Moral Overload and the Resilient Bodhisattva

By Dennis Rivers — December 17, 2021 Revision — Download as PDF


One idea I have been developing in my journals for many years is a “theory of moral overload.”  In my theory, we each have a nervous system that has evolved to handle the amount of bad news, failures and emergencies that might be generated in a circle a few miles wide.  But now we participate in a mechanically connected world which brings to our awareness many more requests for help than we can ever respond to.

As a result of this, in my view, it is very difficult to feel good about oneself, no matter how hard one tries to be helpful.  Every situation of suffering we give our efforts to improve is accompanied by thousands we could not reach. The technologies that have expanded our world have inadvertently nailed us to a psychological cross, which influences all our relationships as we struggle to reassert some personal boundaries, hide from our overwhelming sense of  failure and salvage some shred of self esteem.

So one aspect of moral overload concerns unanswered cries for help.  Another aspect concerns living with the consequences of actions taken on one’s behalf.  I recently became aware of the problem of unexploded cluster weapons on the ground in Laos.  During the Vietnam war, the United States dropped 250 million tennis-ball sized bomblets on Laos, a third of which did not explode when they first hit the ground. That remnant, 80 million of them, continue to kill and injure today, long after the armies have gone home. Here is an example of something that was done on my behalf, but it is both so large, physically, and so bad, morally, that my mind boggles as I try to get a grip on it. So big, and so bad, that it would take many, many lifetimes for me to begin to make amends. I am sure you could quickly provide another ten examples, and so could I.  How much of our personhood can we salvage from this moral wreck? 

Here are three responses that that I observer in myself and others, and that I see as the psyche’s way of reasserting her integrity in the face of the crazy-making flood.

One possible response I see at work around me is to define global moral challenges as belonging to communities rather than individuals, so that the individual does not feel like a failure in relation to all those calls for help.  I like this idea, but it assumes that we are each part of a functioning community, or could become such with a reasonable amount of efforts, neither of which is true for many people today.  But I see many efforts to build communities of shared concerns. And this could be a major avenue of development as we seek to overcome the severe limitations of the “Lone Ranger” model of moral action in the world. 

A second response would be for a person to develop an inward culture of forgiveness, in which one accepted that one lived in a broken and suffering world.  This would involve considerable emotional maturity, and an acceptance of one’s finiteness.  Although in the face of the sufferings of the world, I might earnestly wish that I were a hundred people rather than just one, focusing intensely on forgiveness might allow me to forgive myself for being only one, and find some sustaining satisfaction in embracing a smaller role.  I think our irrational desire to be a hundred people is a perfectly natural response to the technologically induced over-exposure, and to the actual fact that industrial civilization is running amok and destroying the planet.  These extreme circumstances may generate more grief and guilt than the human body can tolerate, which a life of conscious forgiveness can begin to address ON ITS OWN TERMS.  That is to say, not telling people they are irrational for wanting to do more than one person’s part, but rather, honoring the beautifully irrational element in our love of others.

A third response to being a finite person confronted with what seem like infinite needs and sorrows, makes use of our capacity of symbolism. In relation to these cries for help, I am involved in some sort of conversation with God, or Being, or Nature, or “Someone.”  Each act of kindness is a moment in that conversation, and represents all the other acts of kindness I might have performed if I had been capable of doing more.  This is the spirit of the Jewish tradition that if you save one person, you save the entire world. It also reminds me of the saying of Mother Teresa, that we cannot do great things in this world, but we can do small things with great love. This makes each effort to heal the pain of the world a sacrament, in that it is an action which is both meaningful in itself and also a symbol of a larger meaning, a love which holds both beauty and sorrow. The sacramental attitude declares “This small act of kindness is my way of being part of a larger spirit of kindness.  Its significance is not in its size, but in what it connects me to.”

There are two other responses that I want to mention here briefly, although I do not think of them, in their current versions, as having much creative or spiritual potential, but they are enormously popular. One is “they brought it on themselves,” which gets repeated like a magical incantation to ward off the suffering of others. If that idea were true, then the suffering of others would be their own private comeuppance. The problem here is that we know at some level that the  “they brought it on themselves” idea is , thus unreliable as a generalization, and so no matter how much we repeat it, it does not really make us feel any better.  How can the three-year-old children of Laos today have “brought upon themselves” the unexploded bombs of the Vietnam war decades ago?

Another position I observe people taking in order to hold suffering at bay is, “it’s all in my mind, so I can change it all by changing my mind.” This transforms the world from a real, but scary, place into an unreal, and therefore safe, place.  The biggest problem I see in this attitude is that it turns everyone in the world into figments of my imagination.  I set myself free from the pain of other people and other creatures by mentally demolishing the world we share and the nearness we might share.  Infinite isolation and loneliness do not feel to me like good solutions to the problem of suffering. And also, some of the suffering in the world I may have had a hand in causing, and therefore need to have a hand in healing.   

Although there are all sorts of problems with these last two attitudes I have just described, I honor the deep pain that drives people toward them.  And these two attitudes may yet evolve and develop a compassionate depth which they now lack.

In each of the five responses described above, we see the double nature of our task.  We want to respond to the needs and emergencies that are part of life (even if we can’t respond enough), and we also struggle to keep our personalities from unraveling along the way as we become witnesses to acts of monumental cruelty and stupidity (land mines, enchantment with nuclear weapons, artificially induced food shortages and starvation as a result of feeding corn to cars, etc.)

I think we are being challenged to evolve a new sort of personality, one I would call the “resilient boddhisattva,” who acts out of a place of compassion and serenity, accepts that everything will pass away and yet acts to relieve suffering anyway.

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