What a mind it is
That can register with awe
The easy parting of light and darkness
While gently driving
A country road home to rest.
Take nothing for granted.
What a mind it is
That can register with awe
The easy parting of light and darkness
While gently driving
A country road home to rest.
Take nothing for granted.
Let’s start by acknowledging that every one of us, if given enough time and a safe setting, if asked in a language and terminology she or he understands, and if he or she is self-aware enough, would have something to say about how every one of the factors shown here applies to them, in general and at this particular moment in their lives. There are 28 factors so far and I am sure the list is not complete. To get a sense of just how many ways there are to be different, there are 268,435,456 ways to mix and match among 28 factors. And that’s before we start looking at the exact information to be considered for each one of those factors. And it’s also before we take into account how the weather is today and how we feel about it, good news we received about an insurance claim on the house we lost in a tornado, bad news we received about how our dear next door neighbor’s shaky health has taken an abrupt downturn, how our sciatica is doing today, how the garden looks to us at this time of year and how the candidate we passionately want to become the next President did in last week’s primary; or the impact any of those circumstances have on how we decide to behave here and now. That’s a lot, a lot, a lot of ways to be different.
The real intent with this graphic is to highlight how generalizations about people pervade all manner of discourses, from the self-critical chatter that runs just below the surface of our own consciousnesses, through op-ed pieces and social media posts, and on into public policy and legislation. Whenever we categorize people – “teachers,” “politicians,” “Southerners,” “Germans,” “transsexuals,” “Catholics,” “dog owners,” “teens,” and so on – we efface or suppress the particular qualities that define the mental, emotional and cultural spaces in which individual human beings are living their lives.
The critical point is that each of us operates in a unique space defined by many personal factors over which we have no control. Nobody asked me whether I wanted to be born in the United States of America, in the middle of the twentieth century, as part of the Baby Boom, five years after the end of the Second World War and the advent of the atomic bomb, into a society still not resolved about its legacy of slavery or comfortable about the role of women in public life, or into a white family that worshiped in the Episcopal Church, put great value on higher education and not so much on being socially cool or athletically competitive. Nor did anyone ask me whether I wanted to be endowed with considerable native curiosity and intelligence, poor physical coordination and a predisposition to extreme mood swings. Yet, these circumstances, and a number of others, comprise the water I swim in. What is thinkable for me, how likely I am to flourish in a particular career or relationship or community, depends to a large degree on my unique mix of these factors. Along with the cumulative impacts of what I have experienced as I progress on life’s journey from birth forward, taken together they contribute as much to my personal uniqueness, as the genetic endowment I inherited when I was conceived.
To be sure, there are frequently compelling practical reasons for making use of categorical generalizations. They may be “external” reasons, such as the desire of the institution known as the Catholic Church to have records of who its tithing members are, or the State of Connecticut’s wish to know who is a licensed school bus driver in good standing. They may be “internal” reasons, such as the struggle a gay teen, who has been raised in an evangelical family, may experience if they feel their sense of personal identity is in conflict with church teachings and cultural norms; or the process of self-definition by which I, for instance, come to terms with and live out being a straight White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, in a society where to be that bears coded meaning and by far most people are not that.
Indeed, in the course of my own journey toward greater psychological and spiritual health and wholeness, seeing more and more clearly the ways I am not a generic human or Baby Boomer or US citizen or Episcopalian or recovering pothead, has been both profoundly enlightening and liberating. The clearer my understanding is of what it means not to be a straight white male, in circumstances where it is socially disadvantageous to be gay or lesbian, to be female, to be a person of color, the more clearly I understand what it means to be me. For in fact the bottom line is, I am unique because of how my life plots out on each of the 28 vectors in the graphic, and I am fundamentally and inescapably connected with the all the rest of humanity, and indeed all the rest of creation. If I wish to communicate and connect consciously and deeply with others, I must bring my full self-awareness to the conversation.
