Your Moral Compass, Explained

Let me explain how having an actual moral compass works, in a world that says ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’.   

Then you’re against them.  End of blog.  Or if you’re, then, “with them”, great — they’ve accumulated an entirely useless addition to their broken ideology.  Either way, it doesn’t work.  

For instance, ‘if you’re not anti-racist, you’re racist’.  Welp, if you have an actual moral compass — and we all do but some are more calibrated than others — then you’re going to be labeled a ‘racist’ at the end of this very short negotiation.  (In another metric it might have been ‘witch’, ‘faggot’, ‘nigger lover’, ‘commie’, ‘slut’, ‘incel’, ‘tranny’, ‘born out of wedlock’, ‘salad shooter’, ‘heathen’, etcetera ad nauseam.  We can track most of what we need to know about history based on which insult was the most charged, and where, and for whom.)  

It won’t trouble you too much, because the world’s labels come and go like the tide; meanwhile, you’re still, and always, all alone on the open sea of your individual project of integrity.  The only guidance you have is your compass, and guess what?  Your compass isn’t like the Google Maps lady, who will yell at you the second you drift off course, calibrating flip-a-bitch plan A, B, and C.  Your compass just sits quietly where it’s mounted, right next to the helm.  A compass points north, and that’s literally all it does.  It doesn’t tell you how to get there, or what might happen if you don’t, or where the rocks are meanwhile, the storms, the lighthouses, the currents — none of that.  Worst of all, following your compass won’t save you from the insults, or excuse you from their consequences.

But the phrase ‘moral compass’ is so apt, and as an analogy works so well, because it captures perfectly an important spiritual truth: culture — ie human group-think — cannot, never has, and never will, replace or interrupt the relationship between your lodestone and the north pole.  You can spend your entire life neglecting your moral compass, convinced it’s not even there, and it will still calmly, consistently point north.  

Where would everyone end up, if we all followed our individual compasses?  North.  This is what Tolstoy meant when he said, “If we all fought for our own convictions, there would be no war.”  You’d have to negotiate your rocks and storms and currents to get there, I’d have to negotiate my rocks and storms and currents to get there, we could start at entirely different places on the map, but we’d all end up north.  The moral north pole.  

Some people understand this and some people don’t.  The people who don’t are easy to recognize: they are engaged in either or both of two activities: abandoning their own compass in favor of someone else’s, or attempting to force someone else to abandon theirs.  Neither of these activities gets anyone anywhere but lost; but no matter how lost anyone gets, everyone’s compass still quietly points north.

So obviously I’ve been called a racist now, half a dozen times or more in the last four months, for reasons that have nothing to do with my relationship to race, my own or anyone else’s.  I’m having a very nice discussion with a man I met in seminary, who is concerned that I’m a racist, and has worked himself around to the idea that I’m perhaps not racist, but still definitely not anti-racist.  I have acknowledged this is true; I am not anti-racist.  I try not to be anti-anything, frankly, because it’s spiritually bankrupt, and represents at best a misalignment of my energies.  And if people don’t get that, that’s okay, because they are welcome to be in alignment or misalignment to their own moral compass, as am I.  It’s always an individual project.  I’m heading north, and if north looks ‘racist’ or ‘not anti-racist’ to you, that’s no concern of mine because it was north a long time before your label, and it’ll still be north a long time after.  

We can’t be scared of labels, because the people who assign us those labels are demonstrating, through the assignment, that they don’t understand how a moral compass works, so obviously I’m not going to chuck mine overboard and say, hey, you look lost!  Let’s be lost together!  The worst thing we could do for them and ourselves is capitulate to their lostness.  The only thing worse than one person disconnected from their moral compass is two people disconnected, and arguing about which way is north.  No two set of rocks and storms and currents are the same, in any case.

So what is ‘north’?  North is the ultimate spiritual truth that we are all one consciousness, experiencing itself as a mosaic of individualized perspectives — an armada of individual lodestones.  North, by definition, transcends even the most advanced or regressive, illuminated or savage, experiments of human culture.  We need it because there is no such thing, actually, as strength in numbers, from a spiritual perspective.  If 99 geese are flying the wrong way, and one goose is flying the right way, it just doesn’t matter what the 99 geese think about that.

Here’s where we need to talk about this term ‘ally’.  My seminary friend has since downgraded my threat level from “not anti-racist” to “not an ally”.  Also true.  I don’t sign blank checks, or incomplete log books for that matter.  There is no project in this world that benefits from anyone’s deviation from moral compass north.  Or to put it a better way: we all benefit from each others’ adherence to individually negotiated moral compass north.  So I’m effectively “allying” myself with everyone, in the only way that matters, when I stay true to that, but I’m of no use to anyone when I deviate.  And by deviate, I mean virtue signal.  We can call that all kinds of labels, because that’s what we do, but it doesn’t change the relationship between the lodestone and the north pole.  

There are two main threats to our moral compass: everyone disagreeing with us, and possibly even worse, everyone agreeing with us.  We have got to recognize both these passing coincidences as what they are: irrelevant.  Question: how many geese does it take, flying in formation, to change the location of the north pole?  Answer: that’s insane.  All the geese on earth, flying in whatever direction, could not change the location of the north pole, because the north pole does not represent an agreement among geese, although the two phenomena may frequently correlate.  And since geese are consistently kinder, more honest, and more organized than human beings, this holds doubly true for us.  Would one goose ally itself with another, when it’s time to fly north for the summer?  No, and that’s the reason they all successfully fly in formation: they’re all following their internal compass, which organizes them more neatly than any sense of being “allies” possibly could.  

