Following world news has become virtually synonymous with being reminded of events and ideas that divide us. But ironically, the divisions depicted by media headlines are invariably based on situations and characteristics that everyone shares. All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, espouse specific ideas and behaviors in order to organize and bring a sense of meaning into our lives. And all of us do this through the physical characteristics and cultural dispositions we inherit, as well as our individual talents and experiences.
Given the universal experiential basis for everything we do, why do we tend to focus mainly on protecting and fortifying our differences (in terms of race, nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, ideology, socio/economic circumstance, or “whatever”) rather than on understanding our lives as part of an incredibly stimulating and beautiful diversity. Surely, we limit the scope of our inherent potential when we consider the individual, subjective aspects of our lives apart from their natural places in the fundamental context of our togetherness, our shared intersubjectivity.
In his influential book, I and Thou (1937), existential philosopher Martin Buber reminds us of something that common sense also tells us: “we live our lives inscrutably included within the streaming mutuality of the universe.” If this is so— if our world is fundamentally sustained through interdependent relationships—why do divisiveness and turmoil often appear to be the norm, rather than a sense of common purpose and cooperation?
Responding to this question brings to mind parallel situations we all face at critical points along our developmental paths. I am thinking about those situations where we encounter conditions that force us to make a choice between acting independently or interdependently, that is, primarily for our own benefit, or in ways that keep us in tune with the aspirations of and needs of those around us. Just as every parent knows how important it is to guide their children toward behaviors that keep family life functioning in mutually supportive ways, we need to act in a similar way when, as adults, we can understand ourselves as members of a universal family.
Today, it is clear that humanity is at a critical point in its developmental trajectory. The incredible speed and intensity of recent advancements in our technological prowess have given us an unprecedented, mind-boggling capacity to influence events. So, we need to learn how to integrate our new abilities in life-enhancing ways, just as children and adolescents need to learn how to integrate their burgeoning physical and mental powers in ways that nurture participation in their surrounding environments. But it is important to remember that this kind of learning is not primarily about adopting different ways of “doing things.” It is about espousing new ways of “being” who we are as individuals living among other individuals. We can always “do something” for an individualistic motive, and hide the fact. But when we cannot be empowered by our basic intersubjectivity and do something for an exclusively individualistic reason.
An obvious choice we face at this point in our developmental lives (both individually and collectively) is between adopting ideas and behaviors that favor independent or interdependent interests. And obviously, as the divisiveness and turmoil depicted in news headlines indicate, we are overwhelmingly inclined towards independently minded, self-serving pursuits—towards me-first or us-first activities rather than the “I and Thou” lifestyles that nurture our interdependence.
So, a crucial question arises: What is more basic, the inevitable disunity and chaos of pursuing independent, self-serving agendas, or the drive towards unity and order as empowered by the pursuit of together-oriented, interdependent interests? Let us imagine what our individual lives would be like, and what our world would be like—and what our news headlines would be like—if our energies were primarily focused on fostering togetherness, on drawing attention to our basic interdependence. And let us remember that our need to engage with others is something we cannot escape, no matter what our circumstances are, or how greatly we or our world changes. So, separateness is not fundamental, but togetherness is.
The great physicist Max Planck once wrote that science, like music and art, is essentially an attempt “to solve or at least express” the mystery of nature, and the more we progress in any of these fields of endeavor “the more we are brought into harmony with all nature itself.” [See: Quantum Questions, ed. Ken Wilber (Boston: Shambhala, 1985), p.153.] These words reflect the overarching unity that is at the heart of any genuinely creative activity: a unity that encompasses both what is expressible and what is inexpressible—what we can discern through the physical processes of our bodies, and what we can perceive through our imaginative and intuitive capacities.
Human creativity is our way of taping into the life-giving energy that sustains our universe (the wholeness to which we belong). And because each of us is a unique individual, we tap into this energy in uniquely personal ways. When we act creatively, we are expressing both our individualities and our participation in a reality that is infinitely beyond the edges of our particular selves: a reality that is both tangible—something we can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell—and intangible—something that we sense is beyond our full understanding because it exists as an all-encompassing context for whatever we experience.
It is this blending of our unique, personal selves with the wholeness of universal life that gives our creative endeavors a sense of being ultimately significant for us. And this is why I believe we can rightly refer to any genuinely creative activity as a spiritual experience. What is spirituality if not an ultimate or fundamental way of expressing our participation in the unity of life, the “breath” or energy that sustains everything that exists?
