Note: Excerpts of my manuscript, Flattening the Pyramids: A Treatise on Hierarchy and Community, have been posted on the Ideas and Commentary section of this site but readers may prefer to read the book in sequence without other posts breaking it up. The book is still a work in progress and I’ll continue to add to it both in the excerpt posts and here, so you can read it as you prefer. As always, your feedback is welcome and appreciated.
All hierarchical social structures have a fundamental design flaw- they are designed such that a privileged minority at the top of the hierarchy will, inevitably, exploit and oppress the majority below, within the given structure. Exploitation and oppression invariably give rise to unrest, rebellion, and, eventually, large-scale destruction. Civilization, by and large, is considered good and right, regardless of the inequities that are, by definition and design, inherent to the model, as it is structurally hierarchical. Attempts to significantly address oppressive and exploitative outcomes within the context of structural inequality are ineffective unless and until the structures themselves are dismantled and replaced with egalitarian alternatives.
Such alternatives include creating self-sufficient communities in which all members are equally valued and power is shared based on the skills and aptitudes of each member. Human organizational history (anthropology) provides us with ample evidence that indigenous cultures lived in harmony with each other and nature, prior to the advent of state societies, or civilization. Tribal groups maintained balance for hundreds of thousands of years, maintaining sustainable populations and subsisting without destructively exploiting natural resources or engaging in large-scale conflict. Scarcity and need were not significant social issues until humans began hoarding food and requiring forced labor by the underclasses for the benefit of the ruling classes. This began roughly 10-12 thousand years ago in several locations around the world- the most commonly-known site being the “Fertile Crescent,” also known as the “Cradle of Civilization.”
The assumption contained in modern stories about the development of hierarchical civilization is that humans are meant to be civilized- that hierarchy is the most advanced and correct way to organize ourselves, regardless of the clear and ever-present detrimental impacts of this type of organization. War, famine, epidemic and pandemic disease, mental illness, isolation, poverty, environmental degradation, overpopulation, racism, sexism, (all the –isms)., are inevitable byproducts of civilization but most accept these as products of ‘human nature,’ rather than outcomes of our dominant organizational structure. Narratives, or stories, are the primary means by which human individuals within any community learn about their roles, responsibilities, values, and potential future opportunities. It is not sufficient to unlearn harmful stories; we must convey alternative narratives that support authentic cultural transformation.
Those of us who are raised within ‘civilized’ cultures are taught from our first breath that the right way to live is within hierarchy. Children, being the most vulnerable members of any human social group, are most impacted by the power dynamics of our hierarchies. It is not surprising to me that children and youth will point out unfairness and abuses of power more readily than most adults. They haven’t yet become accustomed to the systems of oppression that most adults accept as normal within our culture.
Formal education, or schooling, reinforces the power structure through top-down authoritarian rules, regulations, and codes of conduct- designed to train young people to be compliant and complicit in their own oppression and that of others. Freedom of thought or behavior is not valued in most educational models because it leads to questioning the basic assumptions upon which our hierarchies are built. Even at the highest levels of education in our culture, there is an underlying belief that the purpose of advanced learning is the acquisition of status (monetary wealth) and power (ability to control others’ actions). Learning for learning’s sake is devalued- even considered a waste of time by most within our civilized societies- and those who propose any serious consideration of alternatives to hierarchical systems are often treated as pariahs.
Daniel Quinn, author of many books including Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Beyond Civilization, addresses many of the questions that may arise in consideration of tribal organization as the most efficient and effective one for human beings. He proposes that, just as a flock of birds or a troop of baboons is appropriate to those animals, a tribe of humans makes the most sense for us. What many people picture when they hear “tribe,” however, is limited to the notion of ‘savages’ that we’ve learned through our education by schooling, media, and other stories of what it means to be tribal. Half-dressed, barbaric ‘heathens’ struggling to survive in the wilds of Africa or the Amazon and succumbing to injury or illness at a young age is what most are likely to imagine when prompted. This is not an attractive image and not what Quinn, or I, propose.
There are myriad ways to organize ourselves tribally that don’t involve living in the woods or abandoning all of the creature comforts to which we have become accustomed. It is about making a living with minimum stress, in cooperation with others who are similarly inclined. Quinn uses small circuses, independent media, theatre troupes, and other pursuits as examples of how modern tribes may work. Rather than devoting our lives to producing goods and services for the benefit of corporate masters, it is possible for many of us to commit our efforts to independent, local initiatives that provide a livelihood for ourselves without excessive, harmful impacts.
Many of us are already engaged in what may be considered tribal activities. Within the context of civilizational hierarchy, however, we must be mindful that our goals are not aligned with the ‘culture of maximum harm,’ as Quinn calls hierarchical civilization, but with small-scale subsistence and sustainability. Regeneration and renewal are primary concepts within tribal cultures- leaving our children and future generations a world that works and with the means to support their livelihoods. This worldview represents a major paradigm shift for civilized people but it is inherent to tribal philosophies and practices. Based on the unprecedented challenges we currently face, perhaps it is time for many of us to embrace this shift…?
An objection that often arises when one engages in discussions about culture change is this: “Well, fine. I may change the way I live but I can’t make anyone else change, so what’s the point? The corporations aren’t going to stop exploiting labor & natural resources and poisoning the planet. The wealthy aren’t going to give up their riches and play fair. I might as well keep trying to get as much as I can for myself, right?”
It’s true that none of us can force anyone else to adopt a different way of life. We can, however, set examples for others by pursuing alternatives that demonstrate the effectiveness of tribal organization. The dominant model of civilization is currently being imposed upon, and enacted by, the vast majority of human beings on Earth, which is accelerating negative impacts and outcomes. As individuals and in groups, we can raise attention about these impacts and outcomes and actively engage in alternative options, while building connections and community with others who share our interest in living differently. We don’t have to convince everyone to join us, merely opting out of the culture of maximum harm and engaging in practices that demonstrate restorative and regenerative philosophies demonstrates that alternatives exist and frees those involved from contributing to ongoing devastation. Given that most people are currently suffering economically, socially, and emotionally from the impacts of the dominant systems, I believe many will choose alternatives once they are made visible and viable by those on the leading edge of this movement.
In Beyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn discusses the need for new ideas- a vision for humanity that is rooted in our collective responsibility to each other and the world. It is not a Utopian civilization Quinn advocates, but a return for most of us to a way of life that has proven successful for tens of thousands of years. Tribal people are no more specific in the practices of this way of life than those living within various models of civilization. The Inuit, the Yanomami, the Zulu, the Mohawk, the Navajo, and the thousands of other tribes anthropology has documented are all different in manner of dress, food sources, styles of worship, recreational activities, etc. The similarity is in their basic organization- one in which every member of each tribe is valued as equally important and having a stake in the decisions made by their leaders.
In a number of conversations I’ve had on this subject, people have said, “tribes have chiefs- they are hierarchical, too!” Quinn addresses this question in his writing, as well. A chief or leader in a tribal structure is not “the boss” and their role is no more valued or prized than any other member’s. Every organization requires some management but managing is a role, like any other role, not a de facto status upgrade in tribal cultures. The current trend of “servant leadership” in corporate and political settings reflects that people are seeking leaders who take into account the feedback and ideas of all stakeholders within organizations when deciding a course of action. It is virtually impossible within our civilizational model, however, for leaders to truly serve the people when there are such clearly defined strata of status within our organizations. The compensation paid to CEOs, alone, is so outsized to their actual value within companies and society that there is little chance they are able to see the contributions of workers as truly significant. They generally reign on high like feudal lords and treat their underlings as peons. The solutions to structural inequality must address the design. It is the design that leads to excessive wealth inequality and abuse of workers. It is the design that leads to social ills such as addiction, homelessness, entrenched poverty, failing schools, mental illness, lack of access to quality healthcare, pollution, mass violence, and premature death. It is the DESIGN.
It is January 1, 2020, and I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed. The posts are largely reflective of the optimism that generally accompanies New Year’s greetings but there are other trending topics that the algorithm has seen fit to show me; massive bush fires continuing (for more than 2 months!) in Australia, Vladimir Putin is having a bad week, #PresidentSanders is trending on Twitter, several ads for diet programs, lots of my ‘friends’ cute kids, and arguments in a comment thread about how alcohol is an acceptable and socially promoted vice that kills more people than opioids but how sugar and fat (obesity) are the real killers… It’s kind of a shit show. If social media is reflective of where our society really stands, then there’s not much hope, right? And social media is where the majority of people are getting their news in America and other ‘civilized’ countries. We are inundated by inanity, horror, judgment, and advertising for all manner of goods and services that will, purportedly, provide us with temporary respite from our personal and collective pain. It has recently come to light that Facebook and other social media networks have been selling users’ personal data for profit (shocking!) and many of my activist friends are deleting the app and moving to new platforms that are supposedly operating in more ethical ways.
This may be true but with over 2 Billion users, Facebook is, and will likely remain, the dominant social network for a while yet. The influence of social media on politics, commerce, and human interaction cannot be overstated. Our last US presidential election was significantly impacted by targeted “fake news” on Facebook and other platforms. There is ample evidence that foreign governments, especially Russia, played a major role in originating and propagating misinformation and disinformation in the 2016 race and they are already at it again for the 2020 contest. We have a wide-spread lack of faith in our government, made worse by the ascension of a reality TV personality to the highest office in the land and his subsequent policy decisions, which have disproportionately impacted the already most vulnerable people in our society. If, as many pundits have proposed, the underlying intention of Russian efforts to undermine our elections is to exploit a sinking sense in the American electorate that the entire system is corrupt and our efforts as individual citizens don’t matter, they have succeeded beyond Putin’s wildest dreams! But, again, the fundamental issue lies in the design of the system, itself.
It is a largely unquestioned assumption in American culture that the United States was founded with the most advanced governmental model ever devised. Our Constitution, we’re taught, ensures that every citizen has rights and protections that prevent tyrannical applications of power by our leaders. People of color, women, immigrants, children, indigenous people, and others were excluded from such rights and protections from the beginning and have always been aware that the USA is not, and has never been, the true bastion of universal democracy it claims to be. Rebellions, protests, strikes, and other forms of activism provide evidence that large groups of people have been left out since day one.
Even among those explicitly included- white men who were born in the US- there are discontents who distrust our government and believe that revolution is imminent and much needed. Fringe groups of all varieties have formed online and in person- many with the stated objective of “burning it all down” and starting over. In his 2019 book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, Andrew Marantz chronicles his 3-year investigation of the alt-right movement in the United States. His reporting makes clear that there are a lot more people seeking and actively promoting the destruction of our Democratic Republic than we know. Authoritarianism and fascism are on the rise throughout the world, with “strongmen” heading the governments of Russia, Syria, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and others.
Recent polling in the US suggests that there is a growing sentiment that strong leadership is more important that democracy and that the separation of powers within our government is unnecessary and inefficient. Trump supporters seem completely unbothered by the corruption and criminality that have been exposed within the President’s businesses, family, campaign team, and administration. If anything, his “above the law” persona has strengthened his base’s support. These are extremely ominous trends, demonstrating major flaws in the design of our system of government. We can argue all we want about the merits or deficits of the Electoral College, the proper voting age, gerrymandering of election districts, voter purges, money in politics, and the like, but we need to address the overall design problem inherent to any governmental model that is based on our civilizational worldview. It’s the hierarchy, dammit!
To be fair, there are also examples of progressive leadership rising in parts of the world, including the United States. I am encouraged, to some extent, by the recent elections in New Zealand, Finland, and Costa Rica, where 30-something politicians, Jacinda Ardern, Alverado Quesada, and Sanna Marin, respectively, have become heads of state. Each has come to power with platforms focused on human well-being and sustainability. Realistically, however, they are each leading small countries and are up against the same structural challenges faced by any leader in a hierarchical system. It is important that their ideas are popular within their societies and that they have a world stage upon which to promote their priorities but their influence will, inevitably, be limited by the parameters of civilizational hierarchy.
In virtually all civilized cultures, our children are held up as our primary focus- with childcare, healthcare, housing, environmental protections, and education being necessities for their development. When it comes to where tax dollars are allocated, however, our actual priorities are clear- military might, industrial growth, and increased shareholder value for the already most privileged classes. The apparent contradictions are difficult to reconcile because they are fundamentally irreconcilable. Most of us don’t even bother to question the preeminence of the so-called “military-industrial complex” at this stage- perhaps because there have been so many failed attempts to challenge the status quo. The counterculture revolution efforts of the past, most notably the Hippies’ movement in the 1960s, resulted in a reversion to the dominant culture with backlash against any hint of progressive or revolutionary thought.
