Our relationships with ourselves and with society are aspects of the same relationship, and they unfold simultaneously. As we travel the road of self-knowledge, discovering our identity, we also become conscious of the greater human society. We come to know that our relationship with society is to assume the responsibility we necessarily have because we participate in it.
Our relationship with society develops in stages that correspond to our degree of consciousness. It could be said that as long as we are enclosed within ourselves, we expect everything from society. Later, when we understand that our life is inseparable from humanity, we discover how to relate through participation. We then feel a responsibility to offer the best of ourselves for the good of all human beings.
As long as we pay attention only to our personal world and private interests, we have a vague and superficial idea of our relationship with society: we follow social norms only because we fear reprisal; we obey the law because it is the law. We live for ourselves, separating our lives and interests from those of the greater human society. In such a self-centered relationship, we establish alliances based on our own best interest. We turn to society only when we need it, and we take as much as we can from it. When society protects us, we call it “our” society.
Nevertheless, even though we call it “our” society, we don't really live in it. We prefer the comfortable little nest we have made for ourselves of our daily relationships. This is what we look to for warmth and reassurance, and this is what we really identify with.
But once we understand that living is an art that we need to cultivate, we develop an interest in knowing society and making it better. Yet, as we still tend to project our selfish interests over everything, we see only selfish interests in society, and we struggle to change at that level.
This is the stage of ambivalence; we define society as “our” society or “that” society according to the ups and downs of our circumstances, needs and states of mind. When society is “our” society, we identify with it and defend it. When we want “another” society, we attack it and rebel. We alternately defend, attack or ignore society, as if it were something outside of ourselves.
Society can neither be defended nor attacked. It is neither “our” society nor “that” society. Society simply reflects the process of human relationships; to attack or defend this process is to attack or defend ourselves. Such an attitude does not produce good results—it is based on ignorance that neither improves relationships nor makes us conscious of our attitudes.
Ignorance in our relationship with society leads to more problems than those that already exist and adds more sorrow to the tragedies that each of us endures.
It is not enough to say that we want a just society, without evil, without suffering. We can only build a better society by working on ourselves, making a concrete effort that results in good works.
We create a more harmonious society through our own transformation, because the more advanced we are in our unfolding, the more we know ourselves. We are more conscious and simpler in our relationship with society and better able to work for it.
Relationship through participation expresses the awareness that we are united with the greater human society and implies a constructive attitude toward our own transformation and toward active work for the good of society.
There are three basic aspects of relationship through participation:
- To abandon the illusion that we live a separate, personal life
- To experience first in ourselves the good we wish for humanity
- To accept and alleviate human suffering, creating constructive avenues of love and knowledge.
If we honestly want a better society, we realize that our lives really don't belong to us, that a life is something that must be offered to all of humanity. We begin to concretize this offering of life by reserving our energy. By not dispersing our strength in satisfying personal appetites, we turn that energy into the good work and helpful ideas which are needed at each moment.
Let us remember for a moment the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although he and his wife each were well educated and could have lived comfortable lives in the relatively racially tolerant northern United States of the 1950s, they chose to live in the South. They knew they had to live, work and participate in the racial prejudice of segregation. Martin Luther King believed that he had to offer his life, his time and energy, to work for racial justice for blacks and, as his social vision expanded, for all oppressed people.
When human beings no longer have “their” lives, “their” objectives, “their” energy for using, they do not separate their sorrow from the sorrow of others, their possibilities from those of others, their vicissitudes from the changes that all human beings experience. They live what all human society lives, with all its contingencies.
When we desire to create a more harmonious society, we don't criticize, complain, escape, or look for privileges. We fulfill whatever is necessary, and when we discover something selfish in ourselves, we make the effort to transcend it. Therefore, we work to overcome in ourselves the separativity, indifference and selfishness that we see outside. This interior work inevitably expands to our surroundings and produces a chain reaction of good thoughts and good work.
We work for the good of society by transforming ourselves into beneficial cells that work quietly and persistently within the greater social body.
A constructive attitude toward society leads us to work in a productive and efficient manner.
Today there are large numbers of people who do not have even the basics for living, much less for unfolding their spiritual possibilities. How can we help them? By working efficiently: doing our own particular job very well, producing what society needs and consuming only what we really need. We learn not to waste: neither resources nor time nor energy. We work with attention, producing what is needed in the shortest time possible. We use the indispensable, and we do not accumulate excessive profits.
As we work on building our relationship with society, we will find ourselves having to face what we all come up against at some point in our lives: the dark side of human behavior. In society we see many manifestations of the negative side of human nature. Our instinctive reaction before the evil that others do is to want to defend ourselves, to attack, to try to eliminate the problem. But when we look at history we see that neither war nor suppression nor punishments have rid society of its evils. The only way to change society is to exchange what is counterproductive with something better, through understanding what has happened, through education and effort.
A constructive attitude toward society leads to the desire to learn and teach others. A good teacher first gets a good education. Then, as he teaches, he learns to adapt to his pupils, having special patience with those who have or create difficulties. The real teacher wants to educate all his students, even the ones with troubles. Likewise, we can create a constructive relationship with society by first changing ourselves, then working to help society, transforming its problems into opportunities, and building a better world for all.
We remember that education is not the same as indoctrination. To educate is to stimulate the process of developing consciousness. It is to teach to think, to discern, to choose; it is to reveal what ignorance has obscured. Our society is made up of human beings in the process of unfolding; the problems we have simply show us the deficiencies that we must correct, and this promotes the development of consciousness. That is to say, this is how we learn to relate with each other. When the social body is cured, there are no longer any symptoms.
The men and women who renounce to a personal life transform society by who they are, by their presence. They have no expectations from society; on the contrary, they feel indebted to humanity and offer their lives through interior and exterior work. They teach not only from pulpits and lecture halls; they teach with their very lives, fulfilling in themselves the ideal they wish to transmit.
Human beings who participate interiorly deepen their relationship with society through their reserve of energy, through work on themselves and in their active collaboration in good works for the welfare of humanity. In this way they embody the ideal of spiritual realization and put it within the reach of all human beings.
Reprinted from The Art of Living in Relationship