Tuesday, August 29, 2017

How to go the distance

I heard the whooshing of wings overhead while I was picking broccoli yesterday. I looked up to see a perfect V of twenty cranes heading west. They are not migrating yet, but they are practicing - grouping up to rehearse the efficiency of movement, the just right spacing of bodies, the timing of wingbeats, the trust of the others, and most importantly, the deep listening to the mystery within that will coordinate and orient them for the long, long flight to their winter home. When they are ready, these twenty will join with other tens and twenties, riding the thermals in a great communal spiral that will climb to heights I can barely see, then glide southward on a descent more drawn-out than I can fathom.

If you want to go fast, go alone, goes the African proverb. If you want to go far, go together. The human race has gone incredibly far, both by going together, and by going against each other. In a sense, that has been the nature of any togetherness we have known so far. I learned what it means to be on a team by putting on a uniform and squaring off against others who wore a different uniform.  I knew who I was together with by knowing who we were together against.

In recent centuries, new social possibilities have emerged. One is the possibility of going it alone. The possibility of an "I" that is prior to the social "we." There is a positive aspect of this that the African proverb does not convey. The possibility of individual conscience, of innovation, of telling truths that the collective would rather hide, entertaining ideas the collective has forbidden, making friends with people the collective has declared enemies.

Which is the other new social possibility. A togetherness much bigger than my tribe of origin. A togetherness not against anyone else. A universal togetherness.

But the cranes remind me that before I am ready to join the great community in its epic journey, I have to practice the skills of community in a smaller group, making smaller excursions. It is with a few, specific friends that I learn how to come close and how to give space in a way that is safe for everyone. How to be a helper and how to accept help. When to follow and when to take my turn in the lead.

On the news, I hear continuously of big collective problems requiring big collective efforts to turn things around if the human race is going to go much further together: climate change, fossil fuel addiction, mass incarceration, habitat loss, refugee crisis, soil degradation, groundwater depletion, etc.

One response is to despair. To withdraw into myself. To go it alone. (Or rather, to pretend to go it alone, while I float along in a sea of other disorganized individuals all making remarkably similar consumer choices, carried along by a wave so large we neither perceive that we are in it, nor that we could possibly move against it.) Another is to join consciously into large counter-movements. This is a more hopeful response: to sign the petition, to attend the march, to send some money to support the cause.

But I moved to the farm because I was dissatisfied with that kind of activism. I found it necessary, but not sufficient for the task at hand. What I learned from Wendell Berry's In Distrust of Movements or from Ivan Illich's idea that at a certain size, human institutions inevitably produce results opposite to their stated goals, is that bigger is not always better. To quote one more luminary in this tribe of contrarians, the solution to many of our big problems may be to rediscover that "small is beautiful." (E.F. Schumacher)

It is at the level of local community that deep integration is possible. This is where practices of stewardship, habits of eating, ways of thinking, methods of praying can knit together and be given form. The local is the womb of the universal. We are birthed out of small spaces into the larger world. That is the way of things.

It seems to me that our peculiar challenge in this networked, global age is to respond to global issues without succumbing to the fantasy of a global civilization. That has been the dream of tyrants throughout the ages, and we should let it die with them. We know by now that no one world religion will save us. We are more tempted by "universal human values" or universal declarations of human rights, or global accords on climate change. But do we really want the one world court, and the one world police force that enforcing such a universality would require? For a healing, universal global movement not to turn tyrannical, it must be voluntary, and for it to be voluntary, it must be local. Its grand coordination will have to remain a mystery. I will have to get together with friends in one place and pursue there our particular vision of the Good, and you will have to get together with friends in another place, and pursue your vision of the Good according to your own lights.

And if we practice well, we may just find that when the time comes, a mystery bigger than us all will draw us together to go the long distance on the journey we all need to take together.

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