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.
About the Blog
Living in the middle of things involves a willingness