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The Body of Humanity

9 Feb

Those of you who already know my writing know that I am fond of metaphors. So ever since I wrote the last post here, in answer to the questions parents were asking about how to help their children cope with the current political situation, I’ve been trying out metaphors in my mind.

This morning I settled on one. Many years ago I faced, on a personal level, an experience that changed the direction of my life and my spiritual priorities ever after. It came from something quite ordinary—a trip to my doctor for a sinus infection. Since I got those infections all the time, it was just business as usual until my doctor, feeling to see if I also had swollen glands, said “Uh-oh.”

A week or two later that “uh-oh” became a cancer diagnosis. Leaping ahead in time, I assure you that my treatment was successful and I’m fine today. But the pathway from there to here became radically different from the pathway I had been on. The “shock and awe” of the experience led to a confrontation with the meaning of life as a deeply spiritual investigation that would have been unlikely in any other way. It was very far outside my previous intellectual approach to such philosophical questions.

Not long after the diagnosis I encountered Dabrowski and began a correspondence with Michael Piechowski, his principal translator, who introduced me to Peace Pilgrim—a “moral exemplar” whose spiritual development had reached the highest level (Level Five) in Dabrowski’s theory of human developmental potential. I began to read all I could find by her and about her and found this quotation, which I have used often since:  “Your lower self sees you as the center of the universe. Your higher self sees you as a cell in the body of humanity.” The metaphor spoke volumes with a simple image and a few words.

In the U.S., and in the world, the Presidential election of 2016 (as apparently ordinary as a sinus infection) turned into a “shock and awe” experience as intense on the political level as my diagnosis was for me personally. It has essentially changed our nation’s path. November 8th/9th shook our complacency like that “Uh-Oh” and presaged something new, totally unexpected, and—for a numerical majority of Americans—extremely scary. In response there has been a sudden, intense marshalling of forces unlike anything (or at least on a scale unlike anything) we’ve seen before.

There has been a lot of rhetoric about all this that casts the “other” as the enemy, but for me that language is uncomfortable. I am all too aware that the words and images we use carry energy, and just now there is an extraordinary level of hostile energy circulating in our shared space, so without wishing to downplay the seriousness of the current situation, I would rather avoid adding to it if at all possible. We’re all human beings coping with circumstances that are new to all of us.

Considering Peace Pilgrim’s metaphor of the “body of humanity,” each of us represents a single cell in that body. We are not identical, and our differences are essential to its structure and function. I’ve been thinking about how cancer makes its destructive way in the body.

Every cell of our physical being focuses on getting what it needs to function, to thrive, to reproduce—in its own favor, and because of interdependency, at the same time in favor of the health of the whole organism. From time to time our bodies produce cancer cells that flourish briefly, but for the most part are dealt with by our immune system before they cause harm to the body’s structure and integrity. What makes cancer cells different is that they begin to act not as part of the whole, but as the “center of the universe,” for themselves alone. They gobble up nutrition, they reproduce, they take over whatever organ has been their origin and then begin to invade the rest of the body, continuing to expand.

cancer-cells

A dividing lung cancer cell. Credit: National Institutes of Health

Biologically, this strategy over time is a losing one. If the malfunctioning cells continue their expansion and takeover for too long, they kill the body that gave them birth and nourished their ascendancy. We can see that the cancer cell’s strategy is a malfunction in an organizational pattern that normally serves us well—that is, each cell acting for its own immediate survival, taking what it needs to fulfill its function, reproducing at an appropriate level to keep the larger system flexible, adaptable and working. Medical researchers are constantly looking for the reasons cancer cell malfunction occurs, in order to prevent the destruction it leads to, but the immediate need of the body once the cancer is detected is to stop the proliferation and growth, or to remove the offending cells from the system.

We all seem to be pointing fingers just now, blaming the “selfishness” of individuals who put their own needs first, when in fact, as with cancer, it isn’t that initial desire of each cell to get what it needs that has caused the threat to the system as a whole, but the distortion of cells taking more of the body’s resources than they need, expanding out of control, and interfering with the structures and functions of other cells, organs and systems.

For me, I’m thinking that the sudden sharp turn we’ve taken should not be seen as a war started by one “side” or another, drawing battle lines between them, but as a problem in the entire body system that has been there all along, but that we have failed to fully recognize as life-threatening.

Instead of seeing our differences as essential to the functioning of humanity, we have chosen to use the labels “us” and “them” and to compete with each other. Human beings have been doing this for most of recorded history and have managed not to destroy humanity in the process (though we’ve arguably come close from time to time). But there are vastly more of us now and we are interconnected in new ways that could (and often do) lead to greater levels of relationship and cooperation. But the same larger numbers and greater interconnectedness highlights and even concentrates our differences in new ways, too—creating more obvious divisions and greater, more intense competition and hostility.

