Cloud Cuckoo Land
For anyone who loves novels that stimulate awareness of the incredible unity-in-diversity we live in, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr is a wonderful addition to world literature. It is, I believe, a celebration of how human imagination, at its best, is both uniquely personal and profoundly collaborative and unifying. It also reminds me of these famous words by William Blake (from Auguries of Innocence): “Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine. Under every grief and pine, Runs a joy with silken twine.” Surely, the finest novels depict the inseparability of “joy and woe” (and other supposed opposites) in a life-enhancing, rejuvenating way, just as this book does. And isn't it the case that the best of the best do this by making the overarching conception and construction of the book reflect its individual elements, again, just as Cloud Cuckoo Land does.
At a time when our world desperately needs uplifting reflections of human creativity, this novel is a magnificent gift, and certainly deserves all the accolades it has received.
In a recent article in The Guardian (“Why is life on Earth still taking second place to fossil fuel companies?”, August 19, 2021), columnist George Monbiot presents a compelling and chilling reminder of a major human weakness: we often do things that are not in our best interests, and conversely, we often do not do things that are demonstrably good and proper in terms of sustaining the well-being of ourselves and our planet. In spite of the obvious mutuality of all life processes, we humans have a longstanding proclivity for ignoring this fact and adopting self-interest as the principal motivator of our actions, both individually and collectively.
We don’t have to look far for examples of how exclusionary self-interest exerts itself in both our personal lives and throughout history. Today, as Monbiot points out, the climate crisis is a tragic, global manifestation of the debilitating aftermath of disregarding our natural interdependence. He writes: “almost everyone is now at least vaguely aware that we face the greatest catastrophe our species has ever confronted. Yet scarcely anyone alters their behavior in response.”
We are often reminded by scientists and a host of concerned social commentators that our excessive use of fossil fuels is a root cause of the current planetary crisis. This excess is in large measure the result of a widespread, willful pursuit of self-indulgent lifestyles, often culminating in ostentatious displays of individualistic achievement (such as increasingly expensive houses, cars, holidays, personal luxury items, etc.). And remarkably, this pursuit is generally socially sanctioned, to the point of considering it a kind of basic human right.
There are many reasons (psychological, sociological, political, and religious) why so many of us cling to a prioritization of individual rights, rather than recognize the mutuality of life and its inherent responsibilities. But common to all of the reasons, I believe, is a pseudo-philosophical disposition that tends to see and understand everything primarily in terms of the materiality (or physicality) of life. This disposition is, of course, a necessary aspect of knowing about our world in a scientific way, but as a foundation for knowing about ourselves and our world in a complete, holistic way, it falls far short.
The world we observe physically at any given moment is part of a reality that extends far beyond what we can perceive. Yes, the things we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell have objective qualities, but they are not limited by them. Everything that exists—all plants and animals, mountains, rivers, oceans, human beings, microscopic particles and macroscopic phenomena—participate in a world of seemingly infinite potential, and in the light of this unfolding infinity, how can we claim that what we call physical or material is the basis of anything, let alone everything? What is the origin of our intuitive and imaginative skills, and the amazing inventiveness we witness throughout nature, if not a creative power that exists before any physical manifestation of it? Surely, a worldview based solely on what we can observe provides only a partial, depiction of reality. To open ourselves to the infinite reality within which we live, we need a worldview that is sensitive to our place in the wholeness of life.
Monbiot draws attention to the present-day lack of a comprehensive, realistic worldview when he expresses little or no hope that current world governments will do enough to address our current global crisis effectively. He writes: “No government, even the most progressive, is yet prepared to contemplate the transformation we need: a global programme that places the survival of humanity and the rest of life on Earth above all other issues. We need not just new policy, but a new ethics.” By emphasizing the importance of following “a new ethics” that will give rise to new policies, Monbiot draws attention to the fact that, as persons living in an interdependent world, we respond ethically to any situation when what we do flows from acknowledging our natural interdependence.
Ethics is a term that brings together ideas, feelings, and actions that reflect our basic morality, our core beliefs and values pertaining to what is right and good. It is, therefore, a term that reflects our “being,” our way of expressing who we are as persons. And given the interdependent nature of our world, who we are (as both individuals and societies) is best understood in terms of mutuality, not in terms of pursuing exclusively individualistic agendas.
