Friday, November 13, 2015

Healing Our Nation, Healing Ourselves

In my recent post, “The Problem Isn’t Capitalism, It’s Our Society,” (October 8, 2015), I noted that the social problems in all modern societies (and most ancient ones, for that matter) don’t stem from their particular economic system, whether it’s capitalism or socialism or communism, regardless how much people rant and rave.  History has shown that changing the economic system does not change the basic nature of a society’s problems.  It typically just replaces one class of elite with another class of elite, one unequal structure with another unequal structure.

What then is the root cause of our societal problems?  And how do we make progress in solving these problems?

The root of our problems is that our society is not a community, meaning that it is not a culture in which everyone has a respected and valued role to play.  Instead, we feel that most people are not entitled to respect, that they have little value, that they are certainly not our equal, and that they do not deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness.  It is a culture of me/us v them.  This lack of community affects the family, the workplace, the smallest village, the state, the country, even the community of nations. 

That in a nutshell is the nature of the problem.  All the ills of our society … poverty, homelessness, workplace conflict, family conflict, civil strife, even war … stem from this basic lack of humanity in our interactions with others. 

Before proceeding further, it is important to clarify what I mean by a “lack of humanity.”  Humanity is defined by Webster’s as “being kind to other people and animals.”  Inhumanity, the opposite, is defined as “being cruel to others.”

In common usage, however, we have a much narrower concept of inhumanity.  For most of us, inhumanity implies a horrific act, a barbarous act, like the ISIS beheadings, or even the tortured conduct at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq War.  

But as the definition clearly states, anything that is cruel to others is an example of inhumanity.  And mind you, this is from Webster’s, not some religious or spiritual text.  Combining that definition with the definition of cruel: any behavior that causes physical or mental harm or pain is cruel and thus inhumane.  Before we can make progress in solving society’s problems, we must acknowledge and accept this definition.

Using this definition, acts that man endures at the hands of his fellow man - whether in war, civil conflict, or everyday life situations such as in the workplace or even within the family - that are hurtful and painful, that fail to respect others, their equality, and the right of all to live with freedom and dignity … all of these acts are examples of inhumanity.  Yes, even acts you might view as somewhat innocuous in the workplace or at home, if they cause mental harm, are examples of inhumanity.  Without question, discrimination and bigotry are examples of inhumanity.

Aware of this definition, one begins to realize that inhumanity is almost more the norm of human interaction than humanity.  Thus the efforts of those, there’s even a foundation, to promote “random acts of kindness.”  How sad.

How do we find a solution to this problem?  How do we bring humanity back into human interaction?

We begin by noting that while this is not a new problem peculiar to the modern age, it is not a function of human nature.  If we look at communal societies such as indigenous groups that still exist, or Native American communities before they were devastated and corrupted by the white man, we see communities in which everyone had their place, everyone was valued and respected, everyone felt secure even though, in the case of Native Americans, there was some private ownership.  

But when mankind moved from communal societies to societies based on the individual as the organizing unit, something significant was lost in the transition … a sense of security.  And it has gotten worse over the centuries as civilization/technology has “progressed” and we have become ever-more disconnected from people and more connected to material things.

But I do not believe that all is irretrievably lost.  True, I don’t think from a practical perspective that it’s possible to have a true communal society in a nation as large and complex as most modern nations.  But since I don’t think there is an inherent contradiction between a capitalist economy and a sense of community, the question becomes - how to create the feeling and advantages of community while still having an economy that has the individual unit and private ownership as its basis.

Since our society is based on the individual, not the commune, the answer will also have to be based on the individual.  If the goal is to change our society and the world, it will have to be done one person at a time.   Some leadership from authority figures and the culture would help, but ultimately it comes down to the individual.

As noted above, what was principally lost in the transition to an individual-oriented society was a feeling of security.  When people feel secure, they have the psychological ability to be kind to others and respect others.  To give of themselves for the benefit of others and for the common good.

On the other hand, when people feel insecure the natural psychological tendency is to protect oneself, which devolves into seeing others as a threat, creating a me/us v them dichotomy.  In that situation one is not kind to others and one does not give of oneself for the benefit of others.  But the damage caused by insecurity goes even deeper than that.  When we feel insecure, we do not offer even ourselves kindness and respect because we do not feel worthy.  There is no happiness in our heart.  Thus the current state of affairs.

