Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Middle Path

I ended up yesterday's entry with the conclusion that the Middle Path is as appropriate in our political as in our personal life, and I woke this morning thinking about that Middle Path. I realize that it's possible, in politics at least, to see it as a cop-out, an abandonment of principle. I don't see it that way. I see it rather as a guiding principle in itself.

I see the Middle Path not so much as the shortest route between here and there--of the kind laid out in a Google map--but rather as the navigational art of constant course correction. It's guided by an awareness of the changing environment, and of the distractions and obstacles we encounter along the way; it us leads forward not in a straight line but more of a zig-zag which allows for the unpredictable, the sudden steep incline, even the impassable.

The problem with principles is that we attach to them and attachment--I note with a nod of gratitude to the Buddha--leads to suffering. It also leads to intransigence, which by definition leads us nowhere. If we "stand on principle," we're immobilized by it. Is Buddhism itself not a system of principles? Not as I see it. It's rather an invitation to question every principle and put it to the reality test: does it work for me? Does it lead me and my fellow beings toward a greater common happiness? Or does it do the reverse?

The kind of course correction I have in mind would have to allow for compromise. It might even have to settle for the lesser of two evils. To take a particularly agonizing example, I think of Afghanistan. The choice is in essence a simple, binary one: to stay, or to leave. Beyond that, it's not so simple. If we stay, we are in the benighted violence-begets-violence bind. If we leave, we deliver millions of people into the hands of those who have already tortured them and promise to return to their medieval ways. We also risk opening the geo-political door to nuclear terrorism.

There is no easy or comfortable answer here, nor in many of the other urgent, infinitely complex problems that confront us. Those who would act on principle alone in the attempt to resolve them are, in my view, misguided. Important, yes, to hold our principles in mind as we navigate--but navigate we must. If we see an iceberg looming in our path--we should be so lucky perhaps, these days, as the polar cap melts!--it's time to swing the wheel.


CHI SPHERE said...

The metaphor of sailing troubled waters is an apt one Peter and the path is fraught with high winds and predators. Some burn the Koran while others burn buildings. Both are destructive and lead to more of the same.

Chomsky may have it exactly right:

We can, for example, be fairly confident that either there will be a world without war or there won't be a world - at least, a world inhabited by creatures other than bacteria and beetles, with some scattering of others.

Pam said...

Thank you for this. I wish that those who feel betrayed by the President's comprimising nature would have read "The Audacity of Hope". The book describes his desire to work toward liberal goals, incrementally, after first recognizing and honoring common ground. He argues throughout that progress begins with listening and comprimise. I read this book at the height of my anger and fear over Bush's policies, and at the time I thought, "Yeah, sounds good but these people don't deserve anything but jail time, and there is no comprimise between right and wrong!" I believed him to be noble but nieve, since the american public, most politicians, and certainly the republicans simply didn't seem up to the task of setting aside differences, recognizing common goals, and giving up our addiction to self-rightousness. However, I came to believe over time that in fact the type of change he was espousing WAS possible, because so many people seemed to be endorsing it. I was inspired by Obama; he seemed consistent and sincere. But I was most inspired, and very surprised, by the apparent belief of the majority of Americans in his approach. I thought, if all these people can commit to working toward progress incrementally through comprimise and common ground, then maybe it IS possible. Of course I see now that I totally misread his supporters. His critics are right - he cannot be successful with this approach. Not because it isn't possible, but it IS impossible to do alone. He has not abandoned his supporters, it is us that have pulled the rug out from under him. It appears we never understood that the change he was talking about needed to begin with us. So as President Obama resolutely soldiers on, I wonder about the dissapointment he must feel in our capacity for change. I must admit, whatever faith I had in Americans' ability to work together to address the many complex and severe problems of the day, has all but shattered.
We like our politcs to be simplistic and one sided, based on the nieve impression that life's complexities can be ignored, and that it's possible to win even if it means fanning flames of division and distrust. I do believe that their are many individuals accross this country who strive to work from the creativity, beauty and generosity that lie within us, but their voices are faint and hard to find. Meanwhile, the President's success, and ours, are dependent on human qualities that for most of us, are buried so deeply that the tools we need to unearth them, are themselves inaccessable.