At the beginning of his article, Monbiot boldly claims that “the human tragedy is that there is no connection between what we know and what we do.” I suggest that our current tragedy can be more accurately described as the result of a broken connection between what we know and what we do. This brokenness is brought about by a misguided worldview based on a limited, material-biased understanding of ourselves and our world, and supported by a misuse of our technological prowess. When we make our scientific and technological skills the driving force of our activities on this planet, we are misusing them in the sense that we are asking them to provide a complete picture of ourselves and our world when this is something they cannot and were not meant to do.
Science and technology are expressions of human consciousness, but so are imagination and intuitive insight. Unfortunately, in our modern age we have focused on developing our scientific and technological skills to the point that we virtually idolize them because of what they can give us in terms of material benefits and comforts. But this excessive focus is rebounding on us with tragic consequences. One recent scholar describes this catastrophic rebound in terms of our becoming the tool of our tools (see Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, 1992). Surely, science and technology function as they are meant to when they act in partnership with all aspects of human nature. This implies sustaining a viable connection with our capacity for ethical thinking and acting, which, of course, includes a capacity for building and sustaining empathic relationships with everyone and everything around us.
The current planetary crisis presents us with a need that could not be more significant or urgent: a need to be fully aware of the damage we are doing to ourselves and our planet by ignoring the fundamental interdependence of our world—damage that may already be irreversible in some respects. We need to recognize that the current prevailing worldview (which ignores our interdependence) has turned many of us into dangerous exploiters of life on our planet. Moreover, we need to embrace the reality that our lives as humans are inseparably intertwined with all other living beings, which includes everything that exists, organic, inorganic, large, small, visible, or invisible. And when enough of us accept the mutual responsibility implicit in our interdependence, the social structures we sustain will follow suit with policies and actions that are genuinely life-enhancing (rather than life-debilitating, as many are at present). But as many social commentators like George Monbiot are telling us, time is running short.
This is how a human being can change:
There’s a worm addicted to eating
Suddenly, he wakes up,
call it grace, whatever, something
wakes him, and he’s no longer
He’s the entire vineyard,
and the orchard too,
the fruit, the trunks,
a growing wisdom and joy
that doesn’t need
Translation: Coleman Barks, from The Illuminated Rumi,
Broadway Books, New York, 1997, p. 25.
Like natural landscapes, our lives unfold within diverse, multifaceted environments marked by numerous molding, weather-like events. Consider any natural phenomenon—light, darkness, hurricanes, soothing breezes, smothering heat, piercing cold, dense fog, fresh air—and we can easily absorb it into our psyches as a metaphor for what we experience. And we don’t have to be professional poets or especially gifted in the arts to do this. Is there any topic of general conversation more commonplace than talking about the weather and how it affects us? Or is there any more potent way to reflect on remarkable experiences, whether joyful or troubling, than by way of analogy with events in the natural world?
Clearly, most people can understand our relationships with environmental phenomena in terms that are undeniably personal. But in spite of this affinity, it is equally clear that most people today do not consider these relationships in a context of intersubjectivity. Rather, in keeping with a mindset geared by technology and individualistic (self-serving) economic systems, most societies reinforce an attitude towards nature that sees it primarily as a collection of objects that provide humanity with what it needs to assume a dominating role in evolution. Thankfully, this attitude is not universal, and in keeping with the teachings of many indigenous traditions around the globe, there is a burgeoning recognition that, as one notable scholar puts it, nature is “a community of sovereign beings, subjects rather than objects.” [See: Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 331.]
The consequences of not believing in our innate intersubjectivity with natural phenomena are devastatingly apparent. We see them clearly in the current climate crisis, which brings into focus not only the stress and degradation of our natural environments but also the debilitating impact these conditions have on our social and personal lives. We are clearly at a point along our evolutionary trajectory when it is critically important to affirm and assert unequivocally the interdependent nature of our world.
To speak about interdependence convincingly, we need to rid ourselves of individualistic ways of thinking and feeling. I was reminded of this need by a recent article in The Guardian (Sunday, July 25, 2021) by Patrick Barkham, entitled “Should rivers have the same rights as people?” The author highlights a number of efforts in various countries to affirm legal rights, even “legal personhood” for rivers and other environmental entities. However, he also points out that many people who follow these efforts remind us that these concepts (“legal personhood” and “rights”) are irrevocably bound to capitalist ideas that have a decidedly individualistic bias, and do not fit into a genuinely interdependent view of ourselves and our world. Hence our need for a radical paradigmatic shift towards intersubjective ways of thinking and feeling, and reciprocal (participatory) ways of interacting.
