Aiming for the middle


The second century Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, once wrote, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

Every new year seems to drive many of us into just this kind of existential crisis. We look back on the past year or past several and lament that we weren’t more healthy, better partners, better parents, better friends… better people. We resolve to accomplish things that we have heretofore failed to do. This is why treadmills and running shoes fly from their shelves this time each year.

Just as we strive to lose a few pounds of physical fat — or fiscal fat, as is the case in Washington — we should seek to reinvigorate our communal health. In fact, we should make that a core communal resolution. Until now, we have allowed our city to be defined as one that is sickened by crime, poverty and general malaise. In short, we have failed to reject the sense of injury.

In failing to reject that sense of injury, we have permitted real injury to take root, to become manifest. Of course there are those among us who have been unwavering cheerleaders, but absent substantial signs of progress, their hopeful clarion rings hollow and glib. Paradoxically, their pleas only serve to validate the despair.

To this, the unrepentant hopefuls might quote Fredrich Nietzsche’s famous quip: “Those who were seen dancing were thought to be crazy by those who could not hear the music.”

It’s not that some of us can’t hear the music. It’s that we have sat in silence so long, we doubt the music ever existed. That is the real injury.

How then do we proceed? The Pollyanna path is easy, but leads nowhere. The path of despair is difficult, but it too, leads nowhere. Where then is the middle path — the path that can be believed — the path that beckons real response.

Without suggesting any change in religious beliefs, questions such as these are succinctly addressed by the Buddhist concept of the Noble Eightfold Path (ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga).

This concept is the last of the Four Noble Truths, which are central to Buddhism. It is termed “noble” because it leads the believer from darkness and distress into light and freedom. The Noble Eightfold Middle Path is also sometimes called the “Middle Way” because it is based in a lifestyle free of both self-mortification and hedonism.

In other words, neither puritanical abstinence and self-denial nor bacchanalian excess leads us anywhere good.

Proverbs 30:8 says something very similar: “Keep deception and lies far from me, Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion.”

We have ample evidence to affirm the folly of immoderate living. Among both the high and the low, excesses have caused us collective injury. This injury, in turn gave us reason to anticipate more would follow.

As Romans 6:23 begins, “The wages of sin is death…”

Without mining too deeply into the literality of the term, the “sin” we see around us is our collective failure to live like the town we want to be… to fail to plan for prosperity… to fail to reject the injury.

Hopefully, those bad habits — like holiday pies and cakes — can be put behind us. Just as personal fitness regimes begin with lacing up those sneakers and taking the first few steps, so, too does our journey to a better hometown. We must reject the injury and push toward the middle path.