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I was aroused from my daily morning funk during which I wonder “which American value will Donald Trump attack today?” when I saw this headline in our local paper’s “Health Tips” column: “Health-care generosity and connection have overwhelming benefits to you and to society.” The piece then proclaimed:

Rugged Narcissism

Help Others, Help Yourself OR Rugged Narcissism?—Ken Wolf

There are enormous benefits gained physically, emotionally and economically when you reach out to help others and support programs that do that too. Over and over, studies have shown that a generous, social and compassionate approach to your neighbor’s problems returns a bounty of benefits to YOU and society.

The authors then cited an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that, “contrary to expectations. . .even though the state [of Michigan’s] cost of expanding Medicaid coverage to more than 640,000 low-income people will hit $399 million in 2021, the economic benefits of providing the health care will more than make up for it.”

This was the case, the article pointed out, because the expansion created jobs and brought in an additional $150 million yearly in income and sales tax revenue. Further, the authors cited additional revenue to the state from the expansion, including a $432 million subsidy from the federal government, which would still be [should the Affordable Care Act survive] $162.3 million in 2021. In addition, there are the less quantifiable health benefits—less stress for patients, improved medical care, less chronic disease.

Regarding the personal benefits, authors of the article noted that increased “feelings of affection and connection stimulate production of the hormone oxytocin,” the hormone that bonds mothers and children but also “keeps muscles strong, reduces body wide inflammation, and dispels loneliness, a big contributor to cardiovascular woes.” All this means that helping your neighbor makes you healthier, and even perhaps younger biologically.

Then on that same morning, my attention shifted to the “Daily Guide ”meditation in my Science of Mind magazine* This particular day, the message was on “The Law of Mind,” a key idea of cause and effect found in many forms of metaphysical spirituality, indexed under the heading of New Thought in Wikipedia . The author wrote in explanation of this “Law” that “it means that [what and how] we think will return to us as some form or condition in our lives. . . . Are we thoughtful, optimistic, ready to participate? If so, we will generally find these positive outcomes reflected in our days. On the other hand, if we are critical, negative and down on ourselves and others, our days will generally reveal gloomy, unsatisfying situations.”

This particular statement of New Thought philosophy is hardly new—we have long believed in an American form of karma expressed in the phrase “what goes around comes around,” or even “as a man thinketh, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Many intellectuals make fun of such “naïve” optimism and the term “positive thinking.” Yet here were two physicians promoting this notion that our thoughts really do matter to the sort of life we experience, and citing an article in a most respected medical journal to support their opinion.

This seemed oddly exhilarating to me. I was trained as a historian, taught to respect evidence and argument found in legitimate historical documents whose age and authenticity could be verified. We were not physical scientists, only relying on material evidence. We were allowed to assess motives and didn’t believe that “facts speak for themselves.” They had to be interpreted and we used the tools of logical analysis—deductive as well as inductive reasoning, to draw our conclusions. Yet we were taught not to rely on intuition or faith. . .and rightly so. But what was I to make of representatives of both science and religion (or spirituality) claiming that actions based upon what some would call faith (belief in a divinity within each of us in this case) could affect our physical well-being—and that these physical changes could be measured even if the thoughts that caused them might not be precisely explainable or measurable?

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Is the line between spirituality and science becoming blurred? Further, to go back to the argument of the “Health Tips” column, is the line between individual and social health and well-being also being made thinner or even erased? Are these people correct in suggesting that what makes economic and social sense also makes sense for the well-being of us as individuals? So what was happening to America’s time-honored belief in “rugged individualism,” the belief that personal freedom is more important than distributive justice or the common good?

Maybe it is time to recognize at a deeper level what is happening in this country now that our fellow citizens have installed Donald J. Trump and his deplorable authoritarian haters in our seats of power in Washington, D.C.

But let’s complicate this further by adding comments from a more traditional representative of American religion, the Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, who has for several decades run a “Center for Action and Contemplation” in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In his book Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, Rohr writes that breathing in and out “reveals the deepest pattern of all reality. Which is the cycle of taking in and giving back out. It is the shape of all creation,” he notes. “A person will suffocate if she just keeps breathing in. . . . What comes around must go around, or it does not come around again.” This image serves as a counterpart to the words of the physicians cited above. Helping others will help us, they said. Rohr mystically adds that if we don’t breathe out by helping others, we will die.

Maybe it is time to recognize at a deeper level what is happening in this country now that our fellow citizens have installed Donald J. Trump and his deplorable authoritarian haters in our seats of power in Washington, D.C. Individualism, long an enemy of the idea of the common good in U.S. history, has morphed into a form of rugged narcissism. People who disagree with Trump are automatically written off as enemies who need to “shut up” and even those who have been given high positions in the new administration are kept out of the loop, or on the very edge of the loop out of fear that they might try to talk our new “dear leader” into a less impulsive course of action. We are no longer interested in helping others; we are becoming suicidal in our selfishness.

It is encouraging to see the millions marching against the Trump agenda (though agenda is really too strong a word for his ill-prepared executive outbursts). It is also encouraging that millions of ‘Americans are calling their state and federal elected officials on a daily basis to register their disapproval of what is happening.

But this is not really enough. David Brooks, New York Times columnist, several days ago called Trump “a danger to the [Republican] party and the nation in its existential nature.” He said that “sooner or later all [Republicans] will have to choose what side they are on, and live forever with the choice.” Alarms are sounding, but Brooks needs some help from others in this country.

And it might be especially appropriate if my Christian brothers and sisters who voted in large numbers for Trump, apologized with a hearty mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa [my fault, my fault, my grievous fault] and joined some of the rest of us in openly and strongly speaking out against the dangerous policies, authoritarianism and immorality of our new leaders.

If they do not, they might soon have to say, in a new version of what were said to be Christ’s last words on the cross: “Father, forgive us, for we knew not what we were doing.”


Ken Wolf

*published by the “Centers for Spiritual Living,” formerly called “Religious Science,” a New Thought religious group, one of many founded in the 19th and early 20th century (Unity and Christian Science are two other famous such groups) that promote a positive thinking spirituality that believes individuals can use their minds to draw upon the divinity within each individual (and the Universe itself) to heal body, mind and soul.