A Mary Oliver poem, “One or Two Things,” describes the gnarled root at the source of our discontent as,
“…like a sharp iron hoof,
at the center of my mind.”
This is of course, pointing to our mortality. Not just the fact that we will die some day, but that we are fully aware of it well ahead of time. It creates for us a shadow we cannot get out from under, the very thing that philosophers, theologians, and poets love to pick at and explore. But Oliver goes on to write:
“But to lift the hoof!
For that you need
It is a simple wisdom, nothing new and yet always true. Human beings are organized around compelling ideas, and our history is a catalogue of the compelling ideas that once had the centripetal force to hold a society together, until another idea came along — usually from the outside — and replaced it. Compelling ideas have power and they help us keep moving as individuals and as societies when faced with struggles that challenge us physically, emotionally, politically, or spiritually.
Ideas like resurrection, reincarnation, and nirvana have lifted that hoof off the center of the minds of billions of people, and continue to do so. The right to representation was the idea that gathered the colonies in revolution against an empire. Later, the preservation of slavery and the preservation of a union in which all people are equal were two ideas that propelled armies to slaughter one another. Ideas can have power, real power.
Conversely, the absence of a powerful core idea leads to the dissolution of families, communities, and even whole societies. We seem to be living through such a time. The United States has espoused and gathered this society around the ideas of Liberal Democracy, specifically: elections between separate political parties, the separation of powers, the rule of law, universal suffrage, civil liberties and individual rights, political freedom, the separation of religion and state, etc. Yet, as we have seen unfold in the news almost daily for some time now, all of these ideas have been challenged. The once powerful ideas of Western democracy are now competing with the idea of power, and power for its own sake. Will the historic ideas of our democracy continue to hold enough power to sustain a cohesive nation or will the idea of power for power’s sake replace it?
This is not an abstract question. We face it here in Geneva in our coming election. You and I need to discern which candidates for public office simply want the power of the office to serve themselves and the special interests who empower them, and which ones see the power of the office as a public service and vehicle to enact or carry on the ideas of democracy?
This is not pie-in-the-sky either. The ideas that drive us as voters, and the ones that drive those who orchestrate the reigns of power at any level of government, truly matter. Is the political party, and their candidates, guided by strong and compelling ideas bigger than merely capturing or holding onto power? It should be fairly easy to decipher these days. I would encourage you to vote based upon the ideas of our democracy, and so choose the candidates you believe also embrace and are guided by those ideas.