Feb 172021
 

Note: The following is a short excerpt from a book I have been drafting, about how lost the species Homo Sapiens has become. I have titled it Moving to a Different Rock: Humanities Journey Home. I welcome your thoughts.

Ending Selfishness

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

                                                            Thomas Merton

The moment we entered this world we were given life…is it possible we deserve nothing more? Should life be a continual search for what we can give in return for this extraordinary gift, rather than a search for what we can gain? To the extent we allow ego to gain identity and strength by shrouding itself in privacy and hiding behind possessions, we make it difficult or impossible to “cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves.”

If I were to suggest that another species had the right to own some portion of this Earth’s resources—that we had no right or access to them—we would be incensed. And yet, we believe we have the right to do just that to other species. What the Universe has given, is given equally to all.

And while the thought of giving up private property is radical enough, how might the world be different if we allowed the possibility we do not have the right to, nor do we even deserve, personal privacy? To have another person know everything about me—even my most intimate thoughts and feelings—would seem a violation.

However, what if we imagined for a moment that all human privacy vanished? What if we lived in a world where all was revealed, a world in which openness and vulnerability were a matter of course, rather than a matter of choice? The moment I became angry, you would know. My jealousies, frustrations, and hatreds would be revealed for all to know. Could I live in a world in which all I revile about myself, everything about me that makes me feel small and inadequate would be known?

There is a Buddhist tradition that suggests if we could see deeply into the soul of those in front of us, we would never accomplish anything; we would be too busy bowing to one another. In a world where you immediately know my story, you may know my faults, but you also know all that tears at my heart. And I too would know what tears at yours. In such a world, we would look at each other and the faults would vanish in the face of our mutual humanity. And in that moment of blessing, the word Namaste—the God in me is witness to the God in you—would have meaning we cannot now even begin to appreciate.

But I am not just suggesting the absence of personal privacy might have value. I am suggesting we do not deserve personal privacy.

One of the first lessons we try to teach young children is the value of sharing and generosity. Why are sharing and generosity so valued? Because when we share with another, the value of what the Universe has given us multiplies. We both gain from experiencing the utility of what is in front of us, and because we not only have our own ideas of its value, through the connection and clash of those ideas, the utility for humanity can multiply many times over.

But our sharing and generosity comes to a halt when it comes to the most intimate, and I might suggest, valuable parts of who we are. I am fond of suggesting to those who call the suicide hotline—those desperate to find the value of their lives—that they are living a life never lived by any human throughout history; a life that will never be lived again. That gives every person some unique view of what it means to be human. But that unique, precious, and enormously valuable wisdom is unavailable unless we are willing to share our stories in all their most intimate details.

To demand personal privacy just might be the ultimate form of selfishness. Ending that selfishness—to learn to talk openly about our deepest vulnerabilities—is one of the skills we will need to witness true beauty amid the coming chaos.

Jun 102015
 

Note: This has been submitted for the July/August issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

Humanity is, I believe, on the cusp of a new era. Depending on the choices we make, the future will be informed by wisdom beyond our dreams, or imbued with ignorance and wanting.

Am I alone in feeling that many of our species’ collective actions seem self-centered and selfish? It’s as if we are still in our adolescence searching for identity. We grab Earth’s resources because exerting power over Mother Earth—or as I prefer, Pacha Mama—affirms an identity we doubt.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of the hero’s journey, an individual’s passage through the depths and darkness, emerging on the other side with wisdom and sagacity, the profundity of which can only come from the struggle. What most separates youth from elderhood is a deep understanding and acceptance of self, much of which comes from the many struggles through which we visit the depths and return, burnished, refined and wiser…less ego-imbued, self-centered and selfish.

The people we embrace as wisdom keepers throughout history were, at some point, torn asunder by journeys of nearly unfathomable pain and heartbreak, only to return with an extraordinary understanding of what it means to be human. Mahatma Gandhi’s and Nelson Mandela’s ego-crushing years in prison comes to mind.

As a species, we have faced many journeys through the darkness: world wars, genocides, famines and natural disasters. We have gained wisdom from each, but we seem to forget so rapidly, returning to wasteful, selfish ways—ignorant of the delicate, life-giving balance of the planet. Today, we deplete precious resources at increasingly alarming rates.

Perhaps the hero’s journey that will provide lasting wisdom—move us closer to elderhood of the species—is yet to come.

My brother-in-law, Professor Emeritus of Geology at the University of Hawai’i, has spoken of a world depleted of oil…a world he feels is approaching swiftly, much sooner than we can find alternatives. Having read and listened, it is an often frightening picture that can include famine, institutional collapse and chaos. Edward O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus from Harvard, once referred to the 21st century as the bottleneck humanity must negotiate if we are to survive.

