Some time ago, in Searching Spirits book club we read, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a PHD and a moral psychologist. He contends that moral judgments actually arise from our deep gut feelings and not from reason. These moral judgements arise, he maintains, from the tribe that we were born into and by our environment where we were and are influenced and nurtured. Morality is good and necessary for a functioning human society.
Haidt says our morals differ because of where and how we were raised and live. And, we judge others by our own moral standards not theirs. Jonathan calls these moral judgements, our “inner elephant” and he says that our reason or intellect is only the rider on this elephant. And, by the way, if you have ever watched someone trying to ride an elephant, you have an of idea just how difficult it is for them to keep their seat and to direct the elephant towa rdsany reasonable path. So, with our moral judgement, issues can easily get way too big, too tribal, too territorial and therefore very dangerous. In 2023, we see this acted out world- wide stage.
Haidt’s writing greatly impacted me. Not that I have managed to control my own inner elephant, but I am beginning to notice my own brand of self- righteousness which I never would have been aware of in the past. That part of myself where anything goes if I think I am right. There are no rules of behavior when I feel my tribe is being maligned in any way. Other people have noticed my oversized elephant, too. Once, during a recent election cycle, our daughter sent me a video of a woman hitting her TV with a fly swatter at the image of a certain candidate. all the while mumbling expletives at the screen. Molly sent this video with the quip, “Mom, this is you.”
That is how I have been hearing the Gospel from this week and last week. The Pharisees this week and the Sadducees last week rode up on their elephants to confront Jesus with their tribal messages. Their elephants were large with self- righteousness about the law. And after reading The Righteous Mind, I truly think, now, I can have now some compassion for them. Because, elephants are good and their tribal morals are good, but when they take up too much space inside us and are actually running our rider, that is, our reason, they are destructive. Have you ever seen an elephant rampage on screen? The destruction is calamitous.
In this discussion with Jesus, Pharisees were trying to manipulate the truth; anything goes to serve their tribe. They were not leaving listening space inside themselves for Truth with a capital T ; a truth that they didn’t know yet. They had no room inside themselves to be curious about Jesus’ words, they were instead self -righteous. They were setting a trap for Jesus and unwittingly setting a trap for themselves. I like to think that in the end, just maybe, one of the Pharisees was touched by grace and maybe a little shame, and heard the reprove from Jesus as an opportunity to be humble, to change, to open, to make a space for the Other inside themselves, and begin to love God with all their heart, all their soul and all their mind and love their neighbor as themselves as Jesus taught.
As much as I can identify with my own the elephant and rider, I believe that there is more inside me and all of us. I truly believe There is a diamond hidden underneath that elephant. It might be covered in manure, but it is there. Always. It is there in every human person. The Saddusees, Pharisees, the Liberals, Conservatives, the Whites and Blacks, the Jews and Palistinians.
Thomas Merton describes it best: and I quote, “at the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our ego’s disposal, it is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will…It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun and it would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…I have no program for this kind of seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”
Finding my diamond, my true self, is what helps me tame my rider and my elephant. Without the light from that diamond, I cannot truly see who I am, and much less know anyone else. The Light from that diamond helps me to love myself and others.
We can also find our diamonds in any practice of Stillness and listening that we have, as well as in acts of self-giving. As Merton says the gate of heaven is everywhere.
Someone gave me this new serenity prayer, and I have taken the liberty of renaming it the prayer of The Self- Righteous Elephant…. I would like to close with this prayer.
God grant me the serenity
To accept the people I cannot change,
which is pretty much everyone,
since I’m clearly not you, God
At least the last time I checked.
And while you are at it, God,
Please give me the courage
To change what I need to change about myself,
Which is frankly a lot, since, once again,
I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect.
Its better for me to focus on changing myself
Than to worry about changing other people
Finally, give me the wisdom to be quiet and listen
whenever I think that I’m clearly smarter
than everyone else in the room,
that no one knows what they’re talking about except me,
or that I alone have all the answers.
Grant me the wisdom
To remember that I’m
Not you. Amen.
Taken from a reflection given by Michelle Reineck to her parish. An important message with a light touch.