In earlier times, Congressional debate was combative but civil. This is no longer the case. Congress is so polarized that debate is shaped almost exclusively by partisan alliances. This was epitomized by the recent battle to replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Each party played to their constituencies. It seemed like a bizarre sporting event where the scoreboard registered only future campaign totals.
Senator John McCain returned to the Senate to make an impassioned plea for cooperation. He warned that polarization threatens our democratic institutions. The speech was more poignant because two days earlier he underwent surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor. It is unclear whether or not his colleagues will heed Senator McCain's advise.
Struggle for control and domination is the accepted norm. This is true, not only in politics, but in most aspects of life. Cooperative and compassionate processes are considered weak and ineffective. We believe that only the strong will prevail.
An ancient Hebrew story about the patriarch, Abraham, i seems relevant. Abraham lived around 2000 BCE in Mesopotamia (present day Turkey and Syria). Like other nomads, he traveled with his family and flocks in the arid back country, far from major cities. There was an unspoken commitment among these nomadic families. If strangers approached their camp, they offered them food and lodging. This was done because no one knew when they would also be in need. When hospitality was offered and accepted, a bond was formed, even if the strangers were formally enemies.
According to the story, God promised Abraham that he and Sarah would give birth to a son; making them the parents of nations. No son had been born to them. Assuming she was barren, Sarah told Abraham to take Hagar, her servant, as a wife. He did, and Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. ii Even though Abraham assumed he would never impregnate Sarah, he remained true to his commitment to Yahweh.
One day, strangers appeared at the camp. Abraham offered them extravagant hospitality. As they left, the strangers assured Sarah that she would conceive and bear a son. Hearing this, Sarah laughed. The prediction came true. Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Through Isaac, the tribe of Abraham eventually became the nation of Israel. This insignificant band of nomads influenced the powerful of their day and the history of our planet.
This story provides a metaphor for our contemporary situation. Many of us feel impotent in the face of global violence and cruelty. We laugh in disbelief when we consider that our efforts might affect future generations.
The centers of power appear to be strong and invincible. Not so. They are vulnerable because they attempt to control the immense power of the innovating and creating Flow of the cosmos. iii Anything that is unable to evolve will pass out of existence. Insignificant efforts like ours can have an impact, if we are able to evolve with the flow and adapt. This dynamic applies at many levels, physically, socially, and psychologically.
The Great Extinction that destroyed the dinosaurs is an example. Sixty-five million years ago, a 6-mile wide meteor struck near modern-day Mexico City, incinerating everything in its path. iv Underground burrows and aquatic environments protected small mammals from the brief but drastic rise in temperature. In contrast, the larger dinosaurs were completely exposed, and died instantly. Even if large herbivorous dinosaurs had managed to survive the initial meteor strike, they would have had nothing to eat. Most of the earth's above-ground plant material had been destroyed. Mammals, in contrast, were small and had a varied diet. They could eat insects and aquatic plants which remained abundant. The powerful dinosaurs that dominated that early environment were destroyed. The insignificant mammals sustained life on the planet.
I know the psychological dimension of this dynamic personally. I am intellectually competent. I was a leader in high school and in college served on many committees. I dominated others with my intellect. Even so, I felt inferior. I wasn't athletically competent. I couldn't make small talk at social gatherings, particularly with women. I didn't participate in horseplay with guys in the dorm or at local taverns.
When confronted with feelings of vulnerability, I escaped into my thinking in an attempt to bolster a false sense of superiority. I remember sitting in meetings silently criticizing those around me. “That was a stupid remark.” “Doesn't she realize she's making a fool of herself.” “I could run this meeting better than he.” I isolated myself in an intellectual fortress of my own making in an effort stay in control.
My fortress walls began to crumble as I encountered people who were orders of magnitude smarter and more capable than I. I then felt inferior intellectually as well. The more I denied these feelings, the less secure I felt. My fortress became a prison of inner isolation and vulnerability. I was extroverted on the outside, but I couldn't share my sense of vulnerability with anyone, including myself. I remember visiting a therapist who challenged me to stay with my feelings of grief and sadness for thirty seconds. I tried, and that thirty seconds was an eternity. I felt as though I would die.
We all know that flood waters can rupture a dam if it's not equipped with sluice gates. The same is true psychologically. The damming up of my feelings was nearly catastrophic. I experienced personal storms and floods. My sister died after a long struggle with cancer. My wife nearly divorced me. Our son died unexpectedly when he ingested alcohol with prescription drugs.
