Can We Ever Really Come Together?
I grew up in a house divided: Republican vs. Democrat.
My father is a self-made man. Abandoned by his father, and the eldest of his brothers, he became the man of the household at 15, worked summers and after school to buy the family car, put food on the table, and pay the electric bill. His mother worked full time and managed to provide a modest home, but there were no extras, just barely the necessities. He and his brothers made their own toys, shared clothes, put themselves through college, and became successful in every sense of the word. Instead of dwelling on pain and difficulties, my father’s stories highlight the victories of their struggle, and ring with poignancy. (He makes chocolate chip cookies with twice the normal chocolate chips, his brother makes them with half, each as an homage to the only cookies they could afford as children.) My dad went on to build businesses that continue to support scores of families, including my own.
My mother was the daughter of Dust Bowl refugees on her mother’s side, and an immigrant father who never finished the fourth grade, but whose natural intellect allowed him to teach himself calculus (for fun). He became a bricklayer, a labor organizer, and a full-blown Communist in the McCarthy era, having worked under the horrendous labor practices exacted by factories of the time. My mother relished the victories and resilience in her own life story, like how at nine years old, she shooed the FBI off her doorstep when they came looking for her father. She became a champion of the underdog, and a catalyst for many to achieve their dreams.
These two highly intelligent, deeply caring, hard-working people developed opposing points of view on how to create a great society. During my youth, my father was a practical, fiscal-minded Republican, who believed that opportunity was available to all, and that hard work would triumph over adversity. My mother believed that greed and corruption at the top of the corporate and government pyramids, along with racism and sexism, were systemic, and that intervention was necessary to control the abuses of those in power.
They were both right. And they could prove it.
If I sat with either one of them, arguing my own points of view, hearing them unwind theirs, I would find myself swayed in one direction or the other. I developed a powerful ability to “see both sides,” and to root at the assumptions beneath them.
I heightened this skill studying Conservation and Resource Studies at UC Berkeley in the 1980s, assessing the forces that drive wealth and power by breaking down the systems that harvest, manufacture, and distribute resources, including energy, food, and labor. But I only stayed a few semesters. While I longed for a better and more equitable world, I became disillusioned with any “top-down” approach and discouraged by the minimal reach of “grassroots” movements. I saw that the forces that drive economies, and therefore policies, operate in their own sphere of power and influence. I also saw another portal of access.
It was clear to me that the world’s inequities were not only institutionalized, they were embodied by individuals.
I became less interested in a political approach, and more in answering the question “what is the meaning of life?” After a ten year journey through philosophies, spirituality, and the arts, I wound up with a degree in Theater Arts (go figure). I worked in the entertainment industry, then hospitality, and now in manufacturing (long story). Gradually, I left the world of political discourse, stopped arguing with my parents, and focused my intellect on the complexities of the human heart.
These last six months, however, have rocketed me back into what we call the political arena, though I would call it more of an existential battleground, where the vulnerabilities of our American institutions are being exposed. I have watched “both sides” and listened. As the division heightens, and we see ourselves locked in at the very least a civil war of ideas, and potentially headed for an actual physical conflict, the question I have come to is, can we ever really come together? And beneath that question, is there any actual value in “seeing both sides?”
Can this intellectual exercise in tolerance actually lead to a better world?
In exploring this, I have come to question the underlying assumptions of the world I believed I lived in.
In both the world views that I was raised on, there was one common fundamental principle. That was that we, as a society, would and could grow greater. That it was our destiny, and our birthright. It was the natural outcome of evolution, and based on the premise that we, as a species, want to evolve into a greater society.
In the Republican version of my childhood, even the trickle-down economics of the Reagan era, there was the supposition that if society thrives at the upper levels, everyone has a chance to improve their lives. It does not mean that everyone will achieve the same success, but that there is a ladder to climb, no matter where you start, that can lead you to ever-increasing prosperity.
This is the driving force behind the idea that economy is everything. Give people jobs and opportunity, and it is in our nature to want to succeed, and that that success will lead to a healthy and prosperous country.
In the Democratic view of my youth, there was an acknowledgment that the ladder many start on is missing a few rungs, and that there are those that need help reaching those rungs. They see this as the role of government, to give a boost to those whose ladder is faulty. But they still operate from the assumption that, if given the opportunity, everyone will want to climb the ladder, and this will benefit society as a whole. They only need to level the playing field, then people will be buoyed and inspired by their own success and the success of others to overcome whatever obstacles they encounter on their journey to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Until recently, I have operated under this same assumption, as I believe many Americans have.
