When I returned to New York City after nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, I was unsure of where I was headed. I lacked the emotional and physical resiliency that had allowed me to cope as a war correspondent. I was plagued by memories I wanted to forget, waking suddenly in the middle of the night, my sleep shattered by visions of gunfire and death. I was alienated from those around me, unaccustomed to the common language and images imposed by consumer culture, unable to communicate the pain and suffering I had witnessed, not much interested in building a career.

It was at this time that the Brooklyn Academy of Music began showing a 10-part film series called “The Decalogue.” Deka, in Greek, means 10. Logos means saying or speech. The Decalogue is the classical name of the Ten Commandments. The director was the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, who had made the trilogy “White, Blue and Red.” The 10 films, each about an hour long and based on one of the commandments, were to be shown two at a time over five consecutive weeks. I saw them on Sunday nights, taking the subway to Brooklyn, its cars rocking and screeching along the tracks in the darkened tunnels. The theater was rarely more than half full.

The films were quiet, subtle and often opaque. It was sometimes hard to tell which commandment was being addressed. The characters never spoke about the commandments directly. They were too busy, as we all are, coping with life. The stories presented the lives of ordinary people confronted by extraordinary events. All lived in a Warsaw housing complex, many of them neighbors. They were on a common voyage, yet also out of touch with the pain and dislocation of those around them. The commandments, Kieslowski understood, were not dusty relics of another age, but a powerful compass with vital contemporary resonance.

In film after film he dealt with the core violation raised by each of the commandments. He freed the commandments from the clutter of piety and narrow definitions imposed upon them by religious leaders and institutions. The promiscuous woman portrayed in the film about adultery was not married. She had a series of empty, carnal relationships. Adultery, at its deepest level for the director, was sex without love. The father in the film about honoring our parents was not the biological father. The biological mother was absent in the daughter’s life. Parenting, Kieslowski knew, is not defined by blood or birth or gender. It is defined by commitment, fidelity and love. In the film about killing, an unemployed drifter robs and brutally murders a cab driver. He is caught, sentenced and executed by the state. Kieslowski forces us to confront the barbarity of murder, whether it is committed by a deranged individual or sanctioned by society.

I knew the commandments. I had learned them at Sunday school, listened to sermons based on the commandments from my father’s pulpit and studied them as a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School. But Kieslowski turned them into living, breathing entities.

“ … For 6,000 years these rules have been unquestionably right,” Kieslowski said of the commandments. “And yet we break them every day. We know what we should do, and yet we fail to live as we should. People feel that something is wrong in life. There is some kind of atmosphere that makes people turn now to other values. They want to contemplate the basic questions of life, and that is probably the real reason for wanting to tell these stories.”

In eight of the films there was a brief appearance by a young man, solemn and silent. Kieslowski said he did not know who the character was. Perhaps he was an angel or Christ. Perhaps he represented the divine presence who observed with profound sadness the tragedy and folly we humans commit against others and against ourselves.

“He’s not very pleased with us,” was all the director said.

The commandments are a list of religious edicts, according to passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy, given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The first four are designed to guide the believer toward a proper relationship with God. The remaining six deal with our relations with others. It is these final six commands that are given the negative form of “You Shall Not … .” Only two of the commandments, the prohibitions against stealing and murder, are incorporated into our legal code. Protestants, Catholics and Jews have compiled slightly different lists, but the essence of the commandments remains the same. Muslims, while they do not list the commandments in the Koran, honor the laws of Moses, whom they see as a prophet.

The commandments are not defined, however, by the three monotheistic faiths. They are one of the earliest attempts to lay down moral rules and guidelines to sustain a human community. Nearly every religion has set down an ethical and moral code that is strikingly similar to the Ten Commandments. The Eightfold Path, known within Buddhism as the Wheel of Law, forbids murder, unchastity, theft, falsehood and, especially, covetous desire. The Hindus’ sacred syllable Om, said or sung before and after prayers, ends with a fourth sound beyond the range of human hearing. This sound is called the “sound of silence.” It is also called “the sound of the universe.” Hindus, in the repetition of the Sacred Syllable, try to go beyond thought, to reach the stillness and silence that constitutes God. Five of the Ten Commandments delivered from Mount Sinai are lifted directly from the Egyptian “Book of the Dead.” No human being, no nation, no religion, has been chosen to be the sole interpreter of mystery. All cultures struggle to give words to the experience of the transcendent. It is a reminder that all of us find God not in what we know, but in what we cannot comprehend. The commandments include the most severe violations and moral dilemmas in human life, although these violations often lie beyond the scope of the law. They were for the ancients, and are for us, the core rules that, when honored, hold us together, and when dishonored lead to alienation, discord and violence. When our lives are shattered by tragedy, suffering and pain, or when we express or feel the ethereal and overwhelming power of love, we confront the mystery of good and evil. Voices across time and cultures have struggled to transmit and pay homage to this mystery, what it means for our lives and our place in the cosmos. These voices, whether in the teachings of the Buddha, the writings of the Latin poets or the pages of the Koran, are part of our common struggle as human beings to acknowledge the eternal and the sacred, to create an ethical system to sustain life.

