Richard Thieme's

Islands in the Clickstream

The Spiritual Challenge

Since the terror attack of September 11 brought to the forefront of American awareness the truth about the kind of world in which we live, which many Americans had managed to deny despite the evidence, I have watched and participated in what we might call the flexing of the American soul as it comes to terms with that reality.

Homeland Defense has absorbed billions of dollars and like an obsessive spirit possesses the media interface--the front page, the nightly news, the crawltext on CNN-- and frames the way we think. There has been a lot of noise, but there has been precious little discourse about the essence of the struggle, that current events pose a spiritual challenge not only for America but for the mind and soul of a global society.

By spiritual I do not mean religious. There can be overlap between spirituality and religion but there can also be a profound disconnect. When religions are at their best, they are custodians of symbols of promise and possibility which they hand down from generation to generation. It is up to each generation to open those symbols and explore what they disclose, an action analogous to opening our wallets and playing the game of life with real money. Otherwise the symbols become debased, devolving into means of manipulation, coercion and social control, vehicles for wielding power and for inauthentic exchanges with the faithful who give up freedom for momentary relief from anxiety about the deeper questions of our existence.

Those deeper questions are exactly what I do not hear debated. The Cold War mythology of good versus evil is being ported to the battle with terrorism and a new roster of ready villains have had the mark of the beast stamped on their foreheads. Those villains always symbolize the Other because we consider it an exception when one of our own -- Timothy McVeigh for example --is an evildoer. When the Other is, itís the rule.

This is not the space in which to analyze the complexities of foreign policy although I do know that the several hundred documents that cross my desktop daily detailing events around the world from Eritrea to Singapore suggest that reality is more complex than the news media has the will or ability to say. Simplistic answers sell so simplistic answers are what we get. End of story, literally.

So it pays, I think, to follow the money. I do not mean trace the cash flow that sustains narcotics or weapons trafficking-- we amateurs will never be able to do what professionals refuse to do because of a lack of political will --but follow the flow of money in our lives and simply ask what it buys and sells. The answers would reveal our real values and inform a deeper inquiry into what is worth preserving and defending and what is not.

Spirituality includes knowing what we value and then seeing how our behaviors line up with those values. The feedback loops that let us do that can be painful to experience, however, so we prefer to believe the stories that massage our self-image. Part of the American self-image has been to believe that whatís good for American business is good for the world regardless of consequences.

Our engine is an economy that mostly sells services, intangibles like entertainment, which means that most Americans consider necessary many things we could easily live without. Our economy runs on a vicious circle from manufactured desires to fulfillment of those desires and then back again. It is a fetishistic spiral that never satisfies the desires we generate in the first place but at every level of society jams our living space with supersized vehicles and supersized food.

After September 11th, one of the imperatives was to "get back to business" as quickly as possible. That translates to going to movies, setting off fireworks, doing our jobs, but not inquiring too deeply into the multiple causes of complex events lest we discover not some Illuminati conspiracy but our own hands on the multiple levers of self-deception, working the machinery behind the curtain so we will continue to believe in wizardry.

The mind of society is both the target and the weapon in our new kind of war and the management of perception from intentional deception and psychological operations to propaganda, spin, and public relations is its cornerstone. That means that truth can be exchanged only on the black market.

Yet spirituality in its essence is the quest for truth that sets us free and keeps us free so we can know and act on what we know. That implies that genuine spirituality will not be found in the religious marketplace where it has been turned into a commodity. We do need intentional communities that help us remember what matters, but unfortunately many religious institutions are organized around forgetting, not remembering. They may have rituals of remembering but rituals are no substitute for real remembering. Religious institutions run on money, more money than people can easily imagine, and once they have absorbed other social, economic and political agendas, those who control religious symbols do so not to set anyone free, least of all themselves, but to ensure stability and the status quo. Whether Ayatollahs getting rich in Iran or Catholic Bishops stonewalling calls for reform and taking the modified limited hang-out route to protect themselves, we who are treated as fools do know the difference.

What are we defending? Who is served? Who profits? Do we value stability and glib reassurances above all else or are there other values worth fighting for? How do we say what they are in this information windstorm howling like a gale in our faces?

Money is the dye in the arteries of our souls. Follow the money to its source. Open the books and open the doors and windows of our souls. Let in the fresh air. Remember the meaning of freedom, exchange the whispered truth in the shadows, spread the good word.

Islands in the Clickstream is an Intermittent column written by Richard Thieme exploring the larger questions of our lives.

Richard Thieme is a professional Speaker, consultant and writer Focused on the human dimensions of Technology, work and life. If Interested in engaging Richard As a speaker, retreat leader or consultant, email or call for details.

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