Ultimately, I believed, we wanted the world to be better for everyone. And that has made it possible for us to “see each other’s point of view,” or at least tolerate others’ ideas.
We may be Progressives, but we have Republican friends, or vice versa. We don’t agree with their solutions, but whether we are Republican, Democrat, Independent, or non-political, we all fundamentally want the same thing. First, we want it for ourselves. But then, we want it for others. If we are honest, we acknowledge that we want our own world to look a little better than others’, to have nicer houses, better cars, more accolades, more social approval, but we agree that everyone deserves at least some small piece of the glorious American pie.
Because I have operated under this assumption, I could honestly never understand how we can be so hopelessly divided on issues that clearly affect all of us. Removing the social constructs of race, sex and religion (where we would need to delve into the human heart to properly explore), those fundamental issues on which we should not be divided are education, health care, and the environment. There is much to dissect in any of these, but the most egregious issue is the environment. This, more than any other issue, and any other personal human right, is the lens through which we see the fallacy of the argument, and exactly where we have gone so wrong.
In 1983, I took a class at UC Berkeley that would forever change my life. It was called Ecosystemology, and was taught by the groundbreaking professor, Arnold Schultz. “Ecosystem” is now a common concept, but at the time of Reaganomics, it was known only in environmental and scientific circles. Ecosystemology is the discipline of “systems thinking.” It was taught in the College of Natural Resources, though it has a much broader extrapolation. Through the study of forest ecosystems, we learned that everything was interdependent. Every part of the forest played a crucial role, from the tiniest insect, to the leaves on the top of the highest tree. Science continues to advance this view, our global economy has made this obvious, and social media has shown us how everything we do truly affects everyone.
And yet, we continue to completely miss the point of what it means to be interdependent. We continue to believe that there are “points of view” that would somehow supersede this principle of life. That humans are somehow still exempt from this great principle, that we can give a certain amount of lip service to it, but not fall under its inexorable laws.
Our internalized belief that we can somehow outsmart or outrun our interdependence is rooted in several fundamental American principles.
The first is that man was given dominion over the earth, an idea that began biblically, but has been internalized even amongst secular Americans. In its most romantic and ecologically evolved form, we may believe we are stewards of the earth, but we still see ourselves as more evolved, grander, and more capable than the rest of nature. We still look at nature as a “resource,” something to be used for our benefit, for the benefit of all, as we advance civilization.
The next is our belief in American ingenuity. We believe in “progress,” that we can fix whatever problems we encounter, and create, because we are visionaries and creators at heart. Our creations have transformed the world in ways that were unfathomable a few generations back. We are incapable of seeing these creations and their “byproducts” in a holistic way, because we still believe our transitory lives can be measured by these achievements. And, we are so distracted by their glory, we delay any unpleasant effects to be dealt with at a later time, a task we believe we can accomplish. Toxic waste from creating processors? Petroleum-based flooring and packaging? Overflowing landfills? We’ll figure it out later, we always do.
The third is simply reckless youth. It is easy to see a wealthy country’s values by looking at what it sells, and what it buys. As a country, and a people, our purchases show us that the ride is everything, that sex means achievement, that beauty is external, wisdom is relegated to the abstract, that thrill is achievable, and worth the pain. After nearly 250 years as a republic, we may be approaching early mid-life, but still we focus on prolonging our youth, rather than paying attention to the repercussions of our choices. As life begins to look different for the country, as our population hits the milestones of 40, 50, 60, we simply extend the appearance of youth. And when we grow old, we ply ourselves with medications, never looking at why disease has set in in the first place, as if disease and unwellness is as inevitable as death. Then, when youth can no longer be faked, we hide our elders in homes so we don’t have to look at our future, or the consequences of our choices.
It turns out, however, there is one place we cannot outrun our impulsivity, our shortsightedness, and our stubborn conviction that we are somehow separate– and that is with the earth itself.
This is the place where the argument that there can be different “points of view” breaks down.