Like all significant developmental turning points, a genuine paradigmatic shift opens us to a more comprehensive way of understanding ourselves and our world, and therefore requires new or revised ways of using certain words, phrases, or behaviors to support this new orientation. In the current context of our need to affirm the natural interdependence of life, I think we need to examine the suitability of technical phrases like “legal rights” and moralistic (rule-oriented) words like “should” when speaking about our fundamental, universal way of being.
Thinking in terms of legal rights implies a need to regulate social interactions in order to offset the deleterious effects of societal fragmentation. Such fragmentation is the result of inequalities and injustices arising from individualistic pursuits that disrupt the wholeness of life. Wholeness, like wellness, is sustained by the natural mutuality of life-processes. When life unfolds in ways that create harmonious, well-balanced interactions within any given milieu—be it a human body, a family, a society, an ecosystem, or an entire universe—all individual entities act and are accepted as integral participants in the flow of life, so an individual's well-being is inseparable from the well-being of others.
In a human context, this kind of reciprocity reflects ideal social conditions that are unfortunately seldom achieved. But to the extent that families, communities, societies, and countries truly honor the diversity within them, the reality of our universal interdependence becomes increasingly apparent and efficacious. And as this happens, we move increasingly away from the need for “rights” to protect individuals from the toxic influence of individualism (unmitigated self-interest). So, I think it is wise to keep in mind that the more we rely on legal rights to maintain harmonious social interactions, the more we keep ourselves, and the societies we live in, enmeshed in a labyrinth of individualistic behaviors.
In the context of our personal, interior thoughts and feelings, it is also wise, I believe, to consider the implications of using the words “should” and "ought" when reflecting on and speaking about morality. Using these words suggests that we are primarily concerned about regulating our behavior in order to conform to a moral principle. However, our moral capacity blossoms when such conformity is superseded and the reality of a moral virtue becomes part of our way-of-being. If we act a certain way because we think we should act that way, what we do is not yet a fully mature expression of morality. A person who acts charitably may be doing so for any number of reasons, including the decidedly self-serving one of wishing to appear charitable. Moreover, consider the motivation of activists who take up a cause because it is something they think they ought to do. Are they giving priority to living in the light of what they believe to be a moral reality, or merely conforming to what they think is a moral obligation? Surely, when we truly embrace any moral virtue and its concomitant behavior, there is no question about whether it is something we should do. A mature morality is not primarily directed towards "doing" something; its fundamental focus is on grounding us in the reality of who we are as persons, and appropriate actions follow.
Common sense tells us that the truth and efficacy of our actions are grounded in the authenticity—the sincerity—of “being someone.” So, orienting ourselves towards the interdependence of life is first of all a matter of “being” a genuinely interdependent person. And a person living in the light of interdependence has no need for legal rights or moral obligations when it comes to acting in ways that support harmonious, life-enhancing relationships. A person imbued with the flesh and blood of interdependence is naturally oriented away from the kind of independent, self-serving behaviors that generate social disharmony and fragmentation. To be interdependently minded is to be motivated by the wisdom of unity, a wisdom grounded in the intersubjective nature of all relationships. In an interdependent world, nothing is merely an object.
Is a river a living being? Of course.
Inside A Quiet Moment
Inside a Quiet Moment
When we feel as if there is no way
to heal the brokenness of our lives,
and nothing appears to bring us peace
or offer us the warmth we wish for,
there is always a place we can go
to be surrounded by what we need.
To be inside a quiet moment
is to give ourselves an opening
into a place of togetherness,
where we need not be constrained by things,
and thoughts can take shape like roots that spread
wherever earth and water takes them,
and feelings, like rivers, can follow
a path that eventually pours
into an ocean’s immensity.
Nowadays, philosophy is not often associated with technology and utility. However, in the mind of a skilled artisan, they are not only associated, they are inseparable working partners.
