Digging Deep the Gathering Gloom

Jeff Kurtz
11 min readMar 3, 2018

The problems that plague the United States today are so numerous and varied that any hope to resolve them seems overwhelming. Many of us feel a palpable sense of dread as we watch the events unfold in our country and around the world. It seems we are quietly submitting to an inescapable reality as humanity descends into an abyss from which there is no return. And I must agree, there appears to be no hope for us if we continue down the dark path we are heading.

I decided to embark on a quest to understand the source of our problems, and began by posting the following three questions in 30+ political groups on Facebook.

  1. What are the major problems we face in the world?
  2. What is the single root cause of these problems?
  3. Assuming you found the root cause, how would you fix it?

After a few days, I collected and compiled the results of 2184 comments. The most salient problems among these comments were greed, fear, ignorance, money, our weak education system, income inequality, our military-industrial-complex, our dependence on oil, money in politics, and so. In every case, the responses described particular solutions, but none of them addressed our problems as a whole.

Though it was clear I sought a single root cause, none of the respondents provided one. Some of the solutions were very specific, such as eliminating religion, imprisoning members of the one-percent, converting from capitalism to social democracy, moving from fossil fuels to clean energy, no tax breaks for the wealthy, establishing a majority 3rd party in Congress, cutting our military budget in half, and so forth. Other solutions were more overarching, and these were the ones that seemed to resonate with me. Examples included teaching respect in our schools, showing compassion toward others, learning to empathize, demonstrating love toward others, holding politicians accountable for their actions, and others. Now that the problems had been identified, I focused on the overarching issues to determine their common characteristics.

What are the common attributes of love, kindness, empathy, compassion, respect, selflessness, altruism, and humanitarianism?

All of these qualities imply an abandonment of ego. And because they are all other-directed, it stands to reason that the initial requirement for any expression of love, kindness or compassion is to recognize that this “other” exists. Beyond that, something about this “other” must trigger an emotional response strong enough to invoke a feeling that penetrates the subconscious and enters awareness. And this “something” would be a visceral, precognitive, human connection, or bond, of sorts; similar to the feelings inspired when addressing someone with the Indian word “nameste,” which I interpret to mean, “I recognize, respect and appreciate the human spirit in you that exists in me.” Of course, there is mild compassion and there is great compassion. So, assuming there are no other influences, as the strength of the emotional connection increases, so does the behavioral expression.

What prevents us from being other-directed?

The best explanation may be found by examining Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory that describes how people are generally preoccupied by their needs until they are met. These needs are described on five levels in Maslow’s hierarchy — 1) food, shelter, and sex, 2) stability, security and freedom from fear, 3) acceptance, trust and intimacy, 4) achievement, independence, and respect, and 5) personal growth and fulfillment. Unmet needs drive many of our fears. Fear is caused by our need gap between “what is” and “what ought to be”. Fears can be real or imagined. Fear causes stress -> which leads to worry -> which causes self-absorption -> which produces selfishness.

An unmet goal is an unmet need. Our society lauds personal independence and achievement as its highest ideals. Consequently, we are so focused on our own needs for achievement that we can’t see beyond them. Our selfishness is derived from desires for personal achievement, self-esteem, respect from others, status, and the prestige that comes from mastering our professions. And here, too, many of our needs are driven by fear — the perceived gap between “what is” and “what ought to be”.

Having one’s needs met doesn’t ensure selfless behavior. We must also realize there are others in need and care enough to do something about it. The desire to do good arises from the pain and suffering learned through our experiences, and an understanding that we are individual members of a much greater whole. It is this knowledge that causes us to reach out to others to learn how our actions (or inaction) affect them. In our world of cause and effect, there are consequences for everything we do. Every action has its consequence, good or bad, great or small. To fully understand the consequences of our actions takes wisdom. The motivation to acquire that wisdom and do something about it takes caring.

Why don’t people care? What would prevent them from caring?

I didn’t see it at first, but as I poured over the compilation of results, a common root cause finally emerged for nearly every problem that had been identified. And it’s the reason American citizens can no longer compete with a global workforce. It’s the reason our nation spends more on our military than the next twelve countries combined. It’s the reason we are unable to enjoy the same free healthcare coverage and education currently practiced in other first-world countries. And it’s the reason the United States has the largest number of prison incarcerations than anywhere else in the world.

It’s also the reason our defense contractors sell weapons to foreign countries. The reason our politicians favor corporations over the people they’re supposed to serve. The reason we deport immigrants who simply wish to improve their lives. The reason we neglect the scientific communities’ warnings about climate change. The reason our pharmaceutical industry charges considerably more for drugs than anywhere else in the world. The reason millennials find it more difficult to find good jobs. The reason we accept rampant political corruption and deceit in our country. And the reason for the general moral decay we’ve grown accustomed to day after day, year after year.

If you want to understand the character of a nation, look at their heroes and determine how it defines “success”. In the United States, our heroes are those with money and power, and success is defined by achieving one’s own ambitions. We celebrate individualism and personal achievement, and we do it at the expense of others. It’s a mentality that says, “As long as I win, nothing else matters”. Our society is propped by these ideals. They form our worldview, and they serve as the foundation upon which our society’s value system is based. A value system that we’ve been acting upon, sanctioning, reaffirming, and strengthening over many generations. Our bad habits have created an apathetic culture that is far too selfish to care about anyone else.

A value system is a set of rules that form our beliefs about right and wrong behavior. They are the rules handed down to us by our parents, religion and society, and they are the lessons learned throughout our lives. It is the stream of experience that creates our worldview, and it is the culmination of thoughts, feelings, and habits which shape the attitudes that drive our intended actions.

