Many people were provoked by and/or resonated with the concepts shared in my previous article, The Courage of Conscience. This response, combined with the fact that the virtue for this month is Courage, has inspired me to continue this conversation about the courage of conscience, using the terms conscience, authenticity and morality interchangeably.
One response in particular from a dear friend of mine expressed the idea that when we follow our conscience, we are often placed face to face with the adversary. Many others indicated their similar experiences of facing resistance as they walk a path of authenticity. I ended part one of this conversation by inviting us to consider the idea that “the right path, if we define the right path as that aligned with our conscience and our most authentic self, is never the easy path.” Perhaps it is this very adversary that makes a path of authenticity so difficult.
The adversary, as I see it, is whatever comes between us and our conscience, particularly in a form that disempowers us and throws us out of alignment with our authentic selves. I spoke of shame and guilt showing up when we tune into our conscience. These are tools the adversary uses to stop us from living authentically. Another tool is intimidation. Have you ever been in a situation and felt threatened that if you followed the voice of your conscience, you would suffer significant consequences? Perhaps you were afraid of losing a job, a relationship ending, not being liked, your reputation being jeopardized, or any number of potential consequences that may have seemed unbearable at the time. The consequences we tend fear most are associated with some kind of loss, and that fear of loss is very strong.
Where does this adversary come from? Rudolf Steiner states that evil originates when we either lose ourselves to the world, or the world is lost to us. We can lose ourselves to the world through blind passion. In today’s get-more, do-more, have-more world, we become so immersed in our day to day tasks and the materialistic nature of modern life that we forget that there are consequences for our actions, particularly for our inner life. We do what is needed to make money, keep our jobs, fit in all the commitments, etc., and forget that we have inner needs that are not being met. We become so busy and surrounded by noise, that we don’t hear the inner voice of conscience speaking to us, and we lose ourselves to the world around us.
When we lose the world, or the world loses us, we have become apathetic. We become indifferent to the world and what is happening in it. We are resigned to what is, with no hope for change. We might even insist that what we experience around us is true and nothing else is possible, stubbornly believing only in our own viewpoint without being open to other perspectives. In this state of apathy, the world and all that exists in it is lost to us. We feel disconnected from the earth and those in it. We lose interest in our environment, community, growth, development, opportunities, etc. We become reliant upon artificial means of existence.
I recently experienced a great example of this apathy when I called a company to make adjustments to an account of mine. I had called weeks prior to make the adjustment and was following up to be sure it was done by a certain date. The operator insisted that “the system” had to get updated and it would take time. She could see nothing other than the mechanized way in which things worked. Finally, as politely as I could, I stated that “systems” are created and run by human beings and asked if there was a human being who might be able to help me make the adjustment. I was transferred to a supervisor and the adjustment was made within minutes. The operator was apathetic to new possibilities and other options outside of what the “system” dictated. In apathy, we succumb to the rules, methods, systems, cultural discourses, and standards of the world around us as if they were set in stone.
Courage is required to keep us from swinging too far to either blind passion or apathy. We could also use the terms foolhardiness and cowardliness as the two extremes of the virtue of courage. How can we come to have an inner experience of our higher self, i.e. conscience, if we don’t have the courage to consider the consequences of our actions or to question the societal standards for that action? If our conscience or higher self is not speaking to us, who is? If we are living in the extremes of foolhardiness or cowardliness, the door is open to the adversary. This adversary is exactly who we meet, either externally or internally, when we stand in our authentic selves. So how do we meet the adversary successfully?
There is a great deal of preaching out there of what “should or should not” be. I propose that our conscientious, moral deeds and what is accomplished through them are far more important than talking about morality, and will help us to meet the adversary with much greater success. Philosopher Arthur Shopenhauer said, “To preach morality is easy. To establish morality is difficult.” I believe it is so difficult because we can only establish morality by doing it, and doing it requires courage. Think of the many people in history who were ostracized, lost their freedom or even their life in the name of following their conscience and standing up to the standards of the time. It was often centuries later that their efforts bore fruit, but their actions were needed for humanity to move forward. We are needed now. As the Hopi Prophecy states, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
We have inherent impulses toward conscience within us. Cultivating courage to stand in this conscience can begin by cultivating simple interest in life, the world and those around us. When was the last time you stopped to take interest in a dandelion growing in your yard, or a person at the checkout stand, or the children playing in the park? How often do you notice the shape of the smile of a loved one, or ask a friend what they care about most? When we do this, we slow down to consider our actions and diminish the apathy. We begin to approach people and the world around us with awe and wonder, which triggers an obligation toward truth within us, and makes us less likely to act blindly or be apathetic.
For me, the concept of being conscientious has a lot to do with “walking our talk.” Why do we talk so much about how things “should” be and yet have such difficulty living it? I realize that no one can do so all the time. We are fallible humans. Yet, we can become much more conscious of our actions, and make a choice to be more disciplined in how we meet and take responsibility for life. Do you ever feel like it’s ok to act one way at work, and another at home? Do you ever say to yourself, “no one will notice?” Have you ever thought about the possibility that what irritates you or triggers you in another person or their actions might be a reflection of what needs cleaning up within you? These are all questions of interest, and asking them of ourselves, as well as answering them honestly, requires courage.
Not only do we need courage to face the demons within ourselves, but we also require courage to face what is unconscionable in others. Can we find the courage to speak out against injustice? Can we risk the loss we fear so much, and trust that if we have a divine inheritance of morality, we will be taken care of as we honor it? Can we meet others with interest, and deepen our understanding of their own struggle to stand in conscience? When we have faith that we are all of a divine origin, a profound sense of love begins to emerge, and forgiveness blossoms. We begin to have a sincere sense of hope that we can all return to that divine origin, and are able to move forward from the intimidation, shame and guilt that the adversary has imposed upon us.
Cultivating courage, first and foremost, is like a golden key to developing other virtues like compassion, love, devotion, perseverance, and others. As we cultivate courage, we develop strength to face the adversary. We find ourselves inclined toward creation and life, rather than destruction and lifelessness. We begin to feel gratitude toward all that lives, and all that supports us in our lives, realizing that every blade of grass is supporting us on some level.
We must also remember to be gentle with ourselves, acknowledging that we will make mistakes along the way, and we will fail at times in our attempts to meet the adversary successfully. We will experience hardship, pain and doubt on our journey. And, at the same time, we will be building spiritual muscles that help us to stand strongly in our conscience over time, and will bring forth a capacity to live authentically without getting thrown out of alignment by the adversary.
As I write this article, the sun is in the zodiacal constellation of Capricorn (according to the sidereal zodiac). The virtue associated with this constellation is “Courage becomes the power to redeem.” Consider the possibilities of what can be redeemed, both within ourselves and the world, as we develop the courage to stand in our conscience!
Note: Many of the thoughts in this article were inspired by the book Spiritual Foundation of Morality: St.Francis and the Mission of Love by Rudolf Steiner