Artisans create things that are purposeful, often very beautiful, and invariably significant for them in some way. And they do this by merging a sense of who they are as individuals with common elements from their surroundings—from both the concrete world of physical objects (such as wood, stone, metal, fabrics, foodstuffs, or flowers) and the more abstract world of ideas (as expressed through words, sounds, images, or body movements). Through the work of artisans, our world can express itself in any number of ways that both fulfill our needs and bring us a sense of satisfaction, or even enlightenment and inspiration. In the mind of an artisan, one’s aptitude for technological know-how works hand-in-hand with one’s artistic sensibilities.
The work of genuine artisans can be easily distinguished from work that is merely useful or technologically innovative. For an artisan, the materials and methods used are meaningful in a way that goes deeper than what their surface features indicate. For example, a dedicated composer will try out many melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic combinations before one appears that seems “exactly right.” But why that particular combination creates the desired effect is a motivation that comes from deep within the composer’s psyche. The renowned American composer, Aaron Copland, once observed that, if he was asked if there was meaning in music, he would reply, “yes,” but if asked whether he can state “in so many words what that meaning is,” his response would be “no.” [What to Listen for in Music, (1939)]
To the extent that artisans draw from their personal inner resources, they are expressing who they are as individuals in a way that points to an overall worldview—a philosophical outlook. And it is this sharing of a general orientation towards life that gives others an opportunity to resonate with their work on a personal level, the level of our interdependent relationships. This personalized aspect of an artisan’s work is in sharp contrast with work that is done by individuals who have little or no personal interest in or control over their work processes, as is the case in many industrial and/or commercial contexts or when routine work is carried out without any sense of it having a deeper meaning than its surface appearance. In such instances, work is a purely technical matter aimed at producing a result that is valued mainly for its objective utility.
The point here is that all work involves us with some kind of technology and utility, but when it is done with the mind of an artisan, we can experience it in a way that expresses something deeply meaningful for ourselves and others. When we can reflect on the work we do and it tells us something about who we are, why we are doing it, and how it fits into the “big picture” of life around us, we are bringing out the philosopher within us. In its original (Classical Greek) context, philosophy is simply the “love of wisdom,” and implies a practical, everyday kind of knowing that guides a person’s actions—a way of focusing on how things fit together. In this sense, we are all philosophers, because we all have the capacity to reflect on “who we are” and “what we do” as a means of navigating through the varied circumstances of our everyday lives.
In the mind of an artisan, there is no distinction between oneself and the work one is involved with. For an artisan, “being” is a way of doing. There is an existential unity in the mind of an artisan that allows all aspects of human consciousness—intellect, intuition, sensation, and emotion—to join hands and work towards a desired end. Moreover, for an artisan, all genuinely creative work—be it of a scientific or artistic nature—is grounded in a lifelong love for wisdom, a philosophical disposition or state of mindfulness that is continually in search of meaningfulness. This search takes us beyond the technical and utilitarian aspects of what we do into the mysterious world of our interconnections with others, a world that ultimately involves us with the wholeness of life.
In his book “On Creativity,” the eminent physicist and philosopher of wholeness, David Bohm (1917 – 1993), notes that for many scientists “the utilitarian possibilities of their work are generally of secondary interest.” What is primary for them, he observes, is a kind of longing to experience “a certain oneness and totality, or wholeness, consisting of a kind of harmony that is felt to be beautiful.” He adds, “in this respect, the scientist is perhaps not basically different from the artist, the architect, the musical composer, etc., who all want to create this sort of thing in their work.” [See: David Bohm, On Creativity, (1998), pp. 1 – 2.]
Today, most of us live in societies inundated with new technologies that impinge on practically every aspect of our lives. And although many of these technologies are incredibly useful, usefulness alone does not guarantee that a technology will bring us an enhanced experience of our interconnectedness, our unity. What would it take for us to look beyond the utility of these technologies and reflect on how our use of them contributes or interferes with our ability to be aware of the wholeness of life, and the beauty, truth, and harmony that flow from such awareness? I think it would take the mind of an artisan.
I could think without manipulating my thoughts
and just let them tell me why they have come to me?
I could let my feelings express themselves freely
without trying to attach them to something else?
my wishes were not embedded in the future
but kept me focused on what’s happening right now?
I could listen as I imagine a poet
listens to the sounds of nature surrounding her?
I could see things as I imagine an artist
looks at something that has captured his attention?
I could touch things as I imagine someone does
who isn’t afraid of belonging everywhere?