My parents considered themselves part of the movement but seemed only to have an interest in the free love, drug use, and lack of responsibility parts of the scene. They were not involved in protests or demonstrations against the War in Vietnam or American hegemony in the world, in general, but had long hair and smoked/sold a lot of pot and other drugs. Within 15 years of the end of the 60s, they were full-on capitalists, owning businesses and profiting from the labor of others with no noticeable qualms, whatsoever. My memories of early childhood include a lot of tribal elements- various other hippies around- getting high, making art, playing music, and discussing all manner of philosophical questions. My sisters didn’t seem very interested but I absorbed a great deal from listening to them. They reflected a communal, non-materialistic, creative, and possibility-laden worldview that I was inspired by as a kid and remain so to this day. It was not without problems, of course. We were poor- but we always ate and had housing and clothing (even though mom made many of our garments from second-hand Indian print bedspreads that were atrocious even by 1970s standards!) My sisters and I were less supervised and more unstructured than many of our peers and that led to a quite a few unsafe situations and traumatic experiences. As the folks are fond of saying, though, we “turned out alright.”
I would argue that there were things that happened to me, as a child, that should never happen to anyone. I was sexually abused by a neighbor who took advantage of my age and vulnerability but that could certainly have happened regardless of my parents’ lifestyle choices. As an adult, I’ve learned that the majority of people have experienced some form of sexual exploitation and/or abuse prior to their 18th birthday, so clearly it is not because my parents were hippies that I was abused. I am one of millions of survivors who have been made vulnerable to mistreatment more so by structural flaws in our society than by individual parenting choices. Learning that has been both liberating and infuriating. How can we accept this? I can’t. I won’t. I will fight against the normalization of oppression, abuse, exploitation, and other harmful byproducts of civilization until my last breath.
The best way I know to do this is by presenting viable alternatives to the model, itself. In writing this, I hope to reach a wider audience but I have trained and taught hundreds of young people skills and practices to build community- based on essentially tribal principles- for much of my adult life and that is where my focus will remain. I believe strongly that relationship-building, critical thinking, and tangible opportunities to create alternative, meaningful ways of making a living are the keys to solving our seemingly intractable social and political issues. It isn’t quick- which is frustrating given the devastating impacts we have already experienced and are seeing accelerate in recent years- but I am convinced that it’s the only way to truly transform our culture.
Relationships between individuals are the core units of human cultural transmission. All of the information we learn about what it means to be a person and how to live in the world originate from relationships between and among us. All of our media and technology infrastructure have been built by people. All of the messages, ideas, images, and other information transmitted through that infrastructure are created and disseminated by people. Religions have been started and propagated by people.
The worldview that we hold as right and true has been created through our relationships with people and the products people have created. Though our society today is often characterized as being more disconnected and polarized than any other time in human history, there are more similarities than differences in how people live now and how we’ve lived since the onset of civilization. Stratification based on wealth and status has been present since the first human decisions to store food and control its distribution.
I imagine that the tribal folks seeking to continue their way of life found it very polarizing when the land they’d always lived on was suddenly taken over by those who sought to increase the amount of land under cultivation in order to hoard more food. Large-scale conflict only became the norm when more and more of what had been tribal territory became farmland for the enrichment of those who sought to expand civilization at the expense of traditional, indigenous ways of life. Early civilizations often grew too fast, used too many resources, or otherwise abused the power created through their newly formed hierarchies. Masses of indigenous people were forced to labor in fields, build cities and monuments, and otherwise serve masters- masters they had no say in choosing- in a form of social life they had no interest in perpetuating. Rebellion became a thing. How could it not?
It is not surprising that so many ruins of formerly great cities or settlements have been found with evidence of mass destruction and abandonment. Despite efforts by the masters to convince the masses that some sort of supernatural or supreme power had been conferred upon the few to rule the many, inevitably the many became disillusioned and decided to stop supporting a system that enslaved and exploited them. Once critical mass was reached, the civilizational model would collapse. At its inception, the concept of civilization was difficult to impose on tribal people because they were not discontented with their traditional way of living. Why would one choose to live in crowded, filthy, insecure conditions when one could continue to subsist with a minimum of effort and stress with one’s kin, having a guarantee of lifetime security and continuity of purpose?
As more and more land was cultivated for cash crops and the population subsequently grew, social structures were created to compel, coerce, and otherwise convince the growing masses that they must take their place in this new world. The alternatives? Be enslaved, killed by newly formed armies, or be forced to find territory somewhere else. Many chose to find new places and continued to live as hunter-gatherers, nomadic herders, or subsistence farmers for millennia until the population grew to the point that virtually every possible square foot of arable land was “conquered” by the civilized (colonizers) who took what they wanted by force and claimed divine right to do so.
Today, approximately 370 million of over 7.7 billion people in the world, around 5%, are considered indigenous people- living in traditionally tribal ways or attempting to maintain some traditions, while segregated from the rest of society in reservations or outposts on the edge of the “real world.” It took approximately 12,000 years to explode our population from just 4 million people to the nearly 8 billion living on Earth today. The vast majority of that growth has occurred in the last 600 years as the chart below illustrates.
The explosion of global population has had predictable impacts including natural resource depletion, extensive pollution, famine, poverty, homelessness, pandemic diseases, unending wars, genocides, the climate crisis, and a growing sense among the masses that our collective future will not be comfortable but full of human suffering. Many of our cultural narratives, especially those from religious sources, feed the idea that we, as humans, deserve to suffer because we are sinners- flawed to the core and destined to destroy ourselves. This narrative is clearly counterproductive to our collective ability to imagine alternatives to driving ourselves to extinction. We need new stories that not only imagine alternative ways of living but also reframe our understanding of humanity as worthy of meaningful lives and relationships that promote well-being for ourselves and future generations.
