Woody Allen, a keen but unusual observer of our world, once remarked: “More than at any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
This observation will be agreed on by many people. Our lives seem to be surrounded by war, destruction, hunger and illness. Without end and without much hope. Philosophers, scientists and physicians have suggested all sorts of solutions but not only are we still witnessing terrorist attacks in many civilized countries and major disasters in nearly every part of the world, we get the impression that matters are only getting worse. Every illness overcome is replaced by an even more serious one, and nearly every peace accord gets violated and seems to invite a worse scenario.
This is, however, a partial picture. It is built on a psychological condition of which many of us suffer. Looking closer, it reminds us of a kind of lashon hara (gossip), not about our fellow men, but about our world.
Evil speech is a kind of self-distrust rooted in our inner insecurity. It is built on an optical illusion, similar to two elevators which move in opposite directions. The moment that the other one descends, one gets the feeling that he or she is moving upward. By emphasizing the faults of another, one tries to prove the impeccability of oneself.
The world is also a place of much outstanding good. Most people are decent and law-abiding. Millions of people come home safe every night. Hundreds of thousand of planes land every day without the slightest problem. Most children are born healthy. The sun comes up every day without an exception. There is always enough air for everybody. Millions live by much higher economic standards than ever experienced by their forefathers. Pain can be prevented on a much larger scale than was ever the case. International communication systems have brought us in touch with each other wherever we live and whatever the circumstances. Luxurious old age homes have replaced the tragedy of the elderly dying in the street. Clearly, marriage is still seen as sacred and helping each other as virtuous.
True, the world is far from ideal, but it seems that we look at our globe like we look at a white paper with a black spot. When asked what we see, we declare that it is a black spot we see, and we ignore the white paper. It is only the odd, the out of place that catches our attention.
Why? Because the good confronts us with a problem. Good exposes us to a higher order of things. It demands of us to think about the meaning of our lives, because it is the beauty of all the good that touches our souls. We hear a murmur coming from another kind of wave beyond our average shore. Here we cannot complain, we can only contemplate. And it embarrasses us, because we do not want to respond. What if life makes higher demands on us than we want to hear? It is good and beauty which remind us that our lives do have a moral and religious purpose.
So we hide, dig in, and create a defense system. We make sure that we do not get exposed to all the beauty. We emphasize the black spot and deny the white paper. And we are in good company. Our media help us by uncovering the disasters and the diseases. We all know that we need much more balanced reporting, but we cannot afford it. It is too dangerous.
So we speak lashon hara about our world. It is the exaggeration of all that is bad in this world which serves us well. We give it a bad name so that we are able to declare that we are okay where we are. ” Life is hard enough, we are barely able to survive, so who has time for meaning?” We force the elevator of this world to descend so that we are able to convince ourselves that we are rising by maintaining our mediocrity.
The purpose of genuine religious life is to protest against this optical illusion and to teach us to reframe our spiritual spectacles. It is not that religion shows us something new. It shows us the things we have seen all the time but never noticed.
Its message is clear: After all is said and done, there is dazzling goodness in this world, there is order instead of chaos, there is diversity and not just monotonous existence, and, above all, there is the infinite grace of the human deed.
The great Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once said that we are all like a fly in a bottle. The fly keeps on banging its head against the glass. The more it tries, the more it flounders, until it drops in exhaustion. Its failure is that it forgets to look up.