“When a behavior becomes the norm, we lose our ability to view it as dysfunctional.” Jeff Garson, Reflection #42, Radical Decency (URL temporarily inactive).
“To reinforce the majoritarian dream, the nightmare endured by the minority is erased.” Ta Nehisi Coates, My President Was Black.
What is it that makes the existing global system continue to function with our ongoing participation, when so many of us know how close to the edge of catastrophe we are? Without pretending to know the “answer”, I have figured out some bits of it that make sense to me.
For some of us, it’s because we actually buy into the system’s values and ideals, and we feel aligned with it, or because we recognize it as not working, and yet don’t believe anything better is possible. For some of us, it’s because we feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the necessary changes, both individually and globally, and thus buy into the illusion that we can opt out of the system and just have our own very individual lives, as best we know how. And for some of us, it’s because we don’t even know the significance and effects of our actions, especially collectively. Much of the time, all these factors combine to give us an internal foundation of either acceptance or resignation that sustains our capacity to continue to make choices that are destructive to self, others, and/or the web of life.
Looking at it that way, I can have more compassion for all of us – very much including myself – for all the ways that we uphold and sustain that which we may wish to be different. It’s with this kind of compassion that I want to share two vignettes that in the most concrete and personal way illustrate some of the challenges we have about seeing the direct and indirect consequences of our actions. Along the way, my hope, as always, is to also provide a guide for action for any of us who want to continue to walk the path towards turning the tide and learning to steward life and all the resources of this one planet for the benefit of all. Although the vision is, as always, on a system level, the choices that we make are, by necessity, personal, and their individual effect, usually, minuscule beyond our own small sphere of life. Still, from my own experience, these kinds of choices are life altering in the only direction where we have complete power as human beings: internally.
Resting on a Beautiful Beach
I was talking with a friend of many years who lives far away from my home, in northern Europe, and thus we only see each other on a screen. I will call him Robert. The surroundings looked entirely different from the usual, so I asked Robert where he was. He named the beach town in Mexico where he was vacationing with his girlfriend. Then he added: “It’s hard to see the gap with the local people, but it’s still so enjoyable to be here.”
With most people, I would absorb the rush of anguish that came over me, thick and hot and desperate. I know how to absorb, because it’s a core essential capacity for anyone embracing nonviolence all the way: it’s one of our ways of reducing violence in the world. We absorb without dishing anything back. We absorb without passing it on. We absorb conscious of absorbing, conscious of our willingness to suffer and not inflict suffering on anyone else.
In this case, however, Robert is a friend with whom I share a commitment to honesty and to mutual feedback (it’s a kind of prerequisite for being in a close friendship with me). Absorbing, in this case, would be a form of deception. And so we had a conversation in which I challenged Robert and we explored the fallout of that together. I asked Robert why he was choosing to be there even though he was aware of the gap. I then spoke of the hugely painful global dynamic of where a region that was once able to sustain itself for millennia is now reduced to full dependence on the former colonizers through the industry of tourism. Tourism by necessity relies on exploiting people who no longer have the land, or the infrastructure, or the know-how, or the communities, or even the emotional capacity to be self-sustaining as a group. Entire countries are in this loop of depending on tourism for feeding their populations even while knowing that tourism is reinforcing relationships of domination, extracting resources, and maintaining their people in subservient positions that rob them of so much. This includes, as a key element, their basic dignity. I cannot imagine the experience of being expected to be gracious to the very people who are exploiting my people in order that I can feed my family.
To this, Robert countered by saying that he wasn’t really part of that, since he was staying in the house of a friend, and not in a resort. As if the house, and the ability of a person living in Europe or North America to buy a house on an “exotic” beach is not fully embedded within the legacy of colonialism. Places are exotic only to the extent that you posit the tamed, modern, contained, and partially dead experience of the middle and upper classes in the Global North – the vast majority of those who own houses in the tourist spots of the world – as the norm and center. They are never exotic to their inhabitants. For them, they are very often a trap. They have nowhere to go and not enough food and supplies for everyone. They have nothing they can do with the legacy of centuries of colonialism that has seeped into their very being; with the simmering and impotent resentment they likely feel; and with the knowledge, deeply buried within their souls, that they are not any less than the tourists, and yet they have to serve them and smile and be grateful for their dollars. So I asked Robert if his friend’s house has a team of local people servicing it. Of course it did. That is the only way that it can happen, that makes it affordable to the friend, because the hourly rates of local people are so much lower than those that he would be paying were he trying to service a house near his European or North American home.
And, all the while, Robert’s friend could even be telling himself that in doing so he is supporting the local economy and providing jobs to people who would otherwise not have money to buy food. And, even worse, he is accurate, and that’s part of my own horror. Because if all of us in the Global North decided, all at the same time, to stop our collective habits of travel to amazingly beautiful places in the topics and elsewhere that are also some of the most impoverished locations, the tourism industry would collapse, and, with it, even more suffering would accrue to the local people. There is no simple out, no clear “right” thing to do, even systemically. Even if someone gave me the authority to create change, I wouldn’t be able to imagine a linear chart. As in many instances, it’s a mystery to me what transformation would look like, since there is also no going back, only from here on.
And, still, even without knowing how to solve the problem on the systemic level, which is the only level at which it can actually be addressed, we can stretch the envelope within which we mostly operate.
At the heart of it, as Robert and I came to see together, are some of the core aspects of how those of us in the Global North who have access to resources beyond some baseline relate to our privilege. Specifically, I am talking about how we relate to comfort, ease, and fun. Fundamentally, I see us as accepting a situation in which our own comfort comes at the expense of others. Collectively, and in many individual cases, we are at one and the same time attached to and feel entitled to the comfort that comes with the privilege while also feeling guilty about it, and also looking the other way and actively not seeing the relationship between our own comfort and someone else’s misery. There is no way I know of to emerge from that internal morass without loosening the grip that comfort has on our lives.
