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.
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness