It is true that we are in many ways very advanced. We have great cities, a powerful army, food to throw away. But what kind of countrymen and countrywomen are we turning out? Do the defenseless have to fear the strong? Do the weak have to be afraid that they will be forgotten? As a people, are we compassionate or are we greedy and self-serving? From a spiritual point of view, is America actually a backwards society?
Let me illustrate these ideas with a few stories.
The Burning Ant Log
When I was a kid, my parents took us to the Adirondacks every summer. Each night we had a campfire. Even though it has now probably been thirty years, one fire in particular stands out. One of the adults threw into the fire a log that was serving as a home to an ant colony. I still vividly remember watching in awe and sadness as the ants that were on the side of the log still facing outward and away from the flames, ran around in all directions. Carrying their eggs, they attempted to escape until the entire log was eventually eaten, swallowed whole by the intense heat of the blaze. It just makes me think. In a spiritual sense, is our nation on that log? Is this abandonment of the most defenseless among us—the elderly, for instance—an indicator that we are on this log? Maybe we are on the side that is still facing outward and away from the flames, away from civil war, away from ruthless dictators, and away from famine. But what does that matter if we are still in the fire? Place America’s priorities next to the scorching light of the world’s atrocities, and it will become terribly apparent that we are lost in self-gratification, self-indulgence and excess while much of the world is being destroyed by fire. How will we be viewed in history? What will they say about us? What will our legacy be?
Caught in the Farmer’s Snare
When I was growing up, I read the book Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s a story about rabbits and the adventures they confront attempting to find a new home. At one point in the story, they come across a warren of rabbits living in denial. The farmer has been putting fresh vegetables near the entrances of their home with the intention of trapping them. These rabbits all know this fact, that one by one they are getting killed by the farmer. They choose instead not to acknowledge this and remain living there in order to continue eating well. I believe that in America we have an obsessive focus on self-gratification and pleasure; this obsessive focus is continuously grinding down our service-centered belief system and the idea that we have an obligation to help the people who can’t take care of themselves. Like these rabbits, we are choosing a fat, self-centered lifestyle over doing what is right. Like these rabbits, we are living in denial, since we, too, will most certainly get caught in the farmer’s snare. We, too, will someday become vulnerable in some regard. This is the truth: We may never become ill and spend time in a hospital or become homeless or become disabled in some way, but if we live long enough, we will become elderly. It’s simple: We die young or eventually we become vulnerable through an aging, dying body. As a people are we not living in an utterly irrational way? Are we not living in denial? Is this some kind of strange sickness, the fact that we are helping to create a society that doesn’t take care of its elderly, even though each one of us will eventually become elderly? Will this epidemic of irrational selfishness eventually destroy our nation?
I dearly loved my dog who died because, for whatever reason, she ate part of a carpet. I think this may have occurred on a Monday or Tuesday. Since she wasn’t showing any ill effects from eating the carpet, we did not take her to the veterinarian immediately. In fact, I remember distinctly that on Wednesday, she was playing with the other dogs up by the pond. She was actually at the top of her game when it came to catching the ball and doing tricks that we had never seen her do before. It was beautiful and fun. Unfortunately, over the next day or so, she started showing serious signs that she wasn’t well. We brought her in, and the doctor performed an emergency surgery. We got a phone call on that Saturday morning telling us that she had died peacefully during the night after complications. When I thought back to everything, I understood that this dog—whom I dearly loved—was actually dying on that Wednesday, the day that she was running and playing and catching the ball like she had never done before. The United States is seemingly as strong as it has ever been. We, in a sense, are running and playing and catching the ball like we have never done before. For example, we are creating new forms of technology and making advancements in medicine at an astonishing pace. It makes me think: Is America in its Wednesday time period? In a spiritual sense, are we actually dying right now? Does the habitual neglect of weak people by strong people represent a corner piece of some symbolic carpet that we’ve eaten as a society? Have we swallowed something that represents the devaluing of human life, something that’s going to destroy us if we don’t act upon it now?