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The American Bipolar Disorder

During the insufferably long campaign circus leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election I offered a perspective on what I believed was the real choice then coming into focus. It wasn’t between Clinton’s domestic and Trump’s international priorities. Nor was it over someone who exposed security secrets of our country, or someone else who denigrates women and minorities. Our decision in November was going to be, really for the first time with such clarity in the history of American politics, whether democracy or capitalism would carry us into the future as a nation.

Everyone knows that our political system was originally set up according to the foundational principles of democracy – empowering citizens to elect their own representatives, assemble around causes that matter to them, protest bad decisions and abuses of leadership, and even to remove incompetent leaders from office as necessary. Democracy’s antitype is monarchy, where one individual rules over all.

As the values of autonomy, reason, and creative authority broke through the thawing ground of the Middle Ages, the imperial arrangement of top-down control became increasingly intolerable. The republican form of democracy instituted among the early colonies and states of America still acknowledged a need for high-level vision and leadership, but it would be ‘the people’ who put them in office, not bloodline, usurpation, or a deep purse – well, okay, that last one has always been more about maintaining an illusion of our equal access as citizens to high political office.

In actual practice, however, political influence most often goes to where the money is – and this makes a good segue to that other force shaping American society. Technically not a political ideology, capitalism is rather a way of organizing (and justifying) an economic system centered in the values of liberty and privacy, where a free (i.e., only minimally regulated) market allows for the production, distribution, and exchange of wealth by individuals and corporations. This was originally a very logical correlate to democracy, sharing its concern that wealth (rather than power) should be liberated from the hands of one or a few and made available to the many.

The framers of our US Constitution were strong proponents of capitalism, and the so-called American Dream has always been more about economic than political aspirations. People do come to America to escape political oppression and persecution in their home countries, but ultimately what they hope for is the opportunity to build their wealth and become financially independent. Early on the role of government was to be minimal, and its interference in our individual pursuit of happiness – long mistaken as the natural consequence of economic success – was carefully sanctioned. America is still for many the Land of Opportunity.

Even in my brief characterization of democracy and capitalism it should be obvious that these two ideologies, one political and the other economic, are driving in opposite directions. As I pointed out in Change Your Lens, Change Your World, their opposition originates in the fundamentally different ways they prioritize the individual and the community. Democracy puts priority on community and regards the individual as a responsible agent in its formation and health, whereas capitalism puts the individual before community, which quickly becomes a mere aggregate of self-interested actors.

In the 2016 Presidential election we had a choice between an advocate of democracy on one hand and an advocate for capitalism on the other. The winner was capitalism.

In this post I’d like to expand our frame to the bigger picture, where the genetic codes of democracy and capitalism are placed on a continuum. Along that continuum are key terms that name distinct modes of human relations. Staying in the middle of this continuum where the tension is more easily managed, but where things can quickly snap and fly apart in opposite directions, are the modes associated with democracy (cooperation) and capitalism (competition).

Of course, the modes of cooperation and competition go beyond politics and economics (think of sports and games, for instance), but I’m trying to diagnose the peculiar form of bipolar disorder that our nation struggles with, so our focus will stay here.

Democracy is basically a political philosophy affirming the primary value and critical role of individuals as co-operators. They work together in a spirit of mutuality – certainly not without some lively competition among their different views and interests – for the purpose of managing a government that upholds their freedoms and clarifies their responsibilities to the community. Together they seek equity, agreement, and alliance around the concerns impacting their shared quality of life.

While equality is the unworkable goal of everyone having an equal share of wealth, access, and influence, equity is closer to Marx’s principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” (It’s important to remember that Marx’s call to revolution was against capitalism and its abuses, not against democracy.)

Farther to the polar left on our continuum is the ideal that democratic visionaries have frequently entertained and tried to realize. Communion is a mode of human relations that comes as close as possible to negating individual differences in the solvent of oneness. When the tension snaps, we are left with a state of being where no distinctions remain, there is nothing for our minds to hold on to, and we are submerged in a mystery that cannot be named. Mystics devote themselves to diving in and letting go, but many of them are notorious misfits when it comes to relating well with others.