The Doctor and the House Cleaner
Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to talk with what I would easily refer to as a group of aware and caring people. The topic of the moment was the effect of society on how we behave. It took place in a country that is quite firmly rooted within the individualistic, consumerist version of modern life that is being fostered by neoliberalism. Aware of it, conscious of the degree of discomfort I was about to throw into the room, I still chose to initiate a conversation examining the concept of “deserving”. Of the many ways in which the existing systems of control and competition infiltrate our consciousness and get us to be full accomplices, I see this concept as key and central to our fundamental inability to be fully connected with our own needs and to allow caring for others’ needs to be an actual guide to action. It is, in particular, a key impediment to the massive shift to collaboration I see as necessary to make it possible for us as a species and for the thousands of other forms of life to continue to survive, let alone thrive, on this precious planet.
What was striking about this particular conversation that made it stand apart from others on this and similar topics that I’ve had over the years was the gap between the abstract and the personal. When I was talking theory about the historical roots of this concept (see my blog post on deserving for more on this), I experienced significant alignment and clarity with the people in the room. However, when the personal implications of letting go of any notion of deserving came to the foreground, most of the people speaking were very committed to the notion that whoever works harder, or has made more of an effort to learn and master some unique knowledge, or whose capacities are not as common and are essential for core functioning of human life, did, indeed, deserve to be given more access to resources. At the same time, they strongly resisted the logical conclusion I was asking them to see: that what they were saying effectively amounted to making the needs of the doctor more important than those of the house cleaner. As I see it, with these ideas being brand new to many of them, they were caught in an internal contradiction: they clearly want to care about everyone’s needs as fully as everyone else’s, and they also want to hold on to their comfort without feeling bad about having it at the likely expense of others. Rather than questioning their access to resources and seeing its systemic context and complexity, which I know from experience is emotionally quite excruciating, they instead stuck with their attachment to their comfort and found ways to justify it. They never fully opened to the intoxicating beauty I see possible when we join forces with others, whether few or many, for the purpose of managing life collaboratively for the benefit of something larger than ourselves. Ultimately, their views were grounded in a negative view of human nature that’s been with us since patriarchy started spreading all over the planet, rooted in a separation from self, each other, and nature. When life is seen as a competition for scarce resources – the very conception of humanity that runs modern economics and global capitalism – the only logical path of survival is to be willing to enjoy what you have even when others can’t.
Yet again, I stand humble before the magnitude of the challenge. There is no “proof” that human nature is this way or that way because of our astonishing malleability and remarkable capacity for making narrative of what we see. Our views of human nature, for example, are both affected by and affect what we see when we research human behavior, whether historically or in the lab. There is no leverage point outside the system we are embedded in that would allow us to know. There’s no way of knowing that we can indeed establish a life, collectively, that’s based on the radical assumptions that we are, in the end, designed for mutual care and capable of collaborating to share resources for the benefit of all. Our record in the last 10,000 years or so is not pretty, and some of the worst atrocities were committed in the name of ideals not obviously that distinct from the vision I paint. I have no guarantee that we can succeed. There never was one.
Moving towards Freedom
And still, I know that continuing with life as it is has become intolerable to ever more people, and that a personal approach to a “good life” is becoming less and less appealing or even possible. So what is the alternative? What can we do if we want, in however small a way, to transcend the script and relate differently to ourselves, to our privilege, and to the people we interact with who may be on the other side of our privilege?
I wish I had a full answer. I can’t. Not because I am not smart enough or knowledgeable enough. I hold myself, as an individual, to have quite a bit of familiarity and a deeper understanding of these dynamics than most. The reason I believe that I can’t give you an answer is because the answer, at bottom, is not individual. As a result, anything we do as individuals, only as individuals, will not likely make a dent in the fundamental logic of life. We are just too small. And only very few of us will go on and join those who are scratching their heads and hearts and trying to imagineer a future for us and then work towards bringing it about. This is the nature of life: only few of us ever take on the active, often solitary, and exacting work of standing publicly at odds with the prevailing order. Because of that, for the majority of us, the question of what to do is completely non-trivial. How do we live in integrity in a world in which our every action could negatively affect others in near and far places in ways we won’t easily know about?
There is no escape from the reality that our answers, as individuals, can only be partial, because we cannot change the larger systems that govern our lives individually. By necessity, our answers must be rooted in our individual circumstances, and invented, freshly, by each of us based on who we are, what sphere of influence we are in, what trauma we have suffered, what the circumstances of our life, and therefore the possible consequences to taking bold action, might be, and what we ultimately want for ourselves and the world.
The only thing I know to do is start from exactly where I am, in each moment in which I consciously make choices about access to and use of resources. Whenever I find the true awareness that I always have the radical possibility of making a real choice, for now, I aim to make it based on my largest vision, my purpose in life, and the values I hold dear. For quite a number of years now, I am working progressively and repeatedly to disentangle myself from the basic presuppositions that living under modern capitalism so effectively instills in us. My goal with this rigorous activity is nothing less than full inner freedom. I challenge you to join me there.
Footnote:  This is a non-word with a meaning. It was coined, I believe by Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute, and refers to the specific act of envisioning a possible future at the granular level of an engineer who is looking for solutions to the issues that such a future poses to us.
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Image Credits: all Flickr CC by 2.0. Top: gas pump by Mike Mozart inset in nssl0062 by NOAA Photo Library. Middle: Caribbean Trip 2010 by Derek Hatfield. Bottom: Vacuum Cleaner by www.toprq.com/iphone, stethoscope by Ann Arbor District Library.