So how do we respond when someone says ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’?  We don’t, because we can’t, because they’ve already framed reality in such a way that it’s obvious they’re lost.  They’re operating under perhaps the most common human misunderstanding: strength in numbers.  It’s not real, and it’s not strength; it’s just numbers.  We know that they’re disempowered, and we owe it to them and ourselves not to capitulate to their disempowered state.  

An oath under duress is worthless, and duress could be anything from the medieval rack to the modern day cancellation.  If someone said to me, “Sign this blank check or I’ll kill your family,” I’d be like, “Okie dokie, can I borrow your pen?”  Like all humans, I can be forced to do things I know are not right, probably under not even that much duress.  But what I can’t be forced to do — and this is where our clarity of thought is, and must remain, unassailable — is interpret that duress as having anything to do with morality.  A power grab is a power grab, by any name, in any form, and the exertion of duress is the only clue we need that it’s not about justice and it’s not about integrity.  And we have to be sophisticated enough to know that the forms of duress we’ll encounter most frequently will also be sophisticated enough to have clothed themselves in the rhetorical garb of morality.  “You will know them by their fruits,” I think the Bible said.  

Luckily, if we’re dialed in with our moral compass, we don’t even have to wait for harvest; we can know much earlier based on how we feel in the face of claims or demands.  These are the rocks and storms and currents I mentioned before, and we’re not wrong for deviating from our preferred course, in negotiating them.  We have to, to stay alive and stay okay, sometimes.  A lot of times, in fact.  So the idea of the moral compass is not a club to beat ourselves with, or each other.  It’s just something to know, and to get back to as soon as we’re able.  That’s all.  

Partnership and shared direction with others feels great — just ask a goose, or a Hell’s Angel.  Enjoy it, seek it out, thrive in it, relish the formation and the flight.  Just don’t mistake it for your north.  We come together with others in accordance with our compass, and we fly together for periods of time, minutes or years, and then we peel off on our own course again, as we must, when we must.  The only reason we wouldn’t obey these natural, innate dictates is because we’re under the wrong impression.  “Strength in numbers”: wrong.  “I need your guidance”: wrong.  “You need my guidance”: wrong.  Sometimes we need one another’s physical protection as we establish and maintain our own guidance, but we cannot mistake our physical protectors or protect-ees as replacement lodestones.

And now, a thought about agency.  If you have it, you know it.  If you don’t have it, you don’t know you don’t have it.  A person without a developed sense of agency can’t understand that life isn’t about finding strength in numbers, soliciting agreement, or capitulating to the virtue signal du jour.  These things seem like necessary projects, from the agency-impaired perspective.  A person with a sense of agency isn’t a “rebel”, which is only another form of disempowerment and misaligned energies.  They may do and say all the expected things, privately negotiating their integrity as they see fit.  A person with agency isn’t concerned about performance, either for or against the sensibilities of their peers or the world at large.  An “ally” without agency is a parasite at best.  An ally with agency is unlikely to remain an ally for long if the project goes south.  

A person without agency is easily frightened, and therefore easily manipulated.  This is not a smug observation from my moral high horse; this is a reminder that we all get frightened, and when we do, what we are actually experiencing is a sense of helplessness; a perceived loss or absence of our agency.  What we can do is remember that we always have a choice.  I have a choice in how I respond to being called a [whatever]; I can be frightened into reflexive disavowal, enumerating the reasons I cannot possibly be a [that], essentially capitulating to someone else’s show of disempowerment with my own show of disempowerment, or I can use it as an opportunity to realign with my own sense of agency.  We can certainly try on one another’s priorities without taking them on, or feeling we have to.  

Even in those rare times when it feels we don’t have a choice, we do.  We never don’t have a choice, we only sometimes have consequences of a choice we’re not willing to endure.  In its most extreme form, this choice could look like death or total disenfranchisement, which is a consequence most humans through time have not been willing to endure, and understandably so.  We can always shelter from the rain and hope for the storm to break, privately holding to our own convictions as best we can.  Not only is that okay, it’s perhaps even advisable, and gives us time to gather other resources and clarity.  Integrity is usually a marathon and rarely a sprint.  

More commonly, though, our consequences come in the form of paper tigers.  What do we really lose in being called names by people whose interaction with others can and usually does devolve to name-calling?  What do we really lose in abandoning one flock of geese, whether we know those geese as friends or a job or an identity or a lifestyle, when there’s a million other geese for us to rendezvous with, if we stay the course?  Conversely, what do we really gain, jumping on any particular bandwagon, when the price we pay for that free ride is the surrender of our directional control?  Whether we want the responsibility of having a moral compass or not, we’re all born with one, and we’re of no use to anyone without a habit of consulting it.

When you consider the moral compass, aka ‘the still, small voice’, the emotional guidance system, the path of righteousness, God’s grace, the way of the spiritual warrior, however you want to frame it, just know this: it does not shout.  It does not insult you, it does not insult others, it never finishes sentences with “or else”, it does not cajole or wheedle or posture or justify.  The reason we capitulate to external terrorists is because we’re accustomed to capitulating to our own inner terrorists.  We mistake the loudest voice for the most important, in both cases.  No one, who has anything worth listening to, will shout it at you; not from within, and not from without.  The moral compass is silent, and simply points, and the rest is your affair.                              

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