Monday, February 25, 2008

Object/Subject

I'd like to start out with something I said yesterday in Buhdy's essay.

If we are going to put an end to the MICMC, it means finding another way to structure our lives and our relationships. It means getting rid of greed/power over/hierarchy. And I think we are just in the infancy stages of learning what the alternatives might be. We have a lot of work to do in our own lives to recreate the cultural myths and memes that have predominately served the interests of the MICMC.


To me, one of the "memes" that needs to be identified and challenged is the tendency to "objectify" others. Once we have created distance from someone's humanity and given them a label, its easy to dismiss them. It also leaves the door open for hatred and violence. We've all recognized this use of objectification in a time of war. In order to kill someone up close and personal, its easier if you think of them as a kraut, gook, or raghead.

I'll never forget reading "All Quiet on the Western Front" and coming across this scene. Its a powerful example of an object - the enemy - becoming a "subject" in the heat of the battle.



But my concerns about objectification in our culture go beyond its ability to justify war. Certainly racism and sexism could not exist without the distance provided by making someone an object rather than a human being. And the very notion that capitalism has become our god in this culture has too often reduced human beings to nothing more than producers and consumers.

But I'd like to give you an example of this struggle in my own life and the questions it raises for me. I've been the Director of a non-profit organization for 17 years. Its pretty small - there are only about 25 of us all together who work here. In the last 7-8 years, I've felt pretty good about my success in figuring out how to do this job (Yeah, that means it took me almost 10 to get there. I'm a slow learner). Many have questioned when I'm going to move on to the next challenge and that usually means they think I should take a similar job with a larger organization. There's a whole message there about our assumption that we all should be "moving up" all the time, but that's not my point right now.

One of the reasons I have chosen to stay in the same job is that I don't know if its possible to work in a large organization and still embrace the mission and staff with a sense of the subjective. At what point do those you serve and those you work with become objects rather than human beings? I see this happen all the time with my counterparts in large organizations. Perhaps its not inevitable, but fighting the tendency would take a lot of focus.

Overall, I think our culture has swung into a huge embrace of objectification. I even see it in the staff I work with. Some of them can be prone to see a client as a "problem to be solved" rather than a human being to be engaged. It is in that kind of practice that too many of our social and human services have failed to have an impact. It sometimes leads to people not having their real need addressed and at other times to the kind of dependency that social services are rightly criticized for developing.

I have lots of questions about how subjectivity can be maintained with the scale of systems we've developed in our world, especially in our government, schools, and social services. It seems to me that the bigger these systems get, the more there is a complete lack of subjectivity until ultimately its gone from the system altogether. And the more people are treated as objects, the more easily they loose their humanity and can be dismissed. It can me messy and complicated to treat someone as the individual that subjectivity demands, but if we are going to be effective in addressing the needs of people, we've got to figure that out, don't we?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Wondering

I've never been able to separate my spiritual quest from the political. And I expect that both will be journeys that will take up my lifetime.

I often find myself at odds with those who seek only a political solution. That usually means playing the same old game in the same old way when I'd rather be learning to fly.



On the other hand, those involved in a spiritual quest can be so inwardly focused that their journey doesn't seem to have any real impact on the world around them. I once heard someone describe his wife's experience at a spiritual retreat this way, "She's fallen in love with humanity, but she doesn't like anyone in particular."

In their book, The Great Cosmic Mother, Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor sum it up this way:

In this world, at this point, no political revolution is sustainable if it is not also a spiritual revolution - a complete ontological birth of new beings out of old. Equally, no spiritual activity deserves respect if it is not at the same time a politically responsible, ie, responsive, activity.


Here is how Robert Frost describes a coming together:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

from Two Tramps in Mud Time


Now you all know why I've found a blogging home at Docudharma. As RiaD so wonderfully captured in her essay Pair o' dig 'em, there is a synergy happening among and between us that is changing me. I don't know where this journey ends, but I see the path laying out in front of us as we go.

