The first thing to consider is whether or not the world is even worth conquering. I mean, take a look around. This place is totally chaotic. People spend most of their time eating each other alive, and the rest of the time ignoring one another.
CONQUER THE WORLD
So you want to conquer the world, eh? Let me give you some advice. As an aspiring conqueror myself, having spent endless hours imagining how my being in control of this spinning planet and its inhabitants would make us all better off, let me share my wisdom with you.
The first thing to consider is whether or not the world is even worth conquering. I mean, take a look around. This place is totally chaotic. People spend most of their time eating each other alive, and the rest of the time ignoring one another. If they manage to evade the circling sharks and vultures and avoid getting infected by the latest epidemic, they’ll find themselves mercilessly trapped in one natural disaster or another, or a terrorist attack, or, even worse, a reality TV show. People are so busy jumping through these sadistic hoops that they allow one million children to die each year for lack of clean water. So if you’re going to take over, consider yourself warned – you are going to be in charge of this tangled mess. You are going to be responsible to figure it all out. You are going to be blamed whenever something goes wrong – and it will. Suffice it to say that your sleep is going to be interrupted – if they’ll let you sleep at all.
So let’s say you’re one of those optimistic, rose-colored-glasses-cup-half-full-always-see-the-best-in-every-situation-look-on-the-bright-side kind of people. Let’s say you look at the world and see tremendous potential for goodness just beneath the crusty surface of the superficial reality we are presented with. Congratulations. You have earned your conqueror’s license. Because the world – as we mere mortals see it – is just the surface of what’s really there. Actually, it’s not even the surface – it’s the painful glare you get on the surface just before sunset, a glare so intense that it distorts reality to the extent that you can’t see a thing. But that’s okay. Keep driving. You know the way.
But conquerors are different. They don’t get affected by these glares. They see beyond the surface. They see the world the way it was meant to be. And so they feel compelled to go out and do something about it. And because they see the world for what it really is, the potential goodness inherent within it, they are inspired to confront it with sanity – not like the rest of us. We find ourselves submerged in the madness wishing we could claw our way out before it consumes us completely. Conquerors, on the other hand, see a wildly beautiful and complex landscape waiting to be tamed, and are thus empowered to dive in full heartedly.
So you still want to be a conqueror? The truth is that you don’t have a choice. That’s what you were created for.
How can I know if I have a healthy relationship with the world? This crazy world that seems to be spinning to an increasingly absurd and chaotic tune, when all my inner being wants is some peace and a sense of purpose in it all – how am I supposed to relate to it? From the microcosm of daily survival to the macrocosm of global geopolitics, how is an ostensibly sincere individual supposed to function within this elaborate, chaotic world of duplicity, double-standards and outright deception?
Some say you hide. Retreat to an inner sanctum where you create your own reality that is separate, removed, even elevated. Lock yourself into a transcendent sense of being and an elevated state of mind, and lock the world out. But is this a refuge, or a prison?
Some say when in Rome do as the Romans; either you join the hedonistic party, or get trampled by the hedonists. Immerse yourself in the materialistic reality, the pursuit of wealth or power or self, and conquer it and take its spoils. But is this conquest, or an elaborately orchestrated defeat of the inner being? Or perhaps a very large prison?
Neither of these approaches is palatable or honest. This physical world with all of its challenges and trappings exists for a reason, and we were placed in it for a purpose. Neither denial of the material reality nor succumbing to it achieves anything truly worthwhile; at least not anything that addresses the reality of our existence. We are not angels.
We do have spirit, but we are human beings and as such are built and meant to engage in the physical. But how do I do so and remain in control? How can I have a meaningful and healthy relationship with the material world without it making me shallow or materialistic, without becoming addicted to consuming, and without being consumed by every whim or temptation of the body and ego?
Each person has to find their own answer to this question, an answer that addresses the unique challenges each one faces and the special talents each one is blessed with. But through understanding where the common mistakes come from, perhaps we can avoid them and achieve greater clarity.
There are two mistakes people make that lead to an unhealthy relationship with the physical world. The more obvious one expresses itself when I relate to the material reality as a self-important, independent entity that is divorced from its source, or from any spiritual significance or higher purpose. I see the material reality as the true power in my life. As such, it is logical and worthwhile to worship it and immerse myself in that reality.
The less obvious mistake, and therefore the one that is perhaps more dangerous, is manifest when I accept that there is a higher source that orchestrates the material reality, and a higher purpose. But I see the material reality working in partnership with that source – not completely cut off, but operating independently and with free reign within its material domain. As such, I don’t outright worship the material reality. That would be demeaning. But ultimately I still accept it (perhaps even reluctantly) as the supreme power within the reality in which I operate. At the end of the day, it still runs my life, albeit more surreptitiously.
So the trouble in my relationship with the world begins when I find myself succumbing to the illusion, expertly and elegantly crafted by the high priests of Madison Avenue, the gods of Wall Street, my boss, my clients, my ego, or whatever else distorts the true nature the material world by trying to convince me (whether directly or simply in my own perception) that material, physical and even spiritual self fulfillment is the answer to everything. So I should worship myself, and by extension that which feeds this fulfillment. This is a recipe for existential indigestion – the inability to properly digest the material experience of our life. The antidote is honest acknowledgement, constant awareness and profound connectedness to the source from which the material reality and its purpose emanates.