As I write this, Australia is experiencing the most extreme heatwave and bushfire season in its history, the US military, on order of President Donald J. Trump, (and without Congressional approval), assassinated the top general in Iran, likely beginning yet another war in the Middle East, homelessness is on the rise in the US and throughout the developed world, and the most recent climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that we have approximately eight to ten years to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions or it’s ‘game over’ for human life on Earth.
It’s not looking great for humanity.
Techno-utopians, or those who believe we can ‘tech’ ourselves out of any problem, have dominated the American and world conversation and captured the attention of most major political and media representatives. It is not surprising that a few individuals- all extremely wealthy, male, and white- have become the dominant voices in the conversation and that few alternative viewpoints have had any impact on their perspective. In order to be clear, I will name a few of them them: Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Elon Musk (Tesla), Larry Page, & Sergei Brin (Google). These men are the Titans of Tech. Their influence, and that of other technology capitalists cannot be overstated. Through their dominance of capital markets over the last couple of decades, these men have established an out-sized influence over national and international policy decisions, economic models, and social norms. They are looked at, by and large, as visionary leaders of the 21st Century and their financial success is held up as evidence of their virtue and “rightness” in idealizing technology as our only way forward. I, and others, find this disconcerting and quite dangerous. Our existence is at stake. Technology will not fix what is, fundamentally, a problem of human philosophy- driven by stories that have informed and enabled the very activities that have created every crisis we now face.
Since the problem I’m discussing is massive, encompassing all of the interrelated systems that organize the vast majority of human beings on the planet, I would like to focus for now on the stories- narratives that have driven us into a mass extinction event that certainly won’t wipe out ALL life on Earth, but will certainly lead to a devastating future for most of humanity and other life forms.
Narrative 1: The Myth of Perpetual Growth
It is a rarely questioned idea in our society that economic growth is good and lack of growth is bad. Our obsessive observation of the Stock Market and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures is evidence of this. Regardless of how difficult individual and family experiences of our economy are, we are lulled into thinking that everything is getting better as long as “our economy” is growing. There are economists and others who have substantively challenged this model of economic health but, for the most part, their voices have been drowned out by the chorus of growth evangelists who have the loudest amplifiers in politics, media, and other social information-sharing systems.
In the United States, it is commonly understood that the Republican Party is more business-friendly and unabashedly in favor of any policy that provides for the ‘free’ operation of capitalist markets- deregulation of industry, low taxes for the wealthy and corporations, and the acquisition of additional natural and technical resources, by literally any means necessary. Democrats, conversely, are supposedly more focused on labor rights, social safety nets, and leveling the playing field for ordinary people. In practice, however, both parties have demonstrated unwavering allegiance to the idea that growth is the most important aspect of economic health and prosperity. Even the most left-wing members of the Democratic Party are devoted to a continuation of the core components of this economic model.
Bernie Sanders is a Democratic Socialist and considered “extreme” by most members of both the Republican and Democratic Party establishments. This, despite the fact that even Sanders is not advocating for any substantive change to the model, itself, merely a redistribution of “created wealth” to benefit the majority of people working to produce the goods and services and those who are unable to find meaningful opportunities in the system, such as the elderly, disabled, very young, or very poor. I am supportive of providing for the needs of all people living in our society and think the ideas Sanders and other progressive politicians are advocating are important in shifting our culture away from the excessive inequality and subsequent social harm that has been wrought by our hierarchical economic system. Without a fundamental change in our understanding about the design flaws inherent in the system, however, we will only mitigate some of the harm temporarily, rather than moving toward a more egalitarian and sustainable system for the future.
Narrative 2: The Myth of Human Dominion
The idea that human beings are exempted from any limitations on our economic growth is a natural offshoot of the idea that we were created to dominate the world and everything in it. This idea comes, primarily, from the story of Adam & Eve and the Garden of Eden. In this Old Testament story, God creates the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve, and provides them with everything they need to be comfortable and cared for in perpetuity. He gives them explicit permission to “subdue the earth” and rule over all other lifeforms.
This is taken quite literally by many adherents Judeo-Christian theology, which has had an immeasurable impact on the development of our dominant cultural narratives and practices. Daniel Quinn posits a theory in his books that I have not seen in any theological analyses about Genesis 1:28 and the rest of our Old Testament “origin story.” Quinn suggests that the knowledge of good and evil is the power to decide who lives and dies by controlling food sources and compelling former hunter-gatherers to accept large-scale agriculture and food hoarding as the right way to live. This theory is supported further by analyzing the Cain and Abel story, with Cain representing the tribal members who sought to put more land under cultivation and control the food supply and Abel representing traditional hunter-gatherers and herders who sought to continue their subsistence economies. That God rejected Cain’s offering of grain means, in this context, that the balance of nature could not be maintained when humans controlled the food supply and could decide who would live or die based on that control. “Murdering” Abel means destroying a way of life that had sustained humanity in harmony with the rest of nature for millennia, in favor of a new way of life that would lead to figuratively, “brother turning against brother.”
The human family was split against itself due to differing worldviews, arising from the new invention of agriculture and the ancient Hebrew tribes may have started telling these stories in order to warn their members against the dangers of attempting to control food sources and forcing others to adapt to an unproven lifestyle after millennia of success in tribes. The entire, largely unquestioned history of civilization is amplification of this narrative- divide, conquer, control, exploit, colonize, industrialize, dominate, destroy… Sound familiar?
Narrative 3: The Myth of Separation
Our worldview, shaped by the proceeding myths and subsequent human events, has precipitated intense loneliness and insecurity as hallmarks of emotional life in the modern and post-modern eras. Famous philosophers like Descartes have expounded on our individual consciousness and rationality as proof that we are separate from each other and even from ourselves. We are so convinced of this that we have created innumerable ways to enhance and exacerbate separation- sexism, racism, classism, and all of the other “isms” are ways that society has divided itself into ever smaller groups and we perpetuate harm against all those with whom we are convinced we cannot identify.
This indicates that we have an intense need for belonging but we are compelled to reduce our connections to fewer and fewer possible “others.” Even within families (perhaps, especially so) there are deep rifts that prevent our relationships from feeling solid or secure. Our cultural narratives have become increasingly divisive and closed-off and we are all feeling the impact. Within identity groups, smaller and smaller categories of identity are being formed and these splits are creating increasingly intractable barriers to consensus and unity. As a result, people are feeling more disconnected and isolated than ever, despite online social networks and an infinite range of opportunities both virtually and in real life to connect to others with whom they share core values and beliefs.
