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.
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Living in the middle of things involves a willingness