Are you different from "Ordinary People?"


It took me a long time to realize what an elitist set of ideas and perceptions I was given as I grew up in a middle-class family, ideas that were reinforced at the elite universities where I earned my PhDs.

I learned to think of myself as somehow different from "ordinary people," as someone on a higher moral plane.

 liberal circles seemed to feel that religion and spirituality were for people who were culturally and intellectually retarded ..

Most of the people I met in intellectual, academic, or liberal circles seemed to feel that religion and spirituality were for people who were culturally and intellectually retarded, for people who couldn't handle the world and hence "needed that sort of thing." The very idea of "needing" was seen as a sign of being weak, undeveloped, retarded, because, of course, people who are cool can stand alone without "need" of anything or anyone. It was these "ordinary people," I was taught, who were such jerks that they got duped by right-wing fascists; adopted racist, sexist, and homophobic ideologies; and clung to religion and spirituality because thinking in a clear and rational way was beyond their capacities and scared them too much.

why working people were leaving their traditional roots in the liberal and progressive world and becoming .. responsive to right-wing politics.

It was with this elitist attitude that I first conceptualized my role as a psychologist when I began to do research on "working-class consciousness." I wanted to understand why working people were leaving their traditional roots in the liberal and progressive world and becoming more responsive to right-wing politics. I assumed that this could only be some form of pathology and I wanted to learn about it.

Most people have a real need for meaning and purpose in their lives, a meaning and purpose ..

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that "ordinary people" (the term itself now sounds elitist to me) were far more aware and complicated than most intellectuals had allowed themselves to notice. I had looked for pathology, but what I found instead was a deep and significant yearning for spiritual purpose in life. Working with middle-income people whose jobs were not high-paying or "fancy," I learned the following: Most people have a real need for meaning and purpose in their lives, a meaning and purpose that could transcend the selfishness and materialism of the competitive marketplace and root them in something with transcendent significance. That need is so great that people will seek to fulfill it in whatever way they can.

This astounded me because I had bought into the notion that "middle America" was governed by a narrow materialism. In fact, the leaders of the labor movement itself claimed that all "their" workers cared about was money—and that explained why workers only came to meetings during contract negotiations.
But what I discovered was something quite different, namely, that ordinary working people in America, the ones who went to the mall and who sat in front of their television sets, were just as concerned with meaning as anyone else, including any of us who consider ourselves intellectuals or agents of social change.

our hunger for spiritual connection is every bit as urgent as our hunger for food

Connection to Spirit is as essential as oxygen. It's a basic need. Yet, we have taught ourselves to see people as a bunch of isolated machines driven by the need for food, sex, and power. We have acted as though we could cut ourselves off from our Divine essence as manifestations of Spirit. We have built social and economic institutions and have raised children as though we did not know that we are part of the spiritual order of the universe and that our hunger for spiritual connection is every bit as urgent as our hunger for food.

My fellow psychotherapists and I set up the Institute for Labor and Mental Health to study the psycho-dynamics of American society. I learned in my work with middle-income Americans, people who used to be called "working class," that we cannot maintain our separation from Spirit, nor from each other as expressions of Spirit, without great pain. In fact, our separateness has always been an illusion, but we have learned to see ourselves as separate and that has shaped our experience of "reality." It's been a painful reality. Sometimes almost unbearably so.

Throughout history, human beings have frequently been willing to sacrifice material well-being for the sake of spiritual connection and ethical purpose.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow posited a "hierarchy of needs," suggesting that we must first satisfy our material needs and only then address our "higher" needs. While this account may apply to people who are literally starving, for most others it is deeply mistaken. Throughout history, human beings have frequently been willing to sacrifice material well-being for the sake of spiritual connection and ethical purpose. Rather than thinking of material needs as the foundation and the spiritual dimension as a kind of accessory, we should understand that spiritual needs are equally real and equally essential to our being.

What happens to people who live in a world in which Spirit is being denied?

The short answer: we end up living very distorted lives.

And this applies just the same to everyone, no matter how much money they have, no matter how much power. There really is no "they" and "we" in the realm of Spirit: "they" and "we" are one. What I knew about myself I learned to be true of many, many others in this society: although people certainly care about their economic well-being, it is not all they care about, and often it is not the central thing in their consciousness.

If working people fought for more money in the world of work, it was often because they had become cynical about securing workplaces in which they might find meaning and spiritual nourishment—not because they had no such need.
To be realistic, they had come to believe, they had to keep their hunger for meaning and spiritual fulfillment out of the public sphere.

So they went to church, even though there was no money to be gotten there, and did not go to union meetings (because there was no meaning to be found there except during negotiations when they could fight for more money). People used their unions to fight for more money not because money was all they wanted from life, but because it was the only winnable compensation they could get for a life they felt was being wasted all day in meaningless work.

responding to the Right

No wonder, then, that many of these people responded to the Right. However irrational the Right's solutions might appear to be, it at least seemed to notice the problem of the decline in America's ethical and spiritual sensitivities. And no wonder they resented their own union leadership. Yes, they were happy the unions were there for them as insurance companies that put some constraints on arbitrary power from management at the workplace. But though most unionized workers were glad they had their unions, just as they were glad that they had auto insurance companies, they felt no closer to their union leadership than to their insurance brokers, and they were equally unlikely to reveal to either the deep concerns in their lives.

It never occurred to the liberals or progressives that people were responding to the Right at least in part because it was speaking to some real and legitimate human need that was excluded from the liberal and progressive agenda. When I personally tried to explain this to the national leaders of the AFL-CIO, I was told explicitly that these issues were of little interest. Yes, they might be willing to use spiritual language or music at a picket line or during a strike, but no, they would never actually talk about challenging the materialism and selfishness of the world of work. For union leadership, as for much of the liberal and progressive movements, the whole notion of "spiritual" is so deeply identified with right-wing ideology, New Age flakiness, and the memory of coercive religious communities that they have been unable to imagine themselves opening their movement to spiritual concerns and the radical challenge to contemporary economic and political arrangements that an Emancipatory Spirituality presents.

why many Americans were not able to trust the progressive

Yet my colleagues and I could not close our ears to what we were hearing; and what we were hearing made it clear that the reason why many Americans were not able to trust the progressive social change movements is that although they often found themselves agreeing with these movements on a variety of economic and political issues, they felt misunderstood and unseen by these liberals and progressives who dismissed spiritual issues as reactionary or who simply seemed tone deaf to the inner life.

sharing the same spiritual hunger

Most of the people who attended the training courses we offered in how to deal with occupational stress were initially extremely uncomfortable discussing spiritual issues. It's easier to talk about sexual perversions or childhood abuse in contemporary America than to publicly discuss one's inner spiritual life. It took many weeks of creating safety for people before they would open up and discuss these issues on a deeper level.

Yet eventually an amazing thing began to happen in the occupational stress groups that my colleagues and I ran at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health: as people sat in the room with others and heard their stories, they could recognize that others shared the same spiritual hunger they feared to fully acknowledge.

The people who came to these groups were not from a milieu in which therapy or introspection was the "in" thing. Often, they came only after being assured that they could learn valuable communication skills and that by coming they were not identifying themselves as "sick" or "in need of professional help." They only felt comfortable sharing their stories in the most superficial ways possible until they began to understand that their personal pain was connected to the larger framework of the deprivation of meaning in our society.

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Excerpted from "Spirit Matters" by Michael Lerner.


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