“American Tune”

A couple of days ago, I was listening to the last episode of the NPR call-in show Talk of the Nation.  I’ve never been a huge follower of the show because I’m not usually driving around listening to the radio at midday, but I did always enjoy it when I heard it, and even though I’ve been accused more than once of being unsentimental, I did feel a slight welling up of emotion at its going away.

Host Neal Conan had Ted Koppel on as a guest on this series finale, doing a look back over the hosts’ lifetimes (since 1940) and speculating about whether America as a nation is better or worse off than it has been at other points since World War II.  The question on the table, for both Koppel and the callers-in, was, are you hopeful about the future?  Are you optimistic or pessimistic?  How bad are things now, compared to other times in the history of the nation, and what’s “bad” about what “things”?  One way they asked it that seemed to resonate with a lot of people was, “What keeps you up at night?”

Koppel stated in no uncertain terms that he was not hopeful about the future.  He had a series of reasons why he thinks the nation is in great danger at this moment, in some ways more even than in the Cold War days of Mutually Assured Destruction.

While listening, I thought of a friend who’d recently brought up this topic, from a different perspective.  She’d heard a speaker at a community gathering who’d totally changed her thinking on that question.  This speaker (whose name I don’t know) had listed many OTHER reasons why he saw things as getting continually BETTER, and noted that globally speaking, we humans are living, on average, much safer, healthier lives than we did earlier in the 20th century, with many fewer of us dying violent deaths or succumbing to epidemics.

Interestingly, the same debate came up in my class the other night.  It was an extended tangent away from the original topic of violence and competitions for dominance in society, where those forces come from, and whether or not they should be read as any sort of problem.  One guy, a returning student and Iraq war veteran in his 40s, stood up and insisted that first of all, humans are nothing more than animals with a VERY thin veneer of “culture” or domesticity, and we are inherently and appropriately violent beings, right down to our genetic cores; and, second, those elusive “things” in this country are going to get worse, and worse, and worse. “The world is never going to change,” he said adamantly.

As the class split up at the end of the evening, he lingered to wrap the conversation up with me.  He mentioned something that he would do when he ran for Congress.  I asked him if he really planned on running for Congress, because I could imagine him realistically doing so, and I like to encourage people to pursue their dreams.  He said yes, maybe someday, and would he have my vote?  I laughed and said I would have to see his whole platform; that I would have to reserve my judgment.

This is how I feel about the “what’s going to happen to us in the future” question, the debate over whether things are getting worse or getting better.  I do not really know, and anyway I suppose the standards of measurement are fairly suspect (“things”).  Many of my students, and others around me, express their anxiety about the future in terms of whether American will be able to keep its status as “number one.”  They see the possibility of other national currencies supplanting the dollar as “strongest” as a harbinger of future humiliation and economic hardship.  Meanwhile, others frame the problems of the present in terms of the United States’ refusal to prioritize the survival needs of the people and the planet over the survival needs of corporations.  So the jury is still out on whether we humans WILL make things better.  But I do wholeheartedly believe that we CAN.

I am hopeful about the possibility that humans can evolve, make new choices, and become less harmful to each other and to the planet.  There are other parts of us, besides our animal instincts, which give us the drive, in the face of extreme inconvenience, to create ever more just and compassionate social systems and ways of interacting with each other in every area of life, from the family to the industry to the market to the international stage of diplomacy.  I don’t know where this human journey is going, but I know it’s going somewhere.  I believe it’s our destiny to evolve.

It has also been many other species’ destiny to evolve—and some of them did so to the point where the original species became unrecognizable.  In a sense, thy evolved themselves out of existence.  And in at least some cases, I’m okay with that.

I’ve been called unsentimental because sometimes I have the ability to let go, without too many tears, of things that are no longer functioning, or no longer the most beneficial, or no longer meeting the need they were created to meet because the need is no longer there.  At least sometimes, I can recognize that it could be better to have a vacant space, into which something new and better suited to the present moment might come, than to hang on to the old thing, which, though it might still be providing some benefit, when weighed in the balance is really doing more harm than good.