One “side” can argue that there is a strong fiscal reason for drilling oil in sensitive places, for fracking, for producing products with environmental toxins. They argue this by saying that it is essential to our economy. That we must do whatever is necessary to remove our dependence on foreign oil. That we must continue to manufacture goods regardless of the byproducts of the process, lessen the restrictions on toxic manufacturing practices, so that we can create jobs and drive the economy. This jives with the assumption that a thriving economy will ultimately create a better world, and that it will benefit everyone in the long run. It also includes the assumption that our American ingenuity will be able to solve any problems that we create. We only need the advantage now, so that we don’t lose ground, then we will fix it. We blur the idea of short term prosperity with the notion that living a life of comfort, even of glamour, is an achievement of civilization itself, one to be protected and valued at all costs. Who, but a few organic farmers and societal dropouts, wants to go back to living off the land, or segue to bike-powered power sources? (Never mind the processes that are required to produce both bikes and generators.) And that this so-called advancement in civilization will solve the conflicts that live within our human hearts.
But there is a fundamental flaw in this argument, and it is this: it cannot possibly benefit everyone, in the long run, to ignore what we call “byproducts” of our advancements. It cannot even possibly benefit ANYONE in the long run. What it can do is provide affluence to some in the short run. And this affluence is not equitable. It generates vast wealth for some in the short run, and it creates a relatively good standard of living for some in the short run, but it leaves others completely behind. It provides physical comforts in the short run, to those who are not immediately affected by the toxic byproducts. But the concept of “byproducts” or “side effects” or “waste” is itself a false argument. When looked at through “systems thinking,” there are no byproducts of a process, there are only the products of a process. There is no “waste” in manufacturing, there is only matter that must be integrated into the greater system somehow — put into landfills, or into the water, which may and do seep into drinking and irrigation water, into food supplies, into the air itself.
And yet, we somehow have convinced ourselves that these things do not affect all of us. They only affect people that live downwind from power plants, that drink the polluted water. These are usually marginalized people living on an ecological “wrong side of the tracks.” We see those people as separate from us. We see the companies that drill for oil and those that manufacture products as separate, the workers in the fields as separate, the regulators as separate, the environmentalists as separate. Each group circles its wagons and sees only its own needs, and has been taught to think of the others as enemies, by separating out its own short term agendas.
The same is true for how we produce food. Our brilliant creations, if we truly saw our interdependence, could be harnessed to boost nutrition and distribution, not just yield. We have developed fantastical systems to create massive supplies of food, which allow most of us to spend our time doing things other than growing food. This, we call progress. But we do not consider the “byproducts” of our creations, because we do not look at the whole system. We now suffer from the “modern” diseases of obesity, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and a host of other forms of unwellness that come directly from our belief that we are separate from our environment, even as stewards. Even if we leave aside the effects of the chemicals that we use to control our crops, simply look at the effects of the food itself on our bodies. We literally ARE what we eat — what else could we be? — and yet we demonize those who dare to question the nutritional value of what we eat as slayers of progress or radicalized enemies of corporations, and pit groups, all of whom have the same basic need of eating nutrient-rich and chemical-free food, against each other. We see activists as separate, farmers as separate, the government that subsidizes and regulates as separate, the companies that create fertilizer and pesticides as separate, the groups that can or cannot afford high-quality foods as separate.
There is really only one explanation for the madness of what we have created, and that is that our underlying assumption is incorrect. We do NOT, in fact, want a better world for all, because we do not believe that we are interdependent, and that the acknowledgment of this interdependence is essential not just for our survival, but for the creation of a great society.
Instead, we see ourselves as separate, and in constant competition for limited resources. Existentially, we have told ourselves a great lie, and that is that allowing and protecting our “differences of opinion” has fostered free and lively debates, healthy competition, creativity, because beneath it all, we all want the same thing: a better world for ourselves and our children. We believe we can have separate views on everything, and still somehow prosper. We believe we can isolate ourselves: that trees, insects, fungus, moss, woodpeckers, spotted owls can each have our own unions, each have our pet causes, and that somehow we will thrive.
In the best version of this world, rather than fight, we might just let each other be. But we don’t. We never do. We distract ourselves from the complexities of the greater whole by fighting each other within tiny components of the system. And in doing so, we falsely empower ourselves while ignoring that there are those who are stronger, smarter, more powerful than us, and allow them to keep making decisions. We refuse to see that some of those people want to own and control the forest, burn it down if it suits them, and will stop at nothing to do so. If we do see it, to keep ourselves from hopelessness and powerlessness, we convince ourselves that these people cannot be fundamentally different from us. They have families, they have children. Surely, they want the same things as we do –a better world. In the meantime, while they are sorting it all out, we try to align ourselves with those that are creating the best and most prosperous forest, and not worry about the forest on the other side of the mountain.
