How Can We Help?

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

Day after day, week in and week out, a wide selection of the world's suffering, hatred, and violence confronts us. We are aware not only of troubles in our own community, but in distant cities and nations. Seeing and hearing these events in a very immediate way, often reported over a long period, we may begin to take them personally, the way we would take something that happened to a friend or to ourselves. We start to dwell on them. Once our ego identifies with those we judge to be in the right, it is easy to become angry, intolerant, and condemning of those we see as in the wrong, or simply to feel depressed, hopeless, or fearful. We need to ask ourselves, however, whether the quality of our response is alleviating or contributing to the problems of mankind.

Just as hating and fearing are poor choices in our personal life, so are they in larger human affairs. Unfortunately it is all too easy to mirror whatever repels us. When we allow ourselves to become negatively affected by something, we immediately begin to resonate with that very quality, awakening it in ourselves. This is always possible because we each have within us all the potentials of mankind for good and evil: for selfishness and cruelty, for sacrifice and love, for the highest altruism and the greatest depravity.

Moreover, responding with like for like seems almost instinctive. It takes great self-discipline to respond with a quality opposite to that which offends us. Jesus' admonition to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who abuse and persecute us seems counterintuitive to many and virtually impossible to practice in daily life. What rationale does Jesus give for these injunctions? He tells us to follow them so "that you may be the children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust"; "for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Therefore be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate" (Matt 5:45, Luke 6:35-6).

These admonitions, then, are based on a recognition that we can be like our heavenly parent, whether we call it God or our highest self. This is because in our inmost we are already one with the divine source of our being. Despite the message of our senses and the assertions of our ego, we are not separate, we are not isolated. As human beings we are very particularly one with all other humans: we share the same thoughts and feelings, the same tendencies and characteristics, needs, desires, and impulses. And share them we do: like a radio receiver/transmitter we pick up thoughts and feelings transmitted into the general thought atmosphere by others, amplify them by our attention and use of them, and then send them back out with increased strength. Our hostile response to others ignores this psychological interdependence.

But while in a literal sense every person is ourselves, at the same time we are each unique and fully responsible for our own choices. It is important to recognize that we can control ourselves -- our attitudes, thoughts, and actions -- and only ourselves. We cannot force others to do what we would like or think best, even among our family and friends, let alone people we know at second or third hand. Often we learn this lesson in our personal life only after much pain and frustration.

How, then, can we help rectify the suffering, injustice, and violence we see in the world? A few of us may be able to offer direct assistance; more likely we may provide financial or other help to those doing the work that we wish we could do. Nonetheless, in our own lives, in our relations with those around us, in our very act of existence, every one of us can make a positive contribution to the welfare of mankind and the planet by trying day by day to give something positive and constructive from ourselves. Instead of losing control and reacting with anger and fear, we can make a conscious effort to keep love in our hearts for all life, including very deliberately all human beings, whether as individuals or groups. Such a move does not imply approving of what they do or agreeing with them. We can practice compassion even with those whose acts we feel obliged to condemn, particularly if we realize that violence, aggression, hatred, and greed arise ultimately from ignorance and limitation, just as they do in our own life. After all, why do we act selfishly, hurt others, lash out, dominate, manipulate? Are we therefore evil, deserving the hatred and condemnation of others or of ourself?

Each of us can truly say that "nothing human is alien from me" because human beings are one in origin, essence, potential, and destiny. We are also one with the atoms and microbes, with minerals, plants, and animals, stars and galaxies -- with everything we know of or can imagine. Seeing ourselves as essentially cosmic in scope, we can adopt a larger view and restrain our ego's usual unthinking ascendancy. If we have faith in our inner resources, we will not need to feel threatened by others or by events, nor allow our ego to become inflamed, judgmental, and self-righteous -- responses which are hurtful to life everywhere. Rather we can recognize anger, destructive impulses, and violent feelings for what they are, and seek to react instead with self-control, unwavering kindness, and compassionate understanding, not only in our acts but in our attitudes and thoughts.

To judge harshly, demonize, or hate those whom we disagree with, or even find pernicious, only adds to the burden of negative influences afflicting humanity. It continues and even expands the very type of conditions and thinking we wish to end. Jesus' approach of returning good for evil is in fact the most practical one we can adopt, for "hatred ceases never by hatred, only by love."

 (From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)

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