I have written in previous posts how insecurity is the source of all of our problems.  See “The Root of All Abuse and Violence - Insecurity” (1/7/13) and “Insecurity as the Cause of Social Conflict and International War” (1/10/13).  

For some, or perhaps many, readers this will all sound like “new-age gobbledegook.”  But bear with me.

Since I am positing that the solution to our society’s problems lies with the individual, before going any further, I ask you to ask yourself a question:  “Am I happy?  Am I truly happy?”

If you can look deep inside yourself, past your ego, and answer that question, “yes,” then more power to you and you are ready to start, if you haven’t already, treating all people with kindness and respect.

Unfortunately, most of us cannot answer that question, “yes,”  because we are troubled, we feel conflicted.  We are insecure.  It’s not that we don’t experience moments of happiness, but do we feel deeply happy?  No.

This is true regardless of one’s status in life.  Many people think that once you’ve made it, have money, have power, that you’re home free and experience happiness.  But that is usually not the case.  Regardless how strong our ego, regardless how successful we are, we don’t experience true happiness because we are at bottom insecure beings.  We have never been taught to open our heart and embrace all aspects of ourselves.  

We have never been taught  that we have everything we need within ourselves to be at peace and experience happiness.  Instead we’ve been taught that we need to be what we aren’t or need to have what we don’t have.  And the higher we achieve or the more we obtain, the more it seems we obsess about retaining what we have and obtaining even more

This is what must change.  If one person learns to embrace himself and know that he has what he needs inside himself to be at peace and experience happiness, then he will not only change his own life, but the life of all those he  comes into contact with because he will now relate to those around him very differently … he will offer them joy, kindness, and respect.  The more who change, the greater the impact.

Now, it’s a well known fact that most people will not undertake change for the benefit of others.  No matter how often people swear to do this, it just doesn’t work.  Most people will only undertake change for their own benefit, and even that is very difficult, so strong are our habit-energies.

So here’s the next question I want to ask you.  Would you like to be truly, deeply happy?  Would you like to be free of feelings of insecurity?  Would you like not to obsess about what’s going to happen to you tomorrow?

If your answer is, “yes,” then read on.  Despite years of negative programming by family, peers, and the culture, this is more within your reach than you might think.

The process is quite straightforward.  But it does take a lot of work to achieve as you are changing the habits of a lifetime.  Here are the basic steps:

1.  Become aware that all your feelings about yourself and the world around you are a result of your learned experience.  Now, most people would say this is as it should be because that’s how we learn.  However, learning facts and learning judgmental values are two very different things.  

You may be familiar with the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from South Pacific that says, “you’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven. or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate.”  Well, that basically is true for all feelings and perceptions.  Even everything we feel about ourselves is what we’ve been taught.  If you feel bad, or incompetent, or ugly, or the opposite, it’s what your family, your peers, and the culture has taught you.

None of these words describe who you and others really are; these are just labels we have been taught to apply.  They cover up the reality of people yet for most of us these labels are the only “I” and “them” that we know.  How many children are told over and over that they are bad or stupid?  How many are told that others, such as blacks, are dangerous, slow, and lazy?  And so these children come to identify themselves as bad or stupid and they identify others as dangerous, slow, and lazy with the harmful results that follow both for themselves and those around them.  How sad. 

The labels we apply to ourselves and others may just be just a product of the mind; it’s what we’ve been taught.  But they are no less powerful and cause us and them suffering.  It doesn’t matter whether the labels are pejorative or superlative, they cause suffering.

The oft-quoted serenity prayer says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Those are truly words to live by.

We can’t change the way the world is.  But we can change how we relate to ourselves and to others … the labels that we automatically apply to everything we experience. That is totally within our control, difficult though it may be to part with habit-energies that have formed over a lifetime. When we stop applying labels and see ourselves and others as they truly are, not caricatures or stereotypes, a new world of possibilities opens up.

This is why Nina Simone wrote “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”  She wanted black children to hear that they are not stupid, but in fact gifted.  She wanted them to see their true selves.  Not the image placed on them by white society.

If you accept and acknowledge the truth of these statements, then you have made the first important step to in your own small way changing the world.

