What is the right thing to do?
“Do not lie.”
“Be kind to others.”
“Be grateful for what you have.”
These are some statements I heard as a child. They were spoken by well-meaning adults trying to make me virtuous. Helping my little self, develop a moral compass of right and wrong.
Often I did not know why I must study something that did not interest me? Why must I not cheat when others are doing it? Why must I share my birthday cake with others, when I wanted to eat it all by myself? Or why I must be grateful for life circumstances that I never asked for?
No one ever explained why I must be virtuous? Neither did I bother to ask. I just assumed that is how I was meant to behave. And when I failed the moral behavior expected of me, it was normal to hide my actions, feel guilty and ashamed.
“Respect your teachers.”
“Is this how you talk to elders?”
If virtue was unexplained, respect for elders was demanded. While lack of virtue was pardonable, disrespecting elders was a grave crime.
This respect essentially meant do not question, disregard or disagree with authority. Do as you are told. If you follow what you are told, the system -family and school - will protect and provide for you. And if you don’t then you will be punished, isolated or rejected.
This is not just my story. This is most people’s story. The name of this story is social conditioning.
If we want to fit in (and like hell, we all want to!), then we have to be virtuous and respectful of what our religion, culture and society tells us.
But what happens when we do as we are told?
We simply act virtuous and respectful, because we are conditioned to do so. We are told to behave in a certain way, feel a certain way and think a certain way. But when life circumstances evoke different thoughts, feelings and behavior, than what we have been conditioned to experience, we feel fearful, angry, resentful, conflicted, confused, guilty and ashamed.
When we do things that we are told to do, and we do it out of the fear of the consequences, we may become cowards and hypocrites. And to look good in our own eyes, we may start mouthing moral values that are not our own. We may start enacting an image of how we should be, than how we actually are.
That is the difference between idealism and actuality.
Idealism pursues a notion of virtue. A moral phantom that does not exist. Or exists only in our mind. The ideal lover. The ideal husband. The ideal daughter. The ideal employee. The ideal son. The ideal mother. Not only do we fool ourself, we fool others into believing something about us that does not exist. When we expect this idealism from others, we bind them into behaving in a certain way, if they want our love and affection in return. It is a transaction. You give me this. I give you that.
Actuality is taking note of what is happening now. Of the world inside us -thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions. It does not necessarily mean acting out whatever we feel. It means taking note without any preconceived notion of right, wrong, good, bad, success, failure, gain, loss. It means having no idea how I am meant to behave. Cause the behavior that stems from what I have heard, read or seen is not my own but a good moral imitation.
This is where freedom comes in.
Often people believe we have to fight for freedom. We have to claim our freedom. We have to struggle for freedom. How many freedom struggles have taken place in the history of humankind that have resulted in freedom from poverty and corruption? Each new government promises a better future and ends up becoming the oppressor. Then there is another freedom struggle and the cycle goes on.
True human freedom is seeing our conditioning for what it is.
Without the desire to do anything about it. Without the desire to be a better person. Without the desire to be virtuous. Without the desire to be respectful. Just seeing as it is. In this moment.
In that seeing stems an action that is not born out of conditioning. That is not a compulsion to please others. Or to conform to social norms. That action comes from freedom. And what comes out of freedom is true virtue.
If I am loyal in a relationship out of the fear of losing my partner, then that loyalty has no meaning. It is a product of fear. If I suppress my feelings because it may upset the apple cart of relationship, then that suppression is not sensitivity. It is a creation of fear. If I seek security in an intimate relationship through a legal-social contract, then that security is false. It is an invention of fear.
Fear can take many forms and expressions. So can love.
Love flowers in freedom. Not compulsion, obligation or guilt. And virtue is a product of love and freedom. We are sensitive because we love someone. We are willing to go through hardship because something or someone is dear to us. We are willing to commit because it seems the right thing to do. Not because we are told it is right. Because it feels right in every cell of our being.
Love is not an idea. Love is an experience.
Just as virtue cannot be enforced, love cannot be cultivated. Only the conditions can be created for it to happen. And the primary condition is freedom. Not the freedom we claim from others. But the freedom we give ourselves. The freedom we always had, but relinquished to others as children.
It is time to remind ourself that freedom is intrinsic and natural to our being. It can be covered in conditioning, but it can never be lost. If we are willing to face isolation, rejection, hurt and emotional pain, life will reward us with a freedom that is unfathomable.
A love beyond measure. A virtue beyond compare.