This morning I opened my inbox and found the latest Quote of the Week from EnlightenNext founder (and editor in chief and spiritual teacher) Andrew Cohen, titled “Aspire to Be Great.” But before I quote it here, I want to mention what I’d been reading right before I saw it, which was a message that was sent out on the SmashingPumpkins.com mailing list from alt-rock legend Billy Corgan, whose soulful music once lifted me (and countless others) through the tribulations of Gen-X/Y teenagedom. In the email, Billy expressed his disbelief that fans had flown off the handle when they heard that he had allowed himself to participate in a charity auction in which the winner gets the prize of having a private lunch with Billy — with the stipulation that the winner has to foot the lunch bill. When I first saw this, about a week ago, I thought it was funny and strangely appropriate that the highest bidder would also get to buy Billy lunch. But apparently I was of the few who felt that way, and many individuals let their shocked outrage explode in the SP.com forums, decrying Billy’s oppressive ways for wanting to take advantage of the average Joe (an average Joe who can afford to spend thousands of dollars to have lunch with a rock star).
While flaming forum mobs are nothing new, what struck me this time was the obvious root cause of the situation: people outraged at someone in a position of power. Period. Not people outraged at someone actually abusing his or her power, or even potentially doing so (Billy is a multimillionaire; one can assume he wouldn’t derive too much malicious satisfaction from making someone buy him lunch). But someone simply being in a position of power. You can see it playing out right here on the Editors’ Blog in response to my colleague Carter Phipps’s post titled “President Obama: The Birth of a Moral Leader.” While it’s been awesome to have such an overwhelming response to a post, we’ve been struck by the fact that a majority of the comments are purely negative, either criticizing Carter for so boldly supporting the leader of the free world, or criticizing Obama for being the leader of the free world. Apparently, you can’t please anybody unless you: (A) don’t dare to take a stand or (B) don’t dare to stand up. (Maybe that’s why the baby boomers perfected the art of the “sit-in” protest?)
Now, I’m sure some of those commenters would say that they raised some valid points by suggesting that Obama hasn’t delivered on his plans for change as quickly as advertised, or by criticizing him for being another war-mongering, hapless puppet of the System/Even-Bigger-Authority-Figure/Cigarette Smoking Man. But I have to question whether those concerns are really what they’re responding to, or whether their urge to pull Obama down as quickly and vocally as possible is actually symptomatic of something far more fundamental.
I saw another example of this last Friday morning when a few of us from EnlightenNext were speaking on a Burlington, Vermont, radio show. This was the day after the world learned that Michael Jackson had died, and one of my colleagues took the opportunity to pay tribute to the man by using him as an example of someone who had changed the world for the better, becoming one of the greatest performing artists of the twentieth century and profoundly evolving the realms of music and dance in the process (to say nothing of some of his other positive endeavors). But the second the words were out of her mouth, one of the three show hosts pounced, laughing at the ridiculous notion that a “pop artist” like Michael Jackson contributed anything useful or positive to our culture, especially considering all of his character flaws. We didn’t know what to say to that one, particularly once they cited Madonna as a counterexample, someone whom they thought did make a real difference. But why her and not Michael? They seemed to be splitting hairs.
“It’s easy to be postmodern sideline critics,” my colleague Joel Pitney said in response to the show host (“Who you callin’ a postmodern critic?” the host retorted, prompting much laughter all around). In postmodern culture we simply love to pull people down, even if we’ve never even attempted to rise up ourselves and become true cultural leaders, authorities, or exemplars in any field — whether it’s art, business, science, politics, or even spirituality. But why do we feel such a need to do it?
In books such as Boomeritis and also in the pages of EnlightenNext magazine, the integral philosopher Ken Wilber has explored this particular characteristic of our hyper-egalitarian postmodern culture in penetrating detail. In his first appearance in the magazine, back in 1997, he wrote an article titled “A Spirituality that Transforms,” which made the bold case that some forms of spirituality are, in fact, higher, deeper, and more powerfully transformative than others. I quote:
But isn’t this view of mine terribly elitist? Good heavens, I hope so. When you go to a basketball game, do you want to see me or Michael Jordan play basketball? When you listen to pop music, who are you willing to pay money in order to hear? Me or Bruce Springsteen? When you read great literature, who would you rather spend an evening reading, me or Tolstoy? When you pay $64 million for a painting, will that be a painting by me or by Van Gogh?
All excellence is elitist. And that includes spiritual excellence as well. But spiritual excellence is an elitism to which all are invited.
The fact is, as postmodern egalitarians, we can’t stand the idea that some people might be higher, more developed, or even better human beings than we are. After all, aren’t we all unique and different in our own super-special way, just as Mr. Rogers always told us young Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers (and which the Me Generation apparently told themselves)? And that’s just the way we like it, too. If I’m OK and you’re OK, then there’s absolutely no need to rise up, take a stand for something higher, or try to make an evolutionarily significant or creatively beneficial contribution to this little project called Humanity. I mean, really, who would have the audacity to do such a thing? Just be as you are, and take it easy. Besides, aren’t those who actually do make a mark usually egotistical narcissists? Billy Corgan and Michael Jackson being prime examples? Well, perhaps so, but that doesn’t discount their positive contributions, which often benefit a lot more people than anything the passive sideline critic can come up with. Just because not everyone has 100% pure motives doesn’t mean they can’t contribute; otherwise, we would all be in trouble.
But that also doesn’t mean that the longing to go beyond narcissism and the longing for pure motivation aren’t desperately needed qualities as well. If everyone demanded pure motives, particularly of those in positions of influence and power, the world would undoubtedly be a better place — IF those who were doing the demanding also strove to do something about the impurity of the world, starting with themselves, and also had a healthy dose of humility in relationship to the people they’re criticizing. I mean, Obama may not be perfect, but I sure as hell don’t feel qualified for the job (and legally I’m not, being only 29, so I’m off the hook for now!). Otherwise, if we don’t give ourselves a good hard look in the mirror first, we’ll never get anywhere. And that brings us to Andrew’s Quote of the Week:
Aspire to Be Great
Individuals at the leading edge who change in a dramatic way and who are consistently able to manifest what evolutionary development and spiritual enlightenment look like will inevitably affect, in a powerful way, the world they come into contact with. Humbly aspiring to be a good person just won’t be enough to make any real difference. Boldly aspiring to be a great person, as much as we may fall short of that goal, makes room for the evolutionary impulse, which is our own Authentic Self, to surge through the very core of our being. And that is what has the power to change the world.
Not everyone can moonwalk, but everyone can strive to spiritually evolve. And “spiritual excellence,” as Ken Wilber said above, is an elitism to which all are invited. Who wants to settle for being a merely mediocre soul?