Turn on the television news and there is an almost overwhelming focus on financial mess, social problems or crime. So what actually is the meaning of life? When I look around me I can’t help longing for a better kind of world. Sometimes I feel we are so used to the unsatisfactory state of things that we have given up hoping for something better.
Is idealism completely out of fashion? Have we become too cynical to have a vision of utopia? Or are we scared of being tarnished with the same brush as the fanatical extremists who have not been slow in broadcasting their own hate filled criticism of modern life. Perhaps I’m being hopelessly idealistic but surely society could be better. How can I find my perfect society? What follows are the hopes of an idealist.
One ideal of mine is rational thinking – as opposed to prejudice, superstition, and sentimentalism, not to mention the cult of celebrity. A focus on personaly rather than sensible ideas brings down the standard of public debate. Am I alone in thinking that with the huge expansion of digital tv channels, all we have ended up with is less choice due to a ‘dumbing down’ of the media?
Our political leaders need rational rather than sloppy thinking if we are to have sensible policies for governing society. Blinkered minds attached to a rigid ideology, which is neither fully understood nor comprehensively believed, leads to speaking in slogans with no expression of public doubt. If so we will get short-sighted policy supporting an educational system lacking good sense because students for example learn only theory and no practice; or we will get wrong-headed policy for a public health care system for example resulting in a post-code lottery and distortion of clinical practice due to politically imposed waiting list targets.
If we want to positively discriminate in favour of certain sections of society why not be honest about it instead of talking about targets. At the same time face the consequences head on e.g. of not selecting the best candidates for the job. No clear way through this dilemma is possible unless we have intellectual honesty instead of political correctness.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries in Europe, the Age of Reason meant that people were beginning to question and doubt the truth of many commonly held ideas. Many believed in their ability to think things out for themselves and there was an urge to examine and research anything and everything. That state of society might be associated in our minds eye with the new endeavour of science and since then science has been responsible for some amazing discoveries ranging from plastics and synthetic fibres, computers, nuclear fission, radar and jet propulsion.
However, I would argue that understanding the subject of such matters as human death, the meaning of life, personal development, and so on, involves seeing things in a rational light rather than a mere natural one.
Studying things from a natural point of view cannot help us with things of the spirit. For science knows no higher ethics. It is just as capable of being applied to weapons as to medicine – to destroying or saving life. Furthermore it identifies the brain and mind as the same thing and cannot use its microscopes and magnetic scanners to measure what is eternal.
What we also need is to use our intuition for the deeper aspects of life which cannot be measured by mere scientific instruments. Using our intuition doesn’t stop us using our heads to think clearly.
Respect for the environment has become a spiritual issue. This means accepting nature rather than combating it and living in harmony with the natural environment rather than trying to destroy it. I am reminded of the many Native North Americans in the 16th century, in hundreds of tribes and many nations, all of whom cared for their environment not believing that they owned the land but thinking it was to be held in common for everyone.
When all the trees are cut down then everyone will have major concerns about soil erosion, silting, and flooding. Lovely pine forests tend to thrive on poor rocky soil so that when these are plundered no worthwhile crop can fill their place. And is it too much to ask that more effort is made to focus on renewable resources rather than reckless exploitation of what nature provides. There is going to be a huge shock to the supply of energy when we discover we can no longer sustain our exploitation of oil, gas and coal.
I tend to see this in terms of waste. Wasted food, wasted materials and wasted energy. The challenge of course is to find ways of preserving the environment where people’s only income still comes from farming or forestry which often damages the land. They wouldn’t take kindly to being told by industrialised areas to slow their growth and pollution. I am afraid all I can say is I wouldn’t start from here in tackling what seems to be an enormous problem.
But then the way we humans have behaved in many aspects of life has been a bit of a disaster across many countries and periods of history – whether it be to do with military conquest, exploitation, or corruption – and I do not think that is a reason why we should not have a utopian vision for the future. For without such a vision how could we attempt to leave behind us all that is to be criticised and find a new direction in which to proceed?
Not only am I aware of wasted natural resources but also wasted human time. If people made more effort in what they did then wouldn’t things go along more smoothly? With more effort by everyone the environment would look more attractive with less litter on the street, and no canals using for dumping. Try harder and the outcome can improve.
There are limits to the work ethic and I’m not necessarily advocating that everyone be as thrifty and hardworking as those whose weekends consists only of a Sunday and who get to their offices at 7am each morning not leaving say until 6.60 pm creating a rush hour at that time. We need the right balance of time between home life, recreation and work. But I do long for daily life where absurd and petty annoyances are kept to a minimum by a bigger effort people make to be more efficient.
