Harmony, Self-Control, the Virtue
By Charles Rush
October 20, 2002
I Pt. 5:
en my children were wee people, we were driving to Connecticut for Thanksgiving. All the kids were in the back seat of the wagon, my wife snoozing in the front seat. Number two son wiggled out of his car seat. He was probably 18 months-two years old. This was when car seats were just simple shoulder straps, not plastic body clamps. Quietly, unbeknownst to anybody, he wiggled out of his car seat, climbed into the back of the wagon, found the Pecan pie that his mother had prepared, and just bit into the middle of the pie, kept quietly chewing away until he had nearly consumed the whole thing. It was hard to believe it could fit in that little stomach.
first noticed him in the rear view mirror. He stood up, grinning ear to ear,
with Pie smeared all over his face, all over his wispy hair, pieces of pecan
stuck to the side of his head. I remember saying, “Houston… we have a
problem.” The Merrit Parkway was packed and there is no where to pull
over. I can no longer remember, but
when we finally secured him bodily, he was standing in the pie, and threw up on
me… still smiling that ‘hey that was cool’ smile.
Greeks assumed that the root of the problem was that we were self-indulgent in
something that gave us pleasure. They distinguished between the pleasures of
the body (food, drink, sexuality) and the pleasures of the soul (thinking,
music, art, drama). In either case to over-indulge in some aspect of pleasure
was to let the pleasure itself rule the person and thus to be enslaved- this
was as true of little boys being obsessed with a pecan pie but it is also just
as true of big boys obsessed with work, obsessed with being in charge.
Aristotle was concerned that if we simply followed our
pleasures, we would be somewhat less than human. For pleasure is something that
we share with the animals. Animals are capable only of responding to
rudimentary pleasures and avoiding pain- a simply psychology. We humans not
only know, we know that we know. We can choose and structure. By simply
indulging ourselves in pleasure we do not act different from the animals.
Aristotle thought that all children were basically born 'self-indulgent'.
That is why they need tutors or instructors. They lack any inner-discipline or
restraint. Restraint or right habits have to be taught and reinforced. And that is why Greek education was a
complete immersion, physical and intellectual, in grounding young people in
When the Greeks thought of ‘inner harmony’, they
built a statue of a man or a woman in perfect proportion. All about Athens were
to be found statues of men in perfect athletic proportion- arms strong but not
weighty, legs powerful but graceful, fat nowhere, tone throughout, cheeks high
with gaze upward, the grip of the hands sure and supple- almost gentle and
artistic. All parts were properly balanced and there was a harmony to the
piece. These were the physical attributes but they pointed to the interior
spiritual ideals that expressed the physical.
Internally the spiritual goal was for us to properly
order and balance our character on the inside with good habits. Externally, we
were to pursue justice, which is the proper ordering and balancing of powers in
society. The two are related and reinforce one another.
Internally, a balanced man was neither ignorant
nor a nerd but learned or educated. Internally, a balanced man
was neither foolhardy nor cowardly but courageous. He was
neither gluttonous nor fasting but health conscious. He
was neither a drunk nor abstemious but social.
According to Aristotle to be so balanced was to be 'self-controlled'
(sophrosyne) or literally 'to be sound of mind'. By the way, the New Testament, the opposite of
being ‘self-controlled’ is daimonia, to be possessed of a demon,
which literally means to be possessed from the outside. The Romans believed
that we are under constant attack from demons that manifested itself in all
manner of disease, epiplepsy, psychiatric disorders, autism, retardation and a
great number of other symptoms that we no longer experience because we have
medicines that we dispense which prevent them from ever arising.
We may not normally see people that we would describe as
‘demonically possessed’ but we do occasionally see people that are ‘other
possessed’. They have ceded their self-control.
I remember so vividly the 80’s when several of my high
school friends and fraternity brothers from college were still immortal in
their late 20’s and cocaine was chic at the parties for the budding masters of
the universe, all of them so beautiful, so accomplished, so well regarded.
Cocaine made them, in their eyes, even more beautiful, more wired for more
imagination for more accomplishment, and, unbeknownst to them, more well
regarded in their own eyes.
Almost to a person, everyone said that they could handle
cocaine, that they were in control and it wasn’t a problem. Almost to a person,
they could not handle it, and cocaine slowly became the master of their egos,
leading them to hang around people they normally wouldn’t associate with, do
things they normally wouldn’t do, compromise their integrity, override their
better judgment, ignore people they love and responsibilities they cared about
deeply, and spend some serious, serious money before it was all said and done.
All of them came to a point where they realized that their lives were careening
out of control. They weren’t driving anymore, they were being ridden.
The Romans also saw themselves as being controlled from
without by principalities and powers that were shaping them and limiting them
in ways they didn’t want to be shaped. My sense is that this spiritual metaphor
is becoming relevant around us daily. My sense is that we are entering the
front end of a long era where we will periodically feel that we are being
ridden rather than driving our destiny forward. It is an era that will be
marked with stucatto notes of random terror that create a social backdrop of
anxiety and uncertainty.
I read the articles in the paper last week about the
woman that was shot in the parking lot at the Home Depot, loading her car with
some stuff she and her husband needed for a new home or the another woman who
was shot eating dinner at a restaurant with her husband. I couldn’t help but
wonder what is was really like to be those husbands… You feel a strong need to
pray, but it is hard to know even what words to use…
They have to go through this strange, public expression
of grief, since the media feel this it would be good copy, and they have to put
on a saintly face of grief for their lost love, which is no doubt genuine. But
you know that late at night, when those guys can’t sleep, when they are all
alone, they have to be hit with a wave of deep, boiling rage. I’m sure one of
them has thought to himself, “I would trade all the rest of my days on earth
for just one hour in a room with the guy who did this… just one hour.”
