Cults and Culture

It is said that “as you sow, so shall you reap”. That one of our best known sayings is agricultural in nature reminds us that our culture is linked to what we cultivate- both literally and metaphorically. Even if paraphrased as “What goes around comes around” or “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, or “the Law of Karma”, this agricultural metaphor is unmistakeably clear.

Take for example the dueling philosophies of the Democrats and Republicans in American politics. The old saw of “Big Government” vs. “Small Government” has become irrelevant in the reality that any and all government is an enormously expensive proposition, and an necessity in a complex and deeply interconnected global society. People can legitimately disagree about the role of government. But elections are rarely won on philosophical grounds- they become personal. People gravitate to the ideas of candidates, but also to the persona- and to the kind of persona that the voter is likely to most admire and wish to emulate.

Herein the agricultural analogy. What seeds are planted by the images we cultivate? Is it the cult of personality, a sort of Ayn Rand elevation of the individual as the ultimate value? Or is it the culture of empathy, an essential affirmation of community and the understanding that as a nation and a species, “united we stand, divided we fall”?

There has been a cultural erosion in America (and perhaps the world) wherein we have lionized egocentricity. In our opportunistically litigious society, the individual is all important- but the group is not. Have we really persuaded ourselves that we have a right to everything, but a responsibility for nothing? What crop can we expect to reap when the self-centered promotion of personal profit becomes our defining priority?

When viewed spiritually, ego is NEVER the defining value to be promoted- quite the contrary. From Buddha to Jesus,  from Sufis to Tzadiks, the transcendence of ego is at the very core of the experience of the divine. It is also results in an essential empathy for living beings of all types, as co-reflections of our common Creator, our higher Self, our essential being.

We shape our culture by our choice of leaders. We need to reflect on what kind of culture we want to live in, and what criteria do we want to use as measures of individual and collective success? History suggests that the greatest leaders have, as a central characteristic, a gift for empathy. In viewing current candidates and pondering their potential impact on our future, perhaps we should ponder deeply which ones give credible evidence of having a marked capacity for empathy. Empathy for the governed trumps political ideology and religious bias.