"Where do you draw the line between the harm you’re willing keep doing and the harm you’ve decided to stop doing?"Here's where I draw it:
I am a vegetarian. Also, for the last fifteen years, all my clothes – except for socks and underwear – have come from second-hand thrift stores, hand-me downs, and the occasional gift. So I draw the line somewhere north of supporting the environmental degradation of the meat industry and the labor oppression of the textile trade, at least directly.
But I drive a car, fly in airplanes, use some heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, and electric lights all year around. Sometimes I hang my laundry to dry on an indoor clothesline, but sometimes I use the dryer. I eat eggs and dairy, buy foods that are processed, packaged, and imported; and wear shoes that aren’t even tofu.
There’s a lot of harm I’m still doing.
I try to draw the line not where guilt pushes me to, but where it is joyous to do so, where the gladness of simplicity calls. Your discernment about where to draw the line probably yields different results. Following where the spirit’s joy calls. This method is not uniform -- it yields different results for different people -- nor is it easy. "Follow your bliss," Joseph Campbell told us. But following your bliss is a rigorous path and a lot harder than, "Just do any old thing you happen to feel like at the time."
Material things don’t make us happy. We know that. Within six months, at the longest, after even the most exciting material acquisition, a person's overall happiness is back to its baseline level. While we know that material things don't make us happy, it's also true that forcing ourselves to give them up before it feels right to do so won’t make us happy either. Mohandas Gandhi reminds us:
"No sacrifice is worth the name unless it is a joy. Sacrifice and a long face go ill together."Many religious traditions recognize sacrifice as a spiritual practice. Lent begins on Wednesday, and I do think the Christian tradition of giving something up for lent is a good practice for cultivating spiritual health. Our early ancestors noticed thousands of years ago that, while there is a certain satisfaction in acquiring things, it also, sometimes, feels good to give some of them up.
Other times, the prospect of sacrificing doesn't feel so good -- in which case, as Gandhi cautions us, sacrifice isn't much good as a spiritual practice:
"Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you."When you want some other condition so much that that the thing no longer has any attraction for you!
Should you, for example, bump that thermostat down from 68 to 67 – or down to 64 during the day and 57 at night? Only if you want some other condition so much that the few extra degrees no longer has any attraction. Only if it feels joyful to be participating just a tiny bit less in climate change and the various harms of fossil fuel use and dependence.
Would that feel joyful? Let’s look at how it might.
These steps toward reducing harm will feel joyful insofar as we understand them connecting us with life. Connected to life and this Earth, small acts of care for ecological systems and the sentient beings with whom we share our planet develop our love, expand how loving we are.
Picture someone wearing three sweaters and those mitten-glove-combo things while indoors in their own home -- a single LED lightbulb in the whole house burning, by which they are reading “Household tips from the Amish.” Why would someone do that to themselves if they didn’t have to? They might do it because they understood what they were doing as part of a gentler, more loving relationship with the Earth, and being in that relationship was a source of great joy for them.
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This is part 3 of 4 of "Instead of Guilt"
Click for other parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4