It is important to situate the most essential values of human life in a lived context that illumines what they ‘really’ are, and what they are not.
Moral Values: What They Are Not
Modern understanding and practice of morality seems stuck on one or another of three basic stances: a morality that is harsh, punitive, rigid (authoritarianism); another morality that is undiscerning, permissive, sentimental (liberalism); still another morality that is above it all, in some romanticized, idealized, or falsely spiritualized ‘realm’ that escapes too easily from what is arduous at the ground level, and tends therefore to be either facile about the challenge of that level, or cruel in expecting too much from it.
Authoritarianism is a disease of ‘heart’, liberalism a disease of ‘mind’, and being above-it-all a disease of ‘soul.’ Authoritarians are hot, but blind, in heart; liberals are cold, but sophisticated, in mind; above-it-alls are elevated, but dissociated, in soul.
Most people, if they are honest, will be able to identify which of these three is their more likely ‘home.’ But we can also jump around from position to position, like musical chairs. Thus, sometimes people start authoritarian and, discovering the secret fear and violence in authoritarianism, turn liberal; or, they start liberal, and discovering the hidden undiscerning and selfishness in liberalism, turn authoritarian. Sometimes those who are above-it-all, discovering the secret evasion (safety-seeking) and baseless arrogance in this position, simply become disillusioned, and embrace cynicism, once their beautiful bubble gets punctured by reality’s sharp edge; then they glory in tearing off the wings of everyone else’s butterfly.
Authoritarianism is quintessentially about a heart that cares in the wrong way; it wants to coerce love, truth, goodness. It does not trust the freedom of the human person. It often produces a cramped, inhibited human being, who is offended if other people are too free: they must conform, and be cramped, too.
Liberalism is quintessentially about a mind that values its freedom to range widely, but will not engage the difficult and the intractable as it impinges on the heart; authoritarianism at least feels this difficulty and intractability, but it is too afraid of its danger, and seeks an un-free, formulaic solution. By contrast, liberalism funks the challenge, and skates over it, leaving the problem ‘free’ as a sign of its own [fundamental] indifference to it. Liberals ultimately are self-indulgent, and leave others to do as they want out of non-engagement with the things in existence that throw us all together in very tough and binding ways.1
Being above-it-all is quintessentially an abuse of the ‘intimations of immortality’ Wordsworth famously referred to, in that it is about a soul that wants its natural sense of beauty, potency, and possibility, not to be ‘disfigured’ or ‘limited’ by life’s losses, ugliness, and need for sacrifice. Thus this soul prioritizes joy over suffering, life over death, and more important, expansion over restriction.
If the authoritarian is over aggressive and under sexed [which is why sexual lust and lasciviousness so often explodes out when the authoritarian is trying most fervently to keep to the party line], while the liberal is over sexed and under aggressive [which is why aggressive nastiness so often explodes out when the liberal is fervently trying to be tolerant, but this tolerance is questioned], then the above-it-all is in a lovely cocoon wafting on clouds, yet one fashioned by a pride that thinks this cocoon makes them above all honest need, and reinforced by a vanity that allows its glory and other positive attributes to be over estimated– an inflation which holds up only so long as the higher and higher trip does not have to ‘fall to earth.’ Authoritarians and liberals may dispute with each other, but the above-it-all is beyond all that; they have the octane fuel that places them outside of all that mess and contention, as they are superior to it.
That is the statement of what true morality is not.
It is not authoritarianism/conservatism– which tries to forcefully suppress the real problem of human existence in its paradox; it is not liberalism/relativism–which tries to rationally evade this problem’s bite; it is not being above it all/superiority– which tries to rise higher out of the problem’s weight. None of these ‘answers’ works. They make the problem worse: we need to embrace, not run from, the ambiguity, bite, weight, of the real problem of human existence. For our heart is inescapably ‘bound hand and foot’ to that problem.
Moral Values: What They Are
The statement of what true morality is starts with the honest, brave, generous, humble, patient, and respectful, acknowledgment that the problem of human existence is hard. It cannot be suppressed, evaded, risen above. It has to be engaged. It has to be committed to. It has to be accepted and suffered; there is no way out of it. There is only a way through. Authentic values help us find, and walk, that way.
