Swans Commentary » swans.com June 15, 2009  



What We Think Is What We Get


by Jim Tull





(Swans - June 15, 2009)   I recall a Buddhist parable involving a stick that appears from a distance to be a snake, causing fear to rise in the perceiver. As the perception shifts upon closer examination, the fear subsides and the relieved hiker continues down the path. Understanding and awareness have a lot to do with how we feel and how we act. As hosts to the dominant cultural mindset (our collective understanding of who we are in the universe), our minds play a critical part in both perpetuating our dominant way of life and also in shifting away from it. And so it's just possible that I have performed no greater service in my three decades of activism than to simply challenge myself and others to consider the possibility that the social systems that support us and we sustain are inherently incapable of meeting basic human needs and that we must make a fresh start, in a sense, if we are to survive this century and prosper thereafter.

These systems are the largely invisible, cyclical patterns of interaction among and within society's individuals, institutions, and principalities. They include small town school systems all the way out to our globalized economic system and to the mother of them all, our globalized monoculture. You need to perceive the stick as a stick before you can confidently move on, and this consideration is a critical step in transforming the way we live. When an alcoholic decides to sober up, he needs to understand, as AA puts it, that he is powerless to the substance. This understanding is a necessary condition for recovery. Likewise, about 6 billion humans living on our planet are powerless to make our global systems support equitable, sustainable, enjoyable living. Further, we are powerless to use the tools of these systems to prevent our world from crashing down on itself.

In a few critical ways, our global monoculture dates back to the Mesopotamian settlements our history texts associate with the Agricultural Revolution. Over the millennia, this rapidly expanding cultural system, under the guise of various imperial masks, has come to produce predictable results, terrible and also quite marvelous. The terrible includes unrelieved poverty for the majority of the world's population, widespread unhappiness and spiritual alienation, even (especially?) among the wealthy 10 percent of the world's population, and the unsustainable use of natural resources. This last result seals our present day ultimatum -- our culture and our survival as a species have become incompatible. As if possessing a will and mind of its own, the culture has a voracious appetite for assimilating all cultures into itself and then separating every thing under its umbrella from every other thing into the smallest possible units, mainly to compete with each other. Its compulsion is to consume and waste, grow and expand, dominate, control and compete at a speed and intensity that is destroying the societies we assume it has evolved to serve.

The systemic template of our civilization's form of social organization is a domination or hierarchical model, in contrast to the tribal or partnership system, which is still fully operative among isolated tribal people and recessively, in remnant forms, throughout our society. Our institutions, even small ones, are virtually all hierarchical -- power, wealth, and status are concentrated in individuals occupying the higher positions of a pyramidal organizational structure. In contrast, a group of friends arranging for a day together at the park is more likely to organize itself and otherwise behave in a tribal or partnership fashion. Some nuclear and even extended families exhibit partnership qualities, as do cooperatives and collectives.

Despite the predictability of what is, in other ways, a very chaotic and patchwork culture, social innovators, entrepreneurs, and activists continue even in this late and desperate hour to put their best energy into trying to make this system work. Though stepping from our prevailing way of life to a better one must be done in fact and not simply in our minds, I sense that we are forestalling the necessary leap in part because too many of us remain not only actively invested in the prevailing way, but mentally invested as well. And there are lots of folks who at some level perceive that things have deeply soured in our world but who, like the townspeople adoring their naked emperor, keep this outlook and associated anxiety well guarded, and carry on. Indeed, though the system as a whole is failing, individuals in society are rewarded with survival goods for maximizing their effectiveness within the system. And just as our collective faith holds up the currency and the economy it serves, our collective faith is also what ultimately keeps civilization itself, and its supporting culture, afloat. Our active cooperation with the systems and structures of the culture is an expression of this faith.

Though I press myself into the service of partnership community building as an alternative to this, I also express through my actions a reluctant allegiance to the big culture and systems upon which my survival depends. Yet as I personally go about my daily business in life, I carry with me some fluidly changing version of the following reminders to help reorient my thinking:

1.  Release your faith, Jim, in the capacity of our dominant culture, its systems and tools, to save us from social oppression, economic collapse, and biological extinction. Though some of its tools (solar panels?) may be employed in the cultural hereafter, they are useful only in a marginal way in the current cultural context. Culture, as a function of how people think, understand, and see the world, is the locus or hinge of social change. It is, for example, the source and determinant of technology. Promising and threatening technological advances (and potential advances) in bioengineering, fuel cells, etc., are very important, but secondary, concerns. "Keep your eyes on the prize" of cultural shift.

2.  Our culture, however it serves us, is now collapsing. I can't imagine that any anthropologically trained space visitor would conclude otherwise. With each passing day, a newborn child stands less of a chance than a child born the day before of absorbing, internalizing, and embracing what the grownups need to pass on to them to assure the culture's survival. Teenagers and other adults are anxious and dis-eased. I assume that the rate of demise is of an exponential magnitude and that we're now in the "moving very, very fast" stage. We are also destroying the habitat our biological lives depend on at a similar rate. This is a collapse on two (related) fronts.

3.  Practice seeing the world as it is, in its genuine meaning, as interpreted by your most honest wits. Process attendant pain with others. Pay particular attention -- honest attention -- to young children. Resist writing off absurdities and horrors as normal, as business-as-usual, as just-the-way-the-world-is, as in "toddlers/teens just behave that way." Allow yourself to witness and feel the effects of a desperate and dying culture.

4.  It may be possible to stop or even prevent a war, move more poor people into affordable housing, or to make a nonpolluting car. Efforts like these are necessary. Keep making them, but also keep in mind that while they cushion systemic blows and enhance the lives of individuals (perhaps millions of them), these measures will not directly alter our cultural or systemic trajectories. If you teach a child to read in school, or campaign for school reform or more public expenditures for the school system, keep a third eye as you go on a not too distant future in which children, as fully reintegrated members of their communities, learn, grow, and become strong, healthy adults in some manner very different from what they experience in today's institutional settings.

