During Rosh Hashanah services last week, the Rabbi spoke about making a wish for the New Year, just as one would make a birthday wish while blowing out some candles. He expressed his certainty that most adults listening to his sermon would be wishing for more peace, at which point my son leaned over towards me and whispered, “Why does the Rabbi keep saying we need more peace in the world?” I whispered back to my son, “What would you rather have?” He looked up for a moment and then said, “I think we need more integrity.”
My son isn’t quite fourteen years old, yet he echoed thoughts I have when I hear someone expound upon the need for peace. It always reminds me of the scene in the movie Miss Congeniality where Sandra Bullock’s character, an undercover FBI agent posing as pageant contestant Gracie Lou Freebush, realizes that the only response that will garner applause during the interview portion of the Miss United States Pageant is to answer “world peace” in response to the question “what is the one most important thing our society needs?” It’s the stock answer, which, much like my son observed, is declared with the expectation that we will always applaud or nod our heads in agreement.
While, of course, I wouldn’t say that peace is undesirable, I believe we can’t just pray for peace or baldly state that’s what the world needs. Rather, if we want real peace in this world, we must first create it for ourselves — each and every one of us. We must find peace and wholeness in our own lives, which can then extend out into the world.
This starts with personal integrity, and, as my son said, we need more of it in this world. Too many celebrities and leaders — both in government and business, especially in media and entertainment, as well as in religious institutions — have traded their personal integrity for power and money, and we’ve paid the price as a society as a result. Integrity isn’t just about right or wrong, or morality, or adhering to any religious rules. Rather, it’s also about the ability to speak and act on one’s own truth.
Regrettably, truth today has become a subjective concept, filtered through long-held biases or prejudices and belief systems, which we’ve either had drilled into us since childhood or embraced out of some sense of fear. When one’s truth comes from a place of fear or is skewed by past experiences, it ceases being truth. Instead, it’s a version of the truth shaped in a way that either allows us to justify our actions or that makes the world around us seem less threatening.
We’re now witness to this every day. The shaming, finger pointing and divisive messages in the media and on social media swirl around us constantly. In order for one side to be right, then the other must be wrong, compelling us to take sides and stretching us further towards polar extremes. It’s so easy to get caught up in the frenzied energy of “he said”, “she said”, and “they said” that it becomes easy to lose perspective — and so often that’s the intent. The distraction creates a kind of smokescreen, constantly hiding the Truth so that we don’t stop and consider the intentions of the speaker or accuser. Instead we spend so much time reacting without careful consideration of the fact that so little of what is being spoken, written, and shouted actually comes from a place not of integrity, but rather a place of pain and limited awareness.
To realize our own truth, especially in this day and age of continuous “information” dumping, it’s important to question everything. I teach my children on a daily basis to question what they hear, what is being said, how it is being said and why it is deemed worth sharing.
Truth isn’t merely the absence of lie, but a fundamental knowing that we can only reach through real discernment. And this discernment cannot exist if we hold onto anger, mistrust, hurt, agony, pain or fear because they all influence how we regard the truth.
It’s equally important to recognize the motivations of others and ask ourselves whether the message being conveyed isn’t distorted by the person’s own issues or trauma. Moreover, it’s essential we face whether our reaction to something is informed by our own personal issues and trauma.
That said, so much of this anger, mistrust, hurt, agony, pain and fear are real. They have informed our experiences since time immemorial. Our histories — whether that of our particular race, gender, ethnicity, nationality or religion — are full of traumas, episodes of powerlessness that we are just coming to face. We carry with us the memories of the generations before us, which layered with our own, are a tremendous burden for us to continue to carry. Today, all of the hashtag movements, Hollywood and Media takedowns, stories of sexual abuse within religious organizations and in the world, and even the refugee crises, force us to confront the ways in which we have experienced our own powerlessness. And it’s natural to want to ignore it, to push away the discomfort that arises when we’re confronted with it. It can make us angry, scared or feel even more powerless ourselves because we don’t know how to change it.