There would be less botched building work, and deadlines for getting things done would be met without procrastination. Decisions would be taken by those with authority rather than the setting up of committees for them to hide behind.
Management and workforce could get on with their work without letting themselves be caught up in unnecessary disputes. Products should be subject to proper quality control and deliveries would be made on time.
There are minimum standards of efficiency that should be met if even for the sake of lifting the general economic state of those with so much poverty. It surely is a fallacy that a person is happier when contributing less than his or her maximum potential.
Some people have thought of the next life in heaven as hassle free and having limitless time to pursue what they find pleasing and relaxing. Yet there is a very different picture painted by Emanuel Swedenborg who had a continued vision of what he called the ‘spiritual world’. I would love to see his vision of the kingdom of heaven existing here on earth. I suppose my ideal society would be like living in heaven – a sphere of peace, contentment, beauty, and delight. He describes the inhabitants of heaven as loving to work. This is the idea that whatever we do – whether it be as an administrator, entertainer or artist etc – we may find similar things to do in heaven but with a much greater sense, than when we lived on earth, of the real services we perform for the benefit of others.
According to Swedenborg, there seems to be no shortage of things that need doing in the next life. Other jobs are said to include caring for those who have died and passed over in childhood and teaching them as they grow older; helping those adults newly arriving from earth who wish to learn about the heavenly way, and attending on those being awakened from bodily death. Every heavenly person is said to have a unique responsibility suited to his or her temperament and interest and all these separate duties blend into a harmony for the general good. No waste of human resources here.
How nice it would be to live in a contented society – so much nicer than one full of dissatisfaction and complaint. I imagine most people’s ideal society would have social and political stability, for instability can only breed discontent. I guess it also helps if everyone of working age has a means of gaining a living and where each person has a valued place in the scheme of things.
I would argue feeling satisfied also comes with a sense of inner spiritual harmony with life. The heavenly realm that Swedenborg describes is all about doing what we really love to do. Doing with and for people we love. This means no chance of getting bored and discontented.
We may know how we feel but perhaps it is not so easy to spot contentment in others. But we notice its absence soon enough.
One way discontent shows is in a pre-occupation with one’s social position and being treated with what is thought to be appropriate deference. Historians have described some societies where there is a rigid social class system like that of Aryan culture in India headed by the educated priests, with separate castes for warriors, traders, farmers, servants, and where it was impossible to change caste or marry outside a particular caste. On the one hand, in a society focused on social position, everyone has a sense of his or her place that is accepted by everyone else. But with this comes the attitude that every person is inferior to someone else and has to receive orders from a superior, whilst showing an outward display of abject submission and respect.
The only exception to this of course is the top dog who gets veneration from everyone. The danger is this can be a breeding ground for arrogance, vanity, and contempt. It also can leads to no-one being able to make up their minds with everything being referred to higher authority.
These days sometimes we meet those who get uptight because they feel they are not treated with sufficient respect. Of course we might expect this if we were to allow a harsh or boastful note to creep into our communication. And any abuse of freedom of speech to malign others deserves such a negative reaction.
But with some people it can be difficult however carefully you choose your words to talk frankly without making their hackles rise. This over-sensitivity apparently is an important concern of gangland city youth not to mention political dictators; both types of person expecting others to cow-tow to them. But we see it also to a lesser extent in a few establishment figures who also can be proud and touchy over questions of social precedence and correct forms of address.
Lack of a deep contentment also is apparent in the way people communicate with each other. Use of specialist language can save time when specialists talk together. But sometimes clarity and succinctness go out of the window when people strive to conform to what they imagine is high status ways of talking. One example is the use of phrases like ‘benchmarking’, ‘roll-out’, ‘synergies’ and other management-speak which is tired and discredited by the time it is introduced into a local setting.
This is a very different picture to that of Swedenborg’s heaven where angelic people are in a more elevated state of mind. The message is that in heaven, the real distinction between people is their useful function rather than any sense of class or race carried over from the world. No concern about social status there.
This is possible because of the picture he paints of the next life which is one of human experience in a ‘spirit body’ that includes a normal looking environment such as clouds, rain, wind and other apparently natural phenomena such as orchards, gardens, flowers and fields, mountains, and streams.
There is thus an appearance of distance. But we are informed the spiritual world doesn’t follow natural laws. Rather, things that can be seen in this dimension follow spiritual laws. So when we feel close to someone they will appear before us. When we are in a beautiful state of mind then beautiful things will be apparent. For this is the spiritual world of the mind. But it as every bit as real to the inhabitants of heaven as our physical world of time and space. Just as when we are lost in our dreams, time has no relevance, and space imposes no limits. And what we see and feel are real.