5.  Try to be a responsible, centered, loving person. It's good for you and the world. But while bad people exacerbate social problems, they are not the problems. Likewise, good people are not the solutions. Though individuals make consequential choices, systems rule for the most part. The force of our dominant culture -- as a system itself -- and the many social, economic, and political systems flowing within it drive and shape much of what we do, how we live, and even many of the smallest choices we make. Car driving, as an example, is a terribly polluting, resource depleting, violent and isolating activity, but at the same time it is a very rational, life sustaining practice performed routinely by good people everywhere. Invisible systemic forces within the flow of our culture, and the structural manifestations of these forces, compel it. We will therefore have to change the cultural flow, create systems that work for people generally as they are. We will never get our current systems to work by trying to make people in them better, as many of us have been struggling to do. Look to see (and change) systems more and blame (credit or change) individuals less.

6.  Unlike physical systems, the social systems that shuttle us around, as powerful as they are, are also paper-thin. They are vulnerable to change, even rapid, dramatic change. They have structural and material manifestations that seem overwhelmingly formidable, but our social systems are ultimately sustained through the sponsorship of our minds. This principle was demonstrated in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, an effect of a private conversation that snowballed into a movement with irrepressible force.

7.  Have faith that people can live equitably, sustainably, and happily and that we are ambitious and inventive enough to fully recreate the way we live. "Where there is a will there is a way" applies. Generating will requires awareness. For sure we are facing a profound social and psychospiritual challenge associated with cultural collapse and transformation. Humans are also stunningly adaptable. People are stuck, tethered to the dominant system, but as we become aware that our cultural Titanistad is really going down, enough people will scramble to invent and to cut paths for others to follow. One method our culture uses to bolster our faith in it is to convince us that we can't live any other way:

•  We're not good enough (starting with innate depravity).

•  It's up to the people in power to make big change.

•  The weight of change itself is too heavy (as if it's all on my plate).

•  Or, there simply is no viable, even thinkable, alternative to the basic competitive, hierarchical framework we've been living under.

Confront and challenge these familiar mantras as they creep into your mental projections.

8.  Look out for and pay attention to forward reaching experiments. For some time, cultural innovators have been trying to experiment a way out of the dominant mode of living. Many of these social experiments are small, perhaps even conventional-looking trials. Many fail, which is par for the course of change. In trying to assess an experiment in this regard, ask yourself, "Does this experiment point to a world, say ten or twenty years out, that I would want to live in if the experiment were to succeed?" I would cite Gaviotas, of rural Columbia (friendsofgaviotas.org), and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, of Boston (dsni.org), as two large-scale examples that inspire this kind of change. Catch yourself dismissing outright any person or group trying or saying something strange and different, then lend support to those pointing to a world you really want for you and our children.

9.  Don't get stuck on, or worry over, what the world or your part of it is going to look like or how everything is going to fit together once the cultural dust settles. Contemplating "What if" and "How are we going to" obstructions might itself be the biggest obstruction. We have to move forward and out of where we are. A mass redeployment of creative energy and focus, driven by cultural shift, will produce results that are unimaginable to us now. "Necessity is the mother of invention." Internalize the necessity.

10.  The dominant cultural vision is not one of global diversity, but global assimilation. It imagines every person living essentially the same way, speaking the same language, trading in the same currency at the same store. Assume that creating a new way of life in the ashes of this vision will be closer to creating new ways of life. The tribal/partnership system has a very good and long track record as a basic form of social organization for humans, but:

a)  this form allows for genuine cultural diversity and countless ways of living beyond the basic form;

b)  people may invent civilizational forms that work in ways our current form doesn't; and,

c)  there are options and possibilities other than these two basic forms.

11.  As you free your thinking in these ways and relieve yourself of the burden -- in your mind at least -- of trying to make our systems work, encourage others to do the same and link up with an experiment in progress and/or innovate yourself. But even if you make no outward change in your life, this perspective shift will bring us significantly closer to a much, much better world, especially if you risk a conversation now and then. How we perceive and how we think are powerful forces of change.

12.  Find likeminded people to support and to support you. There are millions of people suffering various kinds and degrees of oppression and desperation as they try, often in isolation, to negotiate our troubled world. When hands and minds are joined and we begin to see that the source of our trouble isn't located in us, only some of the symptoms, we create a bond with enormous potential for change. "Where there are two or more gathered" for this kind of conversation and mutual support, anything can grow from it. There is a tipping point somewhere in this social transformation and your small contribution is very likely a needed one. As such, it is also a decisive one.

I have to honestly think of myself as deeply cynical and hopeless in relation to what I believe our cultural systems and institutions can ultimately provide us. A new deal with the old dealers won't save us. New dealers in the same game won't either. A new game, or an assortment of new games, might. The needed change is fundamentally a cultural change, not a piece of legislation or a piece of technology, and it is a change that is struggling from many directions to break through. Conditioned to see newsmaking individuals, institutions and events -- not systems -- this cultural shifting is relatively invisible and underreported. Have faith in it, be on the lookout, and maybe even jump in somewhere.


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About the Author

Jim Tull is a former director of Amos House, a Catholic Worker-inspired hospitality house offering meals, shelter and social services to the poor and homeless in Providence and currently teaches courses in Global Studies, Community Service, and Philosophy at Providence College and the Community College of Rhode Island. Print publications include: "Secret Lessons of Francis of Assisi," Sacred Journey, December 2003; "Shall the Poor Always Be With Us?", The Other Side, May/June 2002; and "Change in Culture," National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 15, 2009