2.  Let your heart embrace all aspects of your being.  This is not something we are taught, either by family, peers, or the culture.  Quite the contrary.  We are made very aware of our faults, our failings, all the “negative” aspects of our character.  And so we learn not to love ourselves, not to respect ourselves; we are flawed, not worthy.  We become insecure.  We become very sensitive to perceived slights and wrongs and get angry or hurt, we tend to either withdraw or become an egomaniac.

Embracing all aspects of your being does not mean “indulge” yourself, giving yourself license to do things which may be harmful to yourself or others, but it does allow you to acknowledge these aspects of yourself and have compassion for yourself and for these tendencies, knowing that they are taught.  They are not you.

When we embrace ourselves fully we feel whole and so it removes the struggle, the internal battles, that tie us up and feed our anger, fear, and negativity.  Embracing these aspects of us greatly lessens their power. It may sound counter-intuitive, but when we, for example, fight our anger, try to rid ourselves of it, it actually strengthens our anger.  By embracing ourselves, these emotions instead sort of get smothered by love.  When we feel whole there is no reason to be angry. 

3.  Know that you have everything you need within yourself to experience peace and happiness.  Again, this is not what we’re taught by family, peers, or culture.  Just the opposite.  We are taught that we need all sorts of things … change who we are, how we look, obtain material things … in order to experience happiness.

But as in the first point, this is all stuff we are taught.  It is not a reflection of reality.  It is in fact by depending on things outside of ourselves for happiness that we are fated to experience endless disappointment, frustration, and psychological suffering.

This is not a refutation of John Locke’s famous poem, “No man is an island.”  It is not a call to isolate yourself and remove yourself from the world.  It is instead a call again to change how you relate to yourself and the world around you.

By not needing things, by not obsessing about things, by being able to say, “It’s great if it happens, but if it doesn’t that’s ok too,” the things we desire or want lose the power to frustrate us and cause us suffering.  It’s called non-attachment.

After becoming aware that all our feelings and perceptions are learned experience, a product of our mind, and not a reflection of our true selves … and after we allow our heart to embrace all aspects of ourselves … you will find that you become aware from within yourself, from your heart, that you have everything you need inside yourself to experience peace and happiness.

To summarize:  When you are aware that all your feelings and perceptions are taught, you will realize all the bull in our culture.  When you embrace all aspects of your being, you will find when you meet or even just observe others that you feel their suffering or joy, and you will feel compassion grow within yourself.  

When you know that you have everything you need inside yourself to experience peace and happiness, you will be able to go through your days without anything pushing your buttons.  You will be secure.  You will be aware of all things.  You will note the things that you can in some way change, but regarding those you can’t, you will be aware that things are the way they are because it’s just the way it is, your buttons will not be pushed, you will not obsess, you will not become agitated.

When you have reached this state, or even just begun the process of walking this path which is so different from the one you’ve followed in the past, you will find that you perform more and more random acts of kindness.  That you feel a sense of community with all people and have compassion for their state and suffering.  That you understand the value of all people, of all life, and that you respect all people.  

For you realize that people are the way they are and you are the way you are because it’s the way we’ve been taught to view ourselves and the world around us.  There are no evil people, just people who’ve been taught to do harmful things to others.  There are no failures, just people who have not been able to accomplish something that their learned experience drove them to do.  There are no lazy people, just people who’ve been beaten down all their lives by messages that they will not amount to anything.  There are no worthless people; everyone has something to contribute to society if given the opportunity; sometimes its intellect, sometimes its talent, sometimes it’s just a smile or their presence.  

And when you realize these things, you will support politicians who seek to change the fundamental nature of our culture, to create a sense of community, and to change the way we view government because so much of how people view themselves, respect themselves or don’t, feel they have opportunity or not, is a result of their interaction with government.  This is not an anti-wealth movement.  It is not an anti-business movement.  It is just a movement that says that everyone has their value and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  

The Declaration of Independence states that all people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that the purpose of government is to secure those rights.  So government action to improve educational opportunity, health care opportunity, job opportunity, and housing opportunity is necessary in order for all people to be able to truly experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to experience dignity and respect.   

Lincoln stated that we are a democracy “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  This implies both rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  Those who have been able to benefit from the system and gain wealth need to give their fair share to support the government’s efforts to provide all citizens with a meaningful equal opportunity to make more of their lives.  The wealthy will still be wealthy, but part of that wealth will now serve a meaningful function in the betterment of the common good.