Because the spiritual quality of creativity manifests itself whenever we sense our participation in the wholeness of life, we do not have to be engaged in any particular kind of activity in order to be creative and give expression to our innate spirituality. By paying close attention to whatever we are doing or experiencing at any given time, we are submitting ourselves to a way-of-being that takes us beyond our self-centered interests into the world of authentic participation. And when this happens, we are acting in a truly creative way because we are contributing to the ongoing creative flow of universal life.
When it comes to expressing our sense of belonging to the whole of life, all we need to do is to be as fully present in a situation as possible. So, the scope for expressing ourselves creatively and spiritually is virtually limitless, because it embraces whatever we may be involved with, be it our jobs, household chores, talking with a friend, composing a poem or piece of music, practicing a skill, building a piece of furniture, writing or reading an essay.
“Humility must be central to the reconstruction of the notion of the common good,
without which no ‘we’ society can prosper.”
commenting on Michael Sandel’s recent book, The Tyranny of Merit (2020).
I read Martin Kettle’s essay in “The Guardian” (Nov. 26, 2020) with a sense of deep appreciation and a sigh of relief. Humility is such a powerful, life-enhancing virtue, yet it seldom receives the widespread front-and-center attention it deserves. Without humility, how can we truly nurture our personal and collective well-being? Humility puts our individuality in proper perspective; it shows us that, given our fundamental interdependence—our inescapable involvement with the wholeness of life—there is always more to learn about ourselves and our world. And it sets the stage for the emergence of what the great theologian, Paul Tillich, called “the courage to be,” which convinces us that we are indeed capable of taking on the challenges of exploring new fields of experience. Humility tells us that we belong to a world that is always we-oriented, whether we recognize this fact or not, and courage allows us to trust the kind of selflessness that this implies.
As Kettle suggests, we need humility today, in both our individual and collective lives, perhaps as never before, because we face an unprecedented “turbocharged renewal of individualism, inequality, and hyperpartisanship” in the public sphere. Of course, there have been times when humility was generally accepted as an asset in public life, and no doubt there are always some individuals in the public sphere who exemplify it as a virtue. However, at the present time, “the toxic polarization of our politics” around the globe is an all-too-clear indication that there is a far greater pull towards self-serving individualism, along with the divisiveness, inequality, and suffering it produces, than towards a public-service oriented humility, and the acceptance, cooperation, and social harmony it engenders. Given this polarization, what greater issue could there be than the need for governments to turn their efforts toward ways of bringing people together? Surely, there are ways to make the divisions among us permeable, so that all members of our societies can be genuine participants in the activities that determine how they are governed.
Of course, it will take time to learn how to resist the self-serving allurements of a “me-first or us-first” political orientation in favor of the more encompassing benefits of a “we-oriented” political landscape. Kettle suggests that this learning process can begin by prioritizing “listening and then talking to others” with a mind energized by the virtue of humility—a mind that is willing to “find things we can all agree about” like fairness, patriotism, helping one another, and agreeing about facts. But as implied by this last item, if our interactions with one another are to bear good fruit—the fruit of enhancing the common good—what we discuss needs to be based on mutual trust, which is in turn based on a commitment to truthfulness. And unfortunately, truthfulness (as reflected on in an earlier blog) is one of the most ravaged casualties of our current obsession with individualism. So, as Kettle observes, “we need to build herd immunity to untruth, and to glib easy answers too, and all those who purvey them, in whatever form.” In other words, we need the strength of humility—with its unswerving focus on a unity-building acceptance of things as they are—as an antidote to what divides us.
“Humility of heart is a great treasure because it keeps us honest,
cutting away self-deception, falsehood, and inauthenticity. It forces
us to be real, even when it is uncomfortable. It rescues us from superficiality
and compels us to always be true to ourselves and to others.”
From: The Mystic Heart (1999/2001)
Good novels invariably resonate on many levels: a captivating story; unique perspectives; profound insights; believable, multifaceted characters; entertaining situations; realistic portrayals or people and events; glimpses into “other worlds,” whether historical or fantastical; magnificent language. And sometimes one has the good fortune of reading a book that satisfies on all these levels—a book such as Godric, one of many novels by the eclectic and prolific writer, Frederick Buechner.