Its about a coming together...of people...the political, the spiritual, the philosophical, the historical, the intellectual, the emotional, the artistic, the personal, and yes, even the sexual. We've been carved up and isolated for so long - for literally thousands of years. It will take some time to heal those wounds. I just hope we can be patient in this process of putting it all back together. We might not have all the answers, but at least we're coming together to ask the questions.

Here's a passage from Alice Walker's book "The Color Purple" that I love. Its a conversation that takes place between Celie and Mr.___ towards the end of the book when they have reconciled as friends:

Anyhow, he say, you know how it is. You ast yourself one question, it will lead to fifteen. I start to wonder why us need love. Why us suffer. Why us black. Why us men and women. Where do children really come from. It didn't take long to realize I didn't hardly know nothing. And that if you ast yourself why you black or a man or a woman or a bush it don't mean nothing if you don't ast why you here, period.

So what you think? I ast.

I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.


The water separating us from each other, ourselves and the answers to our questions does sometimes feel wide. But...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Prisoner of Words



It took me over 30 years to learn to speak with my own voice. Before that time, I did what others thought I should do and said what others thought I should say. This poem by Marge Piercy captures what that feels like:

Unlearning to not speak

Blizzards of paper
in slow motion
sift through her.
In nightmares she suddenly recalls
a class she signed up for
but forgot to attend.
Now its too late.
Now it is time for finals;
losers will be shot.
Phrases of men who lectured her
drift and rustle in piles:
Why don't you speak up?
Why are you shouting?
You have the wrong answer,
wrong line, wrong face.
They tell her she is womb-man,
babymachine, mirror image, toy,
earth mother and penis-poor,
a dish of synthetic icecream
rapidly melting.
She grunts to a halt.
She must learn again to speak
starting with I
staring with We
starting as the infant does
with her own true hunger
and pleasure
and rage.


By learning to trust myself, I finally began to speak my own truth, however fumbling it may be at times. And I learned what a fierce and wonderful thing my own life can be. Now I've made a pact with myself that no one will ever shut me up again. This causes its own challenges at times, but I'll take it over silence any day.

The Opening of Eyes
by David Whyte

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
The passing light over the water
And I heard the voice of the world speak out.
I knew then as I have before
Life is no passing memory of what has been
Nor the remaining pages of a great book
Waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
Seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years of secret conversing
Speaking out loud in the clear air.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Who are you?


I have often thought that most political disagreements break down along the lines of two slogans:

If you're conservative you believe that everyone lifts themselves up by their own bootstraps.

If you're liberal you believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.

We who are liberal tend to look at our collective responsibility to one another and cannot separate our sorrows, successes, failures and joys from those of others. I'd like to take a deeper look at this notion, something that was prompted by an essay written by Edger this week titled This Is Me in which he quoted Alan Watts:

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated "egos" inside bags of skin.


The idea that we are "isolated egos inside bags of skin" is something that has permeated our culture so deeply it becomes manifest in almost every facet of our lives. I am reminded of a book I read not too long ago that challenged this kind of thinking and left me forever uncomfortable with the notion of isolation. The book is No Boundary by Ken Wilber.

In the first chapter titled "Who am I," Wilbur asks us to think about how we define the difference between "me" and "not me." Where do we draw that boundary? Seems like an easy question to answer doesn't it? But Wilber shows the complications involved as he walks us through the various "self" boundaries we have created.

The first place most people draw the boundary is the one Watt's referred to - our bodies. The line between myself and the rest of the world is drawn by my skin. But Wilbur asks the following question:

Most individuals feel that they have a body, as if they owned or possessed it much as they would a car, a house, or any other object. Under these circumstances, the body seems not so much "me" as "mine," and what is "mine," by definition, lies outside the self/not-self boundary.


