The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Winter 2017  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: SmoleyRichard, "From the Editor's Desk" Quest 105.1 (Winter 2017): pg. 2

Richard SmoleyIt is a kind of disease to which editors are prone. Since I have been writing editorials for over thirty years now, I have had a high level of exposure.

One might call it The Great Problem of Our Time. Sooner or later, it would seem, every editor feels the need to weigh in on this Great Problem and sententiously proclaim what is to be done about it.

So I hope you will indulge me.

I am not thinking of any of the problems that may immediately come to mind: poverty, inequality, war, pollution, climate change. These are all real and urgent matters. But I am not singling out any one of them. Rather I would like to point to the mentality that prevents sensible responses to these problems.

The best approach to any problem is to face it soberly, sensibly, and realistically. It is neither to blind oneself to this problem nor to freeze in fright at the sight of it. In short (to invoke Aristotle’s concept of virtue) it is a mean—between denial on the one hand and panic on the other. (I am reminded of a quip someone once made about Britain’s Conservative Party: “The Conservative Party never panics except in a crisis.”)

This sober realism is precisely the mentality that is most needed in the world today, but it is the mentality that the cultural climate is least likely to foster. If any problem is brought to public attention, the impulse is to make it seem so urgent that unless we drop everything and run around frantically, all will be lost. Even and particularly with urgent questions (e.g., climate change), this is the worst possible attitude to take—almost.

Still worse is the opposite: a blank refusal to see that there is anything wrong at all. “This is the just the way things are”; “this sort of thing happens and has always happened”; “it’s all hype.” Unconsciously, the problem is perceived as being so great that you can’t do anything about it, so you might as well throw up your hands and walk away. Often there are powerful entities who find it in their interest to promote this mentality.

Thus the public mood constantly veers between panic and denial. Such swings occur even within the mind of an individual, and it is a rare person, I suspect, who does not face strong temptations to confront his or her own problems in the same way.

Under no circumstances would I say that this back-and-forth swing between panic and denial is anything new. History shows that it has existed for at least as long as history itself has existed. But current conditions exacerbate this tendency, leading to more panic and more denial.

Here I’m thinking of social media—Facebook and its many relatives. Social media reached a mass audience around six or eight years ago. They have not changed anything fundamentally, but they have accelerated forces that used to move much more slowly. Most importantly, they have made it much easier to respond to someone immediately, even if the two people are very remote and even if (as often happens) they don’t really know each other. Most people have Facebook friends that they have never met in person, and even if they don’t, it’s quite possible to get into an angry interchange with somebody else’s friend.

Until very recently there was a reasonably close correlation between physical proximity and speed of response. You certainly can respond in a hostile way to someone who’s in your presence, but this generates an energetic tension (as well as possible physical danger) that most people find unpleasant. The telephone creates somewhat more distance, but if you have an argument with someone on the phone, that tension will still arise. The written letter, sent by regular mail, has the slowest speed of response, and this has certain advantages. You can write a nasty letter to someone, but you may not get around to mailing it immediately, and you may decide to tear it up the next day. I believe Lincoln once advised someone never to post an angry letter on the day it was written, and that was good advice.

So there is much in the current communications climate that militates for impulsiveness, and little that promotes self-control. But it is precisely this self-control that is a prerequisite, not only for spiritual advancement, but for decent and civil relations in society. And it is this civility that has eroded so steeply over the past few years.

Many spiritual traditions speak about the need for impulse control. In the old esoteric Chrstian tradition, these impulses were called passions. They are not really what we think of as passion today. Rather they are rapid and more or less spontaneous reactions that arise naturally in everyone—not only lust and greed, but anger. The kind of anger that flashes across your mind when someone cuts you off in traffic is a good example.

It’s valuable to master these passions, not only for the sake of one’s fellow humans, but because they are composed of emotional energy—energy that is usually wasted, but if handled right, can go back into the organism for useful purposes.

Today’s communications give us that much more opportunity to practice this kind of self-control. Let’s hope they also give us that much more motivation.

Richard Smoley