THE PERILS OF CHOICE
In 21st Century life, choice dominates every area of life. In the east, people are organizing and rebelling against tyrants and injustice because they want the power to make their own choices. (What exactly those choices will be is a matter for another discussion.) In the west, people are choosing new and improved gadgets, phone plans, automobiles and spouses in the pursuit of self-fulfillment through the power of choice. There is an undisputed assumption that freedom to make choices is empowering and liberating.
On a superficial level, we derive satisfaction and validation through making even simple choices – just ask your local shopaholic. On a deeper level, we believe choice brings with it the possibility of social change and personal growth, and enables people to become the masters of their own destinies, rather than slaves to the choices of others.
But psychoanalysts have reached the counterintuitive conclusion that instead of being empowering, the notion, whether real or imagined, that you can do anything, can sometimes be paralyzing. Open-ended, unbridled, unhinged choice actually becomes psychologically oppressive, both on an individual and societal level, stymieing social change and personal growth. It turns out the constant need to seek self-validation by exercising the power of choice doesn’t make you a master. It merely enslaves you in a different way. It enslaves you to yourself.
The paralyzing anxiety of choice manifests in different ways, depending on the psychology of the individual. Often, the choices we make are not ours at all, but choice influenced by what others are choosing, or fuelled by our concern with how our choice will be perceived by others. Sometimes we become so obsessed with making the perfect choice that we either choose not to decide, or are constantly changing our minds. And choice also implies that we have to abandon the alternatives, which brings with it a sense of loss that can be overwhelming. For all these reasons and others, the power of choice can become a burden rather than a privilege, a suffocating obstacle rather than a springboard for change.
Choice is probably the most powerful gift we have. But clearly it has its pitfalls as well. The only way to avoid them is to ask ourselves what it is we really want. Whatever the answer is to this question, all the other choices we make become subservient to it. In this context, choice is no longer unhinged and chaotic, but disciplined.
Answering this question also implies that we live our lives in a manner that is consistent with the objective we want to achieve. So it is also principled choice based on something more than our whims or psyches. Choice becomes guided and directed within the framework of the destination we are working toward, and the values that make it important. Rather than limit us, the boundaries and guidelines set ground rules that liberate us from the potential perils and paralysis of unhinged choice.
The real potential of choice is then available to us, enabling us to make healthy choices grounded in reality that lead to social change and personal growth.
As far as human morality has evolved, it seems that the world has basically gotten it right over the past few decades. Human rights are valued and (at least in theory) protected. We have an organization called the United Nations that is supposed to sow the seeds of peace and brotherhood among all humanity. Fascism and evil regimes are going out of style fast. And it seems like most of the world is more interested in living in peaceful coexistence than engaging in the pillage and plunder of previous centuries.
Nevertheless, there still seem to be an overwhelming number of bandits and tyrants willing to unleash untold destruction on us all to achieve their aims and preaching venomous intolerance and hatred. And, perhaps more disturbing, there are countless world bodies, academics and writers that are stepping forward to defend them, and to silence or indict their repressors. Welcome to the 21st Century.
All of this serves as a reminder that although we might have made tremendous progress toward world peace and prosperity, we’re not exactly there yet. There are still evil forces in the world that want to dominate it. But because evil knows it is losing the battle, it has changed tactics; because it knows that we will no longer heed its hateful rallying cries, it has become more creative – it has become adept at cloaking its message in the language of liberty and altruism. So, for example, whereas fifty years ago the aim of the Arab states was to (as they themselves proclaimed) “drive the Jews into the sea,” today their goal is the ostensibly benevolent gesture of “liberating occupied Palestine.” And whereas sixty years ago Europe sought to cremate the world’s Jews, today Europe seeks to extol the virtues of the Palestinian resistance and isolate the Israeli oppressor, effectively condoning the murder of Jews and denying Israel’s right to exist.
This is the strategy of “misplacement.” It is what you do when you are up against a wall, when no one is willing to entertain your true position. So evil, in its desperation, is taking ideologies of goodness – human rights, anti-oppression, peace – and placing them out of context, and most of humanity is lapping it up because they would rather die in the illusion of peace then have to live through more war.
An ideology is constructed to be relevant to a certain time, place and circumstance. Take the ideology out of its proper context, and you can use as a tool to destroy that which it seeks to uphold. Human rights, for example, is certainly a noble agenda. But using the banner of human rights to justify and disseminate hate and murder is certainly a perversion of what human rights is all about.
In short, evil used to say, “we want to wipe out the Jews because we hate your guts, because your righteous existence is an obstacle to our ungodly agenda.” Today evil says that the Jews have to be wiped off the map because your existence is a mistake, because you are oppressing others, because you are an obstacle to the peace that we all want.
In a sense, this is even worse than outright evil, because at least then you know what you’re up against. Today, we are being asked to possess an unprecedented level of insight and clarity, to see through the superficial veils and falsehoods, however appealing or tempting they may be.
We are still in a state of exile. Exile means that things are out of place. Getting out of exile means using the gifts we are given to see past the illusion of misplacement, put things in their proper context, and fight for true justice.
Reprinted with permission from Exodus Magazine