Changing the Game (7)

For a sustainable future, we need to understand life and our relations with other people not in terms of economy or exchange, but as gift… not in expectation of any return, without calculation of cost, but instead as a celebration of Presence with another. In that moment of Presence, the universe changes in the way all of us need it to change.

The sustainability problem reminds me of my favorite arcade game, which I will call “Whack-A-Mole.” Some indeterminate creature pops out of holes in a random pattern, requiring you to whack them with a mallet at an ever increasing rate until the end of the game.

Blessed with good hand-eye coordination, I could always count on winning some pointless prize for whoever was with me.

When it comes to sustainability, however, the whack-a-mole approach will ultimately not be successful.  The game will just get harder and there is no prize at the end – because there will be no end to the creatures that pop out at us faster and faster until we are eventually overwhelmed.

The seventh lesson the Old Savage needs to learn is that skill and good tools will not be enough to solve the problems preventing a sustainable future.

It is not a question of getting better or faster at solving the problems as they emerge – perhaps with more people and more mallets.  Instead, you need to change the game itself.

Continue reading

Authors and Characters (6)

Our lives unfold in a trajectory in time and space, but their meaning is found in story. We are all both authors and characters. Even minor characters can change any story. And do.

As an historian, I enjoy speculating on lives past, how people lived, what they did, what it must have been like “to live back then.”  As an academic, of course, that enjoyment is tempered in my day job by the need to substantiate such speculations with evidence and argument.

But I am also both a philosopher and social scientist.  I temper my speculations further by considering the words and the ideas that I am using and what they mean, followed by the way in which these ideas may be constructed and how they function both in the culture I am examining and in my own.

So when I read confident statements about “mass culture” today or the Zeitgeist of an earlier time, alarms go off all over the place.  When those comments are extended to explain to the difference between “then and now,” how people used to live and how they live today, I not only get irritated but incensed at the sloppy thinking and cavalier conclusions that can lead to undermining the value of personal decisions.

If we want a better future, people have to make the choices that lead to it.  The biggest barrier to sustainability, therefore, is the disempowerment of individuals, who then don’t feel they can make choices of any significance at all.

Continue reading

Respect for Life (5)

A life is a life, however and wherever it is lived. There is no hierarchy of value inherent in life.

I’ve always liked the aboriginal tradition of the talking stick. Simple or ornately carved in whatever style, it grounds a tradition of respect that a sustainable world needs both to appreciate and adopt.

The tradition requires that, as the group sits in a circle, the talking stick is passed from person to person. Whoever holds the stick commands the respect and attention of the group, for as long as he or she desires, to say whatever needs to be said.

I have watched how this simple act changes a group dynamic, as quiet or shy people – or perhaps those whose command of English is not as strong as the others – blossom into contributors to what is said and done. Sometimes, nothing at all is said – the person holds the stick, the group is silent waiting for what they might say, and then with a gesture or a polite comment, the opportunity is declined for now. Because the stick moves in a circle, it will always come back another time.

It has never been easy for me to participate in these circles, because I have always regarded silence as a void to be filled – if not by someone else’s words, then by my own. Yet the respect that comes from waiting one’s turn, the necessity of thinking before speaking, the realization that the quietest person in the group might have the most important things to say, builds community.

There is no one more important than any other in a circle, and the talking stick reinforces the concept as it moves around.

While the talking stick ceremony confirms the value of the individual in society, in community and in relationship, Western/global culture unfortunately tends to go in the other direction.

Continue reading