On the other side of center, capitalism is an economic philosophy that – particularly in the model of Adam Smith – regards individuals as competitors for a finite quantity of market share and wealth. They could be said to cooperate within the rules and regulations of that market, but their primary interest lies in improving efficiency, gaining an advantage over rivals, and achieving excellence in the product or service they offer. Competition provides opportunities for self-improvement, and the matching appetites of opponents drive their mutual pursuit of excellence, taking the lead where they can.

Farther out to the polar right of our continuum is a mode of human relations which amplifies the differences to such a degree that relationship itself is on the verge of extinction – this time not by dissolving into communion but by bursting apart through conflict. This is where competition loses all sense of rivals cooperating on a field of rules, incentives, and goals and becomes instead a ruthless winner-take-all crusade to crush each other. In conflict, opponents refuse to acknowledge their common ground or shared values – if they can even see these anymore.

In this blog I frequently reflect on what I call ‘genuine community’, which could sound as if I favor only the value-set to the left of center – in other words, that I support democracy and have only bad things to say about capitalism. With my incessant interest in spirituality and our more mystical sensibilities, you might also think that I’m not only left of center but a far leftist when it comes to where I believe we should be. Wouldn’t that be something? All of us submerged in the warm bath of mystic union: no self-regard, nothing to upset us, and no aspirations for the future ….

In fact, my understanding of genuine community is not centered exclusively in communion but includes all four modes of human relations. Yes, even conflict will happen in genuine community as the competing interests of individuals and groups flare occasionally into aggressive confrontation. But a healthy community is capable of containing conflict, marshaling the patience, compassion, wisdom, forgiveness, and goodwill necessary for constructive dialogue to take place.

In time, and inside the ground rules of constructive dialogue, opponents discover their common ground and begin working together – first for themselves but eventually for a greater good.

According to this perspective, America is healthiest when democracy empowers its citizens to cooperate in government and community life, at the same time as capitalism provides them with a competitive field where they can sharpen their skills and realize their dreams of prosperity. As a friend of mine recently commented, an ideal situation would be where just-left-of-center Democrats and just-right-of-center Republicans engaged in dialogue, advocacy, and compromise for the wellbeing of all Americans.

Our problem – and this is the heart of our bipolar disorder as a nation in my opinion – is rooted in our apparent inability to stay closer to the center where a healthy balance could be managed. The Republican party is falling farther to the right as the Democrats fall farther left, and the farther apart they get, the less able they are to find common ground and work effectively together. Such extremism (both right and left) throws the larger system into divisions that no longer know how to ‘reach across the aisle’ – so far into opposite ideological directions have they gone.

Now, we should carefully consider the likelihood that our national disorder is really only a projection at the societal level of an imbalance within ourselves individually. Perhaps we have lost our center and that’s why the politicians we elected can’t be the leaders America so desperately needs.

 

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Where Love Can Only Grow

We are presently witnessing a massive phase shift in the living system of our planet. Scientists have been noting and measuring incremental changes in climate temperatures, polar ice caps and sea levels, attributable to a thickening blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which traps radiant heat of the sun near Earth’s surface. Breakdowns in ozone allow more ultraviolet light inside, altering the fertility, development, and metabolism of its native life-forms, rushing many species to extinction.

Ostrich politicians and captains of industry may deny that these catastrophic changes have anything to do with the rampant consumer activity of our own species, but the facts really do speak for themselves. The biosphere is collapsing, and for too long we have been holding onto hope that the data was overblown or that new technologies would save us from disaster if we can just be patient a little longer.

The relationship of humans with nature is a strained one, as acknowledged in the early mythology of many world cultures. It is typically some major failure in wisdom, responsibility, or conscience that resulted in our expulsion from the garden where all that we needed had been provided. Life outside the garden became one of increasing preoccupation with the structures, technologies, mechanisms, and complications of a uniquely human culture. As we got deeper into our own construction of cultural affairs, the intuitions, sympathies, and instincts of our animal nature gradually fell out of consciousness and our estrangement grew more pronounced.

