Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Missing Mana In Our Communities

For most of human history, community simply meant the people you live around. When we speak of the “black” or “gay” or even “scientific” community today, we do not necessarily think in terms of physical proximity or common resources. Usually we think more in terms of things like political objectives, ideological positions, art forms and manners of speech (professional lingo, “slang”, etc.). As our idea of community becomes more abstract, we may come to feel more sense of connection with people a thousand miles away, who listen to the same music, visit the same web sites or vote for the same candidates, than we do with people who live right next door or even in the same house.

That this is an effect of social and geographic mobility as well as the role of media in most of our lives is obvious. That many of us feel alienated and alone, even though we may know intellectually, that there may be millions of other people who think and feel as we do, speaks to a lack of deep, intimate relationships with other human beings. Why are such relationships so hard for so many of us to establish? I think there are two reasons.

The first is that we do not understand why we need one another. In her commentary on the 37th chapter of the I Ching, LiSe Heyboer writes:

The foundation of a family is economic. Not blood-ties, not love, not sense of duty. All these things can only come to life because there is a foundation and so the family is a family. Love is not strong enough to keep them together. But the pig they raise together, the farm they run, the skills they all bring in.
   When surviving is tough, families are strong. When people adhere to a conviction or master, the disciples become a strong community together. When an enemy threatens, people become fervent nationalists. Always when people need each other to survive, they become families.

We are not as strong as bears or even ants. We are not as fast nor as fierce as lions. We do not have the visual acuity of eagles, the hearing of bats nor the olfactory sense of any canine. We do however posses one capacity in great abundance-language. This does for us what strength, speed and keenness of the senses does for other creatures-it confers a survival advantage, an advantage predicated on being with others.

The second reason we find it hard to form true community is that, for most of us, survival is not tough. We all have problems but very few of these are life threatening. If you are reading this, you already posses the capacity to solve many problems with no direct human aid. You can fix your car, do your taxes, diagnose an illness, bake a cake or answer nearly any question with a few key strokes. If you are reading this, there is a pretty good chance that you are indoors (when you need to be), that you have utilities connected to your shelter and some means to pay for all of this. You are, in a word connected.

What you are connected to is a system of institutions and devices which make it possible to meet your basic-and not so basic needs. These institutions and devices, although built by other people, function more or less autonomously. These were built for the purpose of making it possible to survive and even thrive without needing direct connections with other people. This makes it possible for most of us to live in a manner that suits us with little consideration or even thought about what those around us need. In the developed world, even the poorest people have access to clean, running water, hot or cold, to food, climate control on demand, to medical care, transportation, education and entertainment. If we stay fairly within the law and fill out the proper forms we can have these things without making any earnest commitment to other people.

The only common problem we seem to have is that we feel isolated-we feel this way because we are. Yet because we do not seem to need others, nothing compels us to resolve this problem. Because we sense no immediate threat, we can not even decide what is important. Our capacity for language developed in a context of shared peril. We could say, for example, “look, there is a leopard over there, run this way” or “this fruit tastes good, lets gather a bunch of them” or “this herb is good for the stomach” or “by setting these poles up like this, and covering them with this, you can have shelter even with no caves or trees around”. In all such cases, we are talking about things that present threats and benefits that can best be avoided or exploited through common effort. Those who were best able to recognize threats and benefits won the respect and loyalty of others. Further, threats and benefits were immediate and obvious to most everyone. In our time, we hear much talk of threats and benefits, but these are, for the most part, neither immediate nor obvious. Because of this, we can neither agree on what is important nor how to address it.

If you were a Plains Indian in the 12th century, no one would have to make a case for the importance, even sacredness of buffalo. Buffalo provided meat, clothing, shelter and tools. Because they served so many of your needs so well you would have naturally assumed that they were the gift of some divine spirit. Since everyone would have had the same relationship to the buffalo, anything said of them would strike you as credible, from the best way to track them to the sacredness of their nature. The benefits derived from them and threat of their absence would have presented a real basis for accepting the lore surrounding them.

There is little in our culture that holds such a tangible claim to our allegiance as the buffalo did for Plains Indians. And yet, millions of years of evolution has convinced us, through experience condensed into legend and through the more homely fact of our continued presence here, that there must be something which could fill that role. Nor do we experience any real and immediate threat. Most of us have never even seen a dangerous predator. Our houses keep and climate control systems keep us from weather. Even our “enemies” are safely over seas or locked securely in “ghettos” urban or rural. A lack of immediate and obvious threats and benefits leaves a mind, evolved to seek and identify these, with little to do but invent them.

Some see a God to placate and a Devil to resist. Some find their mana in an ideological position and their “boogie man” in those who oppose this position. Some foods are thought to confer vibrant health while others are little more than deadly poisons. We choose these objects of veneration and derision to give our lives coordinates, the kind of coordinates provided by buffalo and wolves, fair weather and foul. But very seldom do such objects present themselves with the visceral certainty of benefit or detriment that allows us to make firm commitments. We substitute certainty with a brittle militancy or vacillation between what is worthy or unworthy. We find it difficult to arrive at the peaceful resolve which allows us to confidently marshal our inner resources. Without such resolve it is, of course, difficult to impossible to marshal our collective resource.

And this, I think, is why it is hard to build real, face to face human community, why it is difficult to even keep a family together. It is not that we have forgotten how to love. It is that we have no idea what to love. We do not know what we should direct our energies to and so can not agree.  We lack the need-the intuitively obvious value- that makes people a family. Survival is not tough, convictions and masters are another market commodity and real enemies are as difficult to come by as real friends. Until people can agree on what deserves their commitment they will find it difficult to commit themselves to one another.