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The God Complex

The Problem with Certainty

Any serious contemplation of peace as a form of successful activism must reference Gandhi, one humble individual who challenged and defeated the British Empire in India. Neil Clark, writing for The Guardian, says: “Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the Mahatma in the over-heated, highly polarized political climate of 2019 is how noble ends cannot be achieved through ignoble means. Personal integrity is paramount, however righteous we believe our cause.”


What a reality check! Sure, we can point fingers at others, especially our political leaders these days, and cry “Hypocrisy!” True enough, but what about ourselves? In those heated conversations about how terrible “they” are behaving, can we honestly say that our contribution is increasing peace, in those very moments? It’s a real challenge to speak our mind and heart, to state our position clearly (especially when it’s at odds with others), without resorting to verbal violence based in an arrogant certainty that we are right.


I heard an interesting term on a Ted Talk the other day: The God Complex. This describes the mindset of infallibility. I cringed as I heard the author of a book on this subject describe what it is. Seems that I have it, now and again. I know I’m right, in those instances, which means that I know someone else is wrong. That sets the stage for arguments and it’s surely the foundation of all warfare: the righteous imposing their certainty on others who don’t agree with their view of reality or ambitions.


There’s a powerful scene at the end of the classic film Bridge of the River Kwai where Alec Guinness’s character suddenly “sees the light.” He realizes how his own God Complex has blinded him to the truth of things. He takes off his hat (while bullets fly around him) and says something like, “What have I done?” He wakes up from the prideful self-delusion he’s been living in.


Will it take something dramatic to wake humankind up to the insanity of how we are living on this planet? Personally, will it take something seriously disruptive to get our attention, to alert us to how our version of the God Complex is influencing what we believe and how we are behaving?


Lao Tzu famously said: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different result. So, contemplating both our personal lives and the global environment, what would it look like to change direction, to do something different?


I had an encouraging personal experience recently when I moderated three panels at an all-day Peace conference here in Ashland. In several instances, it was clear that panelists had widely divergent views on important topics. Yet, they seemed to be able to express their views freely and participants expressed appreciation for how everyone’s comments seemed to weave together. In other words, the diversity of viewpoints became an asset, not a liability.


It helped that I was listening carefully to capture various nuggets to synthesize in my relatively brief comments and to inspire my questions of the panelists, further blending together what each was saying. I chuckled later when people thanked me for doing this, because it really was so simple. I just listened for the resonance. Of course, sometimes a person in my position that day injects their own opinion, which can ruin the weaving. I came away inspired to adopt this role more often in conversations, that is, to experiment with setting aside my view and moderating the views of others, not to censure or challenge, but to appreciatively bring them together in some way.


The God Complex would certainly get in the way in situations like that!


One fascinating conclusion we reached at that conference relates to the power of appreciation. We contemplated how the simple act of appreciating someone in words can have a profoundly powerful impact, both for the person and in the relationship. In today’s climate of vicious back biting and accusation, wouldn’t it be refreshing to personally champion and demonstrate this kind of integrity? We may believe passionately in our “cause,” whatever it might be, but instead of wielding it like a sword, what might happen if we carried it like one piece in a puzzle that all of us were building together?