- Outside the Desert Retreat House-
I have been reading a newly published book by the historian, Volker Ullrich, about how Adolph Hitler managed to rise to such heights of popularity and power in the early 20th century (Hitler:Ascent), and I discovered some chilling resemblances between Germany in the early 1900’s and the political climate here in America in our own day. In his book, Mr. Ullrich makes an observation about what he calls “Hitler’s primary personal characteristic:”
He wasn’t even honest toward his most intimate confidantes.
He was so thoroughly untruthful that
he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth.
Last evening, after I watched the Vice Presidential debates on TV, it struck me that the new tool for political analysis in America today is a “fact-checking score card” published after every debate by many of the major news organizations. The purpose of this “score-card” is to help determine which of the candidates was most truthful and who lied the most? As I expected, last evening the truth was either shaded or outright and blatant lies were told many times in order to win the debate and ultimately to win an election. It seems to me that this may indeed be a lamentable commentary about how our political climate has devolved in our own day.
I wonder, is it possible that “telling lies” is so commonplace that candidates for office are no longer able to recognize the difference between truths and lies and we actually need an independent fact-checker to help us figure it all out?
I also wonder if our politics may be emblematic of how many ordinary people live their everyday routine lives? Are more and more people nowadays doing or saying whatever they believe will help them to win the approval of others because the esteem of others is very highly prized? I even wonder if many of us may be unable recognize the difference between lies and truth in the way we lead our lives? If so, this is a serious impediment on a road to greater peace and deeper wisdom.
When I walk out my front door and look out into the vast expanse of wilderness outside my house, I am always reminded of the lives and teachings of the 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers, ancient Christian monks who left behind the conventions of cities, church and society and moved out to a desert to live in community with one another and follow the simple teachings of Jesus.
I suppose one might imagine that some ancient monks who lived more than a thousand years ago would have little to offer contemporary American culture (especially if you aren’t a Christian or a believer); but I think these old monks still have a lot to say to all of us, regardless of whatever life path we may be on.
Living in the midst of a vast wilderness, those monks understood how small they were and how immense was the wilderness in which they lived. In fact, they often talked about the “gift of indifference” the desert offered them. The vast expanse of boundless space, towering mountains, the brilliant skies of an endless night-time cosmos all paid little attention to any tiny individual, and this lesson of “desert indifference” was perhaps their greatest spiritual treasure.
It was said of these ancient monastics:
The desert monks were hardly naïve despisers of culture.
What they fled by moving out to the wilderness was not the external world
but the world they carried around within themselves:
an ego-centeredness needing constant approval,
frantic in its effort to attend to a self image.
The world renounced by the desert monks
was the tendency they found within themselves
to constantly seek the praise of others.
Yesterday after watching yet another political debate, I thought to myself that, like those ancient desert monks, I also want to renounce the ego-centered world that keeps pushing me into developing my own “designer images” that I create to win the approval of others. I want to be sure that I am always aware of the difference between lies and truth in the way I live my life.