“Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak when power to flattery bows? To plainness honor’s bound when majesty falls to folly.”
-- from Shakespeare's King Lear
Corruption is a scourge, and all kinds of systems are vulnerable to it. Why? Is it something insidious about human nature? If so, is it true about me?
Corruption is not a moral failing but rather a shared vulnerability. When the human spirit does not develop immunity to mental triviality, the systems it creates or is obliged to respond to get fueled not by the fullness of reality but by the power of terminal belief streams. What do I mean by that?
Think of a category of beliefs centered on terminal outcomes, including but not limited to -- carnage, cut-throat competition, end times fantasies, annihilation scenarios, suicide, and on the more delicate side, the rewards of heaven. The Corrupt Spirit finds itself engaging terminal belief streams in part because they elevate the triviality of existence that quietly vexes us.
Interconnected global waterways is a decent metaphor for the non-terminality of beliefs that infiltrate the uncorrupt spirit and the coherent system that fuel it. Picture all waterways that are, at a given moment, in a direct line of flow to the ocean. Along with the oceanic waters, these thoughtful waterways make up a special kind of continuity that, from my experience, is possible to recreate through existential contemplation that is relational.
What Does It All Mean?
Meaninglessness or, within society, the dead-endedness of echo chambers and self-defeating power structures, are tough on the spirit. For adults, questions of deep meanings, when they can't be avoided or understood immediately, often bring up nagging, irritated feelings, or sometimes a foggy, soft-brained unease. Subtle reality dictates that such reactions form feedback systems that tend to ensnare us within frank social dysfunction.
As children, our minds develop in part by engaging in daring existential reflections, often quite spontaneously. Ya'acov Darling Khan in his recently published book Jaguar in the Body, Butterfly in the Heart recalls his most compelling ask as a child -- "If God created us, what created God?"
There's a vulnerability there though. We encounter profoundity and then might well be met with adults who react as if life is a game or by soliloquizing about the profundity of their own agendas. Our wide-reaching observations, concerns, and questions about what it means to exist get sidelined or, worse yet, silenced.
At such moments, the search for meaning and existential truths feels like it betrays us as social creatures, though as adults we have the chance to notice that nothing could be further from the truth. To the degree that we give in to defeat and disappointment at this pattern of trivialization, our thinking in relation to reality itself becomes corrupted. The effect on the mind and self being conceived by it is, paradoxically, self-defeating as it contracts self-image to mere influence-peddling and "playing the system."
Corruption of spirit begins with supplanting the innate desire for meaningfulness with the socially guided desire for influence. Ironically, focusing squarely on influence actually handicaps our minds, making us more likely to get entranced by terminal belief streams and keeping us isolated from a robust experience of reality in all of its complexity and subtlety.
At its best, self-image is an existentially robust opportunity. In contracting it, we inadvertently depress our desire for existential meanings and train ourselves instead to engage only with staid rational meanings.
When we go so far as to apply such a limited standard of self-image to others, we negate those in society or wider nature who are denied influence in our spheres of experience, perhaps through no fault of their own.
We get so used to doing this that we forget to reflect on what it means existentially that we have the capacity to be a purveyor of human potential and expresser of values, not from a boastful or cynical adult perspective but from a big picture perspective relished by our daring and existentially inspired inner 8-year-old.
Uncorrupt spirit and the questions that give rise to such an experience are nourishment for the self, especially in the context of learning what it means to imagine the self and society we desire into Being and even to get our game on, so to speak, in a world that is in fact piquing us with paradoxes and endlessly meaningful curiosities.
Original publish date June 2017