How Much Are We Morally Obligated To Pay Attention And Feel?

The religious question that consumes me lately is “How much am I morally obligated to know about the suffering and injustice in the world and what do the wisdom teachers say about how to FEEL about it?”

Christian religious practice helps some.

I know that I am obligated to do what Jesus did as best I can: feed people, really see them in their hurting, forgive, live in community, then get crucified and die a terrible, agonizing death, only to make a spectacular appearance a few days later, impress everybody to the point of changing history forever, and then peace out to heaven.

Got it. No, I really do. I got it. It’s pretty clear.  I also know that I am supposed to pray, because Jesus taught that and also he was Jewish so that reminds me, I am also informed in this question by Jewish religion, which I sort of inherited from my paternal line (Mom is a shiksa, so I’m not legit in the tribe).

Jewish wisdom says to be smart and be good and to love G-d and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Almighty. Jewish wisdom also informs me that humans have an intimate relationship with the One G-d and that that power cares about us, and we have to care about each other. Feeling is part of that; evidence of our humanity and, I presume, a divine aspect of it.

Which raises the question: if we were created in the image of God, is the capacity to feel a part of that? Certainly the G-d of the Hebrew Scriptures is an emotional being!

The dramatic G-d of Western tradition (“He” gets less demonstrably emotional by the time Jesus comes on the scene) orients me toward a passionate response to life, but I am still at a loss as to how much evil and suffering I can or should try to know about, understand and respond to emotionally as a moral being (this may be because I am becoming more deeply Unitarian Universalist, a religious tradition that emphasizes the profound and inescapable interdependence of all creation and all peoples).

I will tell you what I do.

I first focus on my community. That’s my job and my calling and my responsibility and that is clear. Not easy, but clear. The clarity of it, and the limited scope of it, is a joy to my soul even when the pain is deep among us. I know that that person and that other person and those other people are in my spiritual care.  I know their names and their faces. When terrible things happen to them I can sit with them in person and offer my body, mind and heart to them for whatever they are are worth. When they die, I perform the rituals and utter the official prayers on behalf of the Church that express the inestimable value that their life has had, no matter how seemingly insignificant to history or posterity.

I focus on my extended community. I walk through it, I learn it, I listen for what’s going on in it, I participate. My prayers for community have names attached to them and sometimes faces. I know how I am connected in the web of these relationships.

I have studied and learned systems : family systems, historical institutional systems, legal systems, legislative systems, educational systems, systems of power, sociological systems. I feel somewhat clear about how I am called to pray about and work with suffering that arises from injustice, evil and immorality that is built into systems. My anger and rage and sadness can be translated into work, and the work helps direct the intensity of emotion.

But as technology makes it possible for me to be aware of the specifics of suffering in places I will never see and barely previously knew existed, including in the suffocating recesses of the sick human psyche of the guy down the street, I do not know how much I am morally and spiritually obligated to feel.

This is not a life coaching question or a therapy question. Please do not offer therapeutic responses: I am not interested in them. I am not interested in Brene Brown or Anne Lamott or the self-help book response. I am seeking wisdom from the world’s greatest teachers and saints that can speak to this uniquely information-dense time in history.

In my opinion, it is not an adequate response to simply say, “Take a news break.” I think that’s good advice, to be sure, but it does not address the moral urgency of this century’s spiritual crisis, which is that any individual with a computer and wi-fi has a front row seat to the savage character of the human species, often provided with validating video footage.

One can turn off the computer.

One can follow and pray through it, as I do, in the faith that there is a dimension beyond this one within which the focused energy of one person may somehow matter to the experience of another. At any rate, I cannot not do it. If I was bleeding out my life in a bombed out hospital somewhere, it would bring me comfort to know that someone, somewhere, truly gave a shit.

This is why I am so grateful for monasteries, full of people whose life work it is to pray or chant on behalf of all of us.

Perhaps feeling in and of itself is just a series of survival responses and not of any moral significance at all. Certainly Buddhist wisdom would point in this direction. I have scheduled a July retreat with a Buddhist spiritual director in order to explore this possibility and to do healing work. I am both drawn to, and anxious about, the way Buddhist wisdom about suffering and non-attachment may challenge or even just plain clash with the “feeling” God of my experience and understanding.

Every time I think about me having to do healing work, I remember the girls chained to radiators in Ohio or the doctors collecting body parts in Syria or the mother of four going to her third job on the bus in the July heat and I want to sink down in mortification. When I want to rejoice over my vacation time, I think of child laborers in diamond mines and am silent. This is not just the guilt of a privileged liberal. This is the moral confusion of a religious human being who knows that she will never understand why suffering is so inequitably distributed (yes, I know about history and colonialism and greed and exploitation – that’s not the kind of analysis I’m interested in) and wants to be guided by holy wisdom in the appropriate response to it.








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.