Outside the Box

We are often told that we can’t solve our greatest problems today without thinking outside the box. But we are always creating boxes for ourselves, which confine our thought.

We are engaged in creating (we hope) a peaceful world order, based on a flourishing globalized economy, on collective security and the rule of law. But this world order, if we are fortunate enough to achieve it, will inevitably be very focused on the procedures and structures of government, of adjudication; it will be concerned with economic prosperity and equality within the narrow limits of toleration of our damaged planet; it will be concerned with the control of violence.

This cannot but focus us on the conditions of political stability, of state building, of economic growth. Unconsciously we narrow our focus; we study economic motives, political ambitions and strategies, the bases of workable coalitions, on ways of keeping the peace. We are aware in all this that people crave peace, order, a stable job, resources to feed and educate their families. This becomes our explanatory box. What gets lost from sight are other things which motivate human beings: their search for meaning, for a sense that their world is not out of control, for a conviction of their own worth, and beyond this for a sense of their own moral goodness. Briefly out, we lose sight of people’s spiritual motivations.

But then our best-laid plans are upset, knocked sideways, by behaviour which seems crazy, which is often self-destructive, where young people rebel against a situation in which they feel powerless, without meaning in their lives, and in the process often destroy the basis of their own economic and social life. Think of the suburbs of Paris in autumn 2005, where they burned the cars of their own neighbours. Think of the violence born of religious hatred, of which Al Qaeda is the most glaring example.

We struggle to understand this, in order to deal with it. And we often come up with explanations in economic and social terms; or else we just moralize: these are bad people, terrorists. Or else we think they are just crazy; this last is the abandonment of all attempts to explain.

We urgently need a disciplined exploration of these spiritual dimensions to human motivation. They can so easily turn bad: the conviction of moral goodness can be bought at the price of projecting evil on others and scapegoating. But they can also be turned around and become the most effective antidote to violence. Mandela and Archbishop Tutu helped break the potential cycle of revenge and violence in newly liberated South Africa; they did this because they turned this need to recover a sense of goodness away from vengeful retribution and towards an aspiration to free their country of its violent past by facing its horrors squarely and openly.

They were thinking, really thinking, outside the box, not just of economic and social explanations, but also of the recognized need people feel for retributive justice. They could take their compatriots with them out of the box because humans also need a creative horizon, a sense of a larger and better future. They understood this spiritual dimension and could speak to it.

We can think of other spiritual leaders of the 20th Century, of Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, who turned a fraught situation, ready to explode into violence, into something unexpected and constructive.

The same populations can be turned in one or other direction, and spiritual leadership can make the difference. Think of the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, many areas of which now harbour the Taliban. In the last years of the British Raj in India, this Pushtu-speaking population was mobilized by Ghaffar Khan, an ally of Gandhi. He was even known as the “Frontier Gandhi”. He mobilized them in a non-violent campaign to gain independence for India. He even spoke of “jihad”, in its higher meaning of spiritual struggle with yourself. In the end, the partition of sub-Continent trapped him on the Pakistan side of the line, and he was jailed by the Pakistan government. His movement has vanished. But he was able to answer some of the same spiritual needs, for dignity, for a sense of self-worth and efficacy, in a spirit of non-violence and respect for others in a pluralist India.

If we are ever tempted to think that any population is condemned by poverty, or lack of development, or its traditional religion to follow a violent, regressive path, this example should alert them. Leaders who can think out of the box can bring their people out of the trap. Whether they win or lose in the end, they provide beacons of hope to the rest of us.

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