This is the third of three pernicious divisions that have driven human history to the brink, where we find ourselves today. Our cultural progress over the millenniums – and it has been astonishing, has it not? – has come at the expense of the natural systems and resources we’ve needed to exploit along the way. Trees become lumber for our houses, ores are turned into metal for our cars, oil and natural gas are converted into fuel, lubricants, and plastics that make the world go round. Nature has effectively been reduced to resources for our use, real estate to be developed, and depositories for our waste.

We still sometimes talk about ‘human nature’, but what does that really mean? Not that humans belong to nature, or that our origins and evolution are dependent on nature’s provident life support. Instead, human nature has come to refer to what is unique and special to human beings – what separates us from the web of life rather than what anchors us to it.

To really understand what’s behind this pernicious division of human and nature we need to look more closely inside the social realm where so much of our attention and energy is invested. There we find a second division, between self and other – between me and the human stranger, the one whose thoughts, feelings, and motivations are invisible to me. If we were to locate our relationship to the other on a continuum ranging from communion, through cooperation, into competition, and to the opposite extreme of conflict, it seems increasingly that our engagement is a struggle with and against each other for what we want.

Interestingly, but maybe not surprisingly, whereas earlier cultures seem to have valued the self-other connection as a worthy (even sacred) end in itself, we today tend to view our relationships with others as means (or barriers) to what we individually want. We are more ready to agree with Jean-Paul Sartre that “hell is other people.” The other is just so damned inscrutable, so self-involved, unpredictable, and … untrustworthy. We assume that the other person is looking out for himself, focused on her own interests and desires – just as we are.

Our starting assumption regarding the selfish intention of others is surely the primary reason why genuine community continues to elude us.

But the ecological (human-nature) and interpersonal (self-other) divisions are themselves symptoms and side-effects of still another pernicious division – third in our discussion, but first in the order of causality. There is a psychosomatic (soul-body) split within us individually that lurks behind the medical and mental pathologies crippling us today. The necessary process of ego formation effectively inserts between them a construct of identity called ego, generating the delusion of commanding a (physical) body and possessing a (metaphysical) soul.

This separate center of personal identity struggles with chronic insecurity, however, since it lacks any reality of its own but must pretend to really be somebody. The combination of our self-conscious insecurity and this conceited insistence on standing at the center of reality makes us vulnerable to stress-related diseases, as it also cuts us off from our spiritual depths.

So this is how it all spins out: A neurotic ego alienates us from our own essential nature and generates the delusion of having a separate self. Estranged from what we are, we then look out and see the other as a stranger whose opaqueness mirrors our own. The challenge of managing meaning, getting our share of happiness, and holding our place in the world has us so involved as consumers of culture, that it has taken this long to notice nature collapsing around us.

In the meantime, the ecosystem of life on our planet, the deep traditions and higher wisdom of our various cultures, along with our individual sanity and wellbeing are all unraveling at once.

Of course, we need to do what we can to arrest the degradation of our planetary home. Flying off and colonizing another planet only postpones the final catastrophe and leaves the fundamental problem unresolved. Down-sizing and getting off the carousel of mindless consumerism might give Earth a chance to recover to some extent. For such measures to have significant effect, however, nations need to be working together, parties need to get off their platforms and promote the common good. And for that to happen, each of us will have to break through the delusion of who we think we are and get over ourselves.

The earth will be renewed as we learn to love each other, and love can only grow near the spring of inner peace.

 

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A Religion That Matters

Two SystemsMy last post ended with the suggestion that what we call religion might best be understood as the way we manage the balance of love and power in our lives. The two systems of supremacy and communion which act like great attractors in the patterns of culture throughout history, also pull on our individual lives, causing us to lean more one way than the other in our personal choices and lifestyles.