The commandments retain their power because they express something fundamental about the human condition. This is why they are important. The commandments choose us. We are rarely able to choose them. We do not, however hard we work to insulate ourselves, ultimately control our fate. We cannot save ourselves from betrayal, theft, envy, greed, deception and murder, nor always from the impulses that propel us to commit these acts. These violations, which can strike us or be committed without warning, can leave deep, often lifelong wounds. There are few of us who do not wrestle deeply with at least one of these violations.

We all stray. We all violate some commandments and do not adequately honor others. We are human. But moral laws bind us together and make it possible to build a society based on the common good. They keep us from honoring the false covenants of greed, celebrity and power that destroy us. These false covenants have a powerful appeal. They offer feelings of strength, status and a false sense of belonging. They tempt us to be God. They tell us the things we want to hear and believe. They appear to make us the center of the universe. But these false covenants, covenants built around exclusive communities of race, gender, class, religion and nation, inevitably carry within them the denigration and abuse of others. These false covenants divide us. A moral covenant recognizes that all life is sacred and love alone is the force that makes life possible.

It is the unmentioned fear of death, the one that rattles with the wind through the heavy branches of the trees outside, which frightens us the most, even as we do not name this fear. It is death we are trying to flee. The smallness of our lives, the transitory nature of existence, the inevitable road to old age, are what the idols of power, celebrity and wealth tell us we can escape. They are tempting and seductive. They assure us that we need not endure the pain and suffering of being human. We follow the idol and barter away our freedom. We place our identity and our hopes in the hands of the idol. We need the idol to define ourselves, to determine our status and place. We invest in the idol. We sell ourselves into bondage.

The consumer goods we amass, the status we seek in titles and positions, the ruthlessness we employ to advance our careers, the personal causes we champion, the money we covet and the houses we build and the cars we drive become our pathetic statements of being. They are squalid little monuments to our selves. The more we strive to amass power and possessions the more intolerant and anxious we become. Impulses and emotions, not thoughts but mass feelings, propel us forward. These impulses, carefully manipulated by a consumer society, see us intoxicated with patriotic fervor and a lust for war, a desire to vote for candidates who appeal to us emotionally or to buy this car or that brand. Politicians, advertisers, social scientists, television evangelists, the news media and the entertainment industry have learned what makes us respond. It works. None of us are immune. But when we act in their interests we are rarely acting in our own. The moral philosophies we have ignored, once a staple of a liberal arts education, are a check on the deluge. They call us toward mutual respect and self-sacrifice. They force us to confront the broad, disturbing questions about meaning and existence. And our callous refusal to heed these questions as a society allowed us to believe that unfettered capitalism and the free market were a force of nature, a decree passed down from the divine, the only route to prosperity and power. It turned out to be an idol, and like all idols it has now demanded its human sacrifice.

Moral laws were not written so they could be practiced by some and not by others. They call on all of us to curb our worst instincts so we can live together, to refrain from committing acts of egregious exploitation that spread suffering. Moral teachings are guideposts. They keep us, even when we stray, as we all do, on the right path. The strange, disjointed fragments of our lives can be comprehended only when we acknowledge our insecurities and uncertainties, when we accept that we will never know what life is about or what it is supposed to mean. We must do the best we can, not for ourselves, the great moralists remind us, but for those around us. Trust is the compound that unites us. The only lasting happiness in life comes with giving life to others. The quality of our life, of all life, is determined by what we give and how much we sacrifice. We live not by exalting our own life but by being willing to lose it.

The moral life, in the end, will not protect us from evil. The moral life protects us, however, from committing evil. It is designed to check our darker impulses, warning us that pandering to impulses can have terrible consequences. It seeks to hold community together. It is community that gives our lives, even in pain and grief, a healing solidarity. It is fealty to community that frees us from the dictates of our idols, idols that promise us fulfillment through self-gratification. These moral laws are about freedom. They call us to reject and defy powerful forces that rule our lives and to live instead for others, even if this costs us status and prestige and wealth.

Turn away from the moral life and you end in disaster. You sink into a morass of self-absorption and greed. You breed a society that celebrates fraud, theft and violence, you turn neighbor against neighbor, you confuse presentation and image with your soul. Moral rules are as imperative to sustaining a community as law. And all cultures have sought to remind us of these basic moral restraints, ones that invariably tell us that successful communities do permit its members to exploit each other but ensure that they sacrifice for the common good. The economic and social collapse we face was presaged by a moral collapse. And our response must include a renewed reverence for moral and social imperatives that acknowledge the sanctity of the common good.

The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Tell me ‘how’ you seek and I will tell you ‘what’ you are seeking.” We all are seekers, even if we do not always know what we are looking to find. We are all seekers, even if we do not always know how to frame the questions. In those questions, even more than the answers, we find hope in the strange and contradictory fragments of our lives. And it is by recovering these moral questions, too often dismissed or ignored in universities and boardrooms across the country, laughed at on the stock exchange, ridiculed on reality television as an impediment to money and celebrity, that we will again find it possible to be whole.

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