I wonder if what lies ahead is a collective hero’s journey unlike those through which we have already traversed. A journey that will refine and burnish the species in ways we cannot yet imagine. If such a journey is in our future, I also wonder if we will find the courage to endure the depths required for our resurrection as wiser, more mature inhabitants of the Earth…to move as a species from adolescence into elderhood.

If we do find the courage to make generosity and compassion our dominant voice, those moments are perhaps the greatest opportunities we have ever had for acquiring wisdom. If we do not, I fear we will never advance beyond our current selfish ignorance.

We could be standing at the doorway, upon a huge welcome mat, inviting us to co-create with Pacha Mama the next epoch of her future. Not a future separate from humanity and not a future for humanity separate from Mother Nature. But a future for a global life force, fully integrated, and intimately intertwined; a future in which we finally understand and fully respect our place as an important, but far-from-dominant species. The next century offers us an advanced degree in existentialism. Why do we exist? Do we truly belong here in this Universe? And if we do, what is our role and how should we be in relation to life itself.

If the hero’s journey I am suggesting transpires, we are approaching a time during which we can allow Pacha Mama to extract from us, individually and collectively, the infinite wisdom of which we are capable. That future holds for all creatures, riches of joy, wisdom, generosity, understanding and love beyond anything we have ever imagined, or ever could imagine. Will we get there without pain, heartache, suffering and sadness? That would contradict the very definition of wisdom. Will the riches we will discover be commensurate with the heartache and suffering we may face? Not only is it possible, I believe the wisdom available to us far exceeds the price we are asked to pay.

I fervently believe it is human nature to be generous rather than selfish. When we stop long enough to re-connect with parts of the biosphere from which we have become aliens, I hope we will re-member we are part of a much larger whole.

I must have hope. Because if I lose hope, what have I left?

Dec 172011
 

 

Note: The following will be published in the January/February issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.
As 2012 begins, I am aware it is a time during which many reflect on their lives and consider promises to themselves and the world for renewal. We call them New Year’s resolutions.
But as I imagine the New Year, there is a different kind of resolution I seek. Musical harmony reaches a point of resolution when a dissonant note or chord is followed by a consonant one. The dissonant note in my life, for which I seek a consonant resolution, has to do with a kind of selfishness that springs from what I imagined was generosity.
In the closing months of 2011, I spent time with a young man who was struggling mightily over the untimely death of a close friend. I did little more that listen and offer a hug when I thought it might help. Once or twice I looked into his eyes to reaffirm his value, and acknowledge his pain. It felt like the right thing to do. A note he wrote confirmed that what I offered was deeply appreciated. It said, in part, “It was your gentle hand that guided me through these dark times. I credit you with the fact that I’m still here on this earth.” Those words—and what they implied—brought tears to my eyes; tears that return even now as I recall them. His words were unexpected, kind and very generous.
I responded by offering to be there for him if ever he needed me. “Find me,” I said, “no matter what.” He promised he would, but then added words, the depth and sincerity of which I seldom hear from a person not yet 20. “Roger, if you ever need anyone, I will be there for you.” In that moment I found them a bit jarring. What might it mean for me, in a dark moment to call a teen and ask for support? At first, my confusion was wrapped around his ability to offer advice to someone so much older. What words could he possible conjure that would offer comfort? But as I reflected more deeply, I wondered if I would have the courage to call and insert my sadness and misery into his life. How could I burden someone else, especially someone so young, with difficulties that seem insoluble even to me?
That is when the dissonant chord struck. As a friend said, “You are really very selfish with your generosity.” It was okay for me to be the giver. It was okay for me to try to save him, but I was stubbornly unwilling to give him the same opportunity…unwilling to be the recipient of his kind and generous nature. And while he may not conjure words to help me understand the path forward, he is every bit as capable as I to listen, offer a hug when he thinks it might help, or look into my eyes to reaffirm my value and acknowledge my pain.
So the resolution I seek as I peer tentatively into the New Year is the consonant chord of acceptance: to turn to my young friend and say with the deepest sincerity, “Yes! If you are willing to allow me to come to your aid, I, too, will accept your kindness when the slings and arrows life hurls at me penetrate too deeply.”
It is said it is more blessed to give than to receive, but when I am only willing to give, I create a dissonance in the world that begs for resolution. I add harmony when I find the courage to tear down walls I have built to protect myself and allow others to be generous in return. It is that resolution I seek in 2012 as I try not to be so selfish with my generosity.
I wish you great harmony in the New Year.