Language, of course, is what we use to communicate with others and with ourselves. Language depends on abstract concepts and categories. Language is what we use to think with, most of the time unconsciously. This entire reflection was triggered by my growing sensitivity about the pervasive finger-pointing and blame games that characterize much of public discourse nationally and globally. Full confession: I do it too. It’s much easier for me to cut a black urban youth slack than a white suburban police officer. It’s much easier for me to feel concern for a Muslim refugee from Syria than for a native German or Belgian or Dane who worries about what will happen to their familiar social arrangements if large numbers of refugees come into the country and stay. However, as I said at the outset, I am a terminal optimist. I see a path forward. It is a path that begins with cultivating, growing consciousness of how what we all most have in common is how uniquely different we are. That “black urban youth” I mentioned has a face and a name and a history and dreams and sore points and special gifts. The same applies to that “white suburban police officer.”
I really, truly, do not want to see Donald Trump elected President of the United States. I have many reasons for feeling that way, not least because he is such an enthusiastic devotee of blame games and finger-pointing. However, I have dear friends, people I care for and respect, who very much hope that he will succeed. I could join the chorus of people who feel the way I do about Trump, who are declaiming loudly and clearly what fools and bigots his supporters are, and ignore the full humanity each of those supporters is bringing to the public arena. Or I can keep reminding myself what I learned from Terence: “Nothing human is strange to me.” This does not mean I shy away from seeing comparisons with the emergence of Fascism in 1920’s Europe or with the progressive degradation of civic life in Rome before the collapse of the empire.
Barbara Barg, a Facebook friend recently introduced the term “pro-people” into a discussion about how supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton talk and feel about each other. I like both the “pro-” part and the “people” part. Not so much about what we don’t want, what we fear or hate. Rather: What are we for? What do we want to see? What will we commit to? What kind of world do we hope to live in? Given that I cannot with integrity deny people I disagree with their “peopleness,” lest I start down the road to genocide in my mind, if not in practice; I must return again and again first to contemplating and then to advocating for the most “pro-people” way of participating in public life. Whether or not Trump, or Clinton, or Sanders, is elected.
We shall overcome.
“Nothing human is strange to me.” Yet strangely, one thing every human being shares with every other human being is the quality of being a completely unique mix of genetic inheritance, life circumstances and personal experiences. Even identical twins growing up with the same genes in the same times, places and families, live into their lives uniquely. It is a universal condition that we are all strangers to one another in this way.
There is another quality every human being shares with every other human being. Genetically, we are not much different than other primates. Our anatomies are in most respects similar. “Consciousness” in a broad sense is a quality we share with many other creatures, even those much further back down the evolutionary line. (I would even go so far as to say that consciousness is incipient in the most primitive organisms’ capacity to recognize and respond to stimuli that signal danger, others that signal the availability of food and yet others that signal opportunities to reproduce. We’ll save this for another day, however.)
Human beings alone, however, are as far as we know “self-conscious.” We know that we know. We know that our lives are contingent, that they have beginnings, middles and ends. We are all inscribed in languages, cultures, traditions, symbolic systems. We categorize. We conceptualize. We name things. This is not news. According to the authors of the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, the very first thing God asks Adam to do is name things: “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” (Genesis 2:19, NRSV)
The hitch is, when we categorize and name things, we abstract them from their concrete, tangible, immediate, momentary unique realities. We look at a rock face and we see “schist,” say, not this immediate residue right in front of us of eons of movements of the Earth raising up mountains, grinding and washing them down, folding them over, cooking minerals from them and lifting them up again. We talk about “securities trading,” not seeing and feeling the presence in the enterprises those securities represent “shares” of the real living human beings engaged day in, day out, in activities that produce “goods” and “services” other real living human beings make use of. We label ourselves: Me, I’m a straight White Anglo Saxon Protestant Ivy League graduate fluent in German and Danish raised mostly in New England in the second half of the 20th century of the Christian Era; a US citizen almost 28 years clean and sober, who practices yoga, takes photographs, writes, and is in a relationship with the woman of his dreams. And yet, ask me at any moment what I’m feeling, how I’m taking in the day, what my soul is up to; and few, if any, of those factoids will illumine my full living reality at that instant. The same applies mutatis mutandi to every other human being on the planet. When we get real.
With this in mind, here is a graphic illustration of many factors that shape our understandings of ourselves and the world, and with them the sense each of us carries with us of what is normal, acceptable and possible, and of what is right.
Next time around, I’ll be back to unpack what consequences I believe this has for how we deal with each other, in whatever categories we believe each other belongs.