That one day for these men, that one ten minute walk from
the check out counter to the car in the parking lot, that one tape will play
over and over for them… Spiritually speaking, they were completely thrown off
center, off balance. And that one thing will haunt them spiritually- the rage,
the fears about the future, the questions and doubts about the basic goodness
of the universe, the anxiety that things just don’t seem to turn out okay for
They are choking on a noxious spiritual vapor that does a
lot of people in. Some people can never really rebound from these thing. Sure,
they may have a respectable public persona, but inside they are bitter, without
joy, hardened. They are shaped in ways they did not want to be shaped
My sense is that it we are at the front end of a long era
of anxiety and uncertainty. This week we have all seen serious, sober people in
metropolitan Washington that are afraid to pump their own gas because some
whacked out sniper is killing randomly. George Tenant, the Director of the
C.I.A. testified in Congress that he believed that direct attacks on the United
States from Al Qaeda are imminent. At the moment, there are still quite a few
Americans who think, that if we only altered our foreign policy, if we only
became more benevolent internationally and less militaristic, if we only
changed a few things, then terrorism would cease. Shortly, people will widely
begin to understand that it doesn’t matter what we actually do as Americans,
these random terrorist attacks are simply going to continue for the rest of our
At the moment, there are quite a few people who still
believe, especially in Europe, that terrorism is just a New York problem, it is
just an American problem, that if we just lay low we will be able to avoid it.
Shortly, people will begin to understand that terrorism is so easy to inflict,
so intoxicating for frustrated, powerless, young men and boys that is going to
expand like spray painted grafitti. 30 years ago, these same people thought
grafitti was just a New York ghetto problem too, but go to Stockholm, Berlin,
Florence, Paris- low, behold it is a universal form of expression.
These acts of terror, whether they are directed from Al
Qaeda or just home grown will simply be part of our wider social world for the
coming generation. And If Northern Ireland is any indication, one day, a long
time from now, people will collectively weary of terror and like a passing
trend, they will cease as quickly and mysteriously as they began.
But for now, terror will add to the general economic
uncertainty that we are living through in the present down cycle, lay offs
around us that encourages tension in our lives and we have a social backdrop
that will regularly push us off center. Spiritually, we are going to have to
become fit to creatively rise to the challenge of this next era, to keep the
anarchy- when it comes close to home. We will have to be fit to keep it from
swamping us. We are going to have to be intentional about cultivating interior
peace and harmony.
In the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) Lao Tse
describes this process of cultivating inner peace and harmony as the way of the
Dao. In the discipline of Tai Chi, they use as series of bodily movements, much
like yoga uses a series of exercises and stretching, to help us center
ourselves spiritually and recover our balance. The meditation of the Dao
centers on ‘letting go’ of the exterior anxieties that we internalize and
simply to practice the of engaging an immediate sense of being. The Dao says
One who is master of themselves sees things as they are
trying to control them.
lets them go their own way,
resides at the center of the circle. (#29)
There is a parallel concept in
Buddhism that teaches people in mediation to be ‘fully present’ in the
here and now. Buddhists use controlled breathing and the repetition of a simple
word or phrase to guide them into a deeper meditative state. The object is to
let go of future concerns, worries, hopes, and dreams, to let go of past
misgivings and triumphs and to practice being fully present in the moment. In
the fleeting moments when we are actually able to do this, we can achieve
Thomas Merton, the Catholic mystic, who died a couple
decades ago, wrote a book The Seven Storied Mountain in which he details
the parallels between the eastern type of meditation practiced in the Dao and
by Buddhism and the meditation in the Christian tradition. Merton concludes
that Christians have much that we can profitably learn from the eastern
traditions on the techniques and disciplines of meditation. Likewise, he says,
that the eastern traditions could enrich their disciplines with some of the
content, the values and spiritual insights, from Christianity.
I think he is right. The meditative technique of letting
go and simply being can be very important parts of our daily prayer. This is
particularly true if you find your self being shaped with large realities that you cannot control and that you
just have to live with, economic forces that are adversely affecting you
personally, long-term difficult realities. When you find yourself overstressed,
when you notice that you are not being creative as a parent, when you are edgy
and bristling with your spouse or your close friends. You need to find a place
where you can get silent, a convenient place of retreat with no noise- or with
soothing noise like white noise, rain, the ocean- and, centering yourself, you need
to name your frustrations, your angers, your disappointments- and let them go,
one by one, breathing in peace, breathing out what you need to let go of.
You are not repressing your negative emotions, you are
not ignoring them. This does not mean you won’t have to deal with them head on
and do what you can to change your social world to resolve them, but meditation
is a daily way of keeping these negative spiritual emotions from controlling
you, from getting the best of you.
In these situations of high stress with forces that won’t
go away, that you can’t entirely control, you need to pay extra attention to
exercise, to meditation, to creating ways to return yourself to balance, to
center. Just simply focusing on breathing in love, breathing out anger, breathing
in peace, breathing out frustration, breathing in coherence, breathing out
distraction and petty annoyances.
Practice being present in God, with the Spirit, opening
yourself to radiating out the positive spiritual energy you have… the power to
heal others, to build up others, to empower those around you. This is a vital
tool and more and more people are going to start getting it soon. You are not a
fruit cake if you have found yourself wondering about these things lately and
you are not alone. Explore, create, center. Blessings.
© 2002 .
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