The question I’m exploring is whether it is legitimate (and useful) to speak of this management of power and love – the particular set of rules, disciplines, methods, and practices we employ to “hold it together” (from the Latin religare) – as our religion. If the answer is yes, and I think it is, then the salient features that get packaged together in our conventional definition of religion – sacred stories, communal rituals, devotional practices, belief in a supreme being, and the hope of an afterlife – end up as secondary to its principal function.

This would help explain not only why religion looks so different from culture to culture (i.e., its features are more locally dependent), but also why all religions can be classified as either oriented on supremacy (the love of power) or communion (the power of love). Even within a single religion (e.g., Christianity), this balance of power and love can shift from one generation to the next, from one community to another, even as the surface features remain ostensibly the same. What we find is a change of focus in the myths, doctrines, liturgy, and morality as one system recedes and the other moves into dominance.

At the heart of religion (as I am redefining it here) is the priority and challenge of trust, which is where power and love are held in balance or fall apart. In a sense, the whole two-system “mega-system” of supremacy and communion comes down to how we manage – cultivate, nourish, repair, and renew – the trust we have in reality, the earth, each other, and ourselves. This is the sacred bond that holds everything together. It will serve us well to appreciate what’s at stake in the management of trust.

As my diagram illustrates, the systems of supremacy and communion interact along two parabolic arcs that converge in “trust” and diverge again into their opposing values. Farthest out from center are the oppositions of virtue/competition and equality/cooperation, which is where the peculiar accent of a religion will be most obvious.

It’s important to remember that virtue is not about “being good” in the moral sense, but refers rather to the unique power (character strength, creative talent, uncommon intelligence) that makes the individual something special. In a supremacy system, priority is given to the discovery and development, typically in competition with others, of what makes us exceptional. On the other side is equality, where exceptions are downplayed in the interest of what makes us similar, of what we have in common. This common ground becomes the basis of cooperation and partnership in a communion system.

We can understand how major ideological differences would be easier to defend and maintain the farther out from center we identify ourselves. In a sense, it’s safer out there: we can stay in our heads and keep our distance from those “glory seekers” or “bleeding hearts” on the other side of the scale. But our religion only works for us at that point where we find ourselves face to face with “the other” – the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy. The question of whom we can trust, whether we can (or should) let down our guard and open ourselves to the other, take a risk and be vulnerable for the sake of a genuinely human-spiritual interaction – that’s where it really matters.

Jesus understood this with laser clarity, it seems to me. What you may believe about God, or whether you even believe in one; whether or not you are a confessing member of a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque; whether you can recite scripture or pray before meals; whether you are preparing your soul for immortal beatitude in the next life or just living from one day to the next – none of this really matters if you close yourself off from others, if you refuse to build trust where it’s missing, or repair trust where it’s damaged or broken.

Ironically (and tragically) much of religion today has become a means of escape, not just from this coil of mortality at the end of life, but from the proving circle of exposure, vulnerability, and risk where so much is at stake. Our churches and denominations are protected memberships where we can sit alongside like-minded believers, feel confirmed in our truth, and carefully plan our engagement with the world outside. But if my theory holds, none of this is religion that matters. True religion – if I can dare use the term – has nothing to do with either monastic escape or strategic outreach to “save” the world.

Lest my readers who are former churchgoers, enlightened nonbelievers, or independent post-theists are thinking that religion can and should be left behind, I’ll remind you of my working definition, which has to do with the way you manage the balance of power and love in your life. How you cultivate trust and negotiate its challenges, how you use your influence to nourish connection, how you fulfill your responsibilities in the covenant of relationship – that is your religion. Leaving the church and giving up on its god doesn’t set you free from religion; it may indeed have been a necessary step in getting you more seriously invested in a religion that matters.

 

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The Two Systems

I’ve decided that my purpose as a writer is not to persuade readers to my position on some topic, as much as it is to inspire (or at least provoke) creative thinking around things that matter. After all, my blog is devoted to contemplating creative change across culture, and persuasion is more about converting others to your beliefs than it is getting them to conduct a reality-check on their own.

So, I want to return to something I wrote about two years ago, and which, in the intervening time, has become even more relevant. It has to do with the paradoxical tension between two great systems that interact in every culture, in every community, and in each one of us. Our fear of conflict, which is probably fueled by ignorance concerning the creative potential in tension, along with our lazy preference for simplistic and dogmatic solutions, too frequently motivates us out of zones where genuine transformation might occur.

We feel almost a moral obligation to come down on one side or the other, calling one system good and the other evil. Of course, such judgment automatically makes enemies of anyone who might favor the side opposite to ours. With some urgency, then, I want to make the point that romanticizing one system and renouncing the other only shifts an otherwise creative tension into a mutually destructive antagonism. Western culture has been particularly good at that, and the absolute (fixed and irreconcilable) dualism in the metaphysical foundations of our worldview has worked itself up to the surface in an exploding taxonomy of neurotic disorders and sectarian movements through the centuries.

My objective is to show the extent in which the two systems are inextricably involved in our culture, our politics, our religions, our relationships, and our personalities. We might even look outside the specifically human realm and observe these two systems interacting in nature and throughout the cosmos as a whole. This was the great insight of the sixth-century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu whose Tao Te Ching is a profound reflection on the dance of Yin and Yang across the manifest universe.

My word-tags for these two systems are “communion” and “supremacy,” and the forces they hold in tension are the power of love and the love of power, respectively. Already we might feel ourselves leaning into one and away from the other depending on our temperament, gender, morality bias, and situation in life. And while I want to respect our individual preferences, my real purpose here is to open the frame wide enough so we can appreciate their interdependency as creative forces in ourselves and society at large.

Two SystemsLet’s first look at the particular values that orbit together in each of the systems, and then I’ll come back to the term at the center of my diagram. Supremacy, or the love of power, emphasizes influence and responsibility, competition and virtue. Communion, or the power of love, places a stronger accent on connection and relationship, cooperation and equality. Notice how the terms in my diagram are arranged in such a way that they comprise two arcs, coming so close as to almost merge, then turning away from the center-line and farther into values more obviously identified with one side or the other.

We need to be careful not to break this tension and push everything into an absolute dualism, as has happened so many times in the West. For instance, while it may seem obvious that “competition” is the complete opposite of “cooperation,” in reality (just as Lao-Tzu noticed) there’s is a little of each in the other. Some of our most challenging and enjoyable games put us in a contest where we must cooperate with an opponent in order to compete for a goal. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, but we can’t win unless we play by the rules and respect our opponent as a partner in the process.

The opposition of “virtue” and “equality” is one that has swung Western politics for thousands of years. For their part, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle leaned more toward virtue, which they defined as excellence or outstanding strength of character, rather than equality and the degenerate forms of democracy it tended to produce. Absolute equality amounts to a torpid neutrality where the insistence on sameness drowns out and dissolves away anything unique, special, or outstanding that might bring honor to one and not the rest.

Some feel that this push for equality in everything today is flattening out the virtues of the “American character,” effectively neutering the self-reliant and pioneering frontier spirit that made our nation great. But then again, as pioneers became settlers, and settlers became colonists, the exploitation of inequality (of whomever didn’t have land or a gun or a penis) did as much to make our nation as our supposed virtues. This only points up once again the need for balance.

The two systems of supremacy and communion interact as complements to each other, one tempering the potential excesses of the other, and both necessary to the health of the whole – of the whole shebang (cosmos), a whole culture, a whole community, a whole partnership, and a whole personality. While each system arcs away from the other and into its singular values, there is a point where they both come so close as to almost fuse into one. I wonder if our tendency toward extremes, driving us to neurotic breakdowns and dogmatic orthodoxies, is a symptom of our idiocy when it comes to understanding and cultivating genuine trust.

What I have in mind in using this term ranges from trusting others to trusting ourselves, having confidence in the creative process and surrendering to the provident mystery within, between, and beyond us all. This doesn’t have to come together in a formal religion, or even as belief in the existence of a god “out there.” But however we work it out, however we manage (or mismanage) the balance of power and love, that is our religion.

 

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