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Against Our Nature

In The Final Recession I described what I think is fundamentally at issue in our contemporary breakdown of democracy in America. It’s not the various issues that parties and individuals can’t seem to agree on, or that government has gotten too large for our own good.

Instead, I argued, the current crisis – brought to a focus in the inhumane treatment of Central American refugee families at our border with Mexico – is rooted in a loss of empathy.

Because we have lost rooting in the ground of our own human experience, we can neither understand nor identify with the suffering of others.

If we could identify with what they are experiencing, we would understand the desperation that compels these parents with their children to leave behind all they have in search of refuge. But we can’t – or at least some of us can’t. I am not Guatemalan, displaced from my home and responsible for children I cannot support. I have nothing in common with these ‘illegals’ who are threatening to ‘infest’ our country.

As I scan these check-boxes of identity, there’s nothing I can identify with. I’m White, not Latino. I’m wealthy by comparison, and not just to them but to the majority of people on Earth. And my identification as a Democrat or Republican orients my values on national concerns – my nation, not there’s.

I don’t know what’s going on in Guatemala, and it’s really none of my business. We’ve got worries of our own on this side of the border; we don’t need those aliens adding to our burden and fears.

When we feel insecure – and this applies universally to our species – we have a tendency to shrink the world in our mind to something we can manage. I don’t mean, of course, that we shrink reality, but rather the construct of meaning we have projected around ourselves, also called our ‘world’.

At the center of every world is an ego, an “I” who like a spider is busy spinning, monitoring, and repairing its web as necessary. This means that there are as many worlds as egos, and each of us is at the center of our own.

Identity, therefore, is a function of inhabiting a world and possessing a self. ‘Who I am’ is correlated to the various social categories that define me, to the groups that hold my membership, such as the White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) distinctions mentioned earlier and illustrated in my diagram.

With the exception of the category ‘White’, these are predominantly cultural inventions and exist only in our minds. But even the fact that I’m White is really meaningless until someone assigns it a value; in itself it is not superior or inferior to any other human skin color.

In the diagram above I have depicted a critical distinction between who we are as world-spinning egos and what we are as human beings. Our nature as human beings has a dual orientation, with an extroverted aspect (body) engaged with the sensory-physical environment around us, and an introverted aspect (soul) opening to the mystical-intuitive depths of our own existence.

Just so we don’t fall to the temptation of splitting these aspects of our nature into a temporal (and temporary) container for an immortal personality, I have used the image of a Möbius band which is a surface with only one continuous side. Yes indeed, there appears to be an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to the strip, but if you trace your finger along its surface you will see that there is no division between them. The dual orientation of body and soul is a duality, not a dualism.

Wonderfully, this duality is built right into the term ‘human being’, where human represents the extroverted animal aspect (body) and being suggests a more introverted spiritual aspect (soul) with contemplative and creative roots.

Every human being has this dual orientation – all of us without exception. In our nature we are essentially the same. Where we differ is in all those distinctions of identity that tag our individual egos and label our worlds with the values of social membership.

I have depicted identity in my diagram as an arc of development, beginning with the body (all those impulses and urges that must be brought under control) and moving toward an increasingly ‘soulful’ way of being in the world. The long arc between them is where we take on an identity.

We need to become somebody before we can get over ourselves, and getting over ourselves is the great work of religion at its best. Only when we transcend the masks that define who we are, can we enter into those experiences of depth, authenticity, wholeness, and communion made possible by what we are as human beings.

Each of these experiences requires a stable base from which we then drop, reach, or leap beyond ourselves, and this stable base is known as ego strength, in critical contrast to egoism or ego inflation.

Picking up on what I mentioned earlier, when we start feeling insecure – and by this I mean unsafe, unloved, impotent, and unworthy – our tendency is to try to fix the problem by shrinking our world to dimensions we can manage and control. In light of my distinction between (human) nature and (ego) identity, this plays out in the way we over-identify with what makes us different – special, better, and more deserving than others.

The essentially creative energy of what we are gets pumped into these invented categories of who we are, and disastrously away from the source of human empathy. As this condition persists we begin to lose our ability to understand and identify with the suffering of others. Who cares? They’re not important – not White American Christian, wealthy capitalist Republican (or Democrat) – like me.

Now, it should be obvious that as long as we stay up in the web of identity, gripping down on what makes us special, the prospect of our human fulfillment in genuine community steadily diminishes. Attempted solutions only produce more division, more conflict, and more insecurity in our bid for what will fix the problem.

… when the problem is in ourselves. We are living against our nature.

 

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The Way of Dialogue

One sure mark of maturity is our ability as individuals to engage others in constructive dialogue. This term is not meant as a synonym for mere conversation, argumentative debate, or the pursuit of agreement in how we see things. To communicate with others of a different perspective means at least that we are able to listen, ask questions, understand, and reach an empathetic connection with them.

Needless to say, genuine dialogue is rarely taught and practiced these days, and is steadily disappearing as an art-form of healthy human cultures.

Just now at this period in history, our globe is deeply divided. A vast majority of the human population holds a different perspective from ours on the nature of reality, the hierarchy of values, the meaning of life, and how best to live. Whereas once upon a time we could entertain a meaningful conversation with someone of a different perspective because we shared with them certain backgrounding assumptions of a common culture, our global situation today breaks beyond the cultural commons and is forcing us to engage difference of a more radical sort.

In order to understand and start developing our skill for constructive dialogue, we need to resolve some confusion regarding its family resemblance to other forms of human interpersonal engagement (conversation, debate, negotiation) and then dig deeper into the dialogical process itself. For reference as we move along, I’ll refer to the diagram above.