Discontent can also be noticed in those who are money-mad, who always seem to be thinking about how to make more money or how their stocks and shares are performing. They ask too much for things and give too little.
I for one feel uncomfortable where the private affluence of the few is flaunted in the publicly seen poverty of the many. Can this not be seen in the ostentation of the nouveaux riches compared with poorer housing, medical and educational facilities available in the public services?
Worse still are those who give every impression of being grasping and opportunistic. It is said that the love of money is the root of all evil. For such people the amount of wealth one has is of more significance than the use to which it could be put or by what means it was acquired in the first place.
How could such people accept the notion of heaven which is one of sharing and doing things for the sake of others? This could never be comprehended by those who love themselves more than others and who are greedy for gain.
I’m sure it is a fallacy that the way to happiness is the acquisition of more and more money. Provided one earns enough money for one’s basic needs, why should it bother one if another person happens to be earning more? You do tend to get a lack of human warmth where people are too busy making money to make themselves agreeable.
Swedenborg describes a group of people who had died. They had expected the happiness of the heavenly paradise to consist of magnificence, splendour and boundless wealth. They were allowed to experience exactly what they had imagined heaven to be like until they were sick of it and begged to leave!
How much better if people were prepared to be untroubled by any lack of possessions. The tradition of those from isolated rural areas can be to restore their energies by spending time living simply without expensive modern conveniences close to nature and far from the maddening crowd.
Discontent with one’s social status can lead to ill-judged choice of job training. Instead of pursuing realistic options, in terms of one’s abilities and the needs of society, there is a danger of too many seeking a university degree and high prestige occupations like academic teaching, or the law, which they can only do at a second rate level or for which they are not needed.
Another aspect of my utopia is to do with social order. Don’t we all want to see a huge reduction in the social evils of substance abuse, crime, fatherless children, abortion, and relationship breakdown? No one is immune from the malignant influence of deceit, neglect, hate, selfishness, and other negative forces. But I do wish some people could try harder to keep such tendencies out of their minds especially those who are satisfied rather than remorseful about their bad conduct.
I want a pretty girl to be able to walk through the city at 2am with a bulging hand-bag with little fear of violence. Fortunate indeed are those people not threatened by other groups and who can get on with developing their lives in a condition of security.
Occasionally in history there have been outbreaks of violence where all hell breaks loose when restraints collapse. What happened in the former Yugoslavia comes to mind. I sometimes wonder if there is a brutal streak to some of us who find our frustrations difficult to contain. In the end I would much rather live in a society with social order because everyone does exercise self-control. At the same time I am obliged to recognise that this is hopelessly optimistic. Not everyone wants to behave well. And so my utopia must have some form of law and order to keep misbehaviour in check.
A big political issue these days is the amount of regulation that the Government should employ. I don’t pretend to know the answer. Business is always complaining of over-regulation and bureaucratic red-tape suffocates many public services, for example the police are said to spend inordinate amounts of time in form filling instead of plodding the beat.
It makes simple jobs unworkable and people either cut corners or don’t try something different because they are watching their backs all the time. School teachers are well known to be put off taking children on school trips due to fear of being blamed if something beyond their control were to go wrong.
On the other hand it was through under-regulation of our banks that we allowed some of them to get into such huge difficulty. The reason for all this regulation is we have become a blame culture. Somebody always has to be held responsible and the so-called victim compensated. Human error or accident is no longer allowed. The attitude is ‘It’s your fault. What are you going to do about it’ But this idea we need to be compensated has made things worse. So we have defensive medicine.
My ideal government is like the one in the ‘spiritual world’ described by Swedenborg. This is a culture of responsible concern where those in charge are more interested in serving than ruling and only want what is best for everyone. Thus there is no domination and ordering around, no bickering due to egoism. Those governing do not make themselves more important than others but less, for they give first priority to the good of the community rather than their own interests.
The clothes they wear and the things around them may represent the importance of their office and they may live in splendid mansions higher up than others. Nevertheless they only accept these honours for the sake of their function. Everyone there believes that real credit is due to God.
In our world we know that democracy has its weaknesses but at least it provides some checks and balances on dictatorial rule. Power lying in the hands of a small ruling elite is probably not an ideal situation. Some un-elected political regimes unworried about popularity at the polls tend to interfere too much in the lives of the ordinary person.
For example we can imagine some hard-line military staff controlling an unstable nation through a small-minded attitude slowing down the spiritual development of liberal creative instincts and lively intellectual capacity.
Swedenborg’s description of an ideal government is all very well I hear you say. But what if the populace behave badly, how could those in charge not have to strictly enforce the rules?