To understand ourselves and our world as meaningfully as possible, we need to remain aware of and responsive to the interdependence of things. Yet, many educational systems today make this difficult to do, because they operate under an overarching framework that divides the process of education into distinct categories of study, often with very little focus on their interconnectedness. This framework is derived from the methodologies of science and technology and emphasizes our rational/analytical abilities over our aptitude for imaginative and intuitive insights. Consequently, it prioritizes prescriptive, standardized testing procedures over flexible, student-centered approaches to evaluation. In short, it does not give equal weight to encouraging the full powers of human consciousness, which clearly impedes its ability to sensitize students to the wholeness of life and our natural interdependence.
Of course, there are educational systems around the globe and many dedicated teachers committed to a holistic (wholeness-oriented) approach to education. However, given the current dominance of technology in the everyday lives of most people on our planet, these approaches are all too likely to be perceived as supplemental rather than foundational. So, it is crucially important to remind ourselves as often as possible about the shortcomings associated with the dominating influence of science and technology in our educational practices.
Consider, for instance, the message we send students when we educate them as if their rational/analytical faculties are separate, superior, and more relevant than their intuitive/imaginative abilities. This kind of hierarchical, fragmented approach to education implies that it is best (for both individuals and societies) to focus on objective subject matter rather than the subjective qualities of individual learners. And obviously, the widespread use of single-subject, prescriptive, standardized testing procedures reflects this approach.
But just as obviously, a fragmented approach to education gives rise to fragmented socio/cultural environments. When we think of our mental faculties as isolated mechanisms rather than mutually integrated capacities, it is not surprising that our attitudes and activities accept and even promote fragmentation in our socio/cultural interactions.
Although treating objects and ideas as separate entities is a basic aspect of scientific work, with obviously enormous benefits, the fact remains that fragmentation does not reflect the reality of universal life as we experience it, whereas wholeness and interdependence do. So, our educational practices are most in keeping with our basic reality when they are grounded in a mindset that accepts the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. As the celebrated economist and proponent of small-scale technologies, E.F. Schumacher, reminds us: “Our task is to look at the world and see it whole.” [See: A Guide for the Perplexed (1977/2004), p.15.]
In response to Schumacher’s remark, it may be tempting to ask: What can we do to get this task done? How can we go about seeing our world as a wholeness? However, such questions come from a mind immersed in the methodologies of science and technology. A mind immersed in the reality of wholeness is not immediately concerned about having a specific, ready-made plan; it is concerned with responding in a fitting manner to whatever is happening in the here-and-now, which implies that whatever planning needs to be done emerges, not as a prepackaged program, but in the context of being as fully involved as possible with immediate circumstances. It is by living in the here-and-now that we can best rid ourselves of conditioned patterns of behavior (based on past experiences and/or future expectations) that interfere with our ability to see ourselves and our world with genuine clarity.
Plans, like everything else, work best when they are grounded in the creative soil of our interdependence. Ideally, they are organic; they grow in response to the nurturing they receive, which is most appropriately a response to whatever conditions exist in the present—the “weather” of whatever is currently happening. In this sense, good educators are like good gardeners; they are attuned to the interconnectedness of things and ready to use their knowledge and expertise in a flexible way, in keeping with the many kinds of situations that everyday life gives rise to.
In his book, The Courage To Teach (1988), Parker Palmer reminds us that teaching is not primarily about “doing something,” it is about “being someone.” The same can be said about learning. What would our societies be like if learning was primarily about “being oneself” as one engages in activities aimed at acquiring knowledge and skills? If we educated ourselves in ways that prioritized our development as individuals living in an interdependent world, we would live in societies that value unity over disunity, and are therefore much less prone to the many ills associated with social fragmentation. Social fragmentation breeds fear, and fear is the first step along a path that takes us away from what is most comforting, reassuring, and insightful about being alive: a sense of belonging, of being at home wherever we are.
“We are at home in a universe that embraces both the smallness of “I”
and the vastness of all that is not “I,” and does so with consummate ease.
In this home, we know ourselves not as isolated atoms threatened by otherness
but as integral parts of the great web of life. In that knowing, we are taken beyond
fear towards wholeness.”
Parker Palmer, The Courage To Teach (1988), p. 85.
