An ordinary life in western culture is generally based on the belief that certain values will make you happy. In my experience in 50 years of counseling, it has proven that even those that have succeeded have not achieved a high level of happiness, peace and fulfillment. This is the main point of discussion with clients I’ve had for 50 years. These are also some of the truly sincere, smart and successful people who have been aware and honest enough to be seeking a deeper, richer fulfillment.
In our western culture, we most frequently start off being strongly encouraged to do well in school and be socially well-adjusted, which frequently lacks a depth of relationship. At the same time, we’re encouraged to get married without clear criteria as to the qualities and integrity needed to have a lasting and expanding intimacy.
We’re also told to be as successful as possible with little guidance for principles, to live a comfortable lifestyle for which we raise the criteria for pleasure and comfort. When it comes to being a good family member, it usually doesn’t involve learning deeply about how to care for each other as we are. We contribute a small percentage of our success to others through philanthropy for those that can afford it, but not enough to really make a difference in the world situation. We try to appear as young as possible, even at risk to our health and appearance and want to be popular even though it lacks a depth of communication or generosity. Most of us believe these will be the key ingredients to making ourselves happy.
For those that are struggling to survive, the emphasis is, of course, more on being practical, hard-working, disciplined, and making the best efforts to survive. Of course, there are a lot of other significant variants that emphasize creativity, sports, travel, nature, developing other kinds of intimate relationships, developing intelligence, being religious, spiritual, or honestly facing life as it is. Every family emphasizes certain of these core values more than others. The key is that in virtually all of these priorities, there is an unwitting lack of deeper core wisdom and heart.
We can see from our entertainment that heroes in most movies need to be attractive, strong and heroines, sexy, beautiful, and feminine. There are plenty of shows that idealize family values of humor that usually lack depth, and authenticity.
Shows for children have a much stronger emphasis on goodness, courage, or love of animals. This is a significant gap between what is considered to be good adult entertainment and good for kids. These values that are, at best, half-truths lead the dominant part of our culture into myths of fulfillment and ignore the overwhelming importance of developing our inner and outer worlds by embracing our hearts and wisdom. It also ignores life and death, emotional intelligence, and the idea of creating a truly healthy relationship with the world and those around you.
Why families represent only a limited part of our potential fulfillment
Families are idealized as more important than caring for our world and are considered the dominant end unto themselves. This impacts how each of us relates to the world. It’s not that people don’t care about the world. We can see people have thoughts and occasionally perform minimal acts to show their care. However, it generally forms less than 5% of our concern when it comes to how we use our time, money, and energy. It’s like we create a beautiful island for ourselves and those we love. Still, we are so secluded and isolated that our connection to the rest of the world is across the sea.
False promises of happiness from these actions and attitudes are abundant and form the so-called “healthy norm.” The focus on self and other family members is considered a dream of contentment and responsibility. That isn’t to say that family isn’t a central part of life and one of our most sacred parts of devotion, responsibility, and love.
It just ignores our connection to the earth on which we live, and a collective purpose for those that are more fortunate to have a key inspiration and fulfillment to give everyone possible an opportunity to live a hard-working, reachable inspired life for themselves and their families. The cost of not having this be central especially in wealthy countries has resulted in perpetual class divisions that have been the underbelly of alienation, unhealthy competition, false superiority, and ultimately given rise to terrorism, global warming, and war.
It is seeing and understanding that the least fortunate in the world are abandoned to a devastating proportion when each of us that have the means lives with a high degree of dedication to our individual families virtually alone. Our opportunity, potential inspiration, and fulfillment is to make the world a safer, saner, and vital part of life. This also needs to be integrated into how we raise or are raised in families.
This is not an overstatement. From the perspective of poverty, homelessness, and global warming, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that we have treated our families like cults compared to caring for the destitute and the very survival of our true long-term home — our planet.
The lack of valuing one’s relationship with the world as a primary factor is extremely common. It’s a common version of this fairy tale that supposedly leads to happiness, freedom, education, success, youthfulness, sexiness, and wealth.
This fairy tale, as it is typically lived, in extreme comparative importance, eviscerates the core of what creates an inspiring and fulfilling life. It, of course, can have elements of love and enjoyment, but it eliminates the filling of the universal heart or the caring for more than one’s own — both of which are mandatory components of grounded peace and compassion.
Learning to look beyond our own and care for others
Once again, this is in no way intended to downplay the vital importance of raising a loving family with integrity, honesty, and stability. A family is one of the foundations of having a capacity to love more deeply. However, when a family is not at a level with an attitude of how each member relates to the world, it is unwittingly supporting excessive self-importance. Our main work has always been to love our family members and contribute to the well-being of the family and those around it. Of course, many families are dealing with survival, food insecurity, and health issues. So that makes it necessary to give immediate attention to care for those closest to us.
However, this article is significantly focusing on the more fortunate of us. I’m writing this to encourage the importance of parents modeling and communicating about care for the world with their kids from early years (around five years and above). It’s also good to lead by example, so sharing contributions from the parent(s) and laying out field trips, exploring such topics over dinner, and engaging with similarly-minded families can be really beneficial in helping all of us learn how to care widely from the start.