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions have been on the rise in the United States and other developed countries for decades, as have self-harm, addiction, mass shootings, and deaths by suicide. Social science research clearly indicates that authentic, meaningful relationships with others are protective factors against personally and socially destructive behaviors but our cultural belief in fundamental separateness undermines significant movement toward a culture of inclusion, connection, compassion, and empathy. It is not necessary for an individual to believe in the concepts of human sin (also translated as separation) or the biblical fall from grace that supposedly cursed humanity, in order to buy into the idea that we are fundamentally flawed and it is in our nature to harm ourselves and each other. That idea is built into our civilizational worldview and will only be countered by rejection of the model that precipitated it and the replacement of that model by another one that works- namely, neo-tribal organization- not to be confused with “tribalism,” which connotes the fracturing of society into warring factions based on divisive identity categories.
Narrative 4: The Myth of Divine Intervention
Throughout human history, there have been stories of miraculous events that could be explained only through the existence of supernatural, or divine beings, intervening in human lives. Every cultures’ mythologies and theologies contain such narratives. Rather than focus on the particular stories, I’d like to explore how their existence reinforces other components of our civilizational worldview. The average person recognizes as unalterably true that individually, and even collectively, human beings are not powerful in the way that they perceive a God or gods to be powerful, despite our having created scientific and technological tools that may well render our planet unlivable. Many individuals credit “God” for any and all achievements they attain, while blaming themselves for any failures. Others claim that the true reward for being a “good human” is eternal bliss in Heaven and the punishment for being a “bad human” is eternal damnation in Hell.
There are those who believe they are “saved” and will be among the chosen heavenly inhabitants because they’ve avowed allegiance to Christ, Allah, or another Godhead. Ask the average person how they would describe prayer and they are likely to say that it involves asking God to intervene in their lives or the lives of their loved ones in some way. Many churches have prayer request slips in the pews for submission during services or prayer chains that link members of the church in order to enlist them in praying for church members and others in need. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become so ubiquitous in American politics and culture when any tragedy happens, that there has been a backlash- mainly on social media but also in mainstream media. Especially in the case of mass shootings, which have accelerated sharply in the US over the last 20 years, patience for the endless tweets and posts from politicians sending their “thoughts and prayers” has run thin.
There are other myths that I could list and analyze but most are extensions or iterations of those listed here.
For me, discovering that I held these ideas as true- and that they actually weren’t– came in the form of realization over time, through conscious thought, reading and hearing new narratives, and growing in relationship with others.
As a child, I had personality traits and lived experiences that I believed were completely unlike anyone I knew. I thought they made me weird, strange, uniquely different from everyone else. I felt alone and misunderstood. I felt tremendous pressure to conform to social and cultural norms at home, at school, and within my peer group, but there were such clear inconsistencies within those norms, I was in conflict with myself and others just about all the time.
As I mentioned earlier, my parents were “Hippies,” at least in the cultural sense. They used drugs, eschewed traditional structures, and dressed differently from many of my peers’ parents. They divorced before I started school and my mother remarried a week after my 5th birthday. My biological father, Charles Michael, who preferred and went by his middle name, was not a primary caregiver beyond my 2nd year, so I have no memory of his being in our household or parenting my two sisters and me at all, really. In my early childhood, he was “Daddy Michael,” to us and our stepfather was “Daddy Ken.”
Our mom, Sue, was our main influence and most consistent parental figure. She was super smart, funny, independently minded, and very loving. She had survived a great deal of trauma and dysfunction in her upbringing but, of course, I didn’t know or understand any of that as a child. Her lifestyle was unorthodox and some of her parenting choices were questionable and, arguably, damaging to her children but I have no doubt that she did the best she could with the knowledge and resources she had at the time. That’s my adult perspective, obviously. When I was young, I had a much less nuanced understanding of her circumstances and her choices.
While in elementary school, I began to observe a number of ways in which my home life and I, myself, were not “normal.” I watched other families at parent-teacher conferences and open houses and noticed that many of my fellow students were represented by their still-married, biological parents. I saw that other kids’ dads didn’t have long hair, or unkempt beards, or tattoos of the Zig Zag man. Or any tattoos at all!
Other kids’ moms didn’t have a different haircut or color every few months and didn’t dress in peasant blouses and floral wrap skirts that they made themselves. As far as I could tell, none of my peers went home to small apartments where their parents would smoke weed and drop acid on a regular basis. It was made clear to me very early on, both implicitly and explicitly, that my parents’ lifestyle was not something to discuss at school or with my friends. There was nothing wrong with what was going on, I just shouldn’t talk about it.
Adding to my sense of separateness was the discovery that I was academically advanced, or “gifted.” I had started reading at 3 years old and had moved well beyond the typical Kindergarten curriculum by the time I entered formal schooling. Much of my time in the classroom in my first few years of school was spent working independently, with occasional check-ins from my teachers. As standardized tests soon revealed, my intellect, at least by the accepted measures of the time, was “off the charts.” We were poor and my parents could not afford to engage any additional “enrichment” opportunities for me but they made sure I always had books, typically from the public library, and I was free to ask questions, at least early on. My precociousness was, I imagine, somewhat novel and endearing when I was a tiny, pig-tailed, rosy-cheeked little girl. As I got older, however, and my questions became more challenging, conflicts began to arise.
In third grade, I was extremely fortunate to be placed in Miss Bullen’s class. She was an exceptionally engaging and warm presence, who recognized the need to differentiate her teaching methods for students, based on their individual strengths and challenges. Despite my abilities to learn and understand material more rapidly and deeply than most other students, I was disorganized and resisted structure and restrictions- finding most rules arbitrary and, often, downright “stupid.”
Miss Bullen worked with me on strategies to keep my desk neat and explained why switching from reading or art (which I loved) to math or science (which were less interesting to me) was important and necessary. On her own time and with her own resources, she offered extra field trips (expeditions) for a few students, including me- those of us who demonstrated an inclination for learning beyond the classroom. I have vivid memories of exploring local resources like the Erie Canal and researching the historical and cultural significance of the Indigenous tribes of Western New York with Miss Bullen. She sang songs with us, talked with us, hugged us often, and told us we were capable of achieving whatever we could imagine for ourselves.
