Some Thoughts on Terror, Tragedy, and Ultimate Triumph
Four hundred years before the time of Christ, the Greek historian Thucydides cautioned that a time of peace is never anything more than a temporary truce in an ongoing war. And we can all see what that war is. Evil against good. Illusion against truth. A lust for power against power itself. On September 11, 2001, and in subsequent world events, we have witnessed repeated further confirmation of this ancient thinker's words. And we have all been touched in deeply personal ways.
Many years ago, as a philosopher, I began to understand a cosmic principle that seems to govern all of life. I call it "The Double Power Principle." It says that the more power anything has for good, the more it correspondingly has for ill. It's up to us how we use it. Nuclear science has great power for good. It also has a correspondingly great power for ill. Biology and chemistry, to mention two other sciences on many people's minds these days, have great power for good. But they also hold great power for ill. The phenomenon of human desire has great power for good - without it nothing like civilization or human culture would exist. And yet it is desire out of control that's responsible for so many of the problems, and so much of the suffering, in our world. Technology, airplanes, tall office buildings - all have great power for good. And, as we have been reminded, they have correspondingly great power for ill. Everything turns on how they are used. And that, ultimately, is up to us human beings.
My local church was full to overflowing this first Sunday after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Many people were asking "How can God allow such a thing?" But even Billy Graham had admitted in the National Cathedral that he had no answer. Indeed, how could any of us expect to know the mind of God in this regard, despite the rhetorical flourishes of physicist Stephen Hawking and others? The finite can never fathom the infinite. Yet, some relevant things can surely be discerned.
It's clear to me that we are each here on this earth to be loving creators, within our own spheres of influence, however large or small. That is the core of the meaning of life. To this end, we've been placed in an environment full of potential - charged with power and overflowing with opportunity. It's up to us how we use that power and that opportunity. We can employ it for great good. Or we can degrade it with evil. For God to prevent any wickedness in the world would require eliminating either those powers that can be used conversely for good, or the basic human freedom by which we choose to use them. We're clearly in a world where free will exists and is exercised all the time. My conclusion is that freedom, on the deepest level there is, must be very important indeed. And it's no coicidence that free will is the logically necessary foundation for any creativity in life, and any such thing as love, to exist at all.
Such musings will never explain evil, or remove the suffering it inflicts. But as we seek to understand what we are capable of grasping, we at least to some extent put things in perspective and calm our hearts as we enlighten our minds.
I can't count the number of people who've told me recently that their favorite chapter in my book If Aristotle Ran General Motors is the one on the meaning of life, a topic they were initially very surprised to find in a book on business. In those pages, I suggest that a convergence of all the world's most insightful wisdom traditions points to a conclusion that the meaning of life is creative love, or loving creativity. The act of terror that so shocked and shook us all to the roots was clearly one of destructive hate, and hateful destruction, an act as far removed from what is ultimately meaningful, in the deepest cosmic sense, as can possibly be imagined. But as we are empowered for the one, human beings are equally empowered for the other. Since that day, we have then indeed been truly engaged in a war of good against evil, creation against destruction, and love against hate.
But it isn't a war between great religions. It isn't a battle between one ethnic group, or region of the world, and all others. Good and evil are intermixed in every race and region. It is rather the latest outbreak of the ancient war that Thucydides understood is always raging.
How will we respond as individuals over time? How will we react as a nation over the long haul? As events since 9-11 have shown, if we reply in kind with blind, destructive hate, we thereby enlist in the wrong army. One of the ancients, when asked his citizenship, replied "I am a citizen of the world." I believe that, ironically, many of us have never felt more American, and yet at the same time, have never felt more our citizenship in the world than at the present. I personally am convinced, as a philosopher and human being, that citizens of all the civilized nations, all citizens of the world, must stop the scourge of world terrorism by the use of many tools, including focused, fierce, and potentially protracted military action. But I don't think that forces any of us to embrace the form of hate that dominates the mind of the terrorist. Anger is something different, as Aristotle saw. To paraphrase that great mind, the question we face in such a time is not whether to be angry, but at whom, for what reason, in what degree, for how long, and to what purpose? Anger can wake us from a dangerous slumber of the soul and can be used to fuel the motivation we need to take proper action. But it must be controlled and never be allowed to control us. And it should never become blind hate.
As we strive to eliminate the blight of terrorism wherever it can be found, we should always seek to reorient ourselves to the ultimate perspective of creative love, and loving creativity. How can we work to prevent such hate from arising and growing in the poorest parts of the world? How can we prevent destruction from displacing creation as the dominant tendency in people's lives? How can we help and teach and empower those groups that feel left behind in the great evolution of the world economy? Such difficult questions demand our most creative thought.
As we confront these tough global issues, others of a more personal nature demand answers too. Our economy has been reconfiguring in various ways during this extended time of response to terrorism. Our business lives are likely to continue to change more or less dramatically in the short run, and perhaps even in the long run in ways we can't foresee. But human beings are meant to be resilient, and are meant to grow and change. That's what creativity is all about. It's about resiliently adapting to new possibilities, and launching out on new adventures, trusting our basic talents and energies to carry us through.
The great American philosopher William James a hundred years ago talked about the importance in life of "precursive faith," faith that, etymologically, "runs ahead of" the evidence. Our success in the past can't prove we'll succeed in specific ways in the future, but it can prepare us well for new forms of success if we'll just step out beyond the reach of the evidence we have and venture to try something new. This may not be the absolute "Leap of Faith" that Kierkegaard once described, but it's a significant step of faith that each of us needs to make. We can't live in the past. We don't live in the past. We live now in the challenges of the moment. We aren't called upon to predict the future. But we are called upon to help create it. Stepping out from the known, venturing into the unknown, we each have to re-live in our own small ways, the ancient call of Abraham out of Ur and to the Promised Land. He left what he knew for the hope of blessings unseen and has thereby been deemed "The Father of Faith", the original paradigm for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The book of Proverbs in the Bible says that "Without a vision, people perish." For a long time, in our society, we haven't had a strong positive vision of our proper place in the world. The horrible events of the recent past have awakened many of us to this lack, and have motivated us to do something about it. The only recipe for dealing with a chaotic, tumultuous world, is for each of us to work within the sphere of our own lives, to create strength and loving good, in our families, friendships, neighborhoods, and workplaces, with clients and vendors, in all our immediate communities. It is that strength and goodness that can then radiate outward to bigger and more distant swaths of society as well. I call this the inner circle principle: Start near and build out. Begin within, and work outward.
The stoic philosophers always talked about not worrying about what we don't have control over, and focusing instead on what we can control. We all have influence far beyond what we imagine. If we work first on our own inner attitudes, our inner peace and resolve, we'll give ourselves the resources for moving out more broadly into the world with positive influence.
The events of 9-11 gave us the rare opportunity of a major wake-up call to action. And too many of us have allowed it to pass with no long lasting results. Neitzsche once famously said that what does not kill us makes us stronger. But only if we let it. Only if we properly respond. The ultimate legacy of this recent great tragedy will in large part depend on what we do. Will we grow stronger? In our philosophies and actions? In our capacity to care and act with creative love? It is, in the end, up to us.
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