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Proper Dharma Seal II

 

Recently, my 95 year-old grandparents died, giving me the opportunity to reflect on their lives and the span of history that they represented.

Their lives spanned a period that covered almost one-half of the history of the United States as a republic. They lived from the days of the horse and buggy and the covered wagon to the days of flights in space and the influence of computer technology. They lived on a farm in Oregon, and maintained the values and perspectives developed in an earlier age: a value system in which honesty and helping your neighbor were assumed, and life was lived directly and simply.

Their lives were influenced by a mixture of things. They were certainly not naive. To his last day, my grandfather read several daily papers and periodicals, watched the nightly telecasts on T.V., and listened to the news on the radio. He held strong opinions about all the issues and the leaders of the contemporary period. His opinions were well-thought out and based on an accumulated understanding of the tendencies and historical events he saw over a long period of time. He could see through deceit and momentary self-serving solutions. His opinions were grounded in social ethics stressing the importance of work, honesty, steadfastness, fairness, and personal morality. My grandparents did not only believe in these values, they embodied them and lived them in an almost unconscious way: “How could one live any differently if one was to live a good, contented life? 

This pragmatic, down-to-earth, common-sense, steady-working, ethically conscious attitude of most Americans that characterized this country through its formative decades made America great. As Americans have become attracted to the fast-paced, entertainment-oriented, technological life that characterizes modern society, the fundamental ethical structure that once underlay American society, represented in the lives of my grandparents, has mostly disappeared, replaced by an anything-goes, get-rich-quick oriented society.

The lives of my grandparents exhibited the qualities of patience in the face of change and tribulation; steady work that stressed working at a constant pace that accorded with the nature of the job, without escape into over-working or laziness; morality in which they never considered acting in a deviant fashion; neighborliness in that they loaned whatever they had, helped those in need, and sold crops at a fair price; simplicity, in that they used just those resources necessary to maintain life; according with nature in that they worked with the seasons and their conditions and did not abuse the land; wisdom in that they remained constantly aware of the modern world, yet stayed independent from it. They were not turned by it, but watched its passage.

All this was the natural way of life for the majority of Americans at one time, but now we must work to rediscover it in ourselves. It was a lifestyle that was not wealthy, yet not needy; a quiet life in which one had the mental space and clarity to reflect on one’s inner life. In such a life, wisdom grows naturally without intellectual gymnastics, self-importance, struggling for position, and the manipulation of others and the environment.

Such a life represents a different sort of pragmatism from that extolled in our technological preoccupations, the other side of pragmatism where utility is judged by the growth of internal wisdom rather than external manipulation. This form of pragmatism is the seed of our potential greatness as a nation. Such a view stresses wisdom over intelligence; an imbued sense of right over a legal system in which that which can be gotten away with is the standard for moral correctness; the importance of compassion rather than passion; the importance of one’s over-all, long-term state of mind rather than quick and superficial flashes of strong feeling associated with wealth, power, possession, entertainment, and so forth.

When reviewing the lives of my grandparents, it occurred to me that we may misunderstand the historical heritage of our country. The wars and technological advances, while important aspects of historical insight, may not be the truly significant historical causes of our advance into the present day. Rather, the simple, honest lives of a great number of our forefathers have made the United States the world leader it is today.