So I’m led to ask, could this idea about America always being number one in the world be one of those things?  To question this assumption, I know, sounds bad.  But I’ve always believed that to hold someone accountable for their failures is an act of love.  Maybe it’s more the idea that America must be number one in the world–in everything–for us to feel secure that needs to go.  Because first of all, we’re not.  We’re not handling our internal affairs in a responsible way, and corporate preferences continually triumph over public good in our political, economic, educational, and cultural spheres.  And second of all, “the winner of everything” is a very insecure spot to be in.  When one’s sense of self worth is tied to beating everyone else in everything, one has to be constantly on the defensive and pour all one’s energy into maintaining one’s status.  And then one ends up forced to endorse the idea that all others are, in small and large ways, lesser than oneself.

In that same Talk of the Nation interview, Koppel and Conan talked about Nelson Mandela, who was at that time in the process of dying at age 94 in a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa.   The journalists were calling him an exceptional leader, a great leader in a historical period that’s been mainly absent of noticeable greatness.  The source of Mandela’s distinction was the way he approached nation-building and national healing in the years after apartheid.  He and his party promoted a policy of “Truth and Reconciliation,” through which those who had benefited from the regime and brutalized the Black South Africans took responsibility for their actions, while those who had been oppressed and terrorized were treated with respect, and their suffering and grief and anger were given space to be heard.  It was not a reversal of the existing hierarchy, with the formerly colonized group now ruling over the old colonizers.  Instead, it was a process of actual peacemaking.  I daresay it involved everyone courageously forcing themselves to see everyone else involved as humans, attempting to find out what they all needed as humans, and seeking to meet those needs when possible, thus allowing each other to let go of some of their fear and defensiveness and pain.  It was a process whose goal was to lay a framework for lasting and continuing peace in that nation.

Voices around the world have been practically unanimous in acclaiming Mandela as a hero and visionary.  Yet none of our leaders have been willing to follow in his footsteps, rejecting the path of revenge on those who have been constructed as our enemies, those who we believe have done us harm.  None of our leaders, when faced with other nations, groups, or individuals behaving towards us in a hostile way, have stepped up to begin a discussion by taking responsibility for the many actions of the United States that have undermined the liberty, autonomy, and well being of people around the world and within our own borders.  In interpersonal relations, this would be the stance of a strong person, a brave person, a person trying to do what is right to the best of one’s imperfect ability.  In international affairs, such an approach is trivialized and called weakness.

I saw a meme on Facebook once that posed a question similar to this: The war in Iraq has cost the US government over 800 billion dollars so far (that’s according to CostofWar.com as of 6/30/13; click to see what it’s up to now).  What if, instead of going to war, just half of that money had been spent addressing as many of the needs of the Iraqi people as possible, that is, building sustainable civilian institutions to bring the best possible public services to underserved regions?  Would there be a conflict now?  Would there be an unstable situation?  This scenario is unimaginable to most people; it’s outside of the currently dominant paradigm.  And I’m not saying there has been none of this, but I am saying that the investment in really meeting the people’s needs has been tiny compared to the investment in fighting the people.  For all the dozens of military veterans I’ve met in my community college classes over the past three years, I’ve never met one person who’d been in Iraq or Afghanistan on any kind of peace mission.  The US has approached the situation from a military point of view only; our nation, at the government level, is just not capable yet of looking at an international conflict from a healing point of view.  But if they could, I’ll wager they’d see a lot more progress, a lot more resolution, a lot more stability and security, a lot more freedom for both “them” and “us.”

That would be greatness, America.  Living in fear that the dollar may not be the international standard any more is not greatness.  We’ve had that distinction for a while, and we should feel honored; but there are other countries in the world whose citizens know something about economics, and maybe have been doing some things better than we have lately.  What’s so bad about that?  Don’t capitalists supposedly love competition?

