As the ubiquitous, exhausting and often disturbing election campaign trudges on, I am often reminded of something my high school classmate Artie used to say. We were sports fans and conversations often focused on arcane coaching tactics, game plans and strategic philosophies. Invariably, Artie would find a way to remind us, in his thick Brooklyn accent, "It don’t mean nuttin' if you ain't got the horses."
By horses he meant players—specifically, the outstanding players a winning team needs. You can have the smartest and most inspiring leaders, he argued, and they can put together an impeccable game plan and make smart tactical decisions, but if the horses don't deliver—that is, if your players can't execute—it's all for naught. Sure, you'll do better than you would with mediocre coaches and stupid game plans, but you won't win championships.
I think of Artie’s saying in this election season because it's easy to forget that the candidates maneuvering are like guys vying for the head coaching position and their policies are like game plans. But we're the players, and the outcome of our collective dramas depends on us, regardless of who’s in office or what their policy wonks dream up.
Of course, elections matter. The people who occupy the White House, Congress, state and local offices and have power, and anyone who thinks they're all the same is either deluded or in denial. Policies matter too. Social, economic and political philosophies matter. The left-right arguments over the size of government or foreign policy may matter far less than the shouting heads on cable TV would have us believe, but they matter nonetheless.
They matter like game plans and coaching strategies matter. But, as Artie said, you gotta have the horses. If we, as citizens, family members, voters, employers and employees, make foolish, short-sighted decisions; act out of selfish, greedy or destructive motives; interact with hostility or indifference; satisfy our needs with no regard for the welfare of others and the planet … well, we can elect the second coming of George Washington and fill his cabinet with Platos, Buddhas and Einsteins, and we will still have intractable problems, government actions will still produce unintended consequences, and we'll still have talking heads screaming about how incompetent our leaders are.
Come to think of it, in our current, highly limited state of collective consciousness, with our hearts and minds clouded by ignorance, stress and ego-driven fantasies, we wouldn't recognize a Lincoln or a Socrates, or a Jesus Christ for that matter, if they campaigned in our living rooms. Besides, they’d walk away from the political process in disgust long before we had a chance to reject them.
Every election cycle we hear candidates call for all kinds of reform. But reforms need more than good ideas and templates; they need Artie's horses. Without wise, compassionate, sensible players, we get sound and fury signifying nothing … or worse, costly upheavals that change little or create conditions worse than the ones they replaced. Sure we need political reform. And educational reform. And economic reform. But most of all we need, as a prerequisite to the others, internal reform.
We need consciousness reform that liberates us from narrow vision, conditioned thinking and attachment to materialism; and we need spiritual reform that opens hearts, expands minds and reveals the interconnected oneness of our souls. We not only need spiritually evolved leaders; we need equally evolved citizens. It is easy to underestimate the impact on the larger whole of the words we speak and the actions we take as we move through life, but spiritual and scientific insights alike suggest that they interact like the sound waves of musical instruments to produce symphonies or cacophonies that show up as newspaper headlines.
I know this may sound hopelessly idealistic or too long-term to contemplate when urgent problems cry out for solutions. There is truth to that, of course, but is it not even more delusional to believe that all will be well if only candidate X is elected or ideology Y prevails? There is no reason we can’t address our crises as best we can while also accelerating the spiritual evolution of the species from the inside out. That’s a job for each of us, and especially for ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, swamis, roshis and other spiritual leaders who can transcend dogma.
At the very least, turning the spotlight on spiritual transformation might free us from the persistent illusion that our well-being hinges on electoral outcomes and political ideologies. The greatest spiritual teachers have taught that personal fulfillment is an inside job and social change begins with awakening the love, wisdom and compassion within each of us. “Without love,” said the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, “however hard you try to reform the world or bring about a new social order, or however much you talk about improvements, you will only create agony. So it is up to you.”
We dream of global peace and shared prosperity like sports fans dream of championships. Why shouldn’t we? As Henry David Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” My old pal Artie would say good players are the foundation. We are the players.