The universal interdependency of everything is becoming increasingly accepted as a fundamental reality. However, its impact on everyday activities remains limited because of the dominating influence of “me-first” or “us-first” forms of individualism on contemporary lifestyles. Today, it is very easy to forget about our interdependence while ensconced in the individually-tailored goods and services brought to us by modern technologies.
Many, if not most of us live in what we can reasonably call a techno-culture. With our personal electronic communication and computing devices, and our highly technologized involvements with commercial, industrial, entertainment, and regulatory (governmental) organizations, our daily lives are saturated with technology-driven objects and activities. And this situation leaves little or no room for us to have a significant influence on many aspects of our everyday lives. In fact, all too often there isn’t even much awareness of the extent to which our lives have become technologized. For instance, most social media platforms operate in ways that mask the fact that it is the technology, not the user of the technology, that determines the parameters within which activities occur. And in other contexts, being able to express likes and dislikes, and having multiple options with respect to making a choice of some kind are not the same as being able to express our opinions as we would like to or being able to create our own options.
Numerous 20th century scholars have drawn attention to the complex issues and concerns related to the hegemony of technology in contemporary life. Neil Postman (1931–2003), for example, described this dominance as a “totalitarian technocracy” in which “tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture,” and “everything must give way, in some degree, to their development.” [See, Technopoly (1993), p.28.] Of course, our involvement with technologies has always been and will always be an indispensable aspect of human life. But the issue in today’s world is not about the utility and benefits of technology; it is about surrendering ourselves to its mindset and methodologies. For the most part, technologies are geared towards specific objectives and therefore function prescriptively and mechanistically, which implies that they are intrinsically one-sided in terms of drawing on the full powers of human consciousness.
Technology is about expanding our ability to be physically involved with our world, which in large part entails being able to predict and control behaviors and outcomes. However, human consciousness gives us a capacity to expand our involvement with the world beyond what is physically perceptible: it allows us to imagine and intuit what exists before and after physical events, so that our minds can be genuinely creative, in the sense of being open to an infinite array of possibilities. Given the wholeness of human consciousness, it is short-sighted to rely soley or even primarily on our technological prowess. Yes, with technologies we can acquire knowledge about the physical aspects of our world and manage many of our everyday activities. But can we live as fully as possible if our involvement with technology weakens our imaginative and intuitive capacities? Surely, we need the creative energy of insight and inspiration to keep us in contact with the full potential of both ourselves and our world.
Recent technological advances have been so rapid, extensive, and intoxicating that to a great extent we have collectively inured ourselves to the dangers of allowing a technological mindset to dominate our lives. It is as if we have suddenly been made aware of possessing an extraordinary capacity for controlling many aspects of our involvement with the world and have decided to dash headlong into exploiting it without careful reflection about the ramifications of doing so. I have often thought that this situation mirrors a critical moment in human development when individuals transition from childhood into adulthood, and must learn, or relearn, how to integrate their new mental and physical capacities into their surrounding environments. And given the ever-changing nature of our world, this process of integration is always a work in progress.
In the 1960’s, Marshall McLuhan drew our attention to our changing world in a dramatic way by noting how new communication technologies are creating a “global village” [See, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), and Understanding Media (1964)]. In keeping with this observation, we need to respond to the technological growth-spurt of recent decades in a globally-significant way, which implies that, as individuals and groups, we need to align our thoughts, feelings, and actions with our fundamental interdependence.
In summary: There are many facets of our involvement with current technologies that reinforce a “sense of being separate” from others, of isolating ourselves (as individuals or groups) in ways that are focused primarily on our individual needs and desires. [Consider, for instance, how “normal” it seems to use communication devices to control interactions rather than genuinely participate in them.] Given this situation, we owe it to ourselves and our world to reflect on how we use technologies. And if we find that we often prioritize me-first or us-first behaviors as we go about our daily activities, we owe it to ourselves and our world to change course, because that is a path that leads us away from awareness of our interdependence and, ultimately, from participation in the fullness of life.
Movies tell stories, and the best of our stories—the most enlightening and/or rejuvenating—are those that deepen our experience of interconnectedness. I was reminded of this way of understanding storytelling by the recent film, On the Basis of Sex. This film depicts Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rise to prominence in the early 1970’s, when, with help of family and associates, she successfully challenged systemic sex-discrimination in the American legal system. Notably, the movie makers portray this achievement in a way that gives due recognition to the mutuality of all accomplishments, rather than cater to the cult of individualistic heroism (which is a kind of idolatry) that characterizes so much of contemporary cultural life.
