Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Moral Compass

"No Roads, No Maps"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I was talking with a retired High School teacher yesterday who, when he discovered I was a priest, asked me, "Since so many young people today no longer go to church, where do they find their moral compass?" I thought it was an excellent question and I told him I wanted to think about an answer and would talk with him about this the next time I saw him.

The fact is that, at least in days gone by, conversations about morality and ethics were for the most part confined to the realm of religion. When I was growing up I was given a pretty extensive laundry list of what was right and what was wrong. In one sense I was given a moral compass; however, the problem was that I was never really taught "why" doing one thing might be right and another thing might be wrong. All I was ever told was that you were supposed to behave morally because this is what God expected of you. 

If you did the right thing you would be rewarded and if you did the wrong thing and committed a sin, you displeased God and would be punished.

Many people today have rejected this idea of a judgmental God who demands certain behaviors, and lots of others have even rejected the very idea of the existence of God. So, in a sense, like my retired teacher friend, I also wonder where people today get their moral compass and if they even have one? Do they find moral direction in conversations with their families, in their places of work, in their public schools and colleges, in conversations with their friends? My guess is there is little if any "right and wrong" conversations in many if not most of these circles, but maybe there should be.

A few years ago the Dalai Lama wrote a very insightful book titled, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, in which he makes a very convincing argument for removing conversations about morality out of the purview of religion and into the realm of everyday secular life. He suggested that every human being shares a common humanity and that there is a "moral compass" in the very DNA of our shared humanity.  He writes:

Fortunately, there is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and other fields suggesting that, even from the most rigorous scientific perspective, unselfishness and concern for others are not only our own interests, but in a sense innate to our biological nature...interdependence is a key feature of human reality.

As human beings we can survive and thrive only in an environment of concern, affection and warmheartedness -- or in a single word, compassion. The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being.

When viewed through the lens of religion, morality often has a very judgmental tone - do good and avoid evil or suffer the wrath of God.  But if we can come to the point where we understand moral behavior as "doing the right thing in order to survive and thrive as human beings in this world," then morality becomes a compass, pointing a pathway to well-being, deeper peace and fuller life. 

My desert home is located just outside some pretty wild territory, and the deeper you go out into the wilderness the more you discover that are no trails -  just lots of vast unmarked space. So, unless you walk with a guide or have a compass in hand you will surely get lost. In fact just yesterday I saw a rescue helicopter flying overhead out into the wild to pick up a man who thought he could negotiate the wilderness on his own.

Somehow I think life is like that. If we want to make our way through life's wilderness we cannot do it alone, and we always need to walk with a compass in hand - a compass that points us in the direction of kindness and compassion, forgiveness and generosity, and turns us away from greed, malice, violence, hatred and bigotry.

You don't have to be religious to find your moral compass, you don't even have to be a believer, all you need to do is be a human being.

I think I'll send my post today to my retired teacher friend and see what he has to say about my answer to his question. 

Listen to my weekly podcast: "Desert Wisdom"

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