Yet simply taking away the power of the other does not empower us. Hurting another doesn’t heal our hurt, but merely transfers it, perpetuating the cycle of pain.
To heal our experiences of powerlessness, of shame, of hurt, of agony, of trauma, of fear we shouldn’t lash out or project it onto another, but rather we need to embrace them. It takes compassion to be able to do this. Compassion isn’t about kindness. It’s about being in step with others, to see and fully recognize where they are coming from and to acknowledge it without prior judgment or prejudice.
It’s essential not to confuse compassion with sympathy or empathy. Too often I hear compassion used in the context of feeling for someone who’s going through a difficult time, as if to feel charitably toward someone is to have compassion. The reality is that, when you have compassion, you don’t necessarily need to be sympathetic or empathetic. While we can feel both immeasurably, so often those emotions evoke feelings of guilt or shame or self-pity, which can lead to anger, resentment and blame.
Compassion, on the other hand, means having the wisdom to see both sides of the issue, to understand entirely without judgment. It isn’t easy to do in this world with flash-in-the-pan hashtag trends and movements that trigger emotions around our powerlessness in order to stir us out of our complacency. While it may be helpful in motivating people, it doesn’t allow us to hold space for our personal growth and evolution because it sends our energy outward, projecting all the pain into the world rather than healing it within.
Having compassion doesn’t mean we need to accept things the way they are. To the contrary, compassion is what ultimately makes change possible.
Without compassion, we cannot operate within our integrity; and without integrity, we cannot be honest with ourselves and the world. Honesty is expressing the truth from our hearts. If our pain, sorrow, anger, or hurt isn’t healed, we aren’t able to express honestly from our hearts because the truth is shaped by our emotions.
Objective narratives are virtually non-existent in the media and news stories these days because those writing them all have an agenda, no matter how noble they believe that agenda to be. It’s why I teach my children to question the source of their information, including their teachers.
It’s easy to confuse opinion with fact because these days they’re often packaged together. Opinions are one thing, but again, if truth is constructed around one’s own skewed knowledge or experience of something, then the expression of that truth isn’t honest, it’s opinion. Any “fact” or “data” can be interpreted to serve our own ends. Real honest communication is an expression of truth, and the foundation of all truth is love. To really understand if someone is speaking the truth, it’s important to ask ourselves, what’s at the core of his/her/their message? Are we feeding on love or hate? Justice or injustice? Do these words encourage freedom or oppression?
Today, I rarely see expressions of love. I see well-intentioned mouthpieces who think they represent minority voices express vehement outrage and anger. I see politicians on each side clamor for power through judgment and accusations. I see people afraid to lose what little they have to those who have even less. I see the racial and economic divides grow even wider as power bases seek to expand their influence. I see many afraid to express truth for fear of being misunderstood or provoking the ire of those who think nothing of using terms such as racist, bigot or hater out of context.
None of this is honest because it all lacks integrity and is not fueled by true compassion. To root out this fear, hate and anger, we need to ask the bigger question, which is “how can we all live together?” Because it’s not about agreeing to disagree. Rather, it’s about agreeing on the highest good of everyone, which at the core of our existence is love. And what is love but the ability to embrace everything and everyone without condition or prejudice. Until we can do that with integrity, compassion and honesty, our path to peace may still be a long one.
I’m confident that a greater love can exist in this world. I see it in my children, in their strong desire for justice and their aversion to hate and divisiveness. To pave their way to peace, I suggest we look inward to examine those parts of ourselves that require healing, those places we’ve long neglected because they hurt too much to look at. They’re those moments when we didn’t have the strength or wherewithal or ability to be in our power, to own the pain of that time and the hurtful consequences we’d faced. Only when we do that will we be able to align ourselves with a different, unfiltered truth and to have the compassion and wisdom to use our newfound power to change this world with our truth and with the love we have for ourselves and for others. Therein will we find our peace.