A personal example about what not to do as a parent
As I share this advice, I am also someone who fell into the “ordinary” way of parenting my son when I first became a parent. I always thought outside the box when I cared for the world, but I was so attached to him being happy, having fun, and stable that I made the common mistake of sheltering him from exposure and the conversations about what matters beyond the family. I did share a bit about my work, but I feel one of the few regrets in my life is that I didn’t bring my son into “the real world outside the fairy tale.”
I believe the little I shared led him into an unusual inner peace inside himself as his mother did the same. Still, he was not exposed to the philanthropic elements of generosity toward the world and curiosity toward the less fortunate as much as I’d have liked. It reinforced the tremendous loving dedication to the family at the expense of greater earlier exposure. I honestly believe at the risk of being the proud father that he is the best dad that I know of. Of course, he might disagree with me to some extent about his philanthropic interests. However, it is a matter of degrees as the core love is there, just not the focus on those that are truly suffering and the world that is imperilled. On a relative level, I would be exaggerating as there is some generosity; however, at the risk of aggrandizing my standards, I believe the percentages of outreach are less than ideal. I share the responsibility for this. I hope writing this will enable others to not repeat the same relatively benign ignorance that I lived with during that period of my life.
In 2000, The Global Bridge Foundation held a conference called “Being the Difference that Makes a Difference,” which included 15 groups from 40 Los Angeles high schools. Our focus was on developing a balance between doing good things for others less fortunate, and opening our hearts when doing it.
I remember writing the outline for the groups on friendship and family with the emphasis on great friends as being interested in more than friendship but also were a supportive influence on others that were outcasts, in poverty, and abandoned. Justin and his three closest friends led the groups presenting on friendship. However, in this way, he was starting to go beyond the family or friendship groups. He talked about how he would seek out kids suffering during lunch and try to spend time with them to display caring. I knew at the time that this was relieving for me, and at the same time knew that this was him at his best and not the reliable focus as a crucial part of his life.
I asked him at the time, what are you going to do say when some of the gang members who were coming from the inner city schools would say to him, “Hey white boy, you don’t know fuck all about life where we come from?”
He surprised me by saying, “I’d tell them, ‘You’re right, I don’t. please tell me more so I can have a better understanding.'” The seeds were planted in a very subtle way, and this was one of the few early signs that he had the beginnings of caring for those outside his orbit. It wasn’t the norm, but I was very happy to see the understanding and quiet compassion. I do have faith that he will be very loving to the world philanthropically, but more likely in the near future years, and had I been more in my form of balance it likely would have begun significantly already.
Let’s end the fairy tale and move into the real world:
The aggrandizement of (our)self and those nearest to us are made to be like gods or entities that are complete unto ourselves. But because there isn’t a greater purpose that is more inclusive of the broad world of suffering and healing with supporting opportunities to work and grow, this completion is doomed to its limitation in potential. Therefore, this fairytale needs to be upgraded to include essential needs for humanity to breathe life, heart, wisdom, and human decency to an entirely different level.
This isn’t meant to be conveyed as a guilt trip to anyone, as it’s how we were raised. It’s not that we should be this way. It is in hopes of giving a deeper glimpse into the greater potential of developing a childlike heart into one that expands as it grows into an adult-like heart. If it is generated from guilt, then there will always be tension, competition, self-judgment, and inadequacy. When any adult or child glimpses the sensitivity of caring for our greater world, it is like a musical melody or laughter. It is a universal truth that most kids understand the natural urge to love and be loved by humanity. Unfortunately, that can sound like a philosophy or a guilt induction in today’s world, rather than our nature being lived from instinctive heart and wisdom.
As you can see, most kids are widely exposed to movies and this means that their innocence is now somewhat lost in something that’s viewed as entertainment. Innocence is seemingly for children and not as important when we become adults. I would say that we who have been given opportunities have a greater joyous responsibility to maintain and expand that innocence and generosity.
It is vital we are led to see that we might be in make-believe land, like The Moody Blues’ “The Land of Make Believe” by reinforcing these values in our families, schools, corporations, and spiritual and religious teachings. Especially when religion and faith are considered to be a particular set of traditions and history rather than a true devotion to interconnectedness with all of humanity and the planet through a humanitarian focus.
Again, the point is not to judge, create shame, or guilt, but to witness the illusion that we are fostering from almost top to bottom and gain the focus on the irreplaceable importance of interconnectedness and see the idealization of family more clearly. This needs to be connected to a vision of the family merging with the larger family on earth.
Power needs to be redefined as the power to do good and care for the whole world. Today’s conventional sense of power needs to be seen more accurately, like excessive self-importance, greed, and self- or group-centeredness. In most cases, protection at the expense of the impoverished and the planet has contributed to getting us into our current mess. It’s never too late to access our wisdom and heart — smile at service providers, treat others as we’d like to be treated, and spread the word that a sense of purpose is a gift that keeps on giving as much to self as others.
The belief that you could be fulfilled by living a successful caring about our own little group lifestyle is like a fairy tale. The key is to look for our innocence and generosity and not descend into the quicksand of guilt. We all are a part of this mysterious and interconnected world, and the more we embrace this elusive link with each other, the greater fulfillment, peace, and safety we will create.