled by an underlying spiritual crisis. Disconnected from our human and spiritual roots, we flail around in a world that is oblivious to the suffering of others. Lacking a gentle mindfulness toward our own feelings and vulnerability, we quickly look away from those who are suffering or the environmental havoc we’re creating.
Becoming numb to our own pain through assorted addictions and today’s speed of life, we don’t register the misery around us. If some poor souls are dying because they can’t afford health care, it’s not my problem. A prevalent political ideology in today’s America is a decidedly narcissistic one — we’re all in it for ourselves.
The great world religions encourage us to love one another. What is love if not caring for the well-being of our fellow humans — not allowing ourselves to be responsive to the feelings and needs of those around us?
Spirituality derives from the word meaning “breath.” We notice what lives and breathes outside of ourselves. The recognition that our very nature is to be interdependent with the life around us is antithetical to the American myth of self-sufficiency.
A spiritual view is antithetical to celebrating the isolated human ego — living in our self-comforting ideologies and shutting down our empathy. It’s about living in our hearts and bodies — recognizing our sacred interconnectedness with others and our natural environment.
Mother Teresa invites us to look courageously at our attitude of isolation that keeps us disconnected from each other. When our longing for love and connection goes unmet, it atrophies. Reeling from attachment wounds (disruptions of trust and unhealed betrayals), we pursue what doesn’t bring fulfillment — things, power, wealth — until we reach a spiritual crisis or lie exhausted on our deathbed, wondering, “Did I miss something?”
As we live more mindfully, with an open, accessible heart, we find that the greatest joy and satisfaction comes from contributing to the well-being of others and living for something larger than ourselves and our immediate family. Sure, it’s nice to have a nifty car, nice home, and comfortable surroundings, but how far do we want to take it? As we live from our spiritual depths, there’s a richer joy that arises when we promote the happiness of others. Constructing a social infrastructure that supports people in meeting their basic physical and emotional needs can lower the frantic temperature of fear that infects our communities on multiple levels.
Do we want to build a society that encourages a hoarding of resources for ourselves and perpetuates a deepening split between the rich and poor? Spiritual teachers such as Mother Teresa invite us to live with a porous heart, poised to touch and be touched by others. Creating a world that is more interconnected and less isolating is a good idea not simply because it is ethically proper. The deepest human fulfillment lies in co-constructing such a world.
The wise Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed a system in which the wealthiest person could only be a certain number of times richer than the poorest, thus giving affluent people an incentive to lift up the bottom. This social contract, or something similar, would create a society that is wisely geared toward reducing the fears and wants that lead to a variety of social ills, while giving more and more people an opportunity to be happy. Politicians who cling to an isolated, constricted vision may try to manipulate the populace by labeling this as some kind of horrifying socialism. In reality, a social policy rooted in human caring is a path toward creating a civilization embedded in longstanding spiritual tradition.
[i] Mother Teresa. The Greatest Love. Novato: New World Library, 2002.