Journey to the Moon
So long they wandered,
making their way
from savanna to shore,
floodplain to forest –
to burn and slay,
gather and dance,
sing and plant,
harvest and herd.
Across windswept fields,
down washed out gullies,
up stony passes –
they made love and war; told,
wove, and remembered;
passed judgment, worshipped,
dreamed, and declaimed meaning.
Generations followed generations,
repeated the customs.
Dark nights in tall grasses,
they named and tracked stars,
Sunshine and rain,
they stumbled and strode
through copses and rockfalls,
meadows and ice fields –
chose good and evil;
Stalks of rhubarb
nourished and delighted;
the leaves poisoned.
Running water refreshed;
standing it could sicken.
Ferment worked in bread and wine;
spawned life, bred death.
They buried and burned
their dead with flowers,
howled at the abundance of mystery;
fashioned hosts of gods;
from Olduvai to Archangel
marked and shaped, coming and going.
Slowly they fathomed the seasons
and settled where seeded;
sang of hopes and fears,
of was and will be.
It came to them late to build cities,
and then to fly to the moon.
This is the beginning of a longer exploration of what it will take to overcome the painful and dangerous divisions that now divide people all over the world. It’s not because I am a child of the ‘60’s who grew up on “We Shall Overcome” that I believe such overcoming will eventually happen, even if not in my lifetime. Partly because of personal life experiences, partly because of lifelong intellectual and spiritual explorations, I am a terminal optimist. I see a steady tilt towards higher and progressively more conscious orders of being in the evolution of life from a crazy mixed up mess of minerals billions of years ago and in human history since the first hominids began moving out of the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Evolutionary and historical processes are anything but linear. They are fundamentally emergent, dynamic and complex. Darkness is woven together with light, death with life, hatred with love, cruelty with compassion, creation with destruction, being with nothingness. Horrors continue to abound, brutality and violence are pervasive, as they have been for as far back as we have historical records. Nevertheless, besides the eventual demise of the solar system or a possible catastrophic collision of the Earth with an asteroid, such as brought a precipitous end to the Age of the Dinosaurs, there is exactly one threat that could lead to the end of human life as we know it, namely climate change. On that score, climate change threatens to demolish infrastructures and wreak havoc on transportation and distribution systems and food supply chains, upon which the survival of 7 billion human beings depends. While it is unlikely the planet will continue to offer hospitable accommodations to all of the people and thousands of other species who now inhabit it, I am willing to bet the human species or some higher order of it will make it through as it has other catastrophes like the Black Death and the Thirty Years’ War.
At this time, however, it is difficult not to find the present state of the world troubling and the challenges daunting. In the US, one of the largest countries in the world, with the largest economy and largest environmental impact, the Presidential election process is revealing deep rifts among different regions, interest groups, social classes, and demographics, with impassioned and bitter finger pointing aiming in every direction. Similarly sharp divisions are threatening the social fabric – or what remains of it – in countries all around the world. The Syrian civil war and the collapse of established power structures across the Middle East has resulted in the emergence of ISIS and the displacement of millions of refugees. As many of those refugees seek safe havens in Europe, tensions are growing within the affected countries and among them, threatening the viability of the European Union and the modus vivendi that had emerged between Russia and the West in the wake of the Cold War. Denmark, a country with a population just a little more than a quarter of the size of the New York City metropolitan area, has in recent history been one of the most peaceful, prosperous, and socially temperate places in the world. Now there is an unprecedented degree of viciousness abroad in the land as “Old Danes” and “New Danes” struggle to learn to live together. In Africa, residents of Nigeria and neighboring countries are suffering catastrophically from the activities of Boko Haram and the governments’ military responses to them. On every continent there is turmoil.
While I believe that humanity will muddle through this unprecedented crisis, and emerge chastened but wiser, as it has from other horrors it has experienced over the last 10,000 years, it is not, however, a foregone conclusion. The sooner and better we learn to live and work together, the greater the opportunities we and our children will have to minimize the harm that threatens. It is with this thought in mind that I have begun thinking about what stands in the way of people coming together instead of pushing apart. For starters, I have been thinking about ways we systematically misperceive each other, and to a significant degree ourselves. In following posts, I will be reflecting on how we can begin to encourage shifts in attitudes from fear, contempt and hatred to appreciation, respect and, dare I say, love – starting with ourselves.