Originally, the word inauguration meant: “to install and consecrate under good omens.” The time for an investiture would only be set after an augury or reading of the flight of birds revealed good omens for the occasion. In the modern world important dates tend to be set far in advance and the omens, good or bad, only become revealed as the day draws near. On the eve of the presidential inauguration there is more than politics involved and the omens do not look good.
Rather than an occasion that ratifies the unifying sense of “we the people,” it is easy for people of good conscience to feel disheartened by the amount of resentment, hatred and division that has been stirred throughout the country. Not simply by the false promises that commonly come with political campaigns; but also by the flood of “fake news” and the use of authoritarian methods like the “big lie” that sadly increase the sense of betrayal of the public trust.
While the apocryphal tale of the first American president was that he could not tell a lie, the practice of the incoming president is that he tells lies at a rate that fact checkers cannot keep up with. As the seeds of dissension sown during the campaign continue to bear bitter fruits, the president elect continues to attack anyone who questions his popularity, veracity or legitimacy.
After years of trying to delegitimize a sitting president with false allegations about his origins and citizenship, Donald Trump used the resentment and anger that fueled the birther lie to rise to power. While cavalierly using propaganda techniques like repeating falsehoods over and over and forcefully denying accepted facts, he insists that the media and all his opponents are big liars. He claims that he is the only one willing to tell the truth, and that, of course, may be the biggest lie of all.
The public discourse has become as poisonous and shameful as the toxic waters of Flint, with the swamp of vitriolic speech growing greater each day. In the new era where the big lie meets twitter and social media, those who claim they will “drain the swamp” will likely create a quagmire international in scope. When it comes to desiring change the old warning was “be careful what you wish for.”
Facing an administration that promises to glorify and even sanctify the technique of using the big lie, I keep thinking of an old story from India about the deadly spread of poison and the ultimate need to tell the truth.
The tale begins when a child, playing with a ball, is bitten by a poisonous snake. By the time the parents arrive the venom had spread, leaving the little one unconscious. With no doctor near, they carried the child to a local monk and implored the holy man to save the youngster. The monk declared that he was not the kind of religious person who knew how to heal.
In desperation, the parents pleaded that someone on a spiritual path must have the power to perform an act of truth that could reverse the course of the poison. Saying that he only knew the truth of his own life, the monk placed his hand upon the child’s head. He then revealed that he had long before lost any sense of true holiness and only kept up a saintly appearance while secretly longing for the pleasures of the world. No sooner had this act of truth been made than the eyes of the child opened again.
The holy man insisted that the father use his power to tell a truth that could remove more poison. With his hand on his child’s chest, the father confessed that though widely respected and envied for his wealth and position, he never felt generous to others or fulfilled within himself. He owned that he felt empty inside despite all his outer power and wealth. After this act of truth the child sat up, but could not stand or move from the spot.
The father begged the mother to use her power of truth-telling to save their only child. She spoke the truth she carried in her heart: that her child was the only one she had ever loved, that her marriage brought her no love; that she remained in it only out of fear of reprisals.No sooner was this act of truth performed than the remaining poison left the child, who rose up and began to play with the ball again.
The child in the story represents all the children of the future being harmed by the poisons currently spreading throughout the culture. The ball represents the world itself, which increasingly seems to hang in the balance between falseness and truth. In order to stop the spread of deadly toxins, the adults must come to an understanding that those who fail to act in accord with their deepest sense of self not only negate the spirit of their own lives, but also endanger others by adding to the poison in the world.
The holy man typifies all of those who claim to hold spiritual truths dear, yet bear false witness in support of social injustice and the public denigration of others. The father stands for those who inherit or acquire wealth and power, yet remain empty inside, unable to grow their own soul and therefore lacking in sympathy and empathy for others. The mother represents all those who fail to bring their own love to life because they fear facing rejection or abandonment. In the long run there can be no neutral in life; either a person lives the truth in their heart or they add to the poison in the world.
There are truths set within the soul that can be a medicine and an antidote against the rampant falsehoods and manipulations increasingly being used to create fear and havoc and gain power.In the end, refusing the human instinct to seek for the truth is not a strategy for success; rather it indicates a loss of soul that adds to the growing sense of cynicism and nihilism about life. Those seeking to profit by creating a “post truth” world risk bringing the “dark ages” round again. Denying the dangers of climate change and the damage done by economic disparity, whether out of ignorance or blind self-interest, only adds to the poison in the world.
Amidst all the vitriol and crude animosity something essential has been lost and everyone’s future is in great jeopardy. It is not enough to simply decry the fake news and false facts being used to justify the worst of our instincts and emotions. When faced with a misuse of power and position, it is not enough to use the political rhetoric of bringing everyone together or ensuring a smooth transfer of power. What we need at this critical time in the history of the world are the kinds of changes that go beyond the limits of political ideologies and economic theories.
Mahatma Gandhi drew upon ancient stories and the depth of the human soul when he named his stand against tyranny and social injustice satyagraha which translates as “the force of truth.” Satya can mean “truth in speech,” but it also implies love and beauty. A similar idea appears where the poet John Keats states: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”
There are times when it becomes necessary for well-intentioned people to take a stand for something genuine in their own lives. Standing for the deeper truths in life and speaking truth to power are antidotes that can reverse the toxic course of extreme arrogance, excessive greed and needless exploitation. This is the time to make acts of truth wherever the environment is threatened, wherever tyranny tries to rule, wherever power tries to dominate over love.
The fact that love is greater than hate is all that tips the balance of the world towards life. But only if enough people, young and old, find the love and courage in their hearts to truly change the world. This is the time for older people to act like elders and for younger people to stand for the dream of the earth and the beauty of the world.
This is no time for cynicism or giving in to despair; this is the time we have come to life to live, the time to work for what we truly love. As the African proverb insists, “what you love is the cure.” What we love is the cure for what ails us and what brings healing to the human heart also helps heal the world.