Godric tells the story of Godric of Finchale (1065–1170), an extraordinary twelfth-century Englishman who exemplified “living life to the full.” As a young man he worked as a merchant, entrepreneur, and sailor/adventurer, and later adopted the mantle of a pilgrim, hermit, great lover of animals, mystic, and was eventually acclaimed (though never officially canonized) as a popular saint. Although there are several accounts of Godric’s life, Buechner’s remarkable reimagining of his life has Godric himself telling the tale. And what an adventure it is. And what an eye-opening and heart-throbbing evocation of medieval life.
What impressed me above all else about this book was the extravagant beauty of the language. From the very first sentence to the last, readers are inundated with colorful images and compelling anecdotes that make it feel as if you are in the presence of the speaker. For instance, how’s this for an arresting opening sentence: “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.” And how’s this for a description of taking delight in the surrounding world in spite of feeling deeply sorrowful over the troubles and suffering of the poor:
“But when melody wells up in thrushes’ throats, and bees buzz honeysong,
and rock and river clap hands in summer sun, then misery’s drowned in minstrelsy,
and Godric’s glad in spite of all.”
In a more philosophical mode, here is Godric’s brief reflection on the enigmatic nature of time:
“But what is time itself, dear friend? What is the sea where hours float?
Am I daft, or is it true there’s no such thing as hours past and other hours
still to pass, but all of them instead are all at once and never gone? Is there
no time lost that ever was? Is there no time yet to come that’s not here now?”
And as a final example of Godric’s exuberantly poetic prose, here’s how he self-reflects on the nature of prayer.
“What’s prayer? It’s shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike,
if any, who’s to say? It’s reaching for a hand you cannot touch. The silence
is so fathomless that prayers, like plummets, vanish in the sea. You beg. You
whimper. You load God down with empty praise. You tell him sins that he already
knows full well. You seek to change his changeless will. Yet Godric prays the way
he breathes, for else his heart would whither in his breast. Prayer is the wind that
fills his sail. Else waves would dash him on the rocks, or he would drift with witless
tides. And sometimes, by God’s grace, a prayer is heard.”
In a review of Godric published in the New York Times Book review, it is observed that that, in writing this historically based but highly imaginative rendering Godric’s life, Buechner displays “a fine readiness to invent what history doesn’t supply.” To my mind, this remark reminds us of an important, but often overlooked, insight about life in general. What we can see and make a record of (as history) does not reveal all there is to know and understand about anything. Yes, our brains are wonderfully adept at observation and analysis, but how woefully inadequate this knowledge would be without our equally amazing capacities for imaginative insight, for reaching into areas of thought and feeling that go beyond surface characteristics into the deeper and truer nature of what is being presented to us. And isn’t that what both self-reflection and inspiring literature are all about?
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013).
When I first read about its publication in 2013, I sensed right away that Braiding Sweetgrass would resonate positively with me. Now, having read the book after an inexplicable delay of over seven years, I find that my expectations have been surpassed. Seldom have I experienced a stronger sense of being in tune with the content and spirit of a book.
Much has been written about this compilation of essays and stories celebrating our interdependence with the natural world, and warning us about the dire consequences of not honoring it. The book has been called an “eco-bible” as well as “a hymn of love to the world,” deservedly so, I think, because it is grounded in a deep concern for sustaining the health of the untold number of relationships we participate in as people of planet earth.
In keeping with the wisdom of indigenous peoples, this book takes as a given that everyone and everything belongs to a universal family. But it also recognizes that, as a species, we humans do not always honor he fact that we share the abundance of our planet with a host of other beings, all with unique life-processes that are in some way interwoven with our own. Hence, our need to be continually reminded of our fundamental interconnectedness and the life-enhancing lessons to be learned from it—exactly what this book focuses on.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is obviously a multi-talented scientist and teacher, as well as a captivating story-teller. These personal gifts allow her to make every chapter of her book a way of integrating what she has to say with issues and concerns that arise in our everyday lives. For instance, she draws attention to the problems associated with various kinds of non-acceptance of “others”—from overt racism and xenophobia to various forms of social intolerance and inequality—in a chapter that describes helping salamanders cross a road at night (so they can safely make their way to the pool where they were born and, therefore, reproduce successfully). “Each time we rescue slippery, spotted beings,” she observes, “we attest to their right to be, to live in the sovereign territory of their own lives.” (p.358)
Another example of the author’s ability to mingle story-telling, scientific exploration, and philosophical insight occurs in a fascinating chapter about “witnessing” the rain (set in the Oregon rain forest). Here, Kimmerer links a description of “paying attention” to the distinctive characteristics of individual raindrops to a beautiful reflection on the nature of time and the efficacy of living as fully as possible in the present moment. She writes: "Paying attention acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own. Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop." (p.300)
Braiding Sweetgrass is a book overflowing with information and inspiration, often capsulized in beautifully succinct and memorable phrases. One such phrase, which has garnered a lot of attention, is this: “All flourishing in mutual” (p. 15, also, pp. 166 & 382). For me, this little phrase epitomizes the book’s central thesis and message as well as any. Not only does it underscore our basic interdependence, it also points to the importance of nurturing cultures of “gratitude and reciprocity” as a means of alleviating the debilitating epidemic of individualistic, me-first or us-first behaviors at work around the globe. Surely, responding to this insight is something that most thoughtful observers of contemporary life can agree is urgently needed.
