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.

The metrical universe in which we live ascribes a series of metrics to each of us. Some of them are obvious – height, weight, eye colour, age, the physical attributes of our identity. Others are less obvious – our country of origin, our citizenship, our bank balance. In all of these metrics, the individual is at the centre of the measurement, independent of the metrics assigned to other individuals.

We are very much a culture concerned about the “I” and our metrics reflect this. Of course, once you start measuring people, some have higher or lower numbers than others. The process of measurement itself results in a hierarchy of metrics. Some of us are older, taller, or thinner than others, and that is the way life happens to be.

There is nothing wrong with this kind of comparative metrics, unless it shifts sideways from metrical description into being a hierarchy of value. In the natural world, there is no hierarchy of value – everything has its place and is equally necessary.

In a metrical universe, however, value is not found in relation; it is intrinsic to the individual. Some people have better metrics than others. Even when dollars are not attached, metrics of all sorts establish the value of one individual’s life in relation to others. From a sustainability perspective, this cannot be allowed to happen. Whatever the metrical difference between people, the value of a life needs to be seen as equivalent wherever it is lived.

One of the persistent messages Samantha Nutt (author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid) conveys is that we, as a society, need to get out of the cycle of thinking that somehow lives are of different value in different parts of the world. We should not view the death of child in a Sudanese refugee camp with any less outrage and anger than a child in our own community. Given that the child likely died of starvation while too many of our children suffer from obesity, the moral imperative to do something about it gets stronger.

If we consider the web of life that is the Earth, there is inherently no more value in any one life than in any other. While we might learn to value people equally, the larger lesson is that it is not only about valuing the lives of human beings. Anthropocentrism may be characteristic of what is in our heads, but it is not out in the world – Gaia exists for herself, not as a stage for the humans who strut across her proclaiming their superior worth to the universe.

In the end, it is a matter of respect. The value of any life is found in interdependence and relationship. In fact, independence is a relatively recent fiction in western culture that has spread, like a destructive meme, around the world, unsustainable choices in its wake. Extending the idea of the talking stick moving around the circle of people to the Earth itself, we need to consider what the other voices of those who bear the gift of life might say to us, if we only would take the time to listen. If we do not stand silent and listen for their voices, we put our own future at risk.

Our value is not simply in being human, but in using our humanity to value the life with which we share the whole planet. Whatever the metrics of disadvantage, economic or otherwise, an ethical system founded on any other principle than the equality of life is doomed to create disaster.

A “reverence for life,” in Albert Schweitzer’s words, requires us to listen with respect to what life is saying, as creatures of all sorts continue to create a world that large clumsy animals like us might eventually inherit. It leads to wisdom and understanding, as patterns and relationships become apparent in the process that would otherwise have been overlooked.

It’s a good discipline, because it forces you to listen, even to the silence. Traditions that believe the spirits speak, or the gods communicate, or in which God, or Yahweh or Allah have a voice that needs to be heard, require a time of silence. Otherwise, the noise we create ourselves drowns out any potential message.

I just find it hard to wait for my turn….