This drives the question inward then to a postulation that the boundary of "me/not me" lies between the body and the mind or ego. This form of disembodied self is not as obvious to us all, but does play havoc with our sense of self. So many of the breakdowns between medicine and psychology are based on this unnatural boundary that we so often draw. And, as Wilbur says,

The boundary is drawn between the mind and the body, and the person identifies squarely with the former. He even comes to feel that he lives in his head, as if he were a miniature person in his skull, giving directions and commands to his body, which may or may not obey.


But psychologically, there is yet another boundary that is often drawn even more narrowly in the attempt to answer the question "Who am I?" That is the boundary between the part of our mind/ego that we are willing to accept, and the part that is often called the "shadow." We want to wall off from consideration those parts of ourselves that are unacceptable and only embrace the good in our self-definition. This boundary causes reactions like repression and projection of the negative onto others; something often seen in the authoritarian personality.

Now it becomes clear why Wilbur titled his book "No Boundary." His prescription is to get rid of the boundaries and find the "transpersonal self," which he describes this way:

As the individual begins to reflect on her life through the eyes of the archetypes and mythological images common to humankind, her awareness may begin to shift to a more universal perspective. She is looking at herself not through her own eyes, which are in some ways prejudiced, but through the eyes of the collective human spirit - a different view indeed! She is no longer exclusively preoccupied with her own personal vantage point. In fact, if this process quickens correctly, her identity, her very self, expands qualitatively to these more or less global dimensions, and her soul becomes saturated with depth.


I am way too much of an amateur to go much farther with all this. But somehow I feel that this distinction is critical for us to begin to grasp and that our ability to do so would revolutionize how we treat each other and the planet. Our feelings of loneliness and isolation are fed by these false boundaries we create for ourselves. And that, in turn fuels the fear, greed, and addiction that keeps people so blinded and numb to what is happening in our country and in the world.

So I'll leave you with Wilbur's question, "Who are you?"

Saturday, February 2, 2008

One Good Word

Loaves and Fishes
By David Whyte

This is not
The age of information.

This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio
and the blurred screen.

This is the time
of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.




I suppose you can call a poem "great" when it rings in your head asking questions months after you've read it. That's why I think this is a great poem. I can't really be sure that I know exactly what Whyte meant, but these words regularly challenge one of the major struggles going on in my life these days.

Like so many of us, I want to change the world. My problem is, no one elected or appointed me "Queen of the Universe," so I'm having a little trouble getting that done.

But then, there is this quiet and persistent voice inside saying, "Slow down and pay attention to the people right in front of you." I think that one of the things Whyte is saying is that we need each other more than we need information. Its the person to person connection Daniel Berrigan talks about:

Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for the meeting of your eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to loose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.


Something powerful happens in the "meeting of the eyes" in this sharing of the word or bread. It is not just the bread or the word that is being exchanged. This human to human connection is something we all need to survive - its hard-wired into us. It feeds our souls the same way that food feeds our bodies. And like food, the more nutritious the connection, the healthier we become.

People are indeed hungry for that human connection and are all too often trying to feed it with the "fast food" of mindless consumption and superficial pablum (ie, Brittany Spears' travails). As the hunger mounts, the fear sets in and people become susceptible to manipulation and propaganda. And we who are trying to change things too often offer them information and data. These are worthwhile and important, but they don't assuage the fear or fill the void left by the hunger.

There's no way to "mass media" this kind of connection. It happens person-to-person and that means it takes patience and persistence. But eventually I think the ripples will start being felt exponentially.



Its hard to know every day that there is so much wrong with the world and feel like I have so little to contribute to change things. But I think about Nelson Mandela spending those 27 years in jail while his brothers and sisters died fighting apartheid and oppression. I've read that while in prison, Mandela didn't just rail against the injustice. He reached out to those around him, both prisoners and guards, and touched their souls with his presence and wisdom. He knew they were hungry, and he realized the radical notion that "one good word is bread for a thousand."