The courage to live by our principles can guide us as we navigate life’s challenges
Life can be very confusing at times. We face important decisions every day, so how do we figure out the best way forward?
Governments have legislation and prescribed ideals, yet so much is wrong with them. Most citizens have little trouble living within the limits of these laws, but, nonetheless, they do little to prevent people with wealth and power from hurting others.
I grew up Catholic and learned that following the rules of the church would guide me on the right path. I came to realize, however, that doing so did not eliminate confusion from my life. I saw many things in this institution that seemed contradictory to the message of Jesus, which said to prioritize doing good to our neighbours. At the same time, I noticed radical Catholics putting their lives on the line, primarily under violent dictatorships in Latin America, in an effort to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus.
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One aspect of Catholic teaching did make sense to me. I learned that an informed conscience is the highest authority a person can follow. Being informed, however, requires that I recognize that what is moral is not always what is prescribed by law or doctrine.
Clarity came through a beautiful gift of the Indigenous Renaissance in Canada. Though the details vary from nation to nation, these teachings emphasize the principles of life that allowed people to thrive in a harsh environment for thousands of years. They are also consistent with wisdom writings from other cultures, including my own.
These principles include humility, recognizing my giftedness and the giftedness of each of my neighbours, and honesty. They teach us to respect other people and the world around us and have the courage to live by these principles. We are to seek and live wisdom and truth. We also embrace a love that extends from ourselves through our communities and all humanity. Other principles include compromise, forgiveness, hope, and determination. All of these are to be lived in balance and with a spirit of gratitude.
Looking at the world through this lens, things begin to make sense. Examining the history of the 20th century, for example, we can see how a betrayal of humility and wisdom led to the carnage of the First World War. We can see how disrespect, dishonesty, and a failure to love led to the Holocaust and the many other examples of genocide we have witnessed.
We have also seen great successes in the post-Second World War era, where compromise, forgiveness, hope, and respect resulted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the reconstruction of Europe, and the founding of the United Nations. While humanity is far from perfect, we have thus far been able to avoid the destruction of all life despite our capacity to destroy all life on the planet.
There are no shortcuts to living a principled life, and part of the challenge we face is knowing that we will fall short of these ideals. Still, each day is an opportunity to gather our courage and do the right thing.
Just as each of us ignores our principles from time to time, so do our institutions.
As we choose our leaders, make our laws, and develop foreign relations, what is respectful, true, and loving must always take priority over what is profitable and exploitative.
The 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
It takes effort to be a responsible human being. Our principles call us to act, and they guide us in doing the right thing.
Institutions may shatter all around us, but life-giving principles never fail.
Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.
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