- on a wilderness trail -
It’s Graduation Season in America - students across the country assemble on football fields and civic centers, don their caps and gowns and prepare to move on to the next phase of their lives.
This past weekend I happened to catch a little radio “sound byte” of a commencement address in which the speaker told his eager audience of college grads that now it was their turn to go out into the world and "take the next step up the ladder of success.” It struck me that this was probably not a very helpful thing to say. In fact, it may even be some dangerous advice to give to the Class of 2016.
From the time our kids first start school they are taught to climb up the proverbial ladder of success – don’t just get “good” grades but get “better” grades so that you can go to better schools and get better jobs than the kid sitting next to you, and this is the way lots of people live their everyday lives is today’s popular culture. So much of life today is defined in terms of “upward mobility,” climbing the ladder of success by stepping on whomever you have to step on to get higher up on the rungs.
As I see it, this is a sure formula for greater suffering, unhappiness and misery in life.
Long ago the Buddha understood the ultimate futility of unchecked ambition:
From craving is born grief.
From craving is born fear.
The path of upward mobility is always a slippery slope. When we always “crave” the bigger and better, when we are always looking for something more, we miss the joy of what is, and when we are always stepping on someone else in our all-consuming upward climb, we are ultimately stepping on our “self” because we all belong to one another.
I think about something Thomas Merton once said:
People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find
once they reach the top,
that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
Interestingly enough as I look at the core wisdom inherent in almost every religious and spiritual tradition, the direction of the spiritual journey is much more characterized by a “downward mobility” rather than an “upward mobility.”
The contemporary author and priest, Richard Rohr, observes:
The soul has many secrets.
One of the best-kept secrets, and yet hidden in plain sight, is that
the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer,
the way down is the way up.
This is indeed the great and ultimate paradox of spiritual wisdom: we go up the spiritual ladder of a meaningful life by letting go of all those things that the culture teaches us we need to do to climb to the next rung.
When we give up our need to be perfect and to be better than others, when we surrender our need for greater power and more control, when we let go of clinging to our rigid ideas and glib assurances and simply make ourselves available to the experiences of life in service to one another, only then are we ready for tranquility to seep into our souls - a peace that surpasses all understanding.
I just came across something the Dalai Lama once said. I wish someone would offer this advice to the Class of 2016
Human beings sacrifice their health I order to make money.
Then they sacrifice money to recuperate their health.
And then they are so anxious about the future
that they do not enjoy the present.
They live as if they are never going to die
and then die having never really lived.