The Moral Dilemmas of Being

The following thoughts build on the previous post and the thoughtful comments left by kind readers.

I’ve been reminded recently that psychotherapy and shamanism share an essential concern with the patient as an inhabitant of, and participant in, a moral universe. Often, we humans struggle to negotiate that universe, finding ourselves wrestling with any number of  ethical quandaries. All to frequently, all options available to us bear troublesome implications. This is a problem T.S. Eliot noted, probably following Freud. Eliot wrote, “man cannot bear very much realty.”

Traditionally, Indigenous people had a very direct experience of the moral complexity of life. We hunted, fished, and gathered, seeing firsthand the suffering and destruction caused by our need to eat and create shelter. We knew our very existence created suffering, and we devised numerous rituals and ceremonies to address, and atone for, the pain we caused other beings. The restrictions and taboos placed on people, especially women, could be quite harsh. Christianity was welcomed by the women of many cultures as a barrier to those difficult demand and conditions.

Today, in our global culture, we are encouraged to forget where our food, clothing, and raw materials come from. Yet, consciously or unconsciously, we may be aware that virtually every purchase we make is paid for in lives. A trip to the grocery becomes problematic once we becomes aware that even organic meat, fish, or eggs was likely raised and/or butchered in inhumane conditions. The same holds true of milk products. In the shaman’s world even carrots are aware, conscious beings who die so we may continue to live.

A purchase at the electronics store or the jewelry shop immediately threatens to link us morally to child soldiers, rape, and genocide in Africa, abysmal working conditions in many developing countries, or the seizure of Tribal lands in the Americas or India. When we drive our cars, use electricity, or  purchase any manufactured item, we are contributing to anthropogenic  global climate change, the displacement of Indigenous people, and the destruction of the global rainforest. We are also assuring the demise of hundreds of thousands of other species.

Still, we must eat, work, and love. Things are complex.  For instance, it is very likely that without global warming, we would soon be entering a global cooling phase, complete with glaciation and a host of accompanying survival issues. Further, we have no clue how, were we able to hold the world’s climate in stasis, we would be effecting the long-term health of the planet. As the Jaines point out, every breath we take kills innumerable microscopic, sentient beings, just as every out-breath feeds others.  We are complex beings in an unimaginably complex world.

Indigenous people tend to approach the moral and ethical dilemmas that go along with complexity by opting to acknowledge suffering and practice gratitude for those who suffer and die so we may live. In spite of stereotypes that paint Native peoples as all-wise and persevering, we, individually and collectively, make lots of mistakes. We are perfectly capable of being brutal, thoughtless, and greedy. Yet, we are also encouraged by our traditions to be aware and, whenever possible, kind.

It is very difficult, as Eliot and Freud acknowledged over a century ago, to face the moral morass presented by simply being. Yet, those moral dilemmas work on us whether we are consciously aware of them, or not.  Such is the human condition. Psychotherapy, shamanism, and many religious traditions, at their best, bear witness to the difficulty of the struggle, and to the courage of those who dare try to be awake to it. They also seek to correct, in ways large and small, the excesses of our inattention, whether in our relationships, communities, or the ecosystem.

4 thoughts on “The Moral Dilemmas of Being

  1. This is always a difficult question to deal with. Are morals an integral part of the system, or are they imposed upon it by those who are part of it?

    Does the leopard even consider the gazelle’s pain when it sinks its teeth into its neck? On a purely physical level, we have no way of knowing this.

    We do know through observation, however, that the Savannah is NOT littered with the courpses of millions of gazelles, slaughtered by leopards simply for the sport of doing so.

    Our “highly developed” brain, gives us the ability to ponder such things. Doing so to any great length can lead to further dilemmas.

    Simpler instead, I think, to do all with love, and accept all with gratitude…

    1. I’m not sure it has as much to do with thinking as with opening to the connections. We human people so often forget we are part of the interconnected web of all being. One must not become immobilized by thinking. Yet, to the best of our ability, we must notice the repercussions of our actions. Oddly, being aware of the immense moral issues that arise from simply being alive seems to allow compassion to arise. These are ancient quandaries.

  2. This is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I am not sure what to say, really…it is difficult to know what to do at times.

    1. It seems to be the human condition to not know what to do. We can only do our best. To become immobilized by unknowing is as dangerous as acting without regard to the consequences. Learning balance and compassion seems to be the task of a lifetime.

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