Monday, August 31, 2009


It occurred to me, not long ago, why monks can be so forgiving, understanding and “godly”- they deal with the outside world rarely! If they had to deal with people all the time, the entire range of messy life, I am not sure that monks would be as focused as they are. Now, you might be thinking the following-

Reader: “Duh!! Like that just occurred to you?” Me: “ah, yes. ‘fraid so.”

For me this was a Eureka moment as I was driving on a very busy road, with many impatient people, some of which were weaving in and out of lanes just to get that much closer, faster, or . . . I am not sure what. As these things normally go, I was late for an appointment, in a rather negative mood—being depressed and stressed. And then it hit me—“only monks.”

Musing on this thought, I also recalled just explaining to my students about the concept of altruism and whether it is really possible to live an altruistic life. One student had used Mother Teresa as an example of altruism and I had asked the following:

Can you be altruistic if you recognize that you are being so? Does recognition then led to congratulations? If you or someone else congratulates you on your altruistic action, can you still be altruistic? Even Mother Teresa had doubts and struggled with depression – was this why? Because she could not be entirely altruistic? Like Jesus? Entirely turning the other cheek? Had day-to-day life just make this absolute forgiveness of humanity and their foibles impossible?

Rethinking these thoughts in my car, and avoiding an accident from poor drivers, I said out loud:

Ah-ha! It is impossible. Unless you are a monk, and sequestered from everyday life and stress – it is easy to forgive humanity their foibles if you do not have to get your hands dirty in the process.*

I struggle with forgiveness of myself and, at times, others. Interesting, I find it easier to forgive others than myself. I find that most of the problem of our ability to forgive stems from a lack of communication – either feeling like you cannot be totally honest in a situation or with a person. Feeling you must keep certain facts hidden so that you do not create more harm or hurt. Wanting to be honest, but knowing you cannot. And then, being angry that you cannot say what likely should be said. or maybe should not be said...

Editing can be a bitch.

But we all do it because we feel we must. Talking with the same group of students I mentioned above, in one unit we discussed lying and cheating and whether it was ethical to do either under certain circumstances. The ideal is normally spouted in class:

Many in class: NO! Never!

Me: if your family is starving and bread is sitting on the window ledge of a wealthy household, is it still wrong?

Many in class: Wrong in all cases. Under all circumstances.

Me: Offering white lies to avoid unnecessary harm and pain to a loved one, friend, or another person?

Many in my class: NO! You should never lie. It is not ethical.

Me: But we do – all the time. We lie, we cheat, and we do so to help others as well as ourselves. We do it a lot and all the time. You have done it. I have done it. So-called innocent children do it a lot. If it is sooo unethical and sooo wrong under all circumstances, then why do we do it?

Silence I think is a type of lie and a form of cheating. When we edit out information and facts in order to save face or save the feelings of another person, it is still a type of lie and a type of theft. Withholding facts is not unlike stealing because we are not disclosing. Not being transparent. Is this ethical if we do it all the time? For the right reasons? Because we want to cause no additional harm or pain?

I do not know, nor do I have the answer. For me, there is not an absolute in this formula, and this is why I often cannot forgive myself easily--I want to do the right thing, the ideal of action, but at times must decide not to. I try to do the right thing in life, like we all do, but at times that means to do the perceived “right” thing or action, we must do something wrong – be silent and or edit ourselves to maximize the good.

And sometimes, I am starting to learn, it is best to simply walk away. I hate this option because it is against my general ethical belief system, but there are times when honest and transparent communication is rather impossible for many reasons. There are times when the effort of apologizing and explaining simply fails--and the more you try, the more you screw things up. Where facts or points of view become useless because they are not wanted by all parties. And so the only way to avoid more pain or anger is to walk away.

This was a pensive post, one that did not feature worms in ankles :) What do you think? R *this is not to say that monks do not get dirty or get their hands in the think of things. This is entirely not true, and if we look at many Buddhist monks, we find they are active in the community and life. I use "monks" here as a metaphor and reflecting back to the good old Middle Ages where monks were held up in remote spaces, meditating, eating little and talking to no one. Not unlike the myth of Mary Magdalene where she was said to retire to a cave to contemplate her sins and pray before leaving this world. So please take this "monk" reference as a reflection of the old time myths about monks in caves, being godlike.


  1. I think that's one of the many reasons Wiccans forbid payment taken for teaching or spell-work and "tithing" is not often actively encouraged. One Elder told me that a Wiccan clergy member should have a day job to be grounded and connected with the world at large.

  2. I tend to agree with that philosophy myself. The concept of forgiveness has always interested me because of how hard it is to do. Especially when we try to forgive ourselves for what we feel are perceived wrongs committed (wrongs in action or in thoughts). One exercise I used to give my students was to try to live a week without making any major value judgments about others --and if you do, to journal about it: the thought, the time of day, the length of the thought and so on. What they and I have found is that we judge all the time, even when we are not aware we are doing it. its a hard lesson to learn and an even harder one to correct.

    By the way, thanks for the feedback!


  3. I think this is one of those impossible questions. As a rule, it is best to tell the truth, but anyone with a well-developed set of moral values will know that sometimes you just have to lie, either through silence or the actual telling of untruths.
    To sort of borrow a line from Disney, it's not so much a Code of Ethics, think of them more as Guidelines.
    I'd be curious to know if your class thought it was okay to steal from thieves or lie to liars?

    As for judgements, I dont think it's possible, or even a good idea, to not make judgements. What seems more important is that you retain a certain level of humility about your judgements, and make your responses to your judgements reflect that. A judgement of some sort, though, is required for action.
    Those who do not question their own judgement are generally the most dangerous (in many senses) people I know.

  4. HI Dave,

    Sorry for not replying sooner - grading finals (blah). I wanted to let you know that we are watching that TV show you suggested and are loving it! Awesome stuff and yes, way a head of its time.

  5. You are right. Omitting something IS lying. That is why they are called "sins of omission" and they are considered an important sin.

    Kant deals with the issues of lying from an ethical angle as well, as in, is it okay to lie when we're saving somebody's life? And so on.

    But Kant is difficult, I am not sure that beginning philosophy students can "get" a full load of Kant.


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