Plato clearly saw that the material realm is a sluggish and recalcitrant collaborator with Soul in the creation of a world–personal and social–that is truly good and beautiful. Even though we live in a messy, confusing, inconsistent world, however, we are blessed with the power to dream, and to shape the world, partially at least, into the image of our dreams. The dreams we dream spring from, and express, the depth of our humanity and our vitality.. So I wonder: do my dreams approximate those of Martin Luther King, Jr. or those of Willy Loman? I know what I like to say, but I must ask myself how I live, for it is only in the living of life that my true values manifest themselves. Joseph Campbell once said that we live in one world and babble about another.
Further, it seems that the society of which I am a part falters in its attempt to nurture the highest dreams of humanity, the dream of aiding the human family to align with each other and with the transcendental source, however it is understood. For our dreams–those we imagine and those we live–are the stuff of which our social systems are made. The need for structure and order in those systems molds them into powerful institutions that quickly become rigid bureaucracies.
Perhaps our inner values and outer behavior are strange amalgams of King’s dreams of love, and Loman’s dreams of social prestige and material success. It seems that our major institutions share this central dissonance in that they offer the great promise of lofty dreams, but deliver the tawdry disillusionment of the salesman’s silk stockings. Education promises learning, but many teachers deliver dry, rote memorization; medicine promises health, while doctors often deliver cold technique; the justice system promises equal justice for all, yet the courts deliver racial and economic discrimination; religion promises God’s love and forgiveness, while ministers with patriarchal authority deliver sin and Hellfire, building funds and empty ritual. Martin dreams, and Willy delivers.
These observations are tragic in the classical Aristotelian sense: greatness brought to ruin by a tragic flaw. The magnificent dream of America–liberty and justice for all–is corrupted by “The American Dream” which becomes more materialistic with each passing year. American institutions and America herself embody incredible promise and disillusioning heartbreak. The great voice of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, puts it this way: “Who am I? You know me, Dream of my dreams. I am America. I am America seeking the stars. America—Hoping, praying, fighting, dreaming, knowing there are stains on the beauty of my democracy. I want to be clean.”
In the light of the above, it is tempting to give up on our society and her institutions. To say “To Hell with it; be dirty if you want.” How simple it would be to heed Voltaire’s advice, and with Candide, to cultivate our own gardens. But to relinquish the dream of a better tomorrow and to sink into complacency might be the truest tragedy. It would mean that we had stopped reaching for the stars. No, with Langston Hughes, I want to be clean. I want America to be clean. I want our schools, our hospitals, our courtrooms, prisons and churches to be clean.
The truth that transformation starts with me is so obvious and so often stated that it borders on cliche. Be that as it may, It seems clear that if I value my integrity, I can only ask the world to be as compassionate as i am, as non-punishing as I am, as non-judgmental as I am. To ask more of others than I ask of myself seems self-indulgent and hypocritical. What good does it do to rail against the Willy Lomans of the world and to ignore the Willy Loman in myself? Willy will fight me, will sabotage me, just as he does the institutions of the world. I must ultimately see Willy for what he is: a self-created and powerful part of myself.
The quality of my character contributes to the character of the whole. Just as a beach is composed of countless grains of sand, so every act of every individual contributes to the spirit of all. While most of us will not be called to the center stage of the human drama, we each alter the world, infinitesimally but truly, by each kind or harsh word, each creative or destructive gesture as they unfold in small and seemingly insignificant moments. It has been said that the world will be a shade kinder or a shade more harsh simply because you and I have passed through it. That, to me, is an awesome responsibility. And if we are called to a wider social arena, let us hope that we can remember our belief in the power of love as Martin Luther King, Jr. did.
As Plato says at the beginning of this post, we live in a world that is inherently and perhaps eternally imperfect. Dr. King was not perfect, and neither is any human being. I like to think that the current population of the world is simply at a relatively early stage in the evolution of humanity. Wonders await us–if we can survive our childhood. But for now, Willy is with us, in our hearts and in the world, and he must be dealt with. I believe, however, that it is not helpful to see Willy–the materialistic imperfections of self and world–as an enemy in a war. The Buddha’s teaching that only love turns away anger is an ancient truth that Dr. King not only believed, but lived. Attack engenders defense and retaliation. Judgment is by its very nature divisive. So I must bring the Philistine in me, the materialist in me, the coward in me, and yes, the racist in me, to light, and once there, to acknowledge him with compassion and understanding. For if the Buddha is correct, it is from the ground of love that transformation can begin. Plato suggests that the most powerful teaching is not through words but through actions. The teacher simply points to, and lives, the light. The Martin in me (and I believe he is in all of us, dormant in some, quickened in others) needs to reassure and guide the darker parts of myself toward the light. Like everyone, Willy needs reassurance and guidance, and only then might he quiet down, might he entertain the possibility of more humane dreams, and discover the resources to live with kindness and grace.
And so, like Sisyphus, we trudge up the hill of personal and social transformation. Each day of our lives offers us new challenges that invite further growth. Life is a wonderful friend, for it never leaves us alone, always ready to throw another curve ball to disrupt our complacency. We often encounter Willy Loman along the way. Our personal lives as well as our social institutions can be profoundly disheartening, but the challenges and imperfections we encounter give energy and direction to the unfolding of beauty, much as the Colorado River formed the Grand Canyon. Martin invites us on a journey toward a more just and loving world, a world that shines like a pearl. Willy supplies the sand, the grist to soften our hard edges.