The state of the Union is on our minds. But, in all fairness, it has been for the past few years. It’s painfully too easy to wonder if we are turning into a hostile, bellicose society. The good old days of sitting on Grandpa’s porch and idly churning ice cream seem a long ways from the Arizona shootings, 2 super-sized wars in the Middle East, teenage sex slavery and ponzi schemes. Gun sales are at a record high. After a half-hour or so of reading the news, I catch myself wondering if Konrad Lorenz was right when he theorized that human beings are hardwired to fight over resources--even against members of their own species. But, then I remember that Lorenz never claimed that aggressive behaviors were in any way more powerful, prevalent, or intense than peaceful, loving behaviors. Sigh of relief.
So, we are hardwired both ways. We have the biological switches for aggression and we have the biological switches for love. We choose which switch gets turned on. But, sometimes we forget that. And when we do, we blame external circumstances for our aggression. We are yelling at the neighbor because his barking dog kept us up all night, right? Not exactly. We’re yelling at the neighbor because we chose, at some level, to yell at the neighbor. Let’s face it: there were other options that we could have chosen for dealing with the situation.
The big gestalt for me was the day that I realized that there was no nebulous “other” out there to blame—that I was the one who had to change. If every age has its character, as Eric Fromm suggested, then moving toward a less aggressive way of life is a struggle of character. I had to take responsibility for my own choices. And, I had to move out of my little, self-contained “me” and into a broader, more inclusive “we”. It also meant swimming against a tide of culturally entrenched patterns that have held aggression in place for centuries: ruthless competition, conspicuous consumption and power politics.
We’ve all heard the slogan, “be the change you want to see.” Of course. But, in the process of becoming that change we find ourselves face-to-face with some societal memes that are so deeply buried we don’t even know they exist. The truth is that we have some revisioning to in order to flip the biological switches that create more compassionate communities. When it feels like the ship is sinking, we need to choose to build lifeboats instead of throwing people overboard. No blaming the captain. No survival of the fittest. As Bill McKibben is keen to point out, “The technology we need most badly is the technology of community—the knowledge about how to cooperate to get things done. Our sense of community is in disrepair.” In short, it’s time to stop doing things “the way that they’ve always been done.”
Lifeboat building isn’t top-down. It starts at the bottom, at the grass-roots level and works its way upward. Lifeboats are built as local citizens recognize themselves as fictive kin and move from transaction to trust, from consumption to contribution and from isolation to community. Blessed unrest. As lifeboat models facilitate a shift from old concepts of rugged individualism to more inclusive collectivist concepts, different interpretations of freedom become available. We will, as Bill Kauth cites, become more capable of giving and receiving—we will orient toward what we can give to a situation, while still remaining open to receiving. This is radically different than an aggressive, “what’s in it for me” approach. It’s a different flip of the biological switch.
So, where do we start? What do we do first? Let’s go back to our neighbor’s barking dog. OK, the dog kept us up all night. This is not acceptable. But just yelling at the dog’s owner isn’t going to accomplish anything sustainable either. We need to take a deep breath, count slowly to five, and flip the biological switch for interdependence. What if we plugged in some of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication skills? And, what if we moved past mere acquaintance networks into perceived fictive kinship? Mutual social capital—the cement of strong local community--would be increased. We could begin taking down fences and putting up lifeboat masts.
The state of the Union is up to us. It’s a composite of the choices we make about how to relate to one another. Ultimately, the task is to find a way, rather than looking merely inward, to look outward in the same direction. We’re not all going to see things the same. That’s not the point. But, we could all have a place on the deck, with telescopes pointing toward the same horizon, looking intently for a world that would work for everyone.