Braiding Sweetgrass tells us that sweetgrass is nurtured best, not by existing on its own, but when humans create the optimal conditions for its growth by harvesting it (see p. 164). In a similar way, our lives unfold in ways that are most beneficial for ourselves and our world when they unfold in the context of meaningful, symbiotic relationships. Just imagine what our world would be like if we truly believed that everyone and everything we are involved with has something significant to say to us!
"I envision a time when the intellectual monoculture of science will be
replaced with a polyculture of complementary knowledges."
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 139.
“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to others.”
From: Become What You Are (1995/2003)
Dialogue is always possible, because having a relationship with anyone or anything is always possible. No matter how intensely we experience differences and divisions between ourselves and others, nothing is more fundamental or significant than the fact that we share our reality with all the people, events, objects, and environments we encounter in our everyday lives.
We all belong to a variety of communities and societies, which in turn belong to a universal, all-encompassing family, an indisputable and indestructible wholeness. And given the interdependency implied by belonging to a universal family, we are always capable of interacting in some way with whatever comes our way, provided we keep our minds and hearts open to our fundamental togetherness.
Keeping ourselves attuned to our togetherness can be thought of as the foundation of our moral lives, because it is what allows us to determine what is right and good with respect to keeping our relationships as life-enhancing as possible. The current widespread erosion of truthfulness as a human value is clearly one of the most challenging moral dilemmas we face today. How can we respond to any situation in ways we believe are right and good if we cannot trust the information we receive about it?
As many scholars and social commentators have observed, modern technologies are redefining the ways we think and feel about our relationships, or more precisely, about being an individual living in the midst of other individuals. Nowadays, a person is more likely to be understood as an independent (autonomous) individual, rather than an interdependent participant in the events of everyday life. And being in a relationship is more likely to be understood in terms of being part of a specific group, rather than in terms of interacting with all aspects of our lives as we experience them. Sadly, this movement towards individualism in both our interpersonal and intersocietal relationships relies on maintaining divisions among us, sometimes very antagonistic ones.
It is not difficult to see divisiveness at work, both in our immediate environments and around the globe. It is an obvious characteristic of international relations, race relations, interfaith relations, extreme political partisanship, extreme economic disparities, and in many issues related to our psychological well-being, such as the pressure to maintain a certain public image or to succeed at all costs. And it is not difficult to see the devastating consequences of such divisiveness: lifestyles that destroy many aspects of planetary life, and the continued use of confrontation and violence (both physical and psychological) at all levels of societal life. In addition, there are many divisive psychological and moral issues associated with a largely unmitigated acceptance of technological innovations. For instance: a widespread indifference to the drastic changes in the way we gather information and think and feel about things, and the monumental challenges we face when dealing with the emergence of unprecedented biotechnologies and artificial intelligence.
In the face of our many challenges with respect to healing the divisiveness of contemporary life, it is tempting to think immediately in terms of what we can do to help create a more together-oriented world. However, I think a more fundamental approach to these challenges is to ask: What kind of person do I need to be in order to contribute in the best possible way to the well-being of myself and our world? When we focus on being a unity-oriented person—a genuine participant in whatever we do—we are preparing ourselves to be responsive in any kind of situation. Whereas, if we focus on doing certain kinds of activities, we may actually bring into a situation something that interferes with our ability to be as responsive as possible.
So, yes, some form of dialogue is always possible, because it is always possible to be engaged in a relationship of some kind. But it is not possible to anticipate what is best in terms of participating in a dialogue, because each one is a unique experience.