We are born into our world at the mercy of forces far beyond our control. Our parents, religion, and society are chosen for us, and they deeply ingrain the values we adopt during our formative years. Even at a young age, we encounter inconsistencies in the values handed to us, but it is isn’t until we reach adolescence that we begin to question their validity. When a value no longer abides by our intuitive understanding of right and wrong, we face a moral dilemma. We can either choose to accept the social rule of law, or we can revise our value system to harmonize with our renewed understanding. Those bound by authority typically conform to social norms; others engage in critical thinking to trust the life lessons they’ve learned. And unless me make a deliberate effort to change, these are the approaches we tend to employ by default throughout our lives.

The pressures to conform to parental, religious and societal value systems vary among individuals, but it’s society’s values that typically have the greatest and more lasting affect on us. We can escape the influences of our parents and religion, but it’s much more difficult to break our societal bonds, and the reason for this brings us back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Once we reach adulthood and strike out on our own, we often fear an uncertain future. Our need for independence and survival, accompanied by this fear, places tremendous pressure on us to conform to society’s value system. And not only must we put this value system into practice, we must also serve as role models of this system. We learn the necessary thought-processes and behaviors which enable us to thrive in the system, and we create habits and worldviews that support the system. And, over time, we become assimilated. We no longer question the system. We are simply part of it.

Freedom is both a social condition and a personal mindset. True freedom provides the conditions necessary to choose one’s own way. The conditions that exist in any society are entirely based on its value system, and this system often twists us to become someone we’re not. When the values of society don’t match the moral lessons we learn through experience, we begin to realize that we aren’t free to be ourselves. Some of us may sense there is something wrong, but we examine no further because we’re bound by our needs. Others wrestle against the persons we’ve become, often coming to terms with our roll of the dice and station in life during ‘mid-life crisis”. Yet, some us are unwilling to accept our fate, so we set out on a journey to rediscover ourselves and to change it.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps during the Holocaust. As he put it, “ Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths… the rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss…”

Viktor survived the camps because he wouldn’t let his circumstances control his mind, his attitude, or his behavior. At moments when others were consumed by fear and reduced to their animal natures, he chose to see things differently. His attitude enabled him to treat the guards with civility and kindness. He remained positive throughout his ordeal, knowing that his life had a deeper meaning and a purpose beyond the concentration camps. When it came time for Viktor to be disposed, the guards wouldn’t do it because he had added value to their lives. Instead, he was relocated to a “rest camp” where he worked as a physician until he was released in April, 1945.

Viktor’s extreme circumstances taught him these valuable life lessons: that at any given moment, we can choose our response to any situation, and it is not the circumstances that influence who we are, but how we choose to interpret and respond to them. And that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The study of hero mythology is based on the observations of common patterns in plots of hero’s journeys across distinct and diverse cultures. In Joseph Campbell’s landmark achievement entitled, “A Hero with a Thousand Faces,” he describes the hero’s journey as a transformational experience with three parts: 1) Departure: The hero is beckoned from his normal existence to seek truth that requires great risk to himself 2) Initiation: The hero overcomes his fears, vanquishes the powers that control him, which takes him to another world. 3) Return: The hero comes away with wisdom that he must integrate with human life in order to return. His newfound mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live.

The Hero’s Journey is often explained using a “savior archetype” narrative. Of the numerous examples to choose from, I will briefly describe two that are very familiar:

The Buddha began his journey when he saw suffering outside his palace walls and was motivated to seek enlightenment in order to end their suffering. As the story goes, he worked with a mentor to overcome a demon. When he conquered the demon, he freed himself from earthly desires of attachment and became enlightened. He returned from his journey with newfound wisdom and gave our world the gift of his teachings.

Jesus’s journey began during a time of great political unrest in Jerusalem. After being baptized by John the Baptist (a mentor), he overcame his temptations by renouncing Satan. He freed himself from his earthly attachments by dying on the cross and ascending into heaven. And he returned to earth to teach the world the truths he had discovered throughout his journey.

When we examine the lessons provided by Viktor Frankl and Joseph Campbell, and if we reflect on the reasons why The Buddha and Jesus began their journeys, we understand that each of us can be a hero, and we all have reasons to begin our journeys.

In our world of selfishness and the neglect of others, we see significant gaps between “what is” and “what ought to be”. These gaps represent the values of a society that doesn’t align with our intuitive understandings and knowledge of right and wrong. And when we begin to question the value system that shaped us, we begin to question ourselves. The person we’ve become is our demon, and when we recognize our demon, we become motivated to begin our journey. But we are not prophets or gods; we’re only human. We rely on our society’s value system because it provides for our basic needs to survive. Therefore, in our real world, detaching ourselves from society’s improper values seems unrealistic, overwhelming, if not impossible.

As Cervantes eloquently says through Don Quixote: Too much sanity may be madness; and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.

The root cause of our society’s madness is its lack of morality. We have either forgotten or have never known the true meaning of social right and wrong. Nor do we know what it truly means to achieve the greater good. This is what motivated The Buddha and Jesus to begin their journeys, and it’s their teachings have taught us. This is also why every major religion has its own version of the Golden Rule — to treat others as you wish to be treated. This universal principle applies to every person living on our planet, not to any particular country or demographic.

If lack of morality is the problem, then our solution is absolutely clear. We must create a culture founded on principles of morality. A culture that seeks humility and strives to live a life of virtue. A culture that develops and maintains a habit of doing good. And if we accomplish this, then everything else will fall into place. Our society will have it’s own set of ethical standards founded on moral principles, and our politicians will be held strictly accountable (and hold themselves accountable) based on these principles.

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