We can’t deny right now that we are a “sick” society. The sickness is in our faces every day, so much so that it can be difficult to focus on the ordinary requirements of our personal lives, other than defensively—against “others” who would either force us to accept differences that scare us, or take away from us what we so obviously need.

So what do we do about it? The good news is that we are already past the initial “shock” stage of the diagnosis, and our immune system is beginning to function. We have seen its initial stirrings in the protests—the ones that have shown the massive level of resistance needed to combat intense danger to the system, without violence, protests that show an understanding that we are more than individual cells fighting each other. We are all part of a body that requires cooperation and interdependence. There is a greater value at stake than just “us” and “them.” We are a living, breathing system of individuals that make up the singular human species on a planet of interconnected living systems. 

We have seen humanity’s immune system responding, among people who say that we need to listen to each other across our differences, to at least try to find common threads that can benefit more than just one kind of cell, one organ, one structure.

To make this metaphor work as well as I would like it to, I have to go beyond the most common current medical approaches to cancer (radiation and chemotherapy), and into broader ways of restoring health to the body as a whole. Let us imagine using ordinary medical approaches to remove the most immediate danger from the proliferating cells [resistance], but also focusing on a deeper awareness that the body has its own innate intelligence that tends toward wholeness. That intelligence is supported by the incredible diversity of the cells of the body. We need to stop our age-old efforts to make people fit into some box with others “just like them,” and instead celebrate the gifts our differences have given us.

Yes, we have an instinct to cluster and protect—but we also have an instinct to reach out to others, even different others. In times of massive tragedy, people come out to help, and when they do there are always stories that show what appear to be miraculous synchronicities that suggest an unseen order evolving out of chaos. It’s a matter of changing focus.

I suggested in my last blog post that parents find local and immediate ways to involve their children in volunteer efforts to provide help for others–not just others like themselves, but any others whose suffering they may be able to alleviate in some way. We can also stand up and say we will not acquiesce to a system based on the cancer cell’s strategy of putting self ahead of the whole, because that is ultimately a death blow to the whole.

And here’s the hard part—we need to avoid the hatred, hostility, aggression, plus the utter and sole self-interest that is the tactic of the cancer we are addressing. Every individual person who can come to see the self not as the center of the universe, but as a cell in the body of humanity, contributes to the health of that body.

It’s possible to use this cultural shock to re-examine our own paths and so contribute to the shift in direction that can come from it. My cancer led me to a wholly different way of being in the world, and so was a blessing in a (very convincing) disguise. May this time in our history be the same.

Image

When the Going Gets Tough…

20 Nov

golden-ruleI would advise anyone feeling fear or desperation after this election to consider two contrasting works of art. One, this painting by Norman Rockwell that became the cover of an issue of Life Magazine in 1961, takes only a moment to consider. It beautifully illustrates humanity’s diversity with the reminder of the Golden Rule that, in one expression or another, is found in most of the World’s religions. Almost all of us learned the rule as children. But this image of the diversity of humanity frightens a significant portion of our population, even as it seems an obvious and positive truth to others of us.

The other work of art (film art) takes a commitment of a little more than two hours. It is “All the Way,” a movie made in 2016 about Lyndon Baines Johnson during a year in the life of our country, between the assassination of JFK in November 1963 and his own election in November of 1964. The movie (which synchronistically arrived in my mail box from Netflix yesterday) tells the tough story of the early civil rights movement and the political struggle to begin healing the racial divide that was built into this country’s foundation by the original political compromise that allowed slavery to stand. The Golden Rule did not figure in the way LBJ went about his mission to pass JFK’s Civil Rights bill! Johnson considered politics to be warfare, and he treated it (and his opponents and friends) accordingly. That form of warfare is how the Civil Rights Act was made law, and how the Voting Rights Act came into being.

I watched that movie this morning and it gave me the sense that anyone can surprise us, there is always hope, and the values that mean the most to some of us are not (and probably never will be) accepted by others of us. We can’t sit back, do nothing, and assume that they will be upheld inevitably. 

Immediately after the election I, like many of you, was in deep grief and mourning for the image in the Rockwell painting, the image of America that I believed was actually, step by step, becoming reality. That first day (11/9 in our way of representing dates, 9/11 in much of the rest of the world’s way) I was asked to write something to help parents of gifted children cope with the fear (and hatred) this election seemed to have unleashed. And I had to say I couldn’t do it. Not yet. Not while I was still trying to cope myself.

I’ve had eleven days now, roller coaster days that included a beautiful, love-and-light-filled candle-light vigil in Brooklyn and a “protest march” in Manhattan where I carried a sign that said “Feed the Good Wolf” (if you don’t recognize it, you can check out what my sign meant here: http://www.sapphyr.net/natam/two-wolves.htm ). There were also some sleepless nights where fear and negative imaginings took over. But watching the movie reminded me of who I am and what I know. And brought me, finally, to my keyboard.

