The 2016 US Election has raised a lot of eyebrows and swirled up dust and din. There is polarization, anger and fear on a number of issues. The air is thick with disbelief and accusations. This bewildering period is best described by a tongue-in-cheek utterance of the 13th century poet Rumi:
"All fire and no light
All husk and no kernel."
The poet goes on to say, "Raise your words, not your voice; it is rain that grows flowers, not thunder."
However, to the thunderous applause of a section of the population, some politicians in this election year continue to make wild claims and extravagant promises. They conjure up calamitous situations and promise us the moon. Enter the timeless and beloved Mulla Nasruddin to make fun of this behavior. The 13th century mythological Mulla is a pivotal figure in Islamic folklore. Through his humorous teaching stories, profound and inconvenient truths are conveyed. Laughter opens up our hearts so that insights penetrate more deeply.
At a time in history when Muslims boasted of a global empire, spiritual teachers used witty stories of the Mulla to deflate the bloated and delusional egos of empire builders. In a story that has relevance to the situation in our country today, the Mulla peered into a well one moonlit night and was horrified to find that the moon had fallen into the bottom of the well. Eager to save the world from the calamity of a moonless existence, he rushed home to get a rope. After tying a hook at one end, he flung the rope into the well. The hook got hold of something. With all his might the Mulla heaved and puffed, and as the hook came loose, he fell on his back. He was delighted to see the moon restored to its proper domain! "Thank God, I came along," said the self-satisfied Mulla.
The human ego has an endless appetite for praise and lofty titles. In this presidential election, we hear and read daily claims that only one candidate is the Chosen One who can make America great again, the Great Protector who will save America from the hordes of neighboring invaders, pesky immigrants and foreign terrorists. This is reminiscent of the time when rulers in the Islamic empire employed poets to sing their praises and craft an imposing title to describe their God- appointed role on earth. Titles such as "God Gifted," and "God Exalted" became commonplace. A local prince once employed the Mulla to compose an appropriate title. It had to be succinct, invoke the name of God, and be unique. After much meditation, the Mulla announced a fitting title: "God Forbid"!
Sadly, unscrupulous leaders and their supporters in this election are unabashedly arousing fears for selfish political advantage. Spiritual teachers are emphatic in cautioning us that using exaggerated fear to manipulate others will, undoubtedly, result in unhappy consequences. Excessive fear is like fire. When used recklessly, it easily gets out of control and consumes all.
A mother brought her young son to the Mulla, complaining that she had tried everything to convince him to be less rude and rebellious. "Please," she said, "do something to put a little fear in his heart." The Mulla stared fiercely into the boy's eyes and commanded him to listen to his mother. He contorted his face terribly and let out deep growls. He looked and sounded so fearsome that the mother fainted and the Mulla rushed out of the room. When the mother regained consciousness, she berated the Mulla, "I asked you to frighten my son, not me." The Mulla replied, "Madam, when you invoke fear, it consumes everyone. Fear has no favorites. Did you not notice that I myself got so scared that I had to leave the room?"
The 2016 election year has provoked puzzling questions: Why is a section of the US population so closed minded and prejudiced? Why are basic moral values so easily sacrificed on the altar of partisan politics? Why is there so little discernment and critical thinking?
There are no easy answers. The Quran offers a clue: when there is prolonged anger, fear, hate, and desperation, "Truly it is not the eyes that go blind, but it is hearts within breasts that go blind" (22:46). A blinded heart cuts us off from our inner divine spark, our higher self. This has consequences. Bereft of a connection to our true essence, one of the consequences is that we become slavishly dependent on external authorities. A wise verse from the Tao Te Ching articulates the effect of this disconnection: "When people no longer believe in themselves, that is when they turn to authorities."
A Mulla story illustrates the absurd effect of this phenomenon. The Mulla was gravely ill, surrounded by family, friends and his wailing wife. The doctor arrived and a hush came over the room as he examined the Mulla. After quite some time, the doctor turned to the Mulla's wife and declared, "O honorable wife of the Mulla, only Allah is immortal. It is with deep sorrow that I have to inform you that your husband has passed away. His soul has flown to the bosom of God." As the doctor continued his eloquent remarks, the Mulla feebly protested, "No wait! I am alive! I am alive!" "Quiet!" retorted his wife, "The doctor is speaking. Don't argue with the doctor!"
Another result of a clenched heart is that our beliefs become rigid and uncompromising. When belief and reality clash, surprisingly, the former prevails. No matter what issue crops up in this election season, be it climate change, gun control, health care, or the birther controversy, facts and proofs are inconsequential. Some of us insist on clinging tightly to our beliefs no matter what the evidence reveals. "How ugly rings the metallic music of their rigidities and certainties," exclaims Rumi. Especially astonishing is the warped logic used to justify unbending beliefs.
Someone asked the Mulla, "Which is more useful, the Sun or the Moon?" "The answer is obvious," replied the Mulla. "We have plenty of light during the day, so the Sun is not necessary. But it is dark at night, so we need the radiance of the Moon. Therefore, the Moon is far more important than the Sun."
What is most important in this election is that we exercise our right to vote. There are enough people with awareness and compassion in our country to overcome any despair we might feel about the unique craziness of this season. Is it not amazing that in spite of what feels like abiding and rampant polarization, racism, and Islamophobia, the citizens of this nation twice voted into the White House someone of a mixed race with an unfamiliar and funny last name and a scary middle name? Take heart! And laugh at the Mulla's last story, which shows why we must resolve not to make any excuses when it comes to voting.
A neighbor knocked on the Mulla's door, asking to borrow his donkey so that he could carry his goods to the market. The Mulla was reluctant and so made up an excuse. "I'd like to, but someone else has already borrowed the animal." As luck would have it, just at that time his donkey in the stable began to bray. "But I hear the donkey!" exclaimed the neighbor. The Mulla, seeming indignant and offended, raised his voice, "Now who are you going to believe, me or the donkey?"