This I Believe

David - Carlsbad, California
Entered on June 12, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65

The Problem with Commandment — The Power of Commitment

I have three children to whom I’d like to leave a better world. Not long ago I was optimistic that our human species was reaching the point where we were ready to devote our energy and creativity to enhancing the quality of life for all living beings on this delicate planet. And yet, in a very short time, we seem to have relapsed into a tribal mentality in which the distinctions between us take priority over our underlying unity. It is one of life’s paradoxes that those who explicitly reject Darwin’s theory of evolution appear most willing to embrace his “survival of the fittest” principle. Decades ago, Jonas Salk warned us that if we do not evolve into an era of “survival of the wisest,” we will become victims of our own technological mastery.

If as Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” we may be all be residents of a planetary asylum. As has been true for millennia, we continue behaving according to the belief that if we do not control others with threat and intimidation, they will control us. We impose our will upon individuals and societies, and are then surprised when we encounter resistance and rebellion. We feed our addictions to power, energy, and property and are confused when the have-nots express opposition to our voracious appetites. We impose our demands on those deemed temporarily less fit until they acquire enough power to rebel, and the cycle of violence continues.

When we place demands upon others, we can anticipate one of two possible responses – they submit to or reject them. In either case, demands elicit resistance because they lower the self-esteem of the one being commanded. Observe the response of children when parents impose commands on them. Some children may openly resist (“No! I don’t want to practice the piano!”). Others may submit but accumulate resentment that manifests in time.

How often do we see this scenario played out on in the world? Children raised in harsh environments act out in ways that are destructive to others or to themselves. The shackles of an authoritarian government are broken only to see its populace explode in rage and violence. We attempt to impose peace by killing off our enemies, and are then surprised by insurgents who reject our good intentions. Families and societies raised on the belief that without intimidation children and adults behave badly routinely often see their worst fears manifest.

The popularity of The Da Vinci Code is an example of this dynamic being played out in subtler ways. Children reared in parochial religious schools with strict educators developed resentment and resistance to the dogma and doctrine imposed on them. The theme of the Code, that the absolute truths of our core religious teaching may have a few cracks, opened the floodgates through which an outpouring or repressed resentment flowed. Commandments generate resistance, which eventually finds its expression.

The core tenets of our Judeo-Christian society are encapsulated in the Ten Commandments. Seven tell us what we should not do. We envision a God who, like an authoritarian parent, holds the threat of punishment over our heads if we do not behave as we are told. Is there an alternative? Is it possible that we have an inherent propensity to do good? Is it possible that people might choose to behave in ways that are nurturing to themselves and others when given the appropriate guidance?

I believe that within each of the Ten Commandments resides a deeper truth calling us to make a commitment. The commandment to reject false idols is a call for a commitment to authenticity. The commandment not to kill is a call for a commitment to forgiveness. The call to not bear false witness is a call for a commitment to truth. Commitment is a contract between our body, mind and soul. It is an alignment between our values, intentions, thoughts, words, and actions. Commitment empowers our intentions and desires and gives us access to our intrinsic creativity. It is the ultimate assertion of human freedom and is the only authentic path to peace.

We live in a dangerous world. Some people will commit crimes unless there is the threat of incarceration. Some people will drive dangerously if not for the threat of a traffic ticket. Still, most people who behave badly come from environments where commandments ruled. Children treated badly often develop into resentful, defiant adults. If they do not act out in the world, they act out against themselves through addictive behaviors, poor health habits, or failed relationships.

Can we envision a world where the threat of punishment is not the primary motivator of good choices? Can we envision a society where people are encouraged to ask themselves the most important questions about who they are, why they are here, and how they can best serve? To fulfill the promise of humanity we must go beyond our dialogue of fear and seek the unity underlying our diversity. The evolutionary path is calling us to select wisdom over might. Through the power of commitment we can heal our world.