How did this happen? How have we fooled ourselves so completely?
We have been taught that competition is the way of nature, and that survival of the fittest is the key to evolution. That individuals thrive in this environment, and that individual thriving lifts us all. It is the fundamental principle of healthy competition in capitalism. We celebrate, even worship, the achievements of the tallest tree, the most glorious flower, the most elegant animal. By celebrating this we accept two lies. The first is that any of us can be the tallest tree in the forest if we work hard enough. This is just not true. If it were, we would see massive evidence of this, not just the rare rise of people who have overcome insurmountable obstacles.
Second, and the much bigger lie, is that this achievement means something, means everything. That we will experience a lifetime of happiness by getting to see from the top of the forest, and that happiness will then trickle down to others. It looks true, in the short run, while we worship those at the top of the accomplishment ladder. The tallest tree, the most glorious flower, has its moment in the sun, which lasts a day, a week, even decades (the tree is a metaphor here, I know they live much longer). Whether this brings happiness is another toxic part of this lie, which should be clear from the miserable behaviors of so many who achieve what we call success. There are some exceptions, but if it were fundamentally true, we would see evidence of it, not suicides, catfights, the theft of intellectual property, corruption in our financial systems, and mass inequities.
It is this view of competition as a gateway to societal success that deconstructs if we shift our perspective. Competition is only the way of nature when looked at through the lens of youth. When looked at from a tiny sliver of time, we see the glory of only the tallest tree. But we do not see that over time, that tree dies, degrades, and provides nutrients and an endless host of connections to the whole of the forest. If that tree is poisoned, it will poison the whole forest, and everything within it.
If we look at nature through a wider, longer lens, the lens of maturity, we see that the essence of nature is cooperation.
Every particle of every entity is critical to the whole. One ecosystem lives within a myriad of other ecosytems, all of which affect every other, until there is the one ecosystem we call earth, which expands to our solar system, our galaxy, our universe.
The problem is, none of us wants to be what we judge to be the lesser of these entities. All of our striving is to NOT be part of the understory, not be an insect, and definitely not be the crooked, dwarfed tree in the proud forest.
We long to shine. To be the grandest tree, or at least the bark on the grandest tree. We suffer when we are not. This inequity eats at us. We come up with ways to soothe this burn. We tell ourselves we are “just regular folks,” or we appreciate the simpler things in life, but we still long to shine our gifts on a bigger stage, to be recognized for more than what we appear to be. There is a healthy part of this, and we ARE more than we appear to be, these worker ants in the great machine of progress. This I will return to, but the first part is to recognize the power of the burn, as it goes to the argument of whether we, in fact, want a better world for everyone. Even the great religion of America, Christianity, recognizing that not everyone will achieve greatness, offers a balm for this inequity, but underneath it, it still appeals to our desire for greatness. The meek shall inherit the earth, where they will be meek no longer. Humility is the true path, all acts are for the glory of God, and the reward will be given in the afterlife, as being one of the chosen.
With this view of our own destiny, we simply cannot manage the long vision, the interdependent truth. We believe only in our own shining existence. We cannot face our own apparent mediocrity. We cannot fathom being the rotting growth on the forest floor, rather than the grand tower of the forest. We do not, cannot seem to believe, that it could ever be enough to just be a part of something greater.
So we glorify God, so that we will be rewarded. We glorify our leaders, believing that we can climb the ladder and someday become them. We cannot fathom that whatever gifts we may have, if they do not shine in a palpable way for which we are immediately rewarded, could possibly be meaningful, because we have predicated our meaning of life on the concept that there is somewhere to go that is better, safer, more beautiful, sexier, and where we will be glorified ourselves.
Which could all come true, for a select few, in the short run. However, in the long run, we all turn into the understory, into fossilized fuels, into life and creation.
So where does this leave us? What does this have to do with differing points of view, with tolerance, with the ability for us to somehow work together to create a better world? It leaves us with unraveling everything we have come to believe is American. Our tolerance has been a fake tolerance, which is more evident now than ever in our country.
