Last night I saw the movie I am by Tom Shadyac. In case you don’t know – Tom has been a writer and director of numerous comedy films which have netted him billions of dollars. In the course of the last number of years he has been on an incredible journey of shifting his values from success and consumption to simplicity, love, and compassion. He sold his mansion and established a foundation with the money. Here’s what his website says: “Ultimately, the goal of The Foundation for I AM is to help usher in a more loving, kind, compassionate, and equitable world for all.” The movie tells some of his story, and also sets out to answer two key questions through interviews with a number of well known thought leaders such as Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, and others: What’s wrong with the world, and what can be done to change it?
I enjoyed the movie tremendously. I appreciated the footage that served as background to the interviews, and his appearances on the screen that were interspersed with the interviews. It’s a rare documentary, in my experience, that manages to balance information, a strong point of view, and entertainment. This is what I experienced with this movie. I was inspired by seeing someone make such a personal journey of rededicating his resources to a cause other than personal consumption. I very much recommend it to anyone interested in these topics.
In addition, I have asked very similar questions, and have been thinking about the overlap between the movie’s answers and my own, as well as differences that were provocative and have already enriched me. The movie focuses on the profound role that the story of separation and its derivatives – scarcity, competition, and massive consumption – play in keeping war, domination, and poverty in place. I also was so happy to see a movie that shows some of the evidence that has been mounting in recent years that is challenging the core assumptions of separation. This evidence is so strong now, that researchers at UC Berkeley talk about “the survival of the kindest.” All of this was very compelling.
It was the “what can we do about it” part about which I was left puzzled and somewhat disappointed. It was a version of “Be the change” that leaves me lacking confidence about achieving the phenomenal mobilization towards change that I believe is necessary. The prescription, if I understood it correctly, is to make a commitment, all of us, to shift our internal story to one of love and compassion, which is, as the movie suggests, the fundamental nature of being human. If all of us do this, says Tom, then the shift will happen.
The movie calls for a massive waking up, a critical mass of people changing their actions and choices. What’s missing for me is first taking a serious look at how we can get enough people to wake up sufficiently. The challenge is immense, as I see it, because we are called to change millennia of deeply ingrained habits of separation that are often activated immediately when we see others take actions – personal or otherwise – that we don’t like. I am called to respond to this challenge. I want to find ways to sustain the loving orientation beyond the moments of epiphany. I want to learn more and more what keeps the story of separation so deeply ingrained. I want to provide vision, inspiration, and concrete practices that support making loving and vulnerable choices despite the strength of the message of separation.
The second missing piece for me is an understanding of the systemic and structural dimension of the life we live. It’s not just the stories in our heads and bodies. It’s also the organizations we have created, the institutions and norms that govern our lives, the economic engines of allocation of resources, the schools that educate our young, and the societal legacy of so many forms of separation that are beyond attitudes of individuals. Perhaps I am being small-minded, and I am open to that possibility. I simply can’t see that enough individuals can make enough change and create enough connection between them to shift that entire structure. To use a recent example, so many Egyptians came together and managed to topple the government. I am thrilled and in awe of this event. Does it challenge the fundamental logic of having a government that’s elected in particular ways and into which ordinary people don’t have a real say except during the moments of election? I don’t think so!
Riding home I continued to discuss these rich questions. Then an idea arose that gave me some pleasure, much curiosity, and a little hope. If, as I also believe, we are equally capable of love and compassion as we are of conflict, protection, and separation, then there is likely an ongoing flow of opening and closing that happens to each of our hearts, in an entirely different rhythm and orientation than anyone else. Sometime we converge and have moments of exquisite love and intimacy. Sometimes we diverge and can’t connect. Tom shared, for example, that he noticed how much love there was in church communities that then doesn’t stay for the daily living outside the service. Something happens in times such as the Obama election that galvanized so many people, or the Egyptian uprising, or even something as small as a group of people getting together to share their experiences in a workshop. That something may simply be a form of synchronization of rhythms and orientation of the openness. How this happens is entirely mysterious to me. I am clear that people like Gandhi and King or the young people that organized the Egyptian mass demonstrations knew how to do this. Somehow they could issue a message that included enough vision and enough attentiveness to the real suffering of people that everyone could open up at once and a movement was born. That makes sense to me, and helps me understand how change becomes possible.
I am called to respond to this challenge, too. Beyond the individual level of functioning, I want to keep learning and teaching ways of working together, of creating organizations and systems that embody the same principles we love as individuals, and help us synchronize and move closer to harmonious functioning. There is much to learn, and much that is already known about taking love, heart, and empathy to the larger levels of functioning. I want to hold out, without wavering, the real, tangible, and practical possibility of establishing social systems that make room for everyone to thrive.