Of course we wouldn’t need regulation if people behaved with integrity and were conscientious in their work. If only business people and politicians would only make promises they know they can keep. It is no good if people are heart-warmingly open and genuine one moment and devious and deceitful the next.
We don’t want a government minister bribing the electorate by arranging for large amounts of money to go to the local constituency. Nor do we want them to try to influence judges or reappear in government after the briefest of absences following some serious misdemeanour. When people in power abuse their positions then a community can be blighted by corruption.
They say that in some parts of the world you can buy anything from a driving licence to a High Court Judge. How good it would feel to feel confident in the honesty of our police and other public servants, in the fairness of the electoral process and in the justice of the courts. Why not hope to live among decent and reasonable people who behave with integrity and where there is a general social conscience rather than economic ruthlessness of the rich and powerful?
Swedenborg claims that some of those who sadly happen to have died as children and who have acquired a good disposition from their experiences in the world, continue along the same course. But others may have picked up bad habits of thought, speech or conduct and have come to think this is okay. He says these are restrained in the next life under an instructor who may be quite severe with them until they mend their ways.
Likewise my ideal society would not allow teachers and youth leaders to be soft on bad conduct however you want it defined. How else can youngsters learn acceptable behaviour unless they are corrected? Also for the same reason in general my gut feeling is we want less tolerance of social nuisance caused by noise, rubbish, not to mention drunkenness and neighbours from hell.
A special style of policing and prosecution is called for when adults are not in a heavenly state but rather are immersed in crime, greed, dishonesty and other expressions of selfishness; where some people do not obey civilised rules but instead want to domineer over others, and hate those who oppose their desires and if they could get away with it would act violently to get their own way.
The way Swedenborg explains things is that in the next life, no one is rewarded or punished for the way they behaved on earth although, similar to the idea of karma, the character we develop brings its own rewards – pleasant or unpleasant. Sometimes people in the world innocently suffer hardship and other troubles through no fault of their own. But it is the way we react to setbacks and disappointments that matters. The heavenly state is for those who try to follow their lights. Who obey their inner conscience of what is good and right. On the other hand we can condemn ourselves to discontent, agitation, and misery in the next life if our ruling desires continue to be based on selfishness and rejection of ethical values.
He also maintains that in this kind of hellish state the only way people can be stopped from doing harm is to be ruled through fear of punishment. The point of punishment is not so society can gain their revenge and people get their just deserts but rather to deter further wrong-doing.
I imagine we all would prefer to be surrounded by friendliness. There’s a lot to be said for excellent manners. I quite like it when a shop-worker or receptionist sends me on my way with a ‘Take care’ or ‘Have a nice day’ in a friendly tone of voice. It may not always be entirely genuine but it does encourage an interest in the good of all that can breed cheerfulness as we lose sight of our own grievances. This can mean a society where people show good will and hospitality.
So surprise surprise I want to live in a friendly society. But some people just don’t seem to have a clue when it comes to showing natural courtesy. Go into a shop and find yourself met by a blank stare and absence of helpfulness and consideration; it can happen. The worst features of machismo is to act as if being discourteous were a measure of virility. Actually I think they are just going along with unfortunate ways of behaving to which they have become accustomed.
If only we remembered the Golden Rule – ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’
Sometimes we come across people with a sense of smugness. Such an attitude I feel can only prolong complacency and blindness to one’s faults. Much better is to not take oneself so seriously and be able to laugh at one’s mistakes.
Taking things literally is a characteristic of children. But when seen in adults it can especially be unhelpful. One example is the belief of Creationists who fail to notice the Genesis story is a parable with a timeless meaning seeing it instead as an accurate account of history. More commonly, small-mindedness is apparent in the idea that the rule of law matters more than the rule of conscience.
Christ once said ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for there is the kingdom of heaven.’ Was he not talking about those who acknowledge that everything good in them and their lives really comes from inspiration of God’s divine spirit? Without humility we cannot learn the spiritual lessons of life, and so we cannot be raised up. Instead we have an illusion that we can get by using only our own steam. The paradox is that once we realise our spiritual poverty then we can become spiritually rich.
Swedenborg reports that angels in heaven avoid those who, newly arriving from earth, are convinced that what good they do is entirely from themselves. Such people are viewed as thieves for they are thought to steal God’s merit and make it their own.
And so sometimes I feel one of the biggest blocks to progress in politics and public service is the self-conceit of people in positions of influence. Thinking they know best makes them deaf to new ideas and valid criticism. What we want are political leaders who show constructive concern for the welfare of the people rather than treating them as an instrument for the application of their particular political theory
Even worse is the bigotry of those who have convinced themselves that they are God’s elect and have a divine right to impose their views on others. Such a superiority complex breeds religious fanaticism and terrorism. Just thinking about the horrors of such things is enough to motivate my writing this article about my ideal society.
