Once we have an awareness of the web of relationships in our community and how our own actions can have an impact on others, we are more likely to act consciously and make deliberate choices informed by that awareness. We often think our community or country is broken because of the surface political, economic and social problems we read about in the news. But, as we explore further, we discover that those are just symptoms.
As the documentary “Finding Joe” so beautifully reveals, the underlying cause of those symptoms is that our collective “story” (or set of assumptions) that guides our everyday lives is too limited.
If we begin to open up as a community, if we each begin to tell our stories from our individual experiences (our “Hero’s Journeys”), and if we listen to those stories of others, we will begin to discover how much we have in common and how much collective power we have. The key is developing an open community, breaking down barriers that keep us from hearing the stories of all people from all backgrounds. Because once we really listen to their story, we realize that it’s also ours.
Note: As you read down through below, you’ll see that I’m obviously borrowing all this from other people (including some of you 🙂. In this post, I’m just trying to put together the pieces of what others have said).
To transform our community or country, then, we need to develop a new story that helps inform new behaviors. Those new behaviors, however small, add up hour by hour, day by day, year by year, decade by decade to form a new healthier collective consciousness, one that inspires and restores a sense of the sacred.
The book “Wisdom of the Elders” chronicles stories from indigenous peoples around the globe. These stories are remarkably similar and often are about the fact that EVERYTHING IS SACRED because everything is connected to everything else. This is the same reason Buddhist master Jack Kornfield, during his early studies, was required to “bow to everything”. There are no insignificant parts when you tug on a spiderweb.
And once we rediscover a sense of the sacred, we realize the truth of systems theory, that we live in a dynamic web of relationships. And it’s those relationships between the parts that are most important. The relationships are even more important than the parts themselves.
What we see around us are living systems. This seems true at an intricate level and a collective level. The forest breathes. Species migrate, pollenate, hibernate and gather in symbiosis with other species. Neighborhoods blossom. Communities rise like the sun. Even the earth itself is one living system that breathes, evolves, warms and catches cold.
When we citizens live in an open community, we realize that the place we live is dynamic on many levels. If you pull on one thing, you’re affecting the whole web. It really starts to hit home how delicate all this is. . . And that awareness makes us much more careful about the way we act in the world.
It’s as if a baggage handler unloading the cargo hold of an airplane suddenly realizes that all the suitcases are filled with eggs that will soon be used to cook a huge breakfast in his honor. Knowledge informs actions. His behavior changes when he realizes his connection to those bags.
That understanding of interconnectedness transforms all our behavior. And with a new story in our heads guiding our actions, everything becomes possible. Instead of being changed from the top down, the political, economic and social problems are resolved because the behavior that created them is no longer practiced.
“Habits of thought inform habits of power.” We are all walking around with a story in our heads whether we realize it or not. Of course, part of that story (or set of assumptions) is personal. But a big part of it is collective. It’s what John O’Donohue, in his powerful essay “Blessing Our World Now”, called “the spirit of a time”. Whether we realize it or not, we each play a role in shaping the spirit of our time.
When we rediscover a sense of the sacred, the sense that we are a small but important part of the web of relationships, we begin to feel agency. We realize that what we do, what we say, what we think and what we pray for (or don’t pray for) actually makes a difference in the world.
As a result of discovering that we have more power to shape the world around them than we realized, we citizens suddenly feel a sense of responsibility to make sure our imprint on this world is positive. We become determined to make sure THAT contribution becomes our legacy. What we accumulate, how much admiration or power we garner becomes far less important than how much we make a positive impact on our family, our neighborhood, our community and our country.
This is where Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world” jumps off the page and becomes real. If we LIVE it, we really do help move the needle. Talking ABOUT it isn’t enough. To change the spirit of our time, we have to ACT.
It goes without saying that we have to be patient. We might not feel the progress, but it’s happening. It’s like paddling a canoe across a lake that’s ten miles wide. It really doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. But stroke by stroke, the effort adds up and, before you know it, you and your neighborhood, community or country on the other side of the lake. And that’s a time to celebrate, no matter how small the win. Have a party!
For a new “spirit of the times” (a new story) to emerge, a community must become open enough to gather around the campfire and hear each other’s stories. Once we do that, once we gain that level of intimacy, vulnerability and trust, we realize that we all essentially share the same story. This is something that is beautifully conveyed by Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth” and his analysis of “The Hero’s Journey”.
And once we realize we share the same story, we discover our collective power. We feel agency. We realize that we truly have the power to turn this thing around. And we begin (conversation by conversation, action by action, day by day) to change the story that guides our community and country. And when people are walking around with that new set of assumptions in their heads, they act consciously with an understanding the web of relationships and how each action affects others.
When that happens, our politics, our economics and our social systems transform and we enter a virtuous cycle. A brand new day.
So let’s gather and talk to each other. Let’s reach beyond our normal circle, embrace the power of our diversity and really truly listen to each other. If we do that, we’ll hear some of ourselves in others. That’s how we become a high functioning dynamic community where justice and love rule the day rather than fear and exploitation. That’s how we turn this puppy around.
Once we realize that we have more in common than we have dividing us, we can make decisions from a position of unified strength rather than making demands from a position of divided weakness.
John O’Donohoe wrote the following in his essay called “Blessing Our World Now”. This is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered (on par, in terms of impact, with James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”):
“Sometimes when we look out, the world seems so dark. War, violence, hunger and misery seem to abound. This makes us anxious and helpless. What can I do in my private little corner of life that could have any effect on the march of world events? The usual answer is: nothing. We then decide to do what we can for our own, and leave the great events to their domain. Thus, we opt out, and join the largest majority in the world : those who acquiesce. Believing ourselves to be helpless, we hand over all our power to forces and systems outside us that then act in our names; they go on to put their beliefs into action; and ironically these actions are often sinister and destructive.
We live in times when the call of full and critically aware citizenship could not be more urgent. We need to rediscover the careless courage, yet devastating simplicity, of the little boy who, in the middle of the numbered multitude, in naive Socratic fashion, blurts out; ” But the emperor has no clothes.” When spoken, the word of truth can bring down citadels of falsity.
Real presence is the ideal of all true individuation. When we yield to helplessness, we strengthen the hand of those who would destroy. When we choose indifference, we betray our world. Yet the world is not decided by action alone. It is decided more by consciousness and spirit; they are the secret sources of all action and behavior.
The spirit of a time is an incredibly subtle, yet hugely powerful force. And it is comprised of the mentality and spirit of all individuals together. Therefore, the way you look at things is not simply a private matter. Your outlook actually and concretely affects what goes on. When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see the possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world.
In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world. There is a huge force field that opens when intention focuses and directs itself toward transformation.”