Restoring Sanity with a New Story
In this silly season of the mid-term elections, where left and right are each proclaiming immanent apocalypse if the other side prevails, it can be a relief to turn to measured voices and larger views. No voice is more measured nor view larger than that of the late Thomas Berry, a historian of cultures who called himself a “geologian,” because the ruler by which he measured current events was no less than the 13.7 billion year story of the universe itself. His profundity cannot be contained within the form of an op-ed, but perhaps these few hints will allure people to his magnificent essays about the real issues we face.
In the last few centuries, technology has allied with market systems to reduce our world to “stuff,” consumable resources. Berry asserted that in this reduction we moderns have lost our story, our deep cultural sense of what gives life meaning. Yet that same technology has made available to us the new story we seek, in the magnificent unfolding epic of the cosmos, revealed by such devices as the Hubble telescope. Berry calls us back to wonder and awe as he invites us to see that the universe has brought forth on our unique planet a community of interrelated beings. Our own vibrancy, our full mental and physical health, is dependent upon the health of the trees, plants, fish, coral reefs, birds, the systems of air, water and soil, into which our own life is intimately merged. Economics and politics have to begin here. Our market and social systems cannot be healthier than the overall health of earth systems.
Even ethics begin here. Berry posited that the universe on every level is subject to three fundamental impulses, which he called differentiation, subjectivity, and communion. What fosters these impulses is good. What hinders them is evil. In the variety of life on earth we see a demonstration of differentiation, the process over time of life forms becoming increasingly diverse over millions of years of branching out into complexity. This multiplicity of fish and plants and animals strengthens the total ecosystem because life has so many ways to respond to environmental stresses. With the advent of mammalian forms of life that care for their young, we can also see a demonstration of deepening subjectivity. Our own brains, capable of creating intricate musical patterns, feeling deep empathy for the less fortunate, or gazing in wonder at the distant glimmer of stars, are proof from within of the depths of subjectivity of which the universe is capable. And no one can deny that the entire system is an exquisite balance of communion and interdependence, such that no part is not in intimate gravitational relationship with every other part.
Civility is the virtue-du-jour that is lacking in this election season, but the deeper wisdom that can inform civility lies within the story of an unfolding process that formed the wheeling galaxies, the solar system, and the earth that sustains us, whether we call ourselves conservative or progressive, Christian or Muslim, Arab or Jew. The deep sense that we belong here, within one great story that transcends all our separate religious books and stories, changes something in us. It is an experience of the whole, one that cautions against breaking up the human family into “us” and “them.” The celebration of cultural difference, the recognition of the validity of other subjectivities that are as real as our own, and the reaching out to authentically commune—these are processes that overcome the toxic alienation of politics as a rush to dominate rather than to serve—politics as war.
One place where the tail of our consumer culture begins to wag the dog of sane policy is in the concept of the multi-national corporation. Not all corporations are evil, and each one is only a reflection of the consumerist story in which we all participate. But the extraordinary conclusion of our Supreme Court in the Citizens United case that corporations have the same right of free speech as individuals has accelerated to warp speed the infusion of money into the waging of political warfare. Even this is only a symptom of a larger distortion that affects the waging of actual wars in foreign countries. Our military-industrial structures could not prosper without finding a new enemy to take the place of communism. 9-11 became a godsend to the continued vibrancy of these structures. Domestically and internationally, we are addicted to posing enemies.
What is especially challenging is that this division into “us” and “them,” the stoking of fears and stereotypes, is so incredibly easy to cause and perpetuate. A state of mind is fostered which casually violates all three of Berry’s fundamental principles of differentiation, subjectivity and communion.
In the case of the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the corporate tail of security services and other gigantic logistical support firms supplying food or fuel for military incursions wags the dog of security goals. Stockholders want good returns on their investments. Career officers want battlefield success that will lead to promotions. And so we have the grotesque statistic that it takes a million dollars a year for each American soldier to remain in Afghanistan. With Al-Quaeda globally mobile, our ultimate purpose for staying there has become increasingly murky. The more effective our soldiers become at killing, the more ill will they generate.
Thinking long-term like Thomas Berry, four establishment figures, Kissinger, Nunn, Schultz and Perry, came out in 2007 in favor of nuclear abolition, because they realized that the use of such weapons is the ultimate catastrophe toward which existing international structures and policies are tending. An apt analogy is with the 18th century slave-owners who wrote in the Declaration that all men are created equal. These men unleashed something with implications far more momentous than they realized. The same is true of Kissinger and friends’ call for abolition: if we can pull back from nuclear weapons, could we not learn how to do without war altogether as a means of resolving the inevitable conflicts among us? Instead we can celebrate differences, recognize mutual subjectivities, and engender authentic communion with each other.
As we watch the dialogue about nuclear abolition in the next few years, we should be able to see how the corporate tail that needs to make these weapons for their bottom line will try to wag the dog of objective policy. The same is true for many powerful market forces at this seminal moment in the great human experiment: will oil and coal interests call the tune, or will we make the great transition into sustainable and clean sources of energy and stabilize the global climate?
The understandable temptation on the left is to make a new set of enemies out of the menace of self-perpetuating corporatism. That will only play into the hands of those who rationalize maintaining control by violence, enabled by vast sums of money. The real answer is to change our thinking, one heart at a time, in order to come to a new place of agreement that we are one interdependent, interrelated species among many other such species, on a small blue pearl of a planet.
This primary insight will generate the political and economic structures that will sustain us. Berry argued that we face a stark choice, where one road, the road we are on now, leads toward a “Technozoic” age of continued consumerism and futile attempts at control of both natural systems and people. Berry’s preferred road leads into what he called the “Ecozoic,” a new era of cooperation with each other and with biological systems. As John Stewart said at his rally to Restore Sanity, "This is not to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. We can have animus and not be enemies."
In fact we can refocus our animus on solving the challenges we all share, leaving behind the need to pose enemies altogether. After a long and fruitless cold war, an unnecessary “clash of civilizations,” and a descent into domestic political polarization, that would truly be a restoration of sanity.
Winslow Myers, author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” lives in Boston and serves on the Board of Directors of Beyond War