I remember that year of 1963-64 very, very well, but had not realized how important those memories are. Of  that year and all the others I’ve lived.

Because I know the power of the stories we tell, and their effects on the lives we experience, I don’t buy into the cultural story that I am “elderly.” But I am an elder—a grandmother, both biologically and in the way indigenous people view “the Grandmothers.” I have lived through a lot. 

I was born into a world where Anne Frank was in a concentration camp, not long after America entered what became its last “good war”–a war that ended with the use of the atomic bomb on two cities. That choice changed our concept of war ever after. I was a child in an America where women had few “career” options and were expected to have an entire life of raising children and being a “helpmeet” to a man. I saw the newspaper images of black men hanging from trees at a time when lynching, the night time riding out of the KKK, firebombing, and burning crosses were “just how it was” in the American South. And I remember the marches and the fire hoses and the dogs. I remember the Life Magazine that came into my mail box with a cover photograph of the massacre at My Lai (an image I can never erase from my mind), and the night one of our sons thought a war movie on television was “the news” because his whole life had been lived during the war in Viet Nam.

And here is what I know. That our country now truly is less dreadful than it was. I was a privileged Midwestern white girl who never knew a single black child in all my growing up years, who knew diversity only as white Catholic or Protestant or Jew. And yet I deeply believe in the current existence of an America that shows the full range of diversity we see in the Rockwell painting, with the addition (which Rockwell did not include), of the LGBT community. I remember all too well my years in a university theatre department where most of the gay guys were married, in an effort to stay safe and hidden, and Lesbian women were “lucky” to be allowed to live together, viewed by society as “spinsters” who just hadn’t been able to find a husband.

We and our children must not lose heart! More people did NOT vote for this president (and what he vocally proclaimed he stood for) than did. And more people do NOT support his most heinous language, behavior and apparent intentions than celebrate them. Yes, it is true that we seem to be entering dangerous times, when darkness appears to be falling around us, threatening to blot out the light. But darkness has always been part of our lives. And light is a force. The only way darkness can conquer light is for light to quench itself. In human terms, quenching our light means giving up, hiding out, failing to stand up for the human values we believe in, letting fear rule us, and choosing hatred. 

In the midst of the sabre-rattling of the Cold War, Phil Donahue brought an audience of teenagers to his talk show, and one of the questions he asked them was how many of them expected a nuclear war during their lifetime. Almost all of them raised their hands. Some researchers found at that time that the children least anxious about the possibility of nuclear war were those in whose lives parents or other adults of importance to them were taking some kind of action against war. It didn’t have to be a very big thing—writing or calling their congressional representatives, marching in anti-war protests, communicating with colleagues in Iron Curtain countries. Children needed to see adults they depended upon doing something to protect them from their worst fears.

That was when I wrote Pride of the Peacock, about a child terrified of nuclear war, and Katherine Paterson and I created a poster with the signatures of many of the writers, illustrators, editors, agents, and others involved in creating literature for children in this country, vowing to always speak out against the first strike use of nuclear weapons that was our nation’s official policy. We took that poster with us to a bilateral symposium on children’s literature and art in the Soviet Union and let the makers of children’s literature there sign it as well. And we gave that poster away to schools and libraries to post where children could see that we did not agree with our country’s policy.

So when you wonder what you can do now, do something. Show your children that this representative democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, and if the politicians in Washington (and their constituents who voted them into office) do not understand that and think they can take us back into the darkness of our history, we will not stand idly and quietly by. We do not have to join the hate speech, must not treat those who supported the president-elect the way some of them treat those they dislike and fear. It helps to remember that hatred almost always arises out of fear. If we can conquer our own fear and stand for the light, showing that example to our children, we can help them (and ourselves) through this dark time. Yes, it is a dark time. We need to hold onto what light we can.

Some of us (myself included) have to avoid the news just now because our sensitivities make us vulnerable to despair. We cannot afford despair. Kindle the light inside and keep it burning any way you can, standing as an example to the younger generation. Don’t freak about fascism and Nazi Germany or slavery and the KKK, or the worst of our country’s history–stand with the statement “never again!” Trust that we can—and will–move in a better direction even if it takes time and seems to be going the wrong way. Have courage, take heart, speak out. Donate what you can to those who need resources to carry on, and help your children find a cause to volunteer for or raise money for that will help themselves or someone else who is in danger of becoming a victim of the darkness.

We’ve made it through dark times before. That knowledge is what being a Grandmother gives me.  We can do it again. We will do it again. Each step, no matter how small, takes us forward, and however gradually, upward. And think of that FB meme I’ve seen a lot lately: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” Remember this: seeds are designed to germinate in darkness!