Thanks to everybody who wrote to me after my last blog post , on Wildfire and Gunfire. It was interesting that it evoked such a positive reaction – these are evidently issues that trouble many of us, and we are in search of explanations and, ideally, solutions.
So I’ve been digging deeper. And have uncovered an interesting idea that would point to the same root cause underlying both the lack of environmental stewardship (wildfire) and the growing propensity to run amok with guns or knives (gunfire).
I started reading Radical Wholeness: The Embodied Present and the Ordinary Grace of Being, by Philip Shepherd. Relevant to the wildfire issue and the environment more generally, he writes:
“When our thinking unmoors itself from the body . . . we come to feel and believe that we are superior to the world and distinct from it and that the fate of humanity is somehow sealed and independent from that of life on Earth.”
He sees this disconnect as being at the heart of patriarchy, which is not merely a gender issue, but more broadly a desire to dominate over, rather than partner with. (This chimes with The Chalice and the Blade, which I reviewed earlier this year.)
Shepherd points to the aspect of the western cultural story in which the brain has been idolised at the expense of the body, and how this loss of integration has trickled out into all of our institutions.
“The Story of Western culture asserts through those particulars a range of messages: that humans stand as independent of nature as our skyscrapers do; that the head should be in charge of the body, just as a CEO is in charge of a corporation; that we can own trees, land and animals; that self-mastery is the means to success; that what we feel as ‘the self’ lies within the boundary of the skin; that the pursuit of happiness is the primary goal of our lives; and that money buys security.”
If you’re thinking that all these ideas are self-evident, and so what anyway – well, that is how cultural stories work.
“Because the Story is largely invisible, its instructions rule us without our being aware of it. Nations, economies, scientists, religions and social movements are held in its sway. As the politics of our world amply demonstrate, what ‘feels right’ to voters is frequently contrary to their interests and immune to logic. The Story they have grown up with is their primary reality and they vote to perpetuate it…. The most difficult thing in the world is to question an assumption you’ve never consciously made—and the Story hides such assumptions in our language, our architecture, our customs, our institutions and our very neurology. How do you even begin to question something that is so normal it’s invisible?”
When we examine this cultural belief about the superiority of the brain, with the rest of the body existing primarily to provide nourishment, transportation, and the means by which the brain’s ideas get translated into reality, it fairly quickly falls apart. Sure, we don’t do so well if somebody cuts our head off, but we don’t do so well without a heart, or a gut, either. The body is an integrated system, and apart from the odd appendix or tonsil or even a limb, it’s all necessary to the healthy functioning of the whole.
In the same way, all members of society are necessary to the healthy functioning of the whole. Even though they may get paid a lot less (which is a whole other story), a company needs its workers, a community needs its nurses, teachers, and firefighters, and humans need nature (which gets paid nothing at all).
The problem comes when a society forgets that everything is connected and, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” So now we come to the gunfire. In the other book I’ve been reading this week, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger examines what has gone wrong with our western society, especially the way that it has made people feel disconnected, isolated, unwanted and unnecessary. He points out:
“A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone. The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history.”
Hr cites a global survey by the World Health Organization, which shows that people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities—like the United States—run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders.
“The mechanism seems simple: poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities.”
Particularly poignant in the light of the Thousand Oaks shooting, committed by a veteran, is his observation that, in a modern western culture, often the only circumstance in which a person can experience true connection is in armed conflict.
“The earliest and most basic definition of community—of tribe—would be the group of people that you would both help feed and help defend… Soldiers experience this tribal way of thinking at war, but when they come home they realize that the tribe they were actually fighting for wasn’t their country, it was their unit. It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you.”
Junger makes some incisive observations on the current-day USA.
“Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, the elderly are mostly sequestered from public life, and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two. To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country—a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It’s no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.”
Yet could it be that in the consequences of our disconnection, there might lie the cure?
As nature – and disenfranchised members of society – fight back, we have the opportunity to draw together as communities and even as a species – if we choose to. As conflicts increase, intensified by dwindling access to food and water in some parts of the world, migration will inevitably increase. At the moment it seems that the response of many countries to this increasing disruption is to pull up the drawbridge. But if we can seize this opportunity to rediscover our shared humanity, this era could be the transformative crucible that we need.
Drawing on evidence from the Blitz and other periods of extreme hardship, Junger posits that:
“As people come together to face an existential threat, class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia…. The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger—or even give up his dinner.”
“It was better when it was really bad,” someone spray-painted on a wall about the loss of social solidarity in Bosnia after the war ended. That sense of solidarity is at the core of what it means to be human and undoubtedly helped deliver us to this extraordinary moment in our history. It may also be the only thing that allows us to survive it.