One of the potent images of our modern, competitive era is that of a long line we are all trying to get ahead in. Our spot in the line determines our access to resources to sustain our bodies, souls, and families. On a recent Facing Privilege call, one caller I will call Jennifer put on the menu for our conversation a question that directly refers to this invisible and pervasive line. She spoke of feeling bad for having enough. She wanted to know: did she get to have enough by pushing others out of the way to get to the head of the line? Was there a way she could both keep her intent to get her own needs met and do so while caring about other people’s needs? Here’s a distillation of the very engaging conversation that involved many in the group: none of us created the line. The line was created long before any of us were born, and has been perfected and refined and intensified for several thousand years. Jennifer and all of us were born into a world in which we are all on this endless line. We don’t choose the line. We only choose how we relate both to our place in the line and to the existence of the line.
The Compassionate Lens of Systemic Awareness
Jennifer, like most of us, was engaging with the question at an individual level. It’s a common and painful perspective which keeps most of us in a place of shame: shame when we have access to resources, and shame when we don’t. Why shame? Because we view it as if it’s saying something about us individually.
In reality, though, we did not choose to have the line, the line has been created by thousands of years of practice. In addition, we didn’t choose the place in the line that we have when we are born, a place that comes with immense consequences, both in terms of what resources any of us have to meet our own needs and in terms of our relative power to shape the world we live in.
When we are raised to believe that the line is all there is, we are all in a frenzy trying to get ahead. It’s natural to do this when there are no other options. This is why neoliberalism has made such a big point of painting itself as the only game in town, as George Monbiot says in a Guardian article. It’s also the reason why so many of us take it out on ourselves. When we succeed, we take the credit, as we can see from the rigged monopoly experiments in which one party, randomly assigned, starts out with double the money and other benefits, and still, most of the time, claims that they won because they played well. When we fail, we take it to mean that we are deficient. In neither case do we ordinarily see the role of the line itself, and our initial place in it, in shaping the outcome of our lives. When we can do that, when we really and fully take in that our behaviors and worldviews are deeply affected by where we are in society, we have a chance to release, or at least to dramatically diminish, our judgments of self or other for where we are in life and even for the choices we all make.
A World without the Line
Even though we are told by most that the line is all there is, if we look closely and investigate, we will discover that alternatives to the line are possible. In my own readings, which draw on non-mainstream researchers (all generally trained in mainstream institutions), an entirely different picture emerges: that 97% of our time on this planet, humans lived without the line. The line is a social construct, and not the only one possible. Before the line, and still in pockets within each of our lives and in a diminishing portion of parts of the world, a different logic exists: the logic of sharing based on needs. We do it within our families, with our friends, in certain community settings, whenever we participate in commons, and in a variety of small settings we don’t necessarily think of as such. We are distressed when we see someone whose need is not responded to. It takes concerted effort to get us trained to see everyone else as competing with us for scarce resources. It can be different. It has been.
Moving towards Choice
We cannot change the line individually. We all live somewhere on it. We all, anyone with enough resources to be able to read this, are doing things every day that contribute to leaving 1/3 of the global population in extreme poverty, unable to care for their needs. Again: we cannot change that individually. We cannot individually mobilize enough resources to change the flow of goods and services in the world. Extremely few people have anything approaching that capacity, and even they have at least some systemic constraints on that capacity. Moreover, people with such access to resources are, overwhelmingly, committed to the world being as it is. Those of us who want a different world, by and large, do not possess the capacity to shift the way the system works at will. And, as the experiments show, if we come into such resources within the world as it is and without having done immense work, almost all of us will participate in maintaining it as it is when we can change it.
Once we can recognize the reality of the situation, and the impossibility of finding individual solutions to systemic problems, and mourn the horror and grief and rage that come with that understanding, we can begin to look at what is possible for each of us to do as an individual. The mourning itself is no small act, because it brings us back to life and to choice. There is acute helplessness that comes with opening our eyes widely to look at what’s happening, and choosing to continue to do so, without distracting ourselves with consumption, numbness, busy-ness, anger, illusion, or any other activity or state that serves to keep us separate from the reality of helplessness, of knowing what is going on and having so little capacity to do anything about it.
Mourning creates choice because it softens the internal tension that comes from the effort to resist the reality. Remaining soft in the face of this helplessness affects us physiologically. No longer do we have a rush of stress hormones that take away choice. This kind of mourning is not once-and-for-all. I find that I need to do it repeatedly; that I need to revisit this process regularly and embrace the intensity of the helplessness so that I can remain soft and choose what I want to do given my extremely limited capacity to change the systemic source of the situation in our world.
Practices that shed protection are exceedingly difficult to do in a society committed to comfort and denial, and in which almost all of us carry significant experiences of trauma – individual, collective, and as part of our species history of loss and oppression since the dawn of patriarchy. We cannot do any of it alone. Doing any of it alone is part of the problem we are facing, not part of the solution. Also, if we go far enough in the direction of unprotecting ourselves and choosing differently from the accepted norms, there are external consequences. We need each other. We need support, encouragement, companionship, collective wisdom, and so much more. I have written in the past about how much support I have, on a daily basis, to be able to sustain the degree to which I go against the grain. I would not be able to do it without that.
Moving towards Interdependence
As we lean into mourning and gain support, we can begin, in parallel, the work of choosing our actions. I say in parallel, because I want our actions, starting from the inside out, to begin immediately, so we don’t wait to be “fixed” before we do something. Rather, we do something, and then we get support for the consequences, internal and external. And then we have more energy to do more, and then we get more support. This work is an endless cyclical-spiral movement that takes us ever closer to effective use of the resources we have for the benefit of all and to living a conscious life of integrity and pleasure.
I see steps to this dance which I have now followed for about 30 years, and which I expect to continue to follow for as long as I am a conscious being. This dance spirals around the relationship between my inner experience and my outward action, learning and acting, feeling and thinking, alone and with others, vision and practicality, theory and practice. I described these steps in a separate piece I plan to post soon, where I invite all of us into our own versions of the dance.
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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.
Image Credits: Top: “People lining up for shelter in Superdome in New Orleans” by Marty Bahamonde, FEMA, in public domain at Wikimedia Commons. Second: Screenshot from “Why Those Who Feel They Have Less Give More” on PBS. Third: Photo by Moritz Schumacher on Unsplash, CC by 2.0.