In the wake of Katrina people seem astonished that we don't handle disaster well. One reason may be our exaggerated sense of control. We tend to think we can handle anything, but when it comes to facing nature's force, we come head-to-head with our limitations.
This is a good thing: realizing our limits. Although the feeling of being vulnerable is uncomfortable, understood as a basic spiritual condition, it can deepen what strengths we have. For vulnerability and strength are not opposites. They go together like yin and yang, like two sides of a coin.
The Tao Te Ching, that remarkable holy text from Chinese Taoism, says:
Yield and be strong,Yield and be strong. This is not a sentiment familiar to our "can-do" culture. America has the strong will to overcome any adversity. We are a heroic society built by adventurers and pioneers who embraced challenge. We want to conquer every obstacle: illness, political adversaries, and, it seems, nature itself. For this country, especially, it takes spiritual depth of imagination to understand a non-heroic way of getting along. It takes spiritual wisdom to appreciate vulnerability.
Bend and be straight,
Empty and be full.
The word vulnerable means "able to be wounded." Conscious vulnerability is a kind of strength. Being vulnerable allows you to be open to another, to allow another person or group to enjoy their own desire and strength--and it is the foundation for love. At its best, to be vulnerable means to be open and not overly defended, which only a strong person has the courage to be. Because vulnerability and strength are so entwined, it's best to cultivate both at the same time.
The Bhagavad-Gita, the ancient and revered teaching on being a spiritual warrior, says:
Consider pleasure and pain as the same thing,Jesus taught a similar philosophy, constantly inverting expectations. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches in his Sermon on the Mount that the last shall be first and the poor are blessed.
And success and loss, victory and defeat as well,
Then give yourself to the struggle
And you won't bring disaster on yourself.
These are extraordinarily important words for Americans today, who tend to make a commandment out of making money, wanting prestige, and needing to be first. You have a better chance of keeping in touch with basic human values if money isn't your ultimate concern and if you can relax about not being the best. These profound texts from all over the world hold the secrets to our survival and should be required reading of all leaders.
Religions teach that the chief mistake human beings make is hubris--in other words, not knowing our limitations. We get into trouble, personally and nationally, whenever we become arrogant and think we can do anything. But religions warn against this kind of thinking.
It will do little good to try to escape our discomfort. We can go on living unconsciously, as though these disasters were only inconsequential blips on a screen. We can get lost in work and entertainment and addictions. Or, we can take these emotions to heart and live differently because of the wisdom we have achieved through pain and trouble.
For instance, we could begin to build our buildings and cities more in accord with nature than against it. We could seek more creative and peaceful solutions to international conflict. We could "yield and be strong" by listening to what others are saying and taking them seriously. We could opt out of the hubris that we see all around us, challenge it, and live differently, discovering the joys and demands of living in a real community.