What we have accepted as differing world views simply cannot make the world a better place. Dissenting views can only prop up one group over another, temporarily, in a climb up a faulty ladder that leads to nothing but a glimpse of the stars before the ladder degrades into the forest. There is only one long-term sustainable world view: and that is that we are all connected. Everything we do, everything we say, everything we make, everything we dispose of, it is all one. Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, spiritual, atheist, agnostic, we are all part of the greater whole.
So given the way we have internalized the exact opposite of interdependence, can we ever really come together? Maybe, but we will have to start by facing this fundamental lie.
We have to accept that we do not, absolutely do NOT, want the world to be better for everyone. I don’t, and you don’t. Corporations and governments, which are made up of all of us, do not. We really don’t.
If we did, it would be incredibly easy to make decisions. We would never create energy sources that ultimately poison us, ANY of us. We would keep trying until we reached a more perfect solution. We would never grow food that did not nurture us, ALL of us. We would never allow segments of our population to remain uneducated, because we would understand that ignorance breeds separation, and a sense of separation will kill us all. We would teach critical thinking, discernment and connection, not division and dogma, because we would know that we can learn from each other, rely on each other, support each other. We would focus our medical care not only on fixing problems, but on developing our strength, our resilience, and our ability to thrive. There would be no more arguments about privilege, or race, or sex, because we would recognize that what hurts one of us, hurts all of us.
How can we possibly achieve this when we fundamentally believe that we are nothing if we are not glorified in some way over others? When we fear that others will triumph over us, and leave us to rot in the forest if we don’t climb the ladder ourselves? When underneath all of our hidden disempowerment we sense that the ones who drive economies and policy are more than willing to let us rot there, so we want to become the ones leaving others to rot, and somehow escape our fate?
The only possible way is to recognize the connection that we have with each other.
- If we are all connected, it becomes possible to see others’ achievements as our own.
- If we are all connected, we can hold each of us accountable for our mistakes and bring each other into alignment with the whole, rather than shaming and punishing each other.
- If we are all connected, we can encourage each other to discover and nurture our own unique gifts, to recognize that each of us is a part of the glorious creation and our contribution is meaningful.
We have to get really honest about how far away we are from this. We have to recognize, internalize, wholly believe, that there is only one point of view. I am you, you are me, we are one.
We also have to admit that we don’t like this, especially as Americans. That it is terrifying. That we feel like we will disappear, that our lives will become meaningless. What are our lives about if we are not somehow striving for greatness? For progress? We will become Communists, Socialists, weak, unimportant, worker ants, robots, or Stepford wives. We will lose our identities. We will become nothing.
Or will we? What would happen if we acknowledged this, our fear, our judgments? If we just blurted out: I’m afraid you will be more than me, better than me, prettier than me, and I hate you for it. If we stopped “letting people have their difference of opinions” and told them the truth. What you believe, the ideas you are promoting, stops me from being who I want to be, which is the most magnificent tree in the forest, and I fear you. I fear that your greatness will dwarf mine. I fear that you will take what is mine, and that my children will suffer. I fear that my contribution as a leaf on the forest floor will leave me empty and unfulfilled. That you will step on me, and I will die of mediocrity.
It is a risky experiment, in the short run, and would undoubtedly leave us feeling naked and afraid. But at least then we would see that we have one thing in common, and perhaps could begin to bond with one another in this commonality. We would know that we are all terrified of each other, even if we have also loved each other. And maybe, if we can start by admitting that we have been lying all these years, we can find another way. We can find it through the evolution of our own human hearts, by seeing and shedding light on the darkest parts of our own nature, and grow into all that we are capable of being: flourishing, creative, expansive, capable, and connected.
I’ll go first. I fear you, and yet I know that I am you, and I would like to work with you, instead of against you. To acknowledge you, rather than ignore or marginalize you. To love you, rather than hate you. I don’t know how to do this, especially when I am struggling with the conflicts of my own human heart, but I know that the key to transformation rests in each individual taking responsibility for our own actions, our own thoughts, our own decisions, our own words, our own mistakes.
There is no leader who can lead us if we are hopelessly at war with ourselves. There is no system that can prosper without our own personal revolution.
If we can somehow get there, imagine the amazing things our ingenuity, our exuberance, our youth, when tempered and infused by the wisdom of the oldest trees in the forest, can create.