6/27/11

Moral Compass or Energy Crisis

I've been thinking a lot lately about why so many people with clearly articulated moral stances fail to live up to their values. Of course there are no shortages of examples in the news with Congressman Weiner being the most recent public figure to fall from grace. Apart from his unfortunate last name which has been the subject of ridicule the likes of which hearken back to many a boy's worst middle school moments, Congressman Weiner has been finding out who his true friends are and it seems the list is decidedly smaller than it was when he was still thought to be a man of virtue and integrity. I suppose he will learn, after spending several weeks under blistering press scrutiny, what others in his spot have learned; there is no mercy for those who fail to live up to the values they so righteously espouse.

Is the moral crisis in our country so widespread that virtue is no longer something we can count on from our leaders? One might be tempted to draw that conclusion but I think it is wrong to do so. Of course the result of any infidelity has moral consequences but to frame infidelity, or any other "moral failure" for that matter, in strictly moral terms misses something important. I am nearly certain (I don't know the man personally so I can't speak for him as though he were a friend) that Congressman Weiner is authentic when it comes to his sense of right and wrong. In other words, I doubt he is having a problem finding true north in his life. Nevertheless, he seems to struggle with keeping to true north and has, as so many do, strayed off course in ways that have very serious consequences for him, his family, and his colleagues. Fortunately, the vast majority of us don't have our indiscretions exposed in such publicly humiliating ways - but, as Congressman Weiner discovered, new technologies have a downside when it comes to anonymous encounters.

Years ago, when I provided counseling services to sex addicts, I was always interested to see how morally true most of my clients were. They knew as well as anyone that the shame of doing something you know is wrong creates a strong compulsion to hide. As shame intensifies, psychic energy is used to build thick containment walls between the bad behavior and that which we love.

Anyone who struggles knows that morality has its limits. It's only as good as the resources we have to use our personal energy wisely. The moral compass can help us avoid temptation if we trust in confession and honest introspection. The moral compass can't tell us what we long for. In fact, it can do little more than tell us what we must do to to be above social reproach.

Sometimes, often many times, our longings seem at odds with what we must do to be above reproach - especially when we measure ourselves in terms of externals like achieving success in jobs we don't really like or buying a dream home that chains us to a mortgage so high we have to work two jobs plus keep a line of credit open for rainy days. Morality says (I know this is simplistic) that if I behave and do all the right things, good things will come to me. When the good things come and we long for something more, we feel betrayed by the very morality we have served. Rebellion is the next logical step. This rebellion is not social rebellion because we're smart enough to know what the consequences for that are. It's a private rebellion where we reward our appetites while pretending to walk the straight and narrow.

So how can someone be morally true and make immoral choices? How can someone claim to be virtuous while engaging in behavior that, if exposed, threatens to undo all he/she has worked to create? It's easy to be cynical and conclude that Congressman Weiner and his ilk (people with power) are really corrupt and untrustworthy but those who know people who have strayed would disagree. In fact, the real moral crisis is not the act of hiding an extramarital tryst, it's the resulting fallout that leads to irreparable loss of trust on the part of those who discover the person they trusted is not what he/she seems.

Mr. Weiner and his predecessors are not ignorant about right and wrong. The moral compass has not been lost or broken. Instead, they lack the capacity to manage personal energy. In that respect, they are in good company. The vast majority of us fail here. That leads me to ask myself, what do I have in common with Congressman Weiner, et. al? We both have lives, schedules, responsibilities, and commitments that are too big to manage. In addition, we are morally compelled to hold ourselves to a level of "goodness" that gives us no legitimate exit. In the dark quiet we wrestle with the Catch-22 question, "Which is the greater shame - having an affair or failing to live up to the expectations that we have indiscriminately accepted as personal "responsibility"?

I started to look at my own clay feet many years ago when I felt crushed by guilt and shame for not being able to please all the people in my life like I should. It was during a very intense period of introspection when I started to think seriously about energy management as the true safeguard against moral failure. Early on, I started to recognize that self-pity, the feeling that no one really understands how hard it is to have such a demanding life, opens the door for looking for love in all the wrong places.

Later, I began to realize that we energy spenders find it nearly impossible to accept that we have limits. In fact, we like to think energy is a limitless resource that we can call upon at any time for any reason. It's magical thinking of the highest order. I started to tell my clients that the best way to avoid a catastrophic fall is to understand and carefully manage your personal energy. "Think of energy as a real commodity. It's like money or fuel for your car. Your checking account balance or gas gauge are the feedback indicators you have to watch. Ignore these indicators and you're in debt and stranded. Once there, you are vulnerable to impulsive and irrational behavior."

The thought of limiting how much energy I give to someone or something feels counterintuitive, even dangerous. That's because in the unlimited energy economy I have called home for a good part of my life, I have to keep giving in order to get. It wasn't until I was willing to risk losing relationships I thought important that I allowed myself to be on a more disciplined energy budget. I had to accept that, like all other human beings, I needed to take time to refresh, make time to reflect, and prioritize my relationships so that those who know me best have the ability to say, "You're overdrawing your energy account" so you need to pull back.

I'd love to say I never overspend but anyone who knows me would laugh. It's never easy to live a disciplined life. Not because it takes enormous moral courage to do so but because it takes energy to manage energy. That means for everything I give and all the good work I do, I have to keep a running record. When I start to overdraw, I have to pull back and recharge. I always feel guilty when I do this and nearly always toy with the idea of spending beyond my means. This is never more true then when I feel responsible for something or someone.

I've never taken pleasure in seeing other people fall - even people who claim to be too good to fail. But the news of late keeps me mindful of my own vulnerability and reminds me that even people who have it all can lose it. As the proverb so insightfully asks, "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?" The soul in this case it the energy center for each of us - that incredible, generative, powerhouse of love and goodness which must be managed with care.

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