In my utopia people would have a clear sense of community and family identity. This would mean less living alone, and not doing one’s own thing without reference to others. Isn’t it a basic human need to feel comfortable with a sense of who we are? Yet studying our social history with no emotional bond with the past means we are not united together with something we have in common.
Those working in the public service, with their focus on community needs, do seem to share an ethos which gives then a sense of purpose and satisfaction. This is not to assume that human beings do not have their own needs. Neither is it to despise the profit motive of entrepreneurial risk taking. But an interest in the needs of the community is very different from any drive of purely personal gain.
When we make friends and decide with whom to associate we do so mainly with people who share our interests and values. Perhaps not surprisingly, Swedenborg reports that people in heaven do the same. They form their communities around common bonds. It is in their own community that they feel most at home and most free. Some living amongst larger and some amongst smaller neighbourhoods.
The experience of rural areas in the non-industrialised nations comes to mind. Their cultural history has meant they have been brought up to believe that consensus is essential to the preservation of the village community. And as a consequence they are willing to invest time in trying to reach some degree of consensus. They may fail in the attempt but surely such a process of discussion is very different from prolonged bickering over things from a distance?
Have we in the western world not been pulled apart from one another and from our community in recent years? I’m not sure what the reasons are. Perhaps something to do with overwork, urban sprawl, multi-culturalism, television, or the growth of mobility and divorce. Perhaps all or none of these.
But I do hanker after those days perhaps long gone when people seemed part of the same sense of society. A well-connected community with strong social institutions such as active parent teacher associations, church groups and other active local civic and voluntary groups help us all feel happy and safe.
How else can people share good will, fellowship, sympathy and social communication? How else can they develop mutual obligations and a sense of trust?
I would feel happier living with others who are have some interest in the community rather than only their own individual affairs. Not so much pre-occupied with their lives that they cannot share interest in the views of others and seek to build bridges with a common purpose adjusting to the views of others in how things might be done.
Yet some people have cut themselves off from society and consciously renounced the world and its pleasures, taking up a life of prayer and meditation. Is this good? Perhaps not. Do not such individuals build up a mournful life for themselves lacking in the chance of joy that can come from being with others? And you can’t be with others unless you are living in society involved in its functions and dealings. In fact Swedenborg maintains that it is only through working through the challenges of civic and moral issues that one can start to receive a spiritual life. Only through learning to be genuinely fair, honest and generous can one find inner happiness.
Purity of thought
In my ideal society there will be no pornography or other forms of entertainment that debase the human spirit. Those who enjoy a full sexual relationship with a partner whom is dearly loved are the first to realise that desire for a third party is both hurtful to their partner and damaging to their own love. For these reasons impure sexual attractions are undesirable.
According to Swedenborg in the afterlife we retain our gender and are still very much man or woman after death – not sexless spirits.
Whatever our attitude to sex is now – whether it be a wandering lust or a body devoted to one partner, – it is not going to change overnight just because we die, because that would change who we individually are.
Perhaps surprisingly Swedenborg assures us that there can be a loving monogamous relationship in the spiritual realm that is central to the heavenly state and that the sexual side of such an intimate relationship is even more pleasurable than in the life of the physical body.
A coherent philosophy of life
Society needs its leaders to show resilience and purpose when faced with inevitable difficulties. A country with no meaningful ideologies may end up with no philosophical differences between its political parties. Its government becomes focused on the management of the press rather than on the formulation of policy. In this context the main motive for budding politicians to join one of these parties can easily be to be to acquire power or a lucrative job. Without that thing called vision how can a society be led? For it won’t know where to go.
Religion has become a bit of a dirty word. For example when it is associated with a community being riddled by superstition. Or when it is enforced by strong and binding forces that mean only a daring free-thinker or eccentric would question it. But without religion what is going to give us a coherent philosophy of life and guidance regarding what is ethical in private and public?
People have forgotten God. A secular approach to life just doesn’t seem to work. I don’t want a return to a religiosity that has been around that contains a large dose of hypocrisy, or irrational dogma, but rather one where a society is guided by higher values. I want to live in a community where real meaningful choices are being made because of a consciousness of such ideas as Truth, Honour, Loyalty, and Courage, that have real practical meaning and are not just theoretical abstractions. Such big ideas may be an embarrassment to many but I really would like there to be a shared awareness of who are the villains, heroes and saints.
Copyright 2010 Stephen Russell-Lacy