Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shatter Your Mirrors!

Among the many tributes offered this week upon the death of Sargent Shriver, founder of the Peace Corps and former vice-presidential candidate, I found a quotation from a commencement speech Shriver made at Yale University in 1994. It bears wisdom well worth repeating.

Shriver said:

“Break your mirrors! Yes, indeed — shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor, and less about your own.

I suggest this: when you get to be 30, 40, 50, or even 70 years old, you’ll get more happiness and contentment out of counting your friends than counting your dollars. You’ll get more satisfaction from having improved your neighborhood, your town, your state, your country and your fellow human beings than you’ll ever get from your muscles, your figure, your automobile, your house, or your credit ratings.

You’ll get more from being a peacemaker than a warrior. I’ve been both, so I speak from experience. Break the mirrors! Be peacemakers of the community, and you and your family will be happy.”

Perhaps it’s a case of Jungian synchronicity that I found this quote while currently reading the book of interviews with the Dalai Lama in which he discusses The Art of Happiness. Howard Cutler, the psychotherapist who conducts the interviews which form the basis for the book, asks His Holiness how he defines a psychologically healthy person. The Dalai Lama answers as follows:

If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that, you can communicate much more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness. You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, so you’ll be able to relate to them more easily.

Like Shriver, HHDL recognizes that it is precisely by breaking the mirrors of self-absorption that human beings grow and develop into psychologically healthy persons. And, ironically, it is precisely the self-focused, mistrustful approaches to the world that their holders would presume to define as realism that lead to suffering.

Shriver’s admonition to shatter the mirrors of self-absorption delivered to students graduating from Yale, one of the national epitomes of privilege and the inordinate sense of entitlement that goes with it, could hardly have been much more on target. What might the world look like if the sons and daughters of America’s elite class actually used their unearned privilege complete with the access to power it by definition includes for the purpose of addressing the enormous problems facing our world today?

But it is hardly just the future George Bushes of America, the winners of genetic lotteries and the unearned privilege of social location at birth, who need to hear this call to consciousness. About the same time Shriver was making his appeal to the largely WASP aristocracy in New Haven, I had a chance to hear Princeton ethicist Cornell West speaking to a crowd at Florida A&M University across town in Tallahassee from Florida State University where I was finishing my doctoral work. West told the packed auditorium of students of color “Your biggest challenge in life is finding something larger than yourself to devote your lives to.” We all prone to gaze into solipsistic mirrors in a narcissistic culture. And all of them require shattering.

I see the cult of Narcissus daily in my work at the university. It’s evident in the approach students are increasingly using for choosing classes: online slam sites that reduce professors to how easy their tests are, how much work they demand and whether they require students to think critically, something many seem desperate to avoid at all costs. I see it in the reluctance many students have to working in groups with other students, so terrified that “my grade will suffer” and “I might have to do all the work.” And it screams from strategic approaches to learning that seek to do the least amount required for the highest grade possible and whine like hell when required to do anything beyond the minimum.

The obsession with self which motivates these behaviors is apparent. Indeed, the entire misguided approach to college as a means to attaining working papers (translation: making money) rather than the opportunity to actually become educated human beings capable of contributing to the social world in which we live is little more than an extended worship at the altar of Narcissus.

Increasingly, I wonder if America, this country I simultaneously love deeply at the same time I grieve over its active pursuit of mediocrity, is not suffering from a chronic case of delayed development. “What’s in it for me?” is the mark of stage two pre-conventional moral reasoning. We expect to see this kind of moral calculus among pre-teenaged children and among people whose moral development has been stunted by abuse as children, many of them ending up in our prisons and mental institutions.

But we also have come to expect such thinking from our consumer advertising industry whose mantras to “Just do it!,” “Obey your thirst” and “Talk all the time” pound us daily for hours on end. While we demand that our children grow up, we have acquiesced to a culture of childish thinking. And increasingly our own children are reflecting that acquiescence, peering into mirrors of self-absorption.

All of us have much to learn from these thinkers. And much rides on our willingness to learn. The chances are that most of us will not say when death draws near that we wish we had worked a little harder to buy a few more new clothes or cars. Most of us won’t speak of regretting insufficient hours for the gym or the mall. And few will sorrowfully consider the lost opportunities to create and purvey self-serving facades on social networking sites in mortis examine.

But Shriver, the Dalai Lama and West all recognize something even more essential in their offerings to us. We live in a world where alienated peoples respond with terrorist attacks, where displaced peoples pour across artificial national boundaries to escape the inevitability of death in war-torn and economically devastated homelands. And we live on a planet where our mother nature is responding to human abuse of her weary body by simply making it impossible for humans to reside in ever larger swatches of the planet’s surface. Shattering mirrors of self-absorption is increasingly urgent for human survival and for the health of Earth, our island home.

Clearly, neither Shriver’s nor West’s messages were heard in 1994. And the recent debate over media civility and its role in creating a context for the Tucson shooting suggest that HHDL’s call to allow our inner doors to open to compassion has gone unheeded. Certainly it is unreasonable to insist that a culture change overnight. It has taken a long time for American culture to become the mirror gazing narcissistic culture that today presents itself to the world. And shifting our gaze from self to the world around us will not occur without effort, perseverance and patience. But the time has come to begin. And the stakes are high should we refuse.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando



If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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