It is clear to me, in hindsight, that her influence has inspired my personal and professional approach to working with young people immeasurably- not just through demonstration of effective teaching practice but also by providing an example of genuine, intentional relationship-building between an adult professional and children. Some might characterize this as merely another teaching practice but Miss Bullen was the only teacher I had throughout my schooling who created extra opportunities for her students to know her and explore learning with her outside of the typical teacher-student power dynamic. Enrichment programs within the school setting- even with field trips and expeditionary learning models- are still “school” and don’t have the same kind of impact as adult professionals personally and intentionally giving time and attention to their students.
The remainder of elementary school was less pleasant for me and I began to exhibit increasingly problematic mood changes and disruptive behaviors at home and at school. At the time, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. No one seemed to understand me well enough. I was too different. I spent most of my free time reading- immersing myself in other peoples’ lives and worlds. Mine was scary and confusing and, despite how “smart” I was, I didn’t have the emotional intelligence to reconcile my thoughts with my feelings.
During this time, my family moved out of the school district I’d been in since Kindergarten to a small town in a rural area. It was only a few miles away from where we’d lived previously but it felt like a huge distance. My few close friends and I were able to stay in touch and visit one another regularly, but it was no longer every day and I had difficulty making new friends, especially since most of the students in my new school had known each other since kindergarten and already had formed cliques.
By middle school, I had become relatively close with a couple other “smart kids” and I’d gotten used to the small town environment but I never felt at home there. My stepfather and I were frequently getting into arguments that led to physical punishment of some kind- spankings were most common- and I was internalizing the idea that I was not, nor would I ever be, good enough to be really accepted and loved by my parents. I resented my intelligence and wanted to be like other kids- the ones who seemed happy and popular. The ones whose parents seemed to cherish and celebrate them- to truly want them.
During my early adolescence, several major events occurred that impacted my relationships and personal sense of security. I won’t spend too much time delving into these but will attempt to explain how I understand their effects, individually and collectively, through my adult lens. They are key plot points in my life story and may resonate with some readers in a way that may help them heal from their own trauma.
When I was still in elementary school, my biological father (no longer referred to as “Daddy Michael” by this point but just “Dad”) established a relationship with my stepfather’s sister, Suzann, who was 16 years his junior. For a kid who already felt strange, trying to wrap my head around the bizarre turn of events that turned my “aunt” into my stepmother, was virtually impossible. My father, though in our lives on occasional weekends, was pretty much estranged from my sisters and me. Dad provided the down payment for our new house from an inheritance he’d received and made arrangements with Mom and Ken to live with us for a limited period of time while looking for a new place. I don’t remember being aware of the relationship between them until after they moved in but I later learned they had been “together” for a while prior to her graduation from high school. He was her date for her senior prom and a framed picture from that event was always displayed in their living space once the relationship was public.
I remember looking at that picture often- my father in a tuxedo, long beard and hair graying at the temples and Suzann, a 17-year-old high school student, with thick glasses and the feathered hairstyle so common to girls in the late 70s. He was thirty-three years old in that photograph. Adding to the confusion was the relationship I had known with her prior to their romance. She was our “Aunt Suzann,“ the youngest of Ken’s four sisters, whom we had known since we were toddlers. She babysat for us when we were little and was more like a peer than our older aunts.
Initially, I thought she was fun and cool- a teenager who taught us racy songs and helped us put on silly shows in our childhood bedroom. Once she and Dad were a couple, though, her role became more parental and our relationship definitely changed. I no longer trusted her and wondered if her attention toward my sisters and me was just an act of manipulation, designed to get her closer to our father. As an adult, I no longer see Suzann as the primary actor in the situation, recognizing that she was too young to have a rational understanding of what was going on. I can relate to the idea that she may just have been seeking love and security- someone to protect her.
To this day, it is challenging to have any substantive conversation with anyone in the family about the nature of their relationship and, it seems, there is a good deal of denial on the part of everyone involved that their union originated in a really fucked up way. Removing any of the family connections, this is a clear case of an adult male engaging in a wholly-inappropriate romantic & sexual relationship with a teenager. Since they have now been together for nearly 40 years, most of the family seems to rationalize their union as having been “good” because they’ve maintained it for so long but I still have issues with it.
A couple of years ago, I wrote my father a letter that included my feelings about their relationship and its impacts on me and my sense of connection with him. In it, I explained that it feels to me like virtually all of his parental instincts were directed at raising Suzann, rather than his three biological children. Emotionally, financially, and physically he has always provided for her, while my sisters and I have, predominantly, been treated as an unwanted and unwelcome burden. Perhaps this characterization is too harsh and my feelings are unfairly distorting his intentions. Whether or not this is the case, the observable fact of the matter is that my father has chosen to live in a way that has had demonstrable, adverse impacts on his children and his relationship with his wife is a core element of his lifestyle.
While I am certain he has a tremendous amount of guilt about his life choices- guilt he has expressed in moments of vulnerability and stress- it has not significantly changed his behavior and it’s highly likely that he will go to his grave without meaningful attempts to reconcile with us, despite my attempts to facilitate such a reconciliation. I have made peace with it, to the extent that I accept my limitations in altering anyone else’s perceptions or behaviors. My father is a product of his own thoughts, actions, and experiences and is not obligated to change. I have the right to think and feel the way that I do and know that it is probable that my thoughts and feelings will continue to evolve over time. I’m fairly certain, however, that I will continue to recognize how profoundly dysfunctional this situation has been and how it has shaped my understanding of interpersonal relationships throughout my life.
It is clear to me now, that I have been repeating a pattern in my own love life that involves being attracted to and involving myself with men who are fundamentally insecure and emotionally distant. Men who judge me as “not enough” or “too much” and are rarely able to appreciate me or see me as a peer and partner. Men who seek control over me because they haven’t healed from their own painful childhood experiences. This was the case in my 20-year relationship with my ex-husband and each of three long-term relationships I’ve had since separating from him in 2012 and subsequently divorcing. It’s not very surprising that I would have normalized power imbalances in romantic relationships since that’s what I was used to and had observed my entire life. Normalizing dysfunction, however, only breeds more dysfunction. As I’ve sought to repair and restore my sense of self as a whole, healthy, and valuable person with authentic connections and significant gifts to share, my “dad stuff” keeps coming up.