There are two other moralities that do not help this walk. One is the psychopath’s amorality: “Have a nice day, get out of my way.” Psychopathy is interesting not as a clinical disease, but as a false stance in existence’s dilemma. The psycho-path’s out and out criminality arises from his refusal of vulnerability; he thinks he can get through, or get an advantage, by toughing it out. But there are many reasons why this is false, one being that we need our vulnerability as much as our strength to face up to existence. Another is that we need our sensitivity: we cannot act on the world unless we accept that the world can also act on us.
The other morality that does not help the walk is political radicalism without a corresponding spiritual radicalism to anchor it– we must be prepared to go through hell and high water to let ourselves be spiritually changed, and then we can wisely alter worldly conditions. But it is another illusion to think that external changes of environment, however just and necessary, can entirely take the sting out of being in this world. The problem in human existence has an irreducible core, because it was put there by God, and intended. There are many ways to express this basic existential fact, but Zen does it as well as any: “This life is a fire pit. With what attitude of mind do you think you can avoid being burnt?”
True values do not prevent us from being burnt. They help us get burnt, so that instead of being destroyed by the burning, we are broken and remade by it. In Hasidic Judaism, they don’t speak of a spiritual master, or expert, or learned or upright person; they refer to a person who is ‘proven’, some one tested and proved by existence’s problem. Morality helps us go through this, to emerge out the other side. The testing is hard because it is deep, but then so is the proving it brings. Existence puts us on an edge, in a gap, at a crossing of roads; but the process justifies itself by its result. Its result is the fundamentally changed human being.
Thus morality, truly understood and practiced, is about the heart. Everything else comes into it, of course: mind, soul, body, inner and outer, visible and invisible, history and nature, the cosmos and the earth. But quintessentially it is driven by and about the heart.
The deep heart.
The passionate, suffering heart.
The brave, willing heart.
The heart capable of the most vicious, cowardly, pretentious smallness, yet also called to greatness and depth. For, as St. Macarios of Egypt rightly said, “the human heart is an unfathomable abyss.” Morality addresses one thing only: the struggle, both terrible and beautiful, both fearful and wonderful, both agonized and ecstatic, in the heart for a new heart. Flamenco speaks of the ‘duende’ – the struggle in the heart that produces ‘cante jondo’, deep song; and it says we must ‘bear it in the kidneys.’ Bodidharma said, ‘you will bear the unbearable and endure the unendurable to reach holiness.’ Morality’s true story concerns our deep song, and the long, hard road that leads to our transfiguration, and thus the real divinization of our humanity. This road is ‘hard wakan’, the mysterious fate that is unyielding, inflexible, relentless, because it will not cease from smashing us to bits until we are undone and redone, crucified and resurrected.
Hard Wakan is also God’s ‘heartlessness’ in not giving up on us, and God’s determination to break our heart, so a new one can be made which will become the indwelling of God’s heart. Morality stabilizes us in this hard walk; keeps us at it, waves the Zen stick at us which just insists, walk on. Bear. Endure. Be patient. Persevere to the end. Or in St. Paul’s words, hope in everything. Yet all hope and all despair burn up before we reach our end. Morality hints at the value of the walk, and what profound things, not just for us, but for all the world, are at stake in it. In the end we will not just see everything as God sees it, a felicity of the illumined mind and sacred soul, but we will acquire the capacity to love everything as God loves it, and act for that love as God acts, bearing and enduring all things, in a passion that is only spiritually kindled in the holiness of the heart.
The deep heart is not the heart of superficial attachments, nor driven, deluded and devouring, ‘fallen’ passions. Not even the desiring heart. But the deeply given, suffering heart, taking the hit of existence and struggling to let itself be opened fundamentally, and fundamentally made self-transcending in the true ecstasy, the ecstasy of self-sacrificing and self-sharing love. ‘He who loves acquires another self.’ ‘For he who loves, what happens to the other happens to the self.’ ‘Love is to rejoice with those who are joyful and mourn with those who grieve.’
