I usually refrain from engaging in arguments on political or economic theory because I don’t consider myself to be well enough informed to do any particular stance justice with supporting evidence. Today I learned that my reasons go deeper than that. I recently violated my own injunction by posting a quote from Governor Scott Walker on my Facebook page about dependence on the government. He was calling up a trope from the Reagan era, one that ignores that he and all Americans are dependent on the government for roads, help in emergencies, and education, to name only a few.
In the ensuing back and forth argument, my Libertarian cousin chimed in about the role of government, taxation, military spending, energy policy, and the squeeze of the middle class. I responded that it saddens me to see finger pointing at “those people” who are on public assistance. Maybe if their place of work (WalMart, McDonald’s) paid them a living wage, they could afford to put a roof over their head and food on the table without such help. Or if the “education” they received had actually educated them, they could get a higher paying job. It’s so small minded and petty, and reflects poorly on Americans. I still prefer to believe that we are capable of much better. And yet my salvo is a distraction from the deeper lessons of this exchange.
We humans don cloaks and layers of artifice and complexity to insulate ourselves from the real world, the living, animate, magical Earth we all belong to. That same world dreams us still, as errant and misdirected and ego-bound as we are.
My cousin linked to a philosophical consideration of the causes of war and peace, and what we can do to have a more peaceful world. Given the appeal of the topic, I read it. On my first attempt, I got stuck on the graphic that categorized human qualities and actions as either causes of war or of peace. At first glance, I even thought some of the words were in the wrong columns. Here is the graphic:
After that initial reaction, I wanted to step outside the whole mindset that categorizes opposites and then argues for one as better or more desirable than another. In a way, the true cause of war is in making lists like this and hardening into a position of right versus wrong. Reality is far more complex. We are both unique individuals and part of a collective web of life. A healthy human is equal parts mystic and rationalist. Albert Einstein is my favorite role model for this. It takes humility to admit that, even when you are Einstein (whose very name has become a synonym for “genius”), you can’t explain everything in the universe.
“I believe in intuition and inspiration. … At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason. When the eclipse of 1919 confirmed my intuition, I was not in the least surprised. In fact I would have been astonished had it turned out otherwise. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” – from Cosmic Religion : With Other Opinions and Aphorisms (1931) by Albert Einstein
As for pitting altruism against egoism, I like what Charles Eisenstein has to say about the concept of “enlightened self-interest” in his recent book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.
“Conditional self-approval and self-rejection are powerful mechanisms of self-control: the application of psychological force upon oneself. We are deeply conditioned to it; it is perhaps the most fundamental of what I call the ‘habits of separation.’. . . It is the worldview in which things happen only through the application of force. These tactics seem to say, ‘I know you. You are a ruthless maximizer of rational self-interest or genetic self-interest.’ Assuming that, we attempt to leverage that self-interest. We do it to other people, and we do it to ourselves.” (p. 33-34)
“In a universe lacking intelligence or will of its own, things never ‘just happen’; they happen only if something causes them to happen, and ‘cause’ here means force. From this universe we must take, within it we must control, and onto it we must project our own designs, harnessing more and more force, applying that force with greater and greater precision, to become ultimately the Cartesian lords and possessors of nature.
Can you see how the word ‘practical’ smuggles in so much of the mentality underlying the depredations of our civilization?
Do you think that operating from within the belief systems of the Age of Separation, we will create anything but more separation?” (p. 35)
I finally did make it through the entire war-versus-peace essay. It’s quite consistent in its adherence to black and white thinking, that something must either be one way or another. This, research shows us, is a hallmark of the adolescent brain. As we mature, ideally, we develope more nuanced, both/and thinking. It’s no wonder that black and white thinkers abound, given that our culture has lost all connection with ritual and ceremony to initiate young people into adulthood, and so we are stuck in the adolescent stage of development. Bill Plotkin writes and teaches very persuasively about what he calls this “patho-adolescence.” People diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder display classic black/white thinking as well. But, then, such labels are hallmarks of the old story of separation, aren’t they?
When I see words like “only” and “always” and “never” in a philosophical essay, I know the author is not a nuanced thinker. Reality is not reducible to simple maxims of this-versus-that, or this-is-better-than-that. Such tactics back the philosopher into a corner and he finds himself arguing, for instance, that to achieve peace, “honesty requires that Americans and their leaders acknowledge this enemy as an enemy that must be eliminated unequivocally and immediately.” And in case this destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it illogic didn’t penetrate, the next paragraph states: “For the United States instead to ‘negotiate’ with the leaders of the enemy regimes, and to sit with them at the U.N. and thus treat them as deserving of anything other than torture (for information) and death (for good riddance) is an act of dishonesty.” When you find yourself advocating the very thing you are arguing against, your logic has led you in a circle.
On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln, who had a great many detractors during the Civil War, was quoted as saying, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Now there’s a nuanced thinker, a man who thinks as much with his heart and intuition as with his brain and reason.
This essay on war and peace became its own straw man. When the only example the author cites to demonstrate the dangers of mysticism is the murderous blind “faith” of Islamic terrorists, it’s a good reminder to me not to fall into the trap of engaging on the level of old story of separation. A part of me wants the satisfaction of jumping in to argue and prove him wrong, which just plays into the mistaken belief that I am better and we are separate selves, pitted against each other.
Where is war? War is inside every human heart.
There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.
Mystics—saints, sages, and shamans—do have much to teach us everyday folks. The wisest of them do not insist that we take things on faith. Instead, they teach us techniques and practices they’ve used that have brought them great insights. And they invite us to try them with diligence and humility, and see if we don’t wake up just a bit to the mysteries of this wondrous world. These practices offer different experiences, ways to encounter the animate world with our body and senses that enliven our awareness and challenge our stories.
That said, the great teachers also remind us that our very skepticism and clinging to the knowable and the rational will hinder spiritual progress and short circuit what could be a marvelous glimpse into the vastness of human consciousness. It is a great paradox that does ask of us trust and faith. But not the blind faith of a jihadist.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
There is always more than we think. Being right about something—when perspective and judgment are so fleeting—is far less rewarding than curiosity. I am thankful to the author of this article for awakening me to my own inner conversation about this weighty subject. And for reminding me that paradox is a fundamental law of Creation, that opposites will always be with us. And how much more interesting and maddening and challenging and fun the world is because it simply refuses to lie down and be categorized by the likes of us.