Things are falling apart, perhaps, because we’ve taken them apart.
Dissecting life has left us fragmented.
We now fend for ourselves.
We build stores and make products, for private gain, not communal benefit.
Driving down SR 70 last week, I spotted a bright, new, bustling gas station across the street from the one I frequent, now vacant. Saddened, I turned the corner to see bulldozers unearthing clusters of pine for new house construction. Roots exposed, soil upturned, lush and lovely landscape lay desecrated. I averted my eyes, to see for sale signs sitting a front deserted homes.
“We’ve no coherency”, I whispered.
As kindergartners, we are introduced to our friendly neighborhood helpers, the storekeeper, farmer and nurse. We playact in partnership, benefiting all; then we grow up to drop our cooperation, enter a race, struggle to be on top, have the most and look the best. We grapple with the illusion of having and doing it all.
Jesus said we’re members of one body, not all hands nor eyes, but many parts. How is it we’ve lost sight of our membership?
Writer Helena Norberg-Hodge tells of living with an ancient community, the Ladakhis of Little Tibet. As a westerner, she’s amazed at their intactness, built on the Buddhist concept of sunyata, or emptiness.
A native explains, “Take anything, like a tree…you tend to think of it as a distinct, clearly defined object, and on a certain level it is. But on a more important level, the tree has no independent existence; rather, it dissolves into a web of relationships. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that causes it to sway, the soil that supports it – all form a part of the tree. Ultimately, everything helps make the tree. It cannot be isolated. This is what we mean,” He says, “when we say things are empty, that they have no independent existence.”
As a teacher, I see children brimming with expectation, eager to cooperate in learning grown up skills, longing to fit in and take their place. Their desire to take part in the dance of life is innate.
Yet, as young adults their soft, warm aspirations are often uprooted as cold, hardened systems bulldoze and displace them with the real world of competition and control. This is our modern initiation rite.
Our economic, healthcare and education systems fall apart, precisely, because they’re not built on the wholesome ideals youth bring to bear.
Like an adolescent rejecting the guidance of ancient and natural ways, western civilization has tried to remake the world. Yet, our crusade of industrial growth has created “wasteland rather than wonderland“, Thomas Berry says. We now search through rubble for reasons and restoration.
When folks were farmers and crafts persons, work sprung from basic needs. Beans had to be picked, wood chopped and cotton spun. A full belly, warm hearth, and fresh linens were work’s goal and reward. Work flowed from and into life.
New-fangled factory-modeled jobs raised efficiency and productivity, giving us material wealth kings have not known, yet shredding our social fabric. Folks were lured, or wrenched, from self-sufficient, interpersonal homesteads and communities to dependence on the impersonal marketplace, where the number of e-mails and phone calls answered per day, not the eyestrain nor mental clarity of the receptionist, matters. Earning money has become our only reward and is never enough.
“People need to feel they make a contribution to their community,” Psychologist Barry Schwartz says. He tells of Yale researchers’ surprise when interviewing hospital janitors whose job description includes dusting lamps, washing windows and other mundane acts. Yet, custodian Mike stopped mopping the floor because Mr. Jones was out of bed walking up and down the hall to build his strength. And Charlene ignored her supervisor’s order and didn’t vacuum the visitor’s lounge while family members were taking a nap. These custodians wove their work to the well being of patients.
Yet, in some jobs it takes heroic efforts to do the right thing amidst expected requirements.
An anonymous teacher confessed in The Sun magazine’s Reader’s Corner she’s forced to follow curriculum she knows is inaccessible to some students. Yet, she’s paid based on her students’ test scores. So, she calls parents of those who can’t keep focused, tells them of their child’s issue and strongly suggests their children get tested and medicated. Once done, she manages her class and meets state standards.
Desperate to meet the bottom line, we drop hold of each other.
Evolutionary biologist William Muir studied the productivity of chickens. He watched two flocks, one of average and one of prolific chickens, super chickens. The super flock was re-chosen each generation for the top breeders. After six generations, the average chickens were plump and fully feathered; egg production had greatly increased. Yet, all but three of the super chickens had pecked each other to death, contending to be the best.
“But for the past 50 years, we’ve run most organizations and some societies are run along the super chicken model,” says sociologist Barbara Heffernan. Yet, studies show the most productive groups are those whose members are sensitive to each other’s needs and allow everyone a voice and let none loaf.
Our relationships matter.
Mathematician Michael Schneider says we look around and see discrete objects, while the ancient mathematical philosophers saw processes. To us cosmos means outer space, “a huge room filled with disconnected things”. To the Greeks, kosmos meant embroidery, “an orderliness and harmony of woven patterns” with which the universe unfolds.
We think and act as if we’re separate, while we’re infinitely connected.
It’s time we grow into this awareness and weave our frayed threads back into the fabric of life. As we sit at our desks, alone, unraveled, we can think of the person whose life our work affects and keep them in sight. When we shop for clothes, we can consider, “Under what conditions did someone sew these seams?” and only buy what’s manufactured humanely. When we choose a store to frequent, we can ask, “How well are the cashier and stock people treated and paid”,and put our money into organizations that build well-being among staff.
We can calculate real costs, when we look for the best buy.
Economists must factor social, and environmental, well-being into gross national product to accurately reflect the state of our nation.
For, what we do to and for each other matters. After all, we’re woven into each other’s world.