The next major event I recognize as having shaped my worldview as a kid is my Aunt Marietta’s death. My mother’s sister, Marietta, was 11 years older than mom and her only sibling. They had grown up during different generations, really, and didn’t have a very close relationship until adulthood. Each of them had three children- Auntie, all boys, and Mom, all girls, and the six of us were all born within a few years of each other. I remember spending a lot of time at Auntie’s house as a child. Holidays, birthdays, and many Sunday dinners were hosted in her small ranch home in Northwest Rochester. She was married but estranged from her husband and he was not around much when we were there. She was a Registered Nurse and worked at the County Hospital for many years.
What I remember most about Auntie is her laugh and how her eyes would light up when she saw us, crinkling at the corners as she smiled broadly and embraced us. Even though there were obvious stressors in her personal life, she was consistently loving, engaging, and welcoming. When I could not seem to get along with my primary family, she provided a buffer, allowing me to stay over weekends and sometimes longer, during occasional school breaks. When she was diagnosed with cancer, my mother was devastated and her pain and worry were obvious. Through Auntie’s chemotherapy and radiation, Mom was there- supporting her sister and her nephews.
I remember how thin and fragile my aunt became and I was made aware, for the first time, really, that someone close to me might die. It is almost universally true in our culture that death is not discussed in any meaningful way with children unless and until it becomes a concrete reality in their lives. I had many questions but didn’t know how to ask them. I didn’t want to add to my mother’s stress or invite negative reactions from anyone else in the family so I kept my questions to myself. After a short period of remission, Auntie’s cancer returned and she died in September, 1986, when I was 14 years old. I miss her very much.
Looking back and trying to understand how experiencing the impacts of this loss has affected my perspective and my relationships, a few things resonate. First, that our cultural prohibition on discussion of illness and death is fundamentally unhealthy and leads to unnecessary anxiety in far too many people. Secondly, it has made me more sensitive to the emotional and behavioral issues that may present themselves in the young people with whom I work and build relationships, relative to grief and loss. And, finally, it has influenced my commitment to living my life in a way that is integrated and holistic, rather than compartmentalized.
I am aware that my approach to discussions of death and dying have been informed by the lack of such discussions when I was a kid. With my son, Jacob, I’ve raised questions and made it clear that I am available and interested in talking with him about these topics and basically anything else he may want to have conversations about. I’ll let Jacob decide whether that’s been helpful or not but I’m hopeful that my approach has better prepared him for managing difficult situations. At 22, Jacob has expressed to me that he is less anxious about death than he was as a kid but it is clear that he has been deeply affected by a string of losses over the last couple of years. His cousin, DJ, was killed in a car accident at 23 years old, followed soon after by the death of my mother and Jake’s father’s stepmother in 2018, then his father’s mother in early 2019. That is a lot of death and dying for a young person to deal with in a short time-frame.
I was ten years old when we moved from Riverton, a veritable suburban paradise for kids, to the outskirts of Scottsville, NY, a small village in the rural town of Wheatland. It was a big step for our family- transitioning from renting to owning a home and, ostensibly, finally having more space for everyone. In our previous home, a townhouse with 2 bedrooms and 1 & ½ bathrooms (totaling 3 toilets, 3 sinks, 3 mirrors, and one bath/shower), my sisters and I shared the master bedroom and Mom & Ken had the smaller room. As kids, living in a planned community with lots of amenities like playgrounds, swimming pools, softball fields, a recreation center, a skating pond, and many other children around our age was awesome! From my perspective, there was no real advantage to moving into a house, especially out in the “boonies.”
It became clear quickly that the new house was going to involve a lot more household & outdoor chores for us, which became a source of conflict almost immediately. The house, itself, was very old and had been moved from another location at some point onto an uneven foundation, so all of the floors had a tilt. The fixtures, wall coverings, and flooring were quite old and in various states of disrepair. It was not an upgrade from our modern townhouse, as far as I was concerned. It was especially difficult to get used to having just one bathroom with the ancient cast iron tub that had to be rigged with rubber tubing and clamps in order to function as a shower. There was one toilet, one sink, and one tub/shower being used by 4 adults and 3 kids when Mom, Ken, Dad, Suzann, Lena, Rachael, and I were the initial inhabitants of the house.
At first, each of us girls had our own rooms, which was a nice benefit but, soon after moving in, Ken’s sister, my aunt Shelly, moved in with her son, Chris- and we were rearranged. Rachael and I were, once again, sharing a room and a bed, and the attic space was haphazardly converted into a room for Chris. Shelly stayed in Rachael’s former bedroom, and now there were two more people sharing the single bathroom. That brings us up to nine total. For me, as a burgeoning adolescent, the lack of privacy was considerably uncomfortable, to say the least. On the upside, I enjoyed having Chris around because I had never had a brother and was, honestly, kind of annoyed with my sisters by this point.
Soon after moving in, Shelly met and began dating Mark, the man who would father her second child, Jessica. I was 11 when Jessica was born on July 28, 1983. She was, like most newborns, tiny and adorable and I felt like I had a real, living, baby doll to play with, take care of, and love. I had always been very interested in taking care of others- I was emotionally sensitive and felt a strong sense of responsibility for those who were vulnerable. Having Jessica in the house definitely mitigated some of the negative feelings and experiences I had during that time. Shelly’s relationship with Mark did not last and she needed to stay in the house for several more years.
Even after she moved out with the kids and had another child, Stephen, with a subsequent boyfriend, our family gatherings always included Shelly and her kids and I continued to have a strong bond with Jessica and Chris for many years. It is more difficult to maintain close contact as adults with our own families, careers, and other priorities but I will always feel protective and loving toward my young cousins and recognize the impact their presence in my childhood has had. I am confident that my career path and social activism around justice for children have been greatly influenced by my relationships with them.
