Now that 2020 has drawn to a close and the New Year has begun, I am reflecting on the seemingly ubiquitous sentiment that 2021 will bring transformation of our collective pain, loss, and worry. Between the widening availability of COVID-19 vaccinations, the inauguration of a new US Presidential administration, and the prospect of “normalcy” these events inspire, hope is peeking out like the full moon I watched gloriously emerge from behind the clouds the other night.
I am a hopeful person, by nature, but not unthinkingly optimistic in the ways we are often encouraged to be in our culture. I hold opposing thoughts in my mind and process information with an understanding that there is often more to the story than what I’m being told. I am, gratefully, a “critical thinker.” My ability to collect, analyze, and synthesize various facts, opinions, and other quantitative and qualitative data and discern significant connections and meaning from them is a gift I don’t take for granted. I also recognize that no matter how much I “know” there will always be a great deal more that I don’t. This represents the fundamental paradox of knowledge articulated by a great many philosophers, mystics, and artists throughout history.
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
― Albert Einstein
“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”
― Anais Nin
“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
The concept of knowledge is something I’ve studied at length through my formal education and throughout my career. Philosophical thought is deeply rooted in examining how we come to know and understand the nature of the world and our (humanity’s) place in it. The mere fact that no universally accepted consensus has been reached after thousands of years of discourse and study indicates, at least to me, that the nature of knowledge is slippery and the pursuit of wisdom is exceedingly complex and personal.
There is no one “right way” to achieve higher states of consciousness and understanding but there have been individuals and organizations that have claimed to have knowledge of effective process and have advanced certain practices including meditation, mindfulness, movement, study, service, therapy, psychotropic substances, dialectical discourse, self help books/courses, harmonic frequencies, and other means of transcending the materialistic worldview that dominates our culture. What does seem fairly universal is the belief that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the determinism and objectification that is rife in our modern world.
We are, collectively, going through a highly disruptive sociocultural transition, precipitated by a series of events that has no definitive starting point- though many have tried to identify one- and no clearly defined vision of what the world will look like on the other side of what we’re going through. We have more information at our fingertips than ever before in history, yet confusion and conflict are rampant. This is where holding polarity of thought and experience in our minds and hearts is extremely valuable. We’ve been bombarded over the last several years with assertions from media personalities and cultural critics with the idea that we are a polarized society/nation/world. There has been little discussion, however, of what polarity is and how it may be viewed as an opportunity to evolve in our thoughts, words, and behaviors.
For my purposes, the definition of polarity that I’d like to employ comes from Mirriam-Webster Online:
“Polarity: the quality or condition inherent in a body that exhibits opposite properties or powers in opposite parts or directions or that exhibits contrasted properties or powers in contrasted parts or directions : the condition of having poles”
This definition can apply to individuals and collectives. It implies ambiguity, conflict, struggle. Living through this age of compounding social, ecological, and health crises naturally brings us to greater awareness of the ways that we are psychologically and emotionally torn between different ideas, loyalties, and options for how to act in the face of existential threats. It’s certainly easier to demonize and oppose other individuals and groups than it is to examine the shadows within- especially within a culture that encourages us to find an enemy to fight far more often than prompting deep reflection on and understanding of our core motivations. I have had many discussions with people I love and respect who seem unable to get out of the trap of shaming and blaming others for the circumstances of their lives.
I am aware that I was once in the habit of doing this myself and I’ve been trying to remember exactly how I moved away from this tendency, having recognized the futility and harm inherent to it. There were internal and external influences on my choosing different ways of thinking and behaving- it was definitely a process, not an event. It’s not the case that I’ve eradicated any trace of shame and blame in my thought process but I’ve developed a level of self-awareness and self-control that allows me to detect it early and move through it without being reactive in the moment- most of the time, anyways. I strive to be thoughtful. Conscious. Conscientious. Compassionate. Most of us would agree that these are virtuous characteristics but there can be no doubt that disagreements about what the application of these traits should look like. The perception of human virtue is less universal than we may want to believe which presents us with a paradox.
It seems like common sense that we should operate thoughtfully, consciously, conscientiously, and compassionately, doesn’t it? These are “good” goals of “good” people, right? The contradiction comes when we consider the extension of these to those who we see as “bad” people who are, in our eyes, without value- irredeemable. They don’t deserve our goodness but must be opposed with the same vitriol that they appear to us to be emitting. This seems to be the common-sense line of thinking. In succumbing to the tendency to return scorn, disgust, and hatred in response to the deplorable behavior of others, though, we feed the beast of inhumanity and remain stuck in a cycle of violence and degradation.
I certainly struggle with the idea of extending empathy and care to those with whom I disagree- especially if their behavior is unquestioningly harmful. I am subject to the desire to stop them and to punish them for their wrongdoing. As my understanding of conflict, justice, and processes to create peace has increased, however, I have become aware that it is precisely this way of thinking that has led us to the brink of extinction as a species. To dehumanize others is to dehumanize ourselves because we are inextricably bound together, as Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
This worldview is supported by science in quantum physics and ecology and the philosophical, cosmological, and sociopolitical concepts of interconnectedness, interbeing, and solidarity. Unfortunately, the most recent insights of scholarship have not been widely applied in educational, economic, and other cultural institutions. We are still being taught that the mechanistic, dualistic, and bio-evolutionist theories of Newton, Descartes, and Darwin reflect our lived reality- despite significant evidence to the contrary.
As an educator and activist seeking to create a regenerative future for current and future generations, I am frustrated by the lack of recognition that a better world is tangibly visible and being created by millions of “ordinary” people everywhere in the world. We are constantly told to await action by global “leaders” to address the existential threats we face when both history and current events clearly demonstrate that transformational change has invariably come from the grassroots. Established power within hierarchical structures will always seek to keep and grow itself through the institutions built by the powerful. Our collective liberation from oppression won’t come from demanding change from and within the oppressive systems we are purportedly “fighting.” We must create alternative systems that are aligned with what philosopher Timothy Morton calls “the symbiotic real.“
We are bound together, whether we want to be or not. Not just with other human beings but also with all other living and nonliving beings. For me, this is an empowering revelation and opens up expansive and exciting possibilities for the future. Yes, there is polarity and paradox inherent in our transition from the age of individualistic self-interest to the age of interbeing but we need not be immobilized by the conflicts and contradictions that inevitably arise during massive cultural shifts. It’s worthwhile to question the “truths” we’ve been taught that aren’t working for any of us and to imagine the world we want. That world is possible. If you know nothing else, know that.
Wishing you peace, connection, love, and infinite possibility in the new year.