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Living Life Well: 09/15/2019

On attitudes and persuasions

There are two things we've been told never to discuss in polite society - politics, and religion. However, society is no longer as polite as it once was. Perhaps it's because not enough has been said about how these two engines drive society, through regulation and inspiration. We've been avoiding a necessary conversation, and now our society is drifting.

The time-honored separation of church and state did not mean they should not work together - like left hand and right, they simply should not get in each other's way. The physical laws of centripetal and centrifugal forces - gravity and motion - that bind atoms and galaxies into orbiting organizations can also be found in the human principles of concern and hope, and discipline and love. They must work together, for discipline without love is punishment, and love without discipline is indulgence.

From the very beginning, the chieftain who ruled the community best did so with the guidance of the shaman who lived in both worlds - the tangible one that forms the community, and the intangible one that informs it. To ensure an ordered and moral society, each role is essential.

The political world has been mapped by a compass that documents where attitudes are located on the political spectrum. The vertical coordinates of north and south are social, ranging from authoritarian at the top to libertarian at the bottom, and the horizontal coordinates of west and east are economic, from socialism at the left to capitalism at the right. This map does not require any particularly narrow chauvinism; to locate oneself and others is a definition, not a judgment. An interesting test you might take to locate yourself on this map may be found at The Political Compass (

Likewise, the religious world can be described as a great wheel, where the various religions of the world are like spokes. They come together at the hub where the esoteric mystics, who listen to hear an immanent spiritual call, are found; among them are the Hindu ecstatics, Cha'an Buddhists, Kabbalists of Judaism, Christian mystics, and the Sufis of Islam. At the outer rim, on the other hand, the spokes separate from one another to bring that calling to bear upon the roadway of the human condition, each according to the needs of a particular society. The integrity of this wheel is that the spiritual guidance received at the hub is distributed upon the several roads travelled by a diverse humanity.

And yet, given the different places one may find oneself upon the political map, and the distances one may find oneself from others at the rim of the wheel of religion, misunderstandings and assumptions result from poor communication, ignorance, and suspicion. Parochial bias, if confronted, is usually fiercely defended, and opinions begin to masquerade as facts.

That word “politics” comes from Aristotle's book Politiká, meaning the business of citizens; however, the word has now taken on rather negative meanings. Likewise, in these times, the word “religion” has also slipped into something of a pejorative, although it originated with the Latin religio, meaning a reverence for and a pondering of divine ideas. We need to rescue the meaning of these terms, and to acknowledge the great minds that have provided us great thoughts, from Aristotle and Confucius to Hamilton and Jefferson, and from the Buddha and the Christ to Krishnamurti and Thomas Merton.

Charismatic leaders are magnetic and galvanizing, and the best of them humbly understand it is not about themselves but the message that they carry, and the community to which the message is carried - a message intended to inspire noble action for the good of the whole. True leaders are servants, not bosses; it's important to see whether they serve to benefit the community, or themselves. There have been dangerous charlatans at work, in religion and in politics; dark forces want to churn society - and there are those for whom this is entertainment. There is a human addiction to drama that seems attracted to tumult and dissension, no matter the eventual cost.

Early in my practice in Berkeley, back in 1978, I worked with the family of a man who was lost to an infamous cult known as the People's Temple. The leader, Jim Jones, was a charismatic sociopath parading as an inspirational social activist. He led hundreds of his followers to a promised land in Guyana called Jonestown, where 918 people died at his command by drinking grape flavored powders laced with the sedatives Phenergan, Valium, and chloral hydrate - and the poison cyanide. It was from this horrific event that the phrase arose for a dedication so extreme that one would “Drink the Kool-Aid” to die for the cause.

There are politicians also that trade in a narcissism reaching critical mass as sociopaths, appealing to those who are gullible and naive, who enjoy the fracas, because within them lurks a responsive psychopathy. Divisive rhetoric appeals to cynics, whose appetite for suspicions make them all the more vulnerable to tyranny. To distinguish a leader from a tyrant is never easy, but one criteria is to follow the money - a catchphrase from All the President's Men. Money may be only one measure of power, but it is the easiest way to recognize who has been served, and who has not.

Such diagrams as the political compass and the wheel of religion given above should not be taken literally, for the map is not the territory; however, they can help us find our way. The reason that Christ spoke in parables is that the truth is never literal, and can't be told explicitly. It can only be discovered within the mind that has been awakened by listening, and hearing. He would often say, after telling a parable, “He who has ears to hear, will hear.”

It's my belief that when events in the Bible are read as literally true, and when campaign promises are believed, reality becomes dangerously oversimplified - and the great potential of its rich complexity becomes sadly overlooked. This life that we live is itself metaphoric of something much more fundamentally and grandly true. It has been said in some scientific circles that reality is an hallucination, but it is still extremely important as far as we're concerned. Realizing that, and working to make our society morally coherent, for the highest good of all concerned, is our greatest responsibility.

Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at, or email him at

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