These crises wounded but didn't destroy me. I was fortunate. I began to realize that my dominant defense system was inadequate. I could no longer maintain my false sense of superiority. Life on earth had been sustained by the little mammals when the dinosaurs were destroyed. My life could be sustained only by engaging and sharing my feelings of vulnerability. I discovered that these feelings could be assets rather than liabilities. I began to accept myself, warts and all. Strangely, I grew more confident. I was closer to my wife, family and friends.
There is a social analogue to my personal story. Humankind evolved from hunter/gatherer tribes that struggled for survival in a hostile environment. The tribal bond was primary in the competition for control of hunting grounds. As social organizations grew larger and more complex, city-states replaced tribes. Then nation-states replaced city-states. Still the old survival instincts persisted. Kill, or be killed. Control those around you to keep them from controlling you. Tame a hostile environment, or it will destroy you.
Today, our survival is no longer conditioned by these external forces. The threat comes from within. The internet links us instantaneously. Economic systems are so intertwined that a catastrophe in one country sends shock waves throughout the globe. Armies have weapons systems capable of destroying whole civilizations. We are outstripping the available resources of the planet as we compete with one another to meet synthesized wants and needs.
Automobile manufacturers, in an attempt to gain an advantage over competitors, falsify records rather than building more expensive and less polluting cars. Political leaders intentionally block legislation that will improve the lives of people; fearing that cooperation with the other party will lessen their chances for reelection. Countries go to war, sacrificing millions of lives, rather than risking domination by neighboring nations. The list goes on and on. We stay the course because this seems to be the only affective way to do business.
We, as a species, need to discover what I discovered personally. The old patterns of domination and control, which isolate us in our prisons of insecurity and fear, no longer work.
Spiritual and Wisdom traditions have long taught that we should engage the Flow rather than bucking it. They advocate a path of compassion that acknowledges we are interdependent. In some strange sense, we are connected at a deep level. This is what I discovered when I began to share my vulnerable feelings with others. The issue is, “How can we promote this transformation corporately?”
This is where the story of Abraham and Sarah is relevant. They were impotent and powerless compared to the rulers of the city-states in Mesopotamia. They had long since given up the hope of bearing a child. Although disappointed, they remained true to their commitment to Yahweh. Strangers were welcomed to their camp. Then the impossible happened. Sarah gave birth to Isaac, from whom arose the tribes of Israel.
The lesson: Our seemingly ineffective efforts can have amazing results if we cooperate with the creative evolving dynamic of the Flow. As illustrated in my previous examples, creative options almost always evolve from the edges and not from the centers of power. We, like Abraham and Sarah, can participate in the Flow as it moves toward creativity and life.
It may be difficult to believe, but there are some hopeful signs of change. Nonviolent efforts such as those promoted by Gandhi and King, the 1989 nonviolent protests in China, v Arab Spring, vi and others vii were early indications of this change. Currently, a Kindness Movement seems to be emerging in our country. Relationship researcher, Shaunti Feldhahn, reports, “People are longing for kindness,” viii An article in the Religious News Service (RNS)ix states, “In recent months, Christian authors — as well as Parade Magazine — have highlighted step-by-step processes to help readers learn how to be kind. Organizations like the World Kindness Movement and the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have encouraged altruism since the 1990s.” Movements, such as these, are responding in part to feelings of isolation and loneliness among our citizens. These feelings are so wide spread that they constitute a public health crisis.x Furthermore, engaging the Flow is exciting and life giving even though it is sometimes risky and frightening.
Yes, there are signs of hope. But the task before us is immense. The entrenched patterns of domination and control move unconsciously in our private lives and in our social structures. If we are to participate in this evolution, our efforts must include total commitment of mind, heart and soul.
I will speak more about this in my next post.
iGenesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 Abraham, with his wife, Sarah, is considered the father of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism-Christianity and Islam. https://www.thoughtco.com/archaeological-evidence-abraham-in-the-bible-116875
ii Abraham is also known as the Father of Islam because Mohammad is deemed the descendant of Abraham and Hagar
iiiI am using more contemporary language to state what older Jewish, Christian and Buddhist traditions might described as “obeying the will of God,” “living in the Spirit,” or “achieving enlightenment.”
viii Shaunti Feldhahn, author of “The Kindness Challenge: Thirty Days to Improve Any Relationship.”