If we follow the line of reasoning that says that in world politics, one nation must be permanent leader (and it must be us) out a little ways, we begin to sound suspiciously like the sort of people who get called “dictator” in the mainstream media when they are in charge of other countries.  And if we look inside of that argument, we realize it depends on the assumption that if there is a permanent top dog, then everyone else must necessarily be an inferior dog, at least in the eyes of the top.  In other words, the culture of dominance in which one group has to be on top implies that all the other groups are 1. submissive, 2. subservient, 3. dependent, or 4. enemies to the ones on top.  Is that really the relationship we want to be in with ALL of our neighbors on the planet?

As you may be able to infer from this blog, I’m a terrible one for picking favorites (favorite word? favorite book?  I just can’t answer).  But I do have a favorite songwriter: Paul Simon.  After I listened to that Talk of the Nation finale, his 1973 song “American Tune” came into my head.  What I love about that song is that, for me anyway, it perfectly captures the frustration and the optimism, the quiet necessity of moving forward even with a broken heart.  I hate to quote a single line or verse, because the song is such a complete whole, but here’s the bridge:

And I dreamed I was dying

Dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly

And looking back down at me

Smiled reassuringly,

And I dreamed I was flying

And high up above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea

And I dreamed I was flying …

The mystics of all religions teach us that when we become something new, we do die.  Indeed, as we are continually changing, we let go of what we were, continually dying and being reborn while still living this life.  When we transform into something really different, when we take a big leap forward in our evolution, our old selves die in a more dramatic way, and that’s one reason why it’s really really scary, and takes huge courage, to allow ourselves to grow in those important ways.  As we reach toward the best that we can be, we necessarily shed old identities that no longer serve us.  Those identities may have served us for a long time, and become full of routines, relationships, ways of doing things, answers.  Letting go of them can be really damn hard.

But as the song suggests, I do believe we individuals have souls, and our souls are on a rising journey.  Our souls are heading upward; the more we get our egos out of the way, the faster they rise.  And I do believe that’s the way forward for groups of people, too.  There has to be a desire to become better—when the fire of passion for being the best one can be is awakened, we find the courage to let go of old paradigms that no longer serve.  We find the will to push ourselves to do difficult things, or things that scare us because we don’t already know what the outcome will be (because we’ve never tried them before). We can do it because we come to want so badly to become better than we are.

The concept of “hitting bottom” is illustrative here; an addict, after all, is just someone who’s become extremely dependent on a way of coping with life that’s actually much more destructive than beneficial, though it may at first seem otherwise.  Hitting bottom, losing or being truly threatened with the loss of something that it would feel unbearably painful to lose, is the most tried-and-true way that addicts have found to begin the sincere search for recovery.  Hitting bottom puts us (not just drug or alcohol addicts, to be clear here; we might include people addicted to bullying, or to being in control) in a humble frame of mind.  It gives us a yearning to transform for the better, and makes us willing to do anything it takes to heal ourselves and our relationships.  Ironically, hitting bottom can be the most powerful source of courage.  Maybe we reach this place when we finally look around and see all the suffering we’ve caused – something happens that’s so dramatic, it becomes impossible for us to continue to be willfully blind to our role in the destruction.  Maybe we reach it when we take a big hit from the world, get knocked out, see stars.  Suddenly we see ourselves with clarity and realize that our ways are not sustainable.  We need to change or die.

And, out of utter necessity, our minds become open to receive ideas from a new paradigm.  What was impossible to conceive of doing before now becomes a lifeline.  This is one way in which I can imagine nations like America evolving.

Of course, some addicts go through their entire lives without ever hitting a bottom that makes them seriously question their habits.  Many nations have risen to power and fallen to the next in line for dominance.  There’s no guarantee that anyone will ever “change” in the sense of becoming willing to undertake a difficult process of transformation—from the inside out—in order to bring their life into greater accord with their soul’s purposes.  But some do suggest that the more of us individuals undertake those efforts, the more collective energy will build, ultimately lifting and carrying along others who might not have come to that process on their own.  So that, for me, is a starting place.  It’s not an end.  I’m actively seeking ways to support and promote my nation’s process of healthy self-examination and change for the better.

Happy Independence Week, y’all.

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