Recently, I was reminded of an old story regarding a prince residing in contemporary India. Living in a sumptuous palace, the prince had everything his heart desired — food, beautiful women, entertainment and an endless supply of material goods. Sequestered in the confines of his home, over a few days, he decided to venture outside the palace walls. He instantly became stunned after witnessing three tragic realisms of life: We all get old, get sick and die. As luxurious as his life had been, he knew there was no escaping these facts.
Agitated by what he saw, and burdened by unfulfilled desires, the prince ventured into the world to find the meaning of life. After years of learning under a sage and becoming an ascetic, he reached enlightenment on his own — understanding the true nature of oneself and the world — by simply sitting under a tree. Alone, he discovered the beauty in being present and conscious.
If it’s still not obvious, I’m talking about Siddhartha, the Buddha.
By reaching nirvana, or supreme liberation, Siddhartha came to realize the Four Noble Truths, which, in essence, state that your unconditional desires can never truly be satisfied, and in order to rid yourself of these cravings, one must become meditative, mindful and balanced.
I recite this story not because I practice Buddhism, but rather to instill an understanding behind the human flaws we’re exposed to so often in the news. Looking back at 2015, corruption in the quest for power was rampant. Whether it was from celebrities, politicians or business owners, each sector of society was in hot water over their own Watergate-type scandal. This, of course, is nothing new. Humans inherently tend toward corruption. Like a two-sided coin, our more insidious habits linger behind those that are more endearing qualities. But the news provides us with a medium with which to interpret a basic fact of humanity: Everyone faces internal struggles that they must fight or confront to prevent their problems from inflicting harm onto others.
Though Siddhartha’s beliefs appear dated, they remain equally valuable today. As many know, power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. This phrase helps explain part of the human condition; once we have something — in the form of sex, drugs, money, materials, etc. — we want more of it in an attempt to abate our endless desires, drawn to pursue something that’s ultimately unsatisfying. We often strive for pleasure and satisfaction, living to scratch every itch in the immediacy of each moment.
It’s important to recognize this reality not only because there’s much to learn from errors in human judgment (or lack thereof), but more importantly so we can try to curb our own corrupting tendencies. These problems are deeply personal; they linger constantly within us and can’t be simply kept at bay by the continuous hamster wheel of achieving transient pleasure.
Speaking optimistically, no one has to live in a state of constant yearning. Perhaps the most beautiful part of Siddhartha’s tale is that he was not special in and of himself. Siddhartha — or anyone else of high moral character — did not achieve such status upon exiting the womb. His life teaches us that we are all capable of reaching a more patient, enlightened state of consciousness through work. Character is developed over time, not inherited. For most people, it takes years of training and discipline to mold and shape our visceral, immediate drives.
So, how do you battle with your evil, corrupting self in the postmodern era?
At 22, having been stuck in the structures of student life, I’ll readily admit that I don’t know shit. However, there are many people who have fought internal battles with eventual success.
For instance, take the life of Warrick Dunn. In 1993, the former NFL running back lost his mother after a bank robber shot her. For many years, Dunn struggled with pain and anger, until 2007 when he forgave the still-imprisoned killer. For years, Dunn fought the instinctual urge to seek revenge, thereby retaining malice and spite. Instead, he worked to release the anger from his life and began a nonprofit, helping single mothers buy homes — a long-time dream of his deceased mother.
Or Linda Sarsour. As a 35-year-old community activist for the Arab American Association of New York, she fights Islamophobia and advocates reform for immigration policy, the voter registration system and the criminal justice system. Linda turns to reconciliation, diplomacy and community development to abate ubiquitous hate speech, particularly aimed at Muslim Americans. She’s involved in a swath of issues, concerning many sectors of the American public, including fundraising $1,000 to rebuild Black churches that have been burned down.
Or M.K. Asante. A 33-year-old rapper, author and professor at Morgan State University, Asante grew up in strife. According to his memoir, “Buck,” his brother was in and out of jail, his mother struggled with psychological ailments and his father had walked out of his life. Embittered, Asante was involved in the underground economy and had alienated some of the people closest to him. With the help of his mother, uncle and new school administrators, he confronted the issues in his life — external and internal — eventually going to college and becoming a positive influence to society.
These people are warriors who have fought hate, struggle and suffering. Their biggest source of meaning is understanding, reconciliation and facilitating the development of others. They embody an important lesson: When we connect with others on a human level and expand one another’s capabilities, our desires and dissatisfaction seem to dissipate.
As the philosopher Peter Singer explains, connecting with others and aiding them in their struggle is one way to release you from the “hedonic treadmill” stimulating a consuming, desiring lifestyle.
In four years at this University, for what little I know, it seems that these people have discovered something important: Finding happiness comes from an appreciation for the long-term, discovering inner peace in the moment and dedicating oneself to the causes of others.