Hard Wakan is the kindling of fire; and with fire, comes light; and with light, comes living water. The easy route doesn’t go anywhere. The Hard Way, alone, moves.
The Way is Hard for the heart, because it resists true greatness and depth. Yet this spark wants release, and thus constantly urges us, against all the odds in this world that dictate the converse, be great, go deep.
Morality reveals to us we are a conflicted being, yearning for and called to great heartedness and depth of heart, but also inclined toward smallness. Every evil passion in the heart– every dishonesty, cowardice, meanness, hatred and hostility, envy and jealousy, luxuriating softness, rationalization, judgmental hardness, inauthenticity, disrespect, pride, vainglory, betrayal and infidelity, lies to self and others, and lack of risk-taking, lack of bearing and enduring– is a failure of the true passion, yet passion must carry and grow through the failure to something not merely its converse, but something won from the agonized struggle. Something greater than small heartedness emerges from the struggle with it, because it has to go deeper really to overcome it. Thus only love is greater than ‘good’ because it is deeper than ‘evil.’ Love is generous, courageous, strong, patient and persevering, because it is ecstatic.
To fight and journey in this process of life-long struggle, and change, is the mark of self-awareness and honest self-appraisal, but it is more than that. It is the mark of the real human dignity. It is the proof we have not given in or given up with regard to that spark that drives the heart. It is the real spiritual passion. Existence wounds us as we bear and endure many outer things that are hard, yet so too must we bear and endure many inner things that are hard. Both are the mark of our heart’s willingness, of our heart’s struggle, through passion’s conflict within itself of inauthentic and authentic, to attain a purified and singular passion.
A holy passion.
St. Dionysus: “Fire is in all things, seeking the substance on which it can burn.”
If it is the destiny of the heart to catch fire, then morality understood in the true way is what helps us stay with, and dive in to, that whole process. When we reach holiness, we shed morality, because the fire is in our heart, and the two are and act as one. But morality tells us where we are going, providing both inspiration and constancy on a road that is dusty, long, and arduous.
Our heart rests on an emptiness, a nothingness, an unfathomableness, into which we dread to fall, should we risk love’s self-sacrifice and self-sharing. For in stepping out of self, we sense the giddy feeling of no ground beneath us. Yet, every self-giving action we risk to that abyss brings God’s Fire ever more in to it, so that in the end the abyss we fear to fall in to, endlessly, becomes the only ground– a ‘groundless’ ground– upholding our frail heart. Yet that proves sufficient.
That becomes the indwelling of the divine Love. When we can love– not when we are loved– we feel upheld by Love. When we act as God’s heart in this world, we know there is a great and deep Heart that upholds our little heart and ultimately will not let it ‘fall’, but will bring it through a hard journey and battle to a final celebration, a celebration recognizing no winners and losers, no haves and have nots, but a common destiny shared by, enjoyed by, relied on, by all.
Knowing the abyss is not empty, because we have leaned on it and acted from it, is the peace that passes all understanding. It is the heart’s joy, because it signifies a victory.
The human heart that houses the divine heart is real freedom, for only love makes us free. The experience of being free to choose or not choose love, important to our struggle as it is, is revealed in the end as a half way, a necessary half truth. Only love is free. Only love knows. Only love sees. Only love acts. Only love bears and endures everything, for the sake of what it is given to. That is its passion. The holy heart reads hearts, and perceives realistically and compassionately, because it has been in the same desert and crossed it on the same bony track.
True values point us there, but we still must walk.
We are all given to Hard Wakan. It cannot be ‘magicked’ away. It leaves scars, but these are also the marks of glory.
- Victorian Liberalism was emphatically not permissive; it was a zealous movement that brought about many needed intellectual and social reforms. But in the late capitalism of the 21st century, its original ‘liberation’ has degenerated, more and more, into an unthinking and knee-jerk ‘license’ to do whatever we want, or to please ourselves as we see fit. Current liberalism promotes weakness of character, because it refuses any yoke of discipline that would promote discernment and strength; it takes the line of least resistance, always going for the comfortable and bloodless option. Temperamentally, liberalism now has no grit.