The top part of my diagram illustrates the dilemma of confronting someone of a different perspective. A vertical (but broken) line separates the two, right down to the divergent meaning of the words they are speaking to each other. Assuming our interlocutors are speaking the same language (e.g., English), the words they use likely carry meaning that doesn’t match exactly. They may both speak of “freedom,” for instance, but their constructions of meaning around that idea might be literally worlds apart. This should remind us that words are not just sounds in the air or logical operators of propositional thought; additionally they are elements in our articulation of meaning, basic building blocks in our determination of what really matters.

Each opposing side might be speaking similar words, then, but be interpreting those words in a very different way. In the thought bubble behind each brain in my diagram are certain highly charged symbols that represent a few of the lines currently dividing our human experience on this planet. And of course, there are many others.

Depending on whether you are an American or a Russian, a Republican or a Democrat, a Christian or a Muslim, how you spin a word – that is to say, the meaning you assign to it – will be expressive of that particular identity.

Let me say right off that I am not suggesting that American, Republican, and Christian go together as a set (and similarly for the other side). While the differences directly across the way tend to be more mutually exclusive, it is possible, say, that you are an American Democrat who is Muslim, or a Russian Christian who favors strong republican government. It’s much less likely that you would be an American Russian (although you could be a Russian with American sympathies), identify as both Republican and Democrat (but you might be a Republican who supports domestic government programs), or a Christian Muslim (however, there are some who mix their own eclectic religious identity from different brands and traditions of world religion).

A key aim of constructive dialogue is what I earlier called empathetic connection. This requires understanding, which in turn is dependent on taking turns and listening carefully to what each other says. In the end, dialogue can be considered “successful” when partners come to appreciate each other’s humanity.

Argumentative debate – or its degenerate form so popular these days: bigoted accusation – doesn’t have this goal, as its purpose is to present the superior and persuasive position on a topic. Polite conversation will typically leave the matter of a partner’s humanity suspended in the background as less provocative opinions are exchanged. And whereas negotiation looks for potential points of agreement and compromise, dialogue strives for a place underneath our different worldviews, ideologies, opinions, and even of words themselves.

Before we go there, I need to acknowledge one thing that can derail the whole effort. Actually, this thing I’m speaking of is what prevents dialogue from making any progress at all. It has to do with the very interesting phenomenon where a belief once held by the mind ends up taking the mind hostage. If you are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever membership holds your identity), that self-identification obligates you with certain value-judgments and opinions about the way things are.

As beliefs, they provide orientation and guidance for living your life.

It can happen, however, and for various reasons, that a given belief stops operating as a meaningful preference in your interpretation of reality, and becomes instead the only way of looking at it. Now, what formerly had been held by your mind comes to hold your mind prisoner, like a convict behind bars. This often happens during a conversion experience where an individual is rather suddenly overtaken with the certainty of a competing truth. Or it might come on gradually as the habit of belief slowly pushes all variances out of view, leaving just this one – “the way it is.” However it happens, the result is what we call a conviction.

I made the case in Deliver Us From Conviction that this phenomenon, where a belief takes the mind captive, is the principal threat to our human and planetary future. All the other problems we face – nuclear armament, global warming, market bankruptcy, international and intertribal warfare, human rights violations around the planet or interracial conflict at home – are driven by convictions, beliefs that have made us into their convicts.

A conviction forecloses on all questions and rules out every doubt. There is no “other” way.

The way through this impasse is dialogue. But obviously, if we are to have any hope of making progress, each of us needs to examine the degree in which conviction is a driving force in our lives. The following steps of constructive dialogue can assist in this self-examination, and hopefully inspire us as well to choose its path in our dealings with difference in others.


Even the foregoing reflections on the nature of ideology, membership, and identity as the backgrounding influences behind our beliefs and the words we use to articulate them, might have already helped us loosen our grip on what we believe to be true. Notice that I didn’t say that we should let go of our truth-claims, but merely refresh our relationship to them as constructions of meaning. They are human creations after all, and we advance our cause considerably when we can remember ourselves and each other as creators.

Let’s start digging, then.

Beneath the words we use to articulate our constructions of meaning (i.e., our beliefs) are the feelings we have around them (symbolized by a heart in my diagram). Even though belief fuses a proposition of language with an emotional commitment to its truth-value, dialogue challenges us to loosen this bond sufficiently so we can notice the deeper feelings in play. You may have a strong commitment to a number of beliefs, and while they may be very dissimilar at the propositional level (e.g., the objective existence of god and the fundamental disparity in a proposed healthcare reform bill) your feelings are what make the belief in each case important to you – quite apart from the question of whether, really, it has any anchor in actual fact.

That’s not to say that belief statements should be scrapped, or that our constructions of meaning are secondary to how we feel about them. In fact, the strength of feeling associated with a particular proposition or article of belief is less about how firmly it ties into objective reality (whatever that is), than how deep its roots reach into our needs as persons and human beings.

In other words, we feel strongly about ideas that impinge critically on our existence, security, livelihood, close relationships, personal well-being, and opportunities for the future.

In my diagram such concerns are represented by an atom, symbolizing matters of life, desire, love, and joy.

The dialogical process is a timely reminder that underneath our different perspectives and beliefs each of us experience life in very similar ways, and, still deeper down, that our needs and those of the other are fundamentally the same. How have we forgotten that before we are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever horizon of identity we might choose), we are human beings?

Every major awakening of spiritual intelligence in history has turned on this foundational insight – both obvious and strangely obscured – of our common humanity: with our neighbor, a stranger, an outsider, and even with our enemy.

Yes, it takes time, effort – and patience. But once we can look through our different constructions of meaning to the feelings we attach to them; and then down through these feelings to the human needs we all share, the project of building genuine community and world peace will surprise us in its transforming effect. Once we are delivered from our convictions, the creative human spirit is set free.

It only takes one individual to open the way. Why not you?

 

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