“The question truly at stake is not what is being talked about, but who is doing the talking.”
From: Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995)
Common sense tells us that our emotions and artistic sensibilities can sometimes be at odds with our intellectual and moral beliefs. Who hasn’t been pulled towards something attractive, desirable, or compelling in some way, while at the same time realizing it isn’t compatible with one’s core values? Recently, I had this experience after watching a film on Netflix, Supernova, which I thought was both an incredibly moving and beautiful work or art as well as an endorsement for a mindset that runs counter to one of my core beliefs, namely, the sanctity of interdependent life. By sanctity, I mean to imply a way of living that is spiritual in the sense of being fundamental and universal. And by interdependent, I mean to imply an intrinsic unity, an innate entwinement of one’s life as an individual with the lives of others, and ultimately, with the life of all others.
I think “Supernova” is a superbly crafted film in every way (artistically and technically). It tells the story of a writer’s plan to take his own life before his dementia develops into something that takes away his ability to control his life as he wishes. It is told within a series of events that emphasize his longstanding and intensely felt intimate relationship with his partner, a musician. Although his intention is to carry out his plan privately, his partner discovers it (by chance), becomes deeply distraught, and tries desperately to convey his willingness to live with whatever consequences may emanate from the threatening disease. At the conclusion of the film, the writer’s conviction to end his life on his own terms remains unchanged, and his partner accepts this situation by asking to be present “when it happens.”
Watching the final moments of Supernova--which involved seeing a breathtaking depiction of a star-filled night sky—was a decidedly paradoxical moment for me. It was a moment filled with a sense of the unfathomable beauty and mystery of life, but something about it did not “ring true” for me. Almost immediately I felt that the film did not reflect what I believe is the ultimate source of beauty and mystery: the unconditional love that flows from experiencing the absolute unity of life. This unity is a flowering of genuine mutuality, which implies an awareness of the power of vulnerability, of submitting oneself to the creative interdependence of life. Because the film ended by showcasing someone’s supposed right to autonomously control his life, I could not relate to it as a representation of either the fundamental interdependence of life or genuine, unconditional love.
A person who is genuinely loving and interdependent is someone who lives as a full-fledged participant in our world: someone who is always willing and ready to adjust one’s perspective in the light of unfolding events. To live in this way is the antithesis of “being in control” of one’s life, because it recognizes that the natural flow-of-life is a co-creative energy, a coming-together of myriad influences as one responds to the events of one’s life, moment by moment. To resist this flow by clinging to entrenched ways of thinking and feeling is to deny the fundamental efficacy of living as fully as possible in the present moment. It is also a type of control that I believe is a denial of the creative potency of unconditional love. Of course, there are many aspects of life that require the use of some measure of control. But are our close, personal relationships among them?
Is it not fair to say that genuine participation, mutuality, and love express very different approaches to life than “being in control”? Being in control implies an effort to regulate what one receives from others, or even close oneself off entirely from participating in something. But surely, genuine participation and love are always reciprocal, always about living on a two-way street, about receiving from others as well as giving to others, about being persons who are more than what occurs within each of us individually.
Today, it is not surprising that a major film depicts love in a self-serving (independent) way rather than as a self-sacrificing expression of interdependent life. Why? Because most of us live in commercially and ideologically driven technocultures that daily bombard us with messages urging us to take control of our lives in ways geared towards becoming self-made individuals.
But if “becoming someone” is held to be the prime motivator of one’s life, what does that say about the importance of “being someone”? Surely, “being” is our fundamental experience, without which there can be no “becoming.” And surely, authentic, life-enhancing “being” always involves being in a relationship of some kind, which in turn implies always being ready and willing to act, not as an ultimate controller of what occurs, but as a co-creator—a genuinely loving co-creator.
Experience teaches that words alone do not always reflect a speaker’s motivation for using them. In both the public sphere and interpersonal contexts, words are often used to camouflage the actual thoughts, feelings, or dispositions of speakers and writers. Fortunately, we are innately capable of detecting clues about the authenticity or sincerity of words because our language skills are as much about perceptive listening and discernment as they are about a competent use and understanding of words.