I think it’s fair to say that On the Basis of Sex is as much about human relationships as it is about a landmark legal event. I found it heartening to watch the wonderfully supportive partnership of Ruth and Martin Ginsburg navigate various life-challenges, which they did largely by espousing an ethos of genuine participation. Even in contentious circumstances (with their daughter, colleagues, and ideological opponents), they avoided the toxic consequences of direct confrontation by acting with respect for others in spite of whatever differences arose in their interactions.
Just as a participatory (rather than confrontational) mindset is our finest, most life-enhancing asset in terms of nurturing relationships, it is also at the heart of all significant, lasting change. In our personal lives, genuine change comes about as the result of recognizing that our current attitudes and activities no longer fit our current circumstances and may interfere with (or even prevent us from) participating as fully as possible in everyday life. Similarly, in the public sphere, genuine change comes about as the result of public leaders realizing that existing policies and practices are outmoded, out of step with current widespread opinions and behaviors. This recognition of a need for change in the American legal system because current laws and precedents do not adequately reflect existing societal norms is precisely the point that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her colleagues make in their historic legal presentation.
I think the makers of On the Basis of Sex are to be commended for drawing attention to the indispensable value of having a participatory mindset in all that we do. In all of our relationships (whether supportive or oppositional) and in all types of significant change (whether personal and public), nothing can be more life-enhancing than acting in ways that strengthen our fundamental interdependence. Surely, it is by living as genuine participants of a universal community that we express our full humanness: our individuality and our mutuality.
“It is our destiny to live always in some form of community. . . .The fact that we
belong to a community as well as being individual persons requires that we
acknowledge this destiny and relate to each other with compassion. Compassion
limits or freedom, but it renders freedom human at the same time.”
Rollo May: from Freedom and Destiny (1981), pp. 232-233.
Impartiality implies a neutral, unprejudiced attitude when considering an idea or event. It entails a temporary suspension of whatever dispositions we may have towards something, and acts as a stabilizing technique in the midst of the diverse influences impinging on our actions. As such, it is a useful and often necessary cognitive and/or behavioral tool in a wide variety of circumstances that require accurate, trustworthy information as a means of working towards a desired result. For example: Adopting an impartial point of view acts as a safeguard against bias when conducting scientific work or learning new skills, and it provides a measure of equality when organizing and managing socially responsible regulatory practices, as in civic administration and legal systems.
However, because it entails distancing ourselves from our personal traits and experiences, impartiality does not reflect a complete engagement with life: it does not ground us in the universal intersubjectivity of life, in our natural and often chaotic interdependence. As the word itself implies, impartiality pertains to a partial, situationally specific type of behavior, not a fundamental engagement with life. Nevertheless, it is an indispensable behavior in terms of setting the stage for being creatively involved with life.
Creative activities and relationships involve us as active participants in the circumstances they present to us. This implies that we act most creatively when we can express our personal ideas and inclinations in the context of our fundamental interdependence. In this sense—in the context of the wholeness of our activities and relationships—impartiality provides an initial and particularly fruitful perspective. By temporarily holding our personal dispositions in check (as impartiality implies), we offset whatever tendency we might have to put our individual interests and inclinations first, which removes a huge obstacle to genuine participation. Impartiality can be thought of as a kind of cleansing technique, a way of wiping away conditioned or biased patterns of behavior so that we can welcome whatever comes to us in a manner that accepts it as part of the wholeness of life, and therefore part of who we are.
Because interdependence is the fundamental ground within which we live, we need to keep it well-nourished as a means of contributing most beneficially to the health and well-being of ourselves and our world. Impartiality helps us to do this by preparing us to have a genuinely open mind. A mind that is cleared of biased thoughts and emotions is a mind that is ready to receive new thoughts and emotions or rejuvenate old ones. In this sense, impartiality acts like a gateway into our innate creativity.
“If we want to make our lives as creative as possible, we need to honor our
interdependence by submitting to it in our daily lives. . . . By moving forward
in ways that free us from the demands of individualistic objectives, we sensitize
ourselves to the entire spectrum of possibilities available to us within a chosen activity.”
From P.D. Crawford, At Home in Infinity (p.55).
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness