In this time of religious division, it’s our longing for union with god or the spirit that unites us. This feeling for the divine, this yearning for more than the material world, is deeper than religious beliefs and creeds, which often lead to self-righteous fundamentalism, hatred, and war.
Instead, our holy longing can turn us into lovers, whether we are Muslims yearning for paradise, to be embraced by Allah, or Christians longing to be taken up in the rapture and embraced in the arms of Christ, or Jews wishing for the return of the Messiah, or Zen Buddhists longing for satori, or Hindu meditators yearning for moksha, or union with God.
Today experts in mental health care recognize this longing as a yearning for transcendence, a moment in which people are lifted up out of themselves into something larger than their individual lives. And they seek this experience through their religious institutions or their spiritual practices. Religion promises the faithful a form of immortality that releases them from the shame of their flaws, their powerlessness, and their fear of death.
But I have found in my counseling practice with people of many denominations that our holy longing is a secret feeling with many disguises. And it has a dark side, which plays out when people yearn compulsively for food, drugs, or alcohol, believing that substances can quench their thirst. Or when they fall in love and long for a romantic partner who alone, they believe, can save them from suffering. Or when they idealize a spiritual teacher who, they think, embodies perfection and join a community that requires that they sacrifice parts of themselves. In each case, they ask a person or substance to solve what is essentially a spiritual problem – and in each case they typically meet a shadow, their ideal shatters, and they are left heartbroken and disillusioned. At these times, we need the help of spiritual shadow-work.
Keen observers also can witness holy longing going awry today on the global stage. Islamic fundamentalists sacrifice their lives longing for paradise, mistaking death for transcendence. And Presidents Reagan and Bush, like other evangelical Christians, yearned for salvation – not just for themselves, but for all the world – through a belief in Jesus. Therefore, their messaging and their actions had self-righteous religious underpinnings.
Osama bin Laden was Bush’s mirror image: he too viewed himself as savior of the Muslim world. He apparently believed that he was chosen by Allah to protect his people from the infidels. Like Bush using Biblical scripture to reinforce his certainty, bin Laden used the Koran to buttress his ideology and to build his base. And he turned a deaf ear to moderate Muslims who urged a more conciliatory approach to the West.
Saddam Hussein, too, admitted that he was willing to die for his cause. In a CBS interview with Dan Rather, who asked the former leader of Iraq whether he was afraid to die, Hussein responded, “Whatever Allah decides. We are believers. We believe in what He decides.”
Today these leaders have been replaced by the head of Isis, who seeks to create a caliphate of Muslim believers across the world. But the dynamic is the same: true believers are unconsciously identified with dogma, take it literally, believing it to be reality, rather than seeing through it as belief. Their longing becomes concrete, a divine impulse distorted into a lethal error.
But, like most heroes, political and religious saviors have an Achilles heel, a fatal flaw, a dark side. In literature, these flaws make for compelling reading. On the world stage, there is a lot more at stake if they remain blind to their ambitions.
What is the underbelly of the savior? He cannot feel his vulnerability. He cannot hear other points of view; his alone is right. And most of all he must hide his shame beneath his grandiosity, his fear beneath his aggression. This is the inside story of the terrorist in each of us, who must be right, who must be on God’s side.
Do you recognize this shadow character in yourself as you read this? Can you feel that part within you that clings to righteous indignation, black and white certainty beyond all doubt? That voice within you that insists on being heard, overriding others, dismissing their feelings, demanding that they do it your way?
The mystics in the world’s religious traditions interpret the holy longing for a holy war in a different way: Sufis, mystic Muslims, don’t interpret jihad as a holy war against infidels; for them, it’s an inner war waged against inner enemies in the human soul. Christian mystics don’t long for the second coming of Jesus but for the birth of their own Christ nature, just as mystical Jews yearn for the emergence of their own Messiah nature.
Tragically, history is littered with the deaths of millions of people who were victims of saviors playing out their inner battles on the outer battlefield. Today, with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of men who have shown that they will try to get what they want by any means necessary, as a way of fulfilling their own holy longings, that is no longer an option. The citizens of the world don’t need a replay of the Crusades.
We need leaders who are conscious of themselves, their motives, and their longing for immortality – and how it can go awry with the abuse of power. We need leaders who are conscious of their own vulnerability and will not battle their personal demons on the international stage, adding their disowned evil to the epidemic of destructiveness around us. We need leaders who can hold many points of view, feel empathy for those different from them, yet still take stands for principle and against brutality.
The war on terror demands that Americans ask ourselves: what are we willing to die for? What do we long for that is greater than our individuality? Will we become the terrorists we fear by holding the rest of the world hostage to our beliefs, by using pre-emptive strikes against other peoples, by breaking treaties and acting unilaterally, as if might makes right?
On the other hand, we must not ignore the concrete reality in which others live and die. We must not psychologize concrete reality, claiming it’s all projection, an artifact of the mind. How do we cease making true believers Other, yet acknowledge the very clear and present danger that they represent—no, not represent but actually present.
This is where inner work and outer work collide. When we acknowledge the humanity of those who seek to do us harm, yet we act with as much conscious intention as we can muster. When we acknowledge the darker motives in our own initiative and the unforeseen consequences that always result from “doing good,” yet we act with conscious intent. Much like Arjuna in the Baghavad Gita, who must make war on his own family members for a higher purpose, we are bound by duty and by love to act on behalf of humanity.
The holy longing is leading us unconsciously as a global culture, and we are far more likely to bring on its dark side if we cling to the fiction of our innocent self-righteousness than if we have a relationship to our own dark sides as individuals and as nations.