How NOT to Save the World (or, How to Use a Magic Mirror)
“These values must be protected. It is our sacred duty to uphold the pillars of our society and its traditions. The enemies of our way of life must be stopped – by any means necessary.”
~ Caricature of something you might hear in a movie
We all have strong views of how the world should be. We hold these beliefs like a sacred heirloom, for which we will stand and fight to protect. No doubt that some things are very much worth fighting for. But how do we conduct that fight? What are we willing to give up? Or put another way – what must we never let go?
Some may argue that the ends justify the means. When we see a violation of what we hold dear, some feel that any behavior is justified to right that wrong. In this mindset, we see enemies all around us.
But “ends justify the means…” is a path to suffering, if we are honest with ourselves. Following this path, the values we sacrifice in defense of our beliefs lead us to places that can be hard to escape.
Many years ago, I read a story from Tibet. At the time, I thought it was a nice story, but I didn’t get the point. In recent years though, the political chaos and divisiveness polluting our society has brought it back from the depths of my memory. And suddenly I saw it in a new light.
The story took place in a Tibetan monastery, a pure and sacred place that everyone in the land cherished. The monks were all pious, the teachings all noble. Only those pure of heart could enter. A wall surrounded the monastery, with a gate at the main entrance guarded by a wise, old monk.
One day a young monk approached his senior monk to ask for the honor of becoming a guard. He valued the great benefits the monastery had bestowed on him, and he wanted to give something back. So the older monk took him under his wing and trained him to be a guard.
As the monks held non-violence as a treasured value, they guarded the gate not with force, but with wisdom. The primary defense of the guards was a magic mirror.
This mirror gave its bearer the ability to see the hidden nature of whoever was reflected in its surface.
Day after day, visitors came to the gate requesting entry. With each visitor, the guard would then turn the mirror to see the person’s reflection. If they appeared as they did to the naked eye, then their nature was true. They were permitted to pass the gate and enter the monastery.
At times, though, the guard would look into the mirror, and soon the face of the person would transform. Where the person stood, he saw the face of a demon staring back at him. The mirror had the power to reveal the hidden nature of any person in its reflection. As such, the gate remained closed to them, as their impurity could not be permitted to pass.
The young monk took to this task with the typical enthusiasm of youth. An enthusiasm tainted somewhat by another youthful quality, that of impetuousness.
As usual, people came to the gate requesting to be let in to receive the blessings of the monastery. But time after time, he would see a demon in their place, and he would cast them out.
He began to see that this power could do so much more outside the gate than inside.
So he decided to leave the monastery. Taking the mirror with him, he set out to find all the demons of the world. He vowed to purge the land of their evil.
For months going on years, he traveled the villages throughout the land. Walking the streets of each place he visited, he used the mirror to see the nature of the people he encountered. Whenever he saw demonic faces peering back at him in the surface, he acted swiftly, ridding the world of every demon he saw.
But one day, he spotted a young monk in the marketplace. Seeing this monk and the contented joy that seemed to dance in the air around him reminded him of the monastery. He had traveled for so long, conquered so many demons, and he felt it was time to go back. He had earned his place in the blessed halls of the monastery, he felt, having done so much good in the world.
He made the long journey to what was once his home. Seeing the gate in the distance, he smiled and broke into a run. There was the old monk, much older now, but still guarding the gate.
He greeted the old monk, bursting with joy to see him and to be home again.
But the old monk didn’t move to open the gate. He stood there, staring at his former student.
He asked to be let in, but the old monk still did not move. The gate remained shut.
Then with somewhat of a painful realization, he looked into the mirror – and saw the demon staring back in the reflection.
Ever since the US election of 2016, I feel as if I’m holding this mirror. Every day as I obsessively check the news, I see the lesser demons of our nature arising across our society.
Social media… Comment sections…
I don’t need to elaborate on the kinds of behavior that have become the new normal in these public fora of the 2000s.
Our political leaders are hardly any better (sometimes worse). Very few of the leaders of our great land stand out as role models of integrity. Especially those in high places.
Everyone across the spectrum feels their cause is noble (well, except for the social media bots, who don’t feel anything). Conscripts in the Great War for Social Media feel perfectly justified in the suffering and pain they may inflict on the Other. After all, “They have harmed Us.” It is only fair and right to respond with equal or greater savagery. The ends justify the means, after all. Warriors from each ideology can often defend their beliefs with well-formed justifications. And yet the toxicity that spews forth could make Mephistopheles say “Daaamn!”.
As someone who seeks to “make the world a better place…” How do I avoid becoming a demon myself?
When I read something that conflicts with my beliefs or read some blatant falsehood, my blood boils. No doubt this is a common experience. I feel a compulsion to “put that person in his place.” I better set the record straight, for if not me, then who. I must stand and fight for the truth!
Minds are never changed in these fierce battles of ideological talking points. (If you’ve seen examples of social media soldiers laying down their arms, saying, “hmm, I never thought of it that way!” then please share that with me.)
If hatred and toxicity fail to fulfill their objectives, then what’s the point?
Sure, anger and the feeling of power that comes with it are pretty tasty… for a moment. But prolonged exposure to those substances are carcinogenic to our wellbeing. In many ways, the Alcoholics Anonymous saying of “one drink and you’re drunk” is relevant here. Just giving in one time to these base urges to attack the “enemy” leaves the bottle open. It’s then all too easy to take another sip of that angry brew… and another.
Surely there must be a better way to engage in democratic disagreement. I can hold strong to my values without betraying my integrity as a human and citizen of a democracy. There is always a High Road. Despite how well worn the Low Road may be (and how tempting are its neon promises), those with courage can take a better route.
The mirror is a powerful metaphor. Honest self-reflection can be hard to squeeze into this hyper-packed modern life. But if I truly care enough about the world to fight for values I cherish, I can make time to see who’s gazing back in the mirror.