Updated: Jul 12
"You tell me it's the institution. Well, you know,
You better free your mind instead."
Politics, as it’s played out in the public arena, consists almost entirely of the projection of simplistic ideas onto a complex reality.
The ideas originate in the people who cling to them as defining features of who they are. “I am a tough individualist,” for example. Or, “I help those in need.” The ideas feel grand and meaningful.
They are like a link to something divine.
And every human needs that. Even atheists need that sense of swelling purpose or grandeur. Even the humblest, most self-effacing of us usually has an idea—say, sacrifice and hard work—that feels ennobling.
These ideas feel like our animating spirit, as if they are us. We do not, as a rule, examine them or even realize they can be separated from us to make that examination possible. Threaten my ennobling idea and you threaten me.
But somewhere, we sense the inadequacy of these ideas.
To compensate, we project them into the political coliseum where we root for them in battle with other conflicting simplistic ideas.
But no idea is a match for the beasts of this coliseum—that is to say, for the phenomenal complexity of the real world, in which even the flap of a butterfly’s wings matters.
The volume of our shouting is a measure of the frailty of our ideas. They tend to crumble under even the mildest cross-examination.
We can believe we are tough individualists, for example, and never consider our inherent interconnectedness, through everything from the care we received as babies, to the flow of money, traffic, electricity, food, water, and air.
We can say that we should help others without acknowledging that we are always selective about who those “others” are, or without following up to see how much we really helped in the long run or how much harm our good intentions may have caused.
Our simplistic ideas, in a word, don’t work. Constantly.
Politics is the ongoing failure of simplistic ideas to meet complex reality. And since those ideas feel central to people’s identities, to be emotionally engaged in politics is to be in a chronic state of outrage, discouragement, and high alert. Our gladiators are losing. We may be annihilated.
The need to feel connected to something divine is human, but divine is just one word for it. Whatever we call it, it’s not an ethereal thing we ponder in a church. It animates us, like a wind blowing through a flute. It can cause beautiful melodies or discordant squawks.
To cling to an idea for that sense of divine connection is to squawk. And politics, most agree, is a lot of squawking.
Another word for that clinging is fundamentalism.
We’re used to that word in a religious context, but it’s ubiquitous in human culture. In fact, it largely is human culture. It’s found anywhere a human being—that mysterious, ever-evolving, exquisitely responsive instrument of the divine—shackles themselves to a simplistic idea. Even one about love.
Institutions are usually built on fundamentalisms. Even university science departments enforce certain ideas without serious question and often with religious zeal.*
But we don’t need ideas to connect to grandeur.
This is the message of all authentic spiritual teaching. We are in our essence emanations of the divine. We needn’t work for it or justify it or believe the right things to earn it. It is given. To know this and incorporate it into our daily life is to live in harmony with our grandeur.
Ultimately, all collective human enterprises depend on the level of awareness of the individuals that make up those enterprises. A political system is as broken as the people who comprise it. That would be you and me.
To the extent that we each feel our direct connection to the divine, that we are worthy not because of our wealth, job, looks, race, politics, or any other simplistic notion, but just because we are, to that extent we can see all human enterprises in their proper perspective and not as battlegrounds for proving our worthiness.
The most important political work is all in your head.
Thanks for reading. I welcome comments and appreciate little red hearts in the lower right corner.
*My book, The Science Spell, explores fundamentalism in science.