There’s one thing nearly every person is aware of at this very moment: the world is shifting and changing, faster and greater than ever before. As people and as humanity we are in the process of accelerated evolution, which is a fancy way of saying we’re all on a freight train speeding over a hill and where the track goes beyond that is as yet unknown. In the US, our current contest for who can convince enough people to vote for them is the most poignant proof of the conflict that typically comes with change. It is shining an unflattering spotlight on our foibles and flaws as a country and society—most obviously the often alarming push-pull between our desire to connect and our fear of getting too close to people different from ourselves.
As I watch our political season play out in all its splendor, an image keeps popping into my head. The candidates are lined up on a stage, all standing behind a podium, their mouths open but no words are being spoken. I know it’s difficult to believe, but they’re actually silent for a minute; just go with it. Each person’s arm is raised towards the darkened sky and pointing to their own individual moon. It took me a minute to figure out why this image meant something, but I remembered something I learned about an ancient teacher, originally in the appendices of the beautiful novel A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. (Find out more about her and her writing here.) I’ll explain.
Is the truth in the words?
Political candidates are constantly talking. Then people talk and write about what they say. Then they say some more and the cycle endures. With each discussion, the original meaning and energy of those words are distorted a bit more, often to support the viewpoint of whomever is now speaking. A twisted messaging telephone game.
Words are powerful, particularly in politics. A few well-timed and expertly delivered speeches can win a black man with a Muslim middle name the presidency. Twice. (The best example can be found here.) As a writer, I am hyper-aware of their usefulness and magic. Words can inspire and motivate. They can broaden perspectives and open people to new ideas. They can create change.
But they also can manipulate. They can validate fear. They can light a fire beneath underlying resentment. Words can transform a crowd wishing to connect with people who share some of their beliefs and hope for the future into a mob incited to reject and eject, literally and sometimes forcefully, those they feel threaten these beliefs. (Watch one example here.)
They are powerful, but they aren’t everything.
Over the years, the details of politics have become less and less interesting to me. I have very smart, knowledgeable, passionate friends and family who believe that politics is won and lost in the minutiae. What does the letter of the law actually mean? What can we actually put on the ground as a result? That used to light my fire. Let’s break it down into bits and determine how we can actually create change using well-crafted policies, government funding and human-generated power, and how I can get my hands in there.
As I get older, politics has become more of a personal philosophical pursuit. The actual acting on my beliefs is still important. I just don’t want to spend hours debating them, dwelling on the words and defending their meaning, and I’m not sure effective solutions are found within government and political discourse as much as I used to.
Still, as much as I’d like politics to be something separate from my time here on Earth, it isn’t. Nothing is, really. How and whether I vote, what I say about it, what I believe about certain candidates, what I believe the role of society should be in supporting those in need or those with diminished rights, how I treat my fellow human beings as a result of my beliefs, how I believe our laws should or shouldn’t support that, how I believe equality and justice should play out. It’s all tied to who I am as a person. And I am, as we all are, a person who lives, writes, thinks, believes and behaves in the world based on where I am in my own personal evolution.
Political candidates are no different from all of us in this respect. Knowing, as best we can, what their true intentions are is more important to me than what they say they will do. Many of my friends and family might call me naïve, and some of them have. Nevertheless, unlike some popular candidates (see story, including video, here), I believe that if the convictions don’t shift, if the pre-programmed mindsets don’t alter, neither will the system. Hands follow the heart. That’s how true change occurs.
If a candidate’s heart is genuine and ego reasonably managed (as much as a politician’s can be), the “doing” will come from the right motivation. They will play the long game and things that can truly and positively impact our society will materialize from the resulting policies—perhaps not immediately, but inevitably.
Herein lies the rub… Before anything can happen, we have to talk about it.
The Sixth Patriarch of Zen (Read more about him here.), who was illiterate, said looking for truth in books (e.g., words) was like seeking truth in the finger pointing to the moon. The moon is the truth, and words can only point the way. Writing is a beautiful and powerful art, but it’s a terrible way to communicate if you’re trying to do so indisputably. Speaking charismatically is a wonderful skill, but the words you choose are only a sliver of the truth. And for some, it’s only a version of someone else’s truth they wish you to believe is theirs.
As much as I love language, it is inherently flawed. Shared stories and ideas are limited, a reflection of one person’s perspective. They will be received the same way, through a filter of the other person’s experiences, memories and beliefs.
Words lined up into powerful messaging statements or in the most pleasingly logical order so our brain can comprehend them only wrap us in a comforting blanket of reality that doesn’t exist. They make solid something that is of the air. Truth is just floating out there, waiting for us to see it. Words manifesting as phrases, anecdotes, doctrines, plans, policies, speeches, books and all the rest of what we believe we need to understand things, just get in the way of us seeing and knowing it.
So, we need to look beyond the words.
Here’s what the image reminded me to consider… The intention and energy behind what someone says and writes is more important than the language. And what you see reflected back to you is just as critical. We need to look closely at both, with clear eyes.
It is crucial to know if a candidate is speaking frankly because they don’t want to waste time getting to the core truth of the matter or pretending to speak frankly to build credibility with a crowd disillusioned after decades of political doublespeak.
It makes a difference whether this straightforward rhetoric contains substance, ideas, thoughtfulness and empathy, or simply uses words they know we will identify with—probably via focus groups, political operatives and crafty polling.
It is vital that there be something other than verbiage to support these ideas, such as past or present behavior, established or appropriately rejected relationships, a sense of the person behind the image (for the many of you who trust your intuition on such things).
It is paramount that the intentions behind the words and the actions to follow be positive and not only motivated by ego, fear or desire for power.
With every speech, debate, rally, interview and opinion piece, we need to understand that a candidate’s words are pointing to something, but the finger is only a finger. The moon is what we should be looking at, and which one we choose is up to us.
It is a reflection of us.
Who you trust and how you vote is up to you.
It is a reflection of you.
Make sure you aren’t following the finger that simply sounds the most familiar or rousing.
And make sure you can live with the person standing beneath it.