Righteousness deserves no focus

This entry is dedicated to my friend Sina, considering how many times we’ve pondered this subject together.

The question of right and wrong has always burdened the religious mind. Some consume most of their energy seeking to toe an invisible line that, to them, guards salvation. But I have come to believe that while righteousness fully deserves our attention, it does not deserve our focus. To explore this idea further, I offer an analogy.

Today I was driving on the freeway down to Phoenix from Flagstaff. As I drove, I noticed the lines on the road, the traffic signals, and the signs for speed and services. I was always aware of these things – even when I wasn’t aware of them – because for each and every moment of that three hour drive I had to stay within lines not too much wider than my own car. Such a narrow path demands constant, considerable attention.

But the fact was, once I set myself on that course I largely ignored these restrictions. My focus was on the beauty of the day; on my thoughts; on the feel of driving which I enjoy so much. The “rules” had my attention, but my memory of the trip has nothing to do with the rules I followed.

If I had spent the whole trip angonizing over the exact distance I was from each lane, over my exact speed, over the exact moment when I signaled to switch lanes – people would not reward me for my exactitude, but would think I had a mental disorder. In fact, I bet I was far from “perfect” in my observance of every rule. However, the aim was to safeguard my journey, not judge my performance.

I think the “rules of the road” are like the rules of life. Religion sets out a path of spiritual fulfillment and tells us how to successively traverse that path. Now, I could completely ignore all these rules; I might even get away with it for a while, but sooner or later it would lead to ruin, just as it would in my car. There is value to following these laws, even if I don’t enjoy them as much as I would careening along at 120mph.

And if all God had wanted was a group of souls to go from point A to point B, it would have been more efficient just to create them all at B, safe and content. But since we have this life ahead of us, there must be a greater wisdom in traveling than there is in arriving. It’s like our joyful memories of childhood: they are not memories of finally reaching adulthood, but of how fun it was to be kid! Who we are is not a distinct, end product, but the sum of all those moments of slow and steady growth. The journey makes us; the goal was in the traveling itself.

We follow the lines on the road to avoid a crash; we stay on the road so we can travel at high speeds and avoid damage; we stop at traffic lights to avoid collision with other travelers: All of these details deserve the utmost attention and consideration, but not a single one of them deserves our focus. Life is much more than just what we do or how: it’s in the flavor, the experience and the effect. The real question is: where are these rules taking us? What is the goal of righteousness? What fruit is to be had from a life lived rightly?

One Sufi poet said it thus, writing as if quoting God, saying:

“O handful of earth! If I had not heaven for recompense and hell for punishment, would you ever think of me? If there were neither light nor fire, would you ever think of me? But since I merit supreme respect you must adore me without hope or fear; and yet, if you were never upheld by hope or fear would you ever think of me? Since I am your Lord, you should worship me from the depths of your heart. Reject all that which is not I, burn it to ashes and cast the ashes to the wind of excellence.”

The rules of morality do demand continued obedience, but even as important to success as such rules may be, once the end is accomplished they live on only in the fact of success itself. Their own substance is forgotten. Does the virtuoso remember how he keyed the piano? His soul is home only to the music, and all else a required means to that end.