At the present time, it is hard to underestimate the importance of keeping our language skills as well-honed as possible. Because we live at a time when what we consume in the public sphere (through written or spoken words) is riddled with misleading information or outright deception, it is up to each of us, as responsible participants in public life, to pay attention not only to words, but to what we believe they actually signify. And although we can never be absolutely sure of the actual intent of a speaker or writer, we can be absolutely committed to understanding them as honestly and perceptively as possible. A fairly recent example of my own efforts in this regard came last November (Nov.7, 2020), when I listened to then President-elect Joseph Biden’s victory recognition speech.
At a time when fragmented relationships wreak havoc at all levels of societal life, it was heartening to hear a political leader begin a victory speech by saying that he “seeks not to divide, but to unify” and to have a sense that the words were sincere! For me, there were many clues in this speech that indicated the speaker was genuinely committed to working towards healing the divisiveness—the brokenness—of contemporary American life. For instance: I believe that personal authenticity (genuineness) is a matter of “being someone” rather than simply “doing something.” So, I was glad to hear President-elect Biden describe his wife as an educator for whom “teaching isn’t just what she does—it’s who she is.” Statements like this suggest that the speaker understands that the power of words and actions come, not from the mere act of saying or doing something, but from a real-life correspondence between them and who someone is as a person.
Surely, personal integrity as well as life-enhancing relationships are grounded in real-life authenticity. And how can anything be authentic (actual / true) without embracing the inherent mutuality of everyone and everything. President-elect Biden reinforced this message of inclusivity in his speech by leaving no doubt that he was addressing all Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, ideology, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, demographic circumstances, or anything else. In keeping with the wisdom of all our major religious/spiritual traditions, he reminded us that “we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.” Moreover, he spoke in what appeared to me to be a measured though obviously excited manner, focusing as much on feelings as on thoughts and ideas, all of which left me with a sense of someone who is both capable and trustworthy—someone with a sense of the wholeness of life. And if ever there was a time for a political leader with a sensitivity to the wholeness of life, and the empathic intelligence it implies, it is now.
“We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
As our technological prowess continues to mold our lifestyles in unprecedented ways, and as our knowledge about human and planetary life increases, former ways of understanding things become increasingly outdated. And just our development as individuals requires us to periodically realign our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in keeping with our changing circumstances, we need to do the same collectively, which today, like it or not, implies a global context.
Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village” to depict our media-interconnected world in two prescient books in the 1960’s: The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964). Today, this term is more relevant than ever, given the worldwide impact of modern technologies on personal, societal, and planetary life, and the alarmingly devastating nature of certain aspects of this impact. For instance, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, observed in a recent article in “The Guardian” (Dec. 2, 2020), that humanity is “waging war on nature,” and that “making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be top, top priority for everyone.” Guterres drew particular attention to the moral intensity of our current situation by noting the inseparability of personal and planetary concerns. “Ultimately,” he reminded us, “this is a moral test. . . (and) Inequality is at the heart of the problem.”
Guterres remarks suggest that, in our quest to achieve, or justify our assumed superior status, humanity is currently failing to sufficiently recognize our fundamental interdependence and the social responsibility it implies. In his insightful book For Common Things (Vintage Books, 1999), Jedediah Purdy reminds us that advances in technology often tempt us “to deny responsibility” (p. 176) in terms of responding to the moral implications of significant social issues and concerns. He is joined by many other social commentators who observe that a significant factor contributing to the relative paucity of concern for morally challenging issues today is the adulatory attitudes towards science and technology that permeate most contemporary social environments. All too often these attitudes carry with them the idea that it is the responsibility of “others” to deal with the weightiest moral issues of our time; as if to say, “leave the big moral concerns to the specialists, the professionals, who understand what’s going on better than I.” And undoubtedly, the many creature comforts and distractions that current technology affords us reinforce this lackadaisical mindset.
However, it is hard to deny that we live at a time when it is literally suicidal, both individually and collectively, to deny responsibility” for what is happening around us. Fortunately, there are many among us attempting to keep us focused and informed on the many complex dilemmas we face today, including experts in many fields of study, social commentators, media presenters, and concerned individuals. And although the situations they present us with might seem too large and complex for each of us as individuals to address, nothing is further from the truth. Because our individual and collective well-being are inseparable, nothing will truly change for the better until each of us changes in ways that direct our minds and hearts towards the issues and concerns we all hold in common.
Over the years, many spiritual/philosophical teachers and enlightened political leaders (like Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and others) have reminded us of the ageless wisdom: we must be the change we desire in our world. Jedediah Purdy echoes this wisdom when he suggests that each of us is “the sole site of responsibility,” and reminds us that “responsibility begins in attentiveness, because only that can help us to discern the condition of hope.” (For Common Things, p.160).