Adding to my experience with and understanding of children’s needs during that time was my mother’s decision to start watching a few local kids to earn extra money when we moved to Scottsville. In addition to having my sisters and me, Christopher and Jessica in the house, during summers and after school for the first couple of years there, Mom also babysat some other local kids, adding three to seven more children to the mix on any given day. My sisters and I were the oldest and expected to help with caring for the kids, cleaning up the house, and otherwise supporting the adults. I didn’t mind assisting with child care at all, since, as mentioned previously, I was a natural caretaker. I didn’t like the cleaning part much, but I imagine I’m not the only adolescent who has ever resented chores!
Being in the position to observe other family dynamics through my relationships to these children and their parents and paying attention to the details being discussed by my parents- their opinions, judgments, and ideas about other people’s approaches to life and child-rearing was extremely formative for me. I realized then that, despite there being big issues in how our family functioned, my parents and the other adults in our home had serious blind spots or areas of denial that allowed them to perceive and judge others without any apparent introspection about their own choices and behaviors. My mother, especially, was very vocal about the behavior of other people and her assessments of their behavior from a “right” or “wrong” standpoint. With the families she babysat for, she didn’t address her concerns or judgments directly but, instead, talked about them with Aunt Shelly, Ken, and other adults, often in front of my sisters and/or me.
As I got older, I remember thinking that my mom and many of the other adults in my life were hypocritical and overly judgmental of others without self-awareness about the ways in which they were doing many of the same things they criticized in others. Some psychological and philosophical theories suggest that we are actually most sensitive to and critical of the traits we perceive in others that we dislike in ourselves. Today, I recognize that this is true of myself and many of my friends, acquaintances, family members, students, and others. Self-awareness may mitigate potential negative outcomes of gossip or other forms of judgmental discourse but it is unlikely to stop it altogether. I may rationalize that my discussions of people behind their backs is out of concern and seeking to use other parties as “sounding boards” and sources of perspective that I may not have but, unless I am willing and able to speak directly to the people in my life for whom I am, ostensibly, worried or concerned, my behavior is still, essentially gossipy and judgmental. I have to own this and add it to my catalog of ‘things to work on’ in myself.
I have been an advocate and activist in favor of common sense gun regulation since 1999, after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Upon reflection, however, I understand that my perspectives on gun violence began to be shaped much earlier in my life. There was an incident in my early childhood in which my stepfather, Ken, was nearly hit by a bullet fired in the apartment below ours and, several years later, one of my sister Lena’s middle-school friends was accidentally shot and killed by another friend while playing with an unsecured firearm owned by the shooter’s parents. My sisters and I were too young to really understand the depth of this tragic event but we were sincerely shocked and saddened by it, as was the entire community.
I don’t recall any specific counseling resources being provided to students after the fact but I do remember there being significant changes in Lena’s personality afterward. I think I attributed most of Lena’s attitudes and behaviors throughout our childhood as being driven by her desire to be an only child and resentment of having siblings at all but I wonder now if losing a close friend in such a sudden and violent way may have contributed to her tendency to isolate and distance herself emotionally from others. This is not to say that she hasn’t made friends or developed close relationships since, because she has. I am aware, however, of a fundamental difference in the way that I relate to people and the way she does and this has been a source of internal conflict for me and tension between the two of us. We have not been close to each other since adolescence, exacerbated by my decision to move in with my father and Suzann, beginning in 9th grade.
The summer prior to my entry into high school, our family- Mom, Ken, Lena, Rachael, and I (and possibly Shelly, Chris, and Jessica)- went on a family camping trip to Lake George in the Adirondack Mountain Region of NY. I had recently turned fourteen and was adjusting to puberty in the way I imagine most girls did in the 80s, which is to say, within a spectrum of curiosity, embarrassment, shame, and angst. I had my period while on the trip, which only added to my already ever-present sense of tension within the family. Then a series of events unfolded that ultimately led to my decision that I could no longer stand to live with these people!
It was difficult enough to deal with the lack of privacy and autonomy at home, given our living situation, but it was immeasurably more challenging to do so while sharing a tent with my sisters and a campsite bathroom with all of the other families who were also vacationing there. I was miserable. Moody. Prone to outbursts. Ken and I had become progressively antagonistic over the previous few years and he seemed to have no sense of sympathy or compassion for what I was going through. Of course, I was not particularly articulate at that time about precisely what that was because it was all so confusing and isolating. As an adult, I understand that both of my sisters were also experiencing similar ‘growing pains’ and that my parents were likely overwhelmed by their responsibilities and stressors related to raising us. That said, it just sucked to be a teenaged girl with few recognizable supports and way too many thoughts in my head and feelings in my heart!
One of the activities my parents planned was swimming in Lake George, which was a popular summer destination in the region. As I mentioned, I had my period and was not comfortable using tampons at that time, so swimming was a no-go for me. I watched my parents and sisters splash and play in the water while I roasted in the sun, unable to find shade or a breeze. My skin was sweaty and burning, I had major abdominal cramps, and I was just so over the entire thing! There were cute boys everywhere and I felt like the ugliest, most disgusting creature on the planet. There are really no words to describe how awful it felt at the time but it was basically hell on earth. I am quite certain that it was exceedingly difficult for my parents to have patience with my moody, sullen, snarky attitude. I have worked and built relationships with enough teenage girls to know how easily one’s buttons may be pushed when interacting with them, but as one, I felt completely misunderstood and unfairly persecuted in my situation. We returned to the campsite after a few hours and I pouted and sulked, got into an argument with my parents, then stormed off to hike by myself around the campground for an hour or so.
When I returned, there was obviously something going on with my sister, Lena, and I asked Mom what was happening. Apparently, Lena had a scratch on her leg which was becoming inflamed and painful. She and my parents were, rightfully, concerned and it was determined that they would need to seek out medical attention. Rachael and I stayed at the campsite while Mom & Ken took Lena to a doctor in town. I was worried for my sister but also annoyed that, once again, one of my siblings was getting all of the attention while I was clearly suffering, too. That’s my fourteen year-old perspective, of course. When they returned, Mom told us Lena had Impetigo, a common skin infection, and they could treat it easily with antibiotics and by keeping the wound on her leg covered. We went on with other activities but the attention of my parents remained focused on Lena, at least it seemed that way from my perspective. We went to an amusement park and a petting zoo, made s’mores around the campfire, and packed up before the weekend so we could make our way toward Ken’s family reunion near Albany.
I looked forward to the reunion which was an annual event, gathering the various branches of Ