The more we see, the more it hurts to look. And so, we have to bear the pain of knowing how things are, and how they also are. We do not belong in this world. We are the “strangers in a strange (and inhospitable) land.” We have been locked in an adversarial relationship with our environment from the beginning. It is the plight of the living to have to fight for life, for life is not the natural way of things.
The natural way of things is to be inert, disinterested, un-invested, uncaring. Like water flowing around a rock, or a rock being eroded by flowing water. Who cares about time if you are a river? You can carve out the Grand Canyon over lifetimes past counting, because no one is counting. Time becomes important only if you don’t have long to live. Then, you have to get things done, if they are going to be done, now. Then, you have to push, or resist, or force, or compel, or demand and insist because you can’t wait for things to take their natural course. Besides, you may not like their natural course. Their natural course may not be in your best interest, or that of the tribe, or that of all living things. But, rocks and rivers don’t care about these things, so the natural course of a river is nothing to a rock, even though the river clearly does not have the rock’s best interest at heart.
The natural course of the Yellowstone Caldera is to destroy life as we know it. It would be smart for us to stop it if we could, to alter the natural course. Or to stop forest fires, or to irrigate crops during droughts, or kill the tiger that is preying on the people of the village, or inoculate the children of the village against polio and whooping cough. To stand aside and let nature take its course is not always prudent, even rarely so, and thus, the fight for life is always against some natural course. Life, then, is always artificial, at odds with the world that was here long before life. Life is an after-thought of sorts, and self-interest is the most un-natural of things in the annuls of things.
But, here we are. Stuck on a world, in a universe, that doesn’t care if we live or die. That being the case, we better learn to enjoy the ride. Don’t be expecting life to be different than it is, that’s my best advice. Don’t be surprised if it’s difficult, if we don’t get enough, or any, cooperation, if there is opposition, and adversity, and resistance, and contentiousness, and hostility. When has it ever been otherwise? When has the world ever moved over and made room for us and asked what it could do to make us comfortable? It’s been hell here from the start. THAT is the nature of things. Living will take the life right out of you, and heart is the easiest thing to lose. So, we better have what it takes. We better know what it takes. We better do what it takes. Because, we are up against it, and the world is not on our side.
So the question: What does it take? Or, to phrase it a bit differently, What is the bottom line? What is the legitimate “ultimate concern” of the species (And how can individuals within the species have a different ultimate concern than the species?)? Survival? Are we to survive at all costs, at any price? What is the absolute necessity that governs our choices and our actions? We serve what with our lives?
How about “The future!”? We serve the future with our lives, the future of our planet, the future of our—collective—children. We are to live here and now in ways that enable them to live then and there. In order to do that, we have to take everything into account. We have to foster eyes that see, ears that hear, hearts that understand. We have to proceed very slowly. It is a slippery path to a future worth having, and fraught with peril. And, we are walking it for everyone, not just for ourselves and those like us.
Taking everyone into account pretty well erases the profit motive as the bottom line. No one benefits at the expense of everyone else. We are all in this together. The boon is shared in equal lots around the table, across the board. Hardly the American Way! Here is the bad news: The way into a worthy future is not the American Way! Or, to phrase it differently: Competition is not good for the soul.
There are two things wrong with competition. The first is the idea that “the winner takes all.” The second is the idea that the job goes to the lowest bidder (unless it’s a government job which then goes to your closest friend or family member). What’s wrong with the first idea is that the winner who takes all will do anything to win. And, we have the cheating scandals and the steroid scandals and the payola scandals, etc. to prove it. And, what’s wrong with the second idea is that in order to get the job, bidders will say anything and cut any corner and sign off on any piece of shoddy construction. You only have to live a little while with your eyes open to know that it is so.
We will not compete our way into a worthy future for everyone. Buying low and selling high will not do it. We come out on top when no one comes out on top. What do you think our chances are? How are we going to split the “future pie” so that everyone has an equal piece? It doesn’t matter what we think because the people who control the path to the future aren’t asking us for directions. We can only hang on and hate the ride.
This, too, is part of the process. We have always been carried to places we didn’t want to go by those who didn’t know what they were doing. Of all the kings, and princes, and presidents in charge of charting a course to the future for their country, how many made wise and prudent choices that benefited all people everywhere—or, even, their own? Let’s say you can come up with a name or two. Can you come up with a name or two whose wise choices weren’t eradicated by those of the next dufus in line? We can lament the mad meandering of history, but what can we do about it? Who are you going to talk to? Who is in charge here, or anywhere?
Here’s the plan: We do what we can in our sphere of influence and work to expand our influence. What are the common agreements? What is “the common good”? How homogeneous do we have to be? What are the sacrifices individuals must make for the sake of the whole? What are the sacrifices the whole must make for the sake of the individuals? How do we find the way forward together? How do we begin to serve a good beyond our own personal good?
The first common agreement is that we cannot do it alone. The second common agreement is that there are going to be significant disagreements. All the other common agreements will be worked out in light of the first two. That’s a problem, because we believe we CAN do it alone, and we walk away from significant disagreements. We have been forced to walk away from significant disagreements, and forced to do it alone, because of the presumption of agreement as the foundation of our life together. Somebody wins and somebody loses. We take a vote and do it the way the majority wants it done. It’s the majority’s way or the highway. How else would you ever make a decision?
The voice of dissent may well be over-ridden but must always be taken seriously. The minority opinion is honored and has a place at the table. Perspectives are respected and heard across the board. No one is pushed aside or required to abandon her, abandon his, position for the appearance of unanimity and agreement. Dissension is the seed of change and transformation. William Blake said it well: “Without contrary, there is no progression.” So, we honor all views, and find the way forward together. But that doesn’t mean stupid opinions carry the day. How to honor the opposition without being hamstrung by it is the cross conscious communities have to bear.
The work is to find what matters and build a life around that, and come alive its service, and save the world. The work is to save the world by being who we are in the world. The work is to be who we are—to be true to ourselves—within the context and circumstances—within the relationships, and the obligations, and the duties—of our lives. We do not get to be who we are in a perfect world that is built to recognize our genius and fall at our feet and ask how it can be of help and what it can do for us and would we like a pillow for our head and maybe a nice massage for our back. We get to be who we are in THIS world that doesn’t care a thing about us and our lives. We get to save THIS world that does not want to be saved and will not cooperate in the work of its salvation, and will even resist our efforts in its behalf, and punish us for daring to be who we are, for trying to bring our gift to life in the service of the world. And we need the right kind of community to help us with the work of being who we are in this world.
Here we enter the real wilderness, and become entangled in the paradox of the individual and the community, the collective. We are an “I” and a “We” at the same time. But, the “We” has to be more than a arbitrary grouping of “I’s.” The “We” has to be a true “We” if the “I’s” who compose the “We” are to have any chance at being true “I’s.” The search, then, is for true “We-ness,” true “I-ness,” and the search is an agony. The good of the group is always clashing with the good of the individual, and vice-versa. And the struggle for compromise is essential to the good of both.
True “We-ness” brings true “I-ness” to light, and to life. True “I-ness” finds itself in resisting conformity to the “We,” questioning authority, pushing against the limits and restrictions of the “We’s” way of thinking and being, and imagining alternative and creative ways to think and be—within the context of the “We.” The “We” has to be accommodating, and gracious, and receptive, and kind, knowing when to yield and when to hold the line. The “I” has to be iconoclastic, and persistent, and patient, and bold. Too much “We,” and there is no “I.” Too much “I” and there is no “We.” And so, the dance.