It is hard to think of a philosophical topic that is more revered and challenging than the nature of freedom. And it is equally difficult to think of a social issue that is more consequential than understanding what constitutes freedom of expression. So, it’s not surprising to read about a vigorous reaction to Cambridge University’s recent amendment of its “Free Speech Statement” (in “The Guardian” Dec. 18, 2020). In this article, two concerned academics, Priyamvada Gopal and Gavan Titley, maintain that a recent policy change at Cambridge University will likely result in a limiting rather than expansion of free speech. By banning protests against speakers who promulgate “discriminatory, hateful or discredited viewpoints,” they claim that the university has moved toward a position that treats all ideas as equally worthy of discussion, as in a so-called “marketplace of ideas.” The implicit danger of this policy is that it makes it easier for free speech debates to become platforms for “retrograde ideas that do not really merit debate” in a progressive academic setting.
I share the author’s concerns that obviously flawed or blatantly false ideas—such as those that promote racial and sexual discrimination, or ideologies with little or no moral or intellectual merit—reflect regressive, divisive mindsets, and that facilitating their promulgation is counterproductive in terms of advancing public debates that are non-discriminatory and intellectually creative. Because of their non-inclusive and heavily biased nature, such ideas are generally disseminated in ways that are manipulative, or even coercive. And when manipulation and coercion occur, freedom of expression is clearly limited. As Gopal and Titley remind us, to be genuinely supportive of freedom of expression, we need to “be alert to the damage being wrought by vested interests who seek to engineer specific ideological outcomes.”
Our need to be on the lookout for ideas and activities that compromise our ability to express ourselves freely is, I believe, extremely compelling. Modern communication technologies have made it all too easy to induce conditioned patterns of thinking and feeling in targeted populations as a way of furthering specific ideological or commercially-motivated agendas. And
the more we accept “being conditioned” as a commonplace, relatively benign reality of everyday life, the less likely it is that we will recognize or be bothered by the manipulative conditioning at work in ideas and behaviors that are intellectually regressive, emotionally restrictive, and socially divisive.
Of course, some types of conditioned behaviors are needed for understanding, establishing, and maintaining orderly coexistence with others, at all levels of societal life. But to the extent that they become the driving force for personal, cultural, or societal life, they become dogmatic and dictatorial rather than authoritative and life enhancing, and thereby limit freedom of expression.
As someone who embraces a philosophy of wholeness, my understanding of freedom is indistinguishable from what it means to be fully alive, to be fully in tune with, or at one with, everything that happens, the infinitely varied unity unfolding day by day, moment by moment. In the light of this understanding, we express our freedom to the extent that we act as genuine participants in all the events of our lives. And genuine participation, which occurs in the here-and-now of an immediate experience, is hampered or even blocked by unreasonably coercive policies and conditioned patterns of behavior that operate without due consideration of their underlying purposes. To participate in anything as freely as possible, we need to believe that whatever we are involved with is part of who we are, which implies that we are prepared to respond to situations in ways that express our fundamental interdependence. Naturally, if we are forbidden to protest ideas and behaviors we believe are not compatible our interdependence, our freedom of expression (though not our basic, existential freedom) is curtailed.
Voltaire’s famous maxim, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” does not imply a willingness to facilitate the promulgation of ideas one believes to be false or damaging to the public good in some way. But it does imply an awareness of the fundamental context for freedom of expression: our unity with everyone and everything. We honor our existential freedom when we honor our natural interdependence, but we do not honor it by making it easier for people to propagate ideas and behaviors that impede our understanding of this basic fact of existence.
Common sense tells us that “things are not always what they appear to be.” And I think we need to bear this in mind when we are tempted “to tolerate” obviously divisive ideas and activities in the name of free speech. Genuine freedom, like genuine love, is not about tolerating anything: it is about moving beyond tolerating into embracing what is deepest within us, our togetherness. And honoring our togetherness surely implies responding appropriately to situations that draw us away from it, which is also what a commitment to freedom of expression implies. Such commitment, I believe, is also the foundation of our ability to be of genuine service to both ourselves and our world.
“The truth that sets us free—the truth that keeps us in touch with the ultimate
reality to which we belong—is the truth of interdependent living: the truth of
being of service.”
From: P. D. Crawford, Born into Unity (2018), p. 114.
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness