What To Do When the World is Running Down
My favorite Eighties band was The Police. Recall these lyrics from their 1980 album Zenyatta Mondatta: “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.” I had discussions about the album and this song, because it was a strange time in our history and the song seemed to name it – along with others like “Canary in a Coal Mine.” At some point, however, we realize that there is no “normal” time in our history; every time is strange in its own way.
Today we hear warnings: global warming, terrorism, wars, drug cartels, and murders. Is the world running down, as Sting wrote thirty years ago? Yes it is, and no it isn’t. Yes it is, because there is always danger, some of it from the natural world but most of it driven by human greed and villainy. And no it isn’t because there are always folks who are working on the edges and even in the center to make sure that we can get to yet one more period of safe breathing.
Genuine spiritual pathways enable us to recognize that such dualities are true, on one level, and yet they are not the final answer. The world is running down. Put another way, how we see the world is constantly changing. Our perceptions change; as we deepen in intelligence and spiritual insight, we realize that how we see the world may not necessarily be how the world is.
How can we deepen in intelligence and insight? For many people, traditional forms of faith no longer connect, or perhaps their symbolism does not reach people with the impact it once did. They may seem to be masks rather than windows onto the Holy, which is unfortunate. Effort and work are necessary to walk a spiritual pathway – and one contemporary problem is that most people are not willing to invest time. We are accustomed to instant gratification; hence we want instant knowledge. It will not be forthcoming.
The mystics of the church pierced the illusion that hides what’s real from our eyes. That illusion convinces us that ego and pride are central, which drives us to greed and envy. Those mystics knew that below the surface of our day-to-day lives graciousness and faith are found if we allow ourselves to be moved off the egotistical center we usually occupy. We have to set passions aside, which means we have to stop lusting after things or people that we believe will fill the holes in our souls. We have to let go of the fantasy that there is a magic pill that will cure our problems. Jesus said to those cured in his presence, “Rise and go; your faith has made you whole” (Luke 17:19).
What is the content of this faith? First, it is a dismantling of the illusions that govern our view of this world. Old hymns did this: “what is this world to me; a vain and vaunted pleasure.” Sounds so old-fashioned but it bears a truth: you are not going to find out who you are by paying attention to the greed and the pride and the lust you find yourself swimming in. Whatever it means to find eternity, it surely means to break free from time- and ego-bound issues that keep our focus small and narrow. It means to wake up!
Secondly, the heart of this contemplative faith is attentiveness and awareness. Paying attention leads you into the center of the universe; the poet William Blake said it: “to see a universe in a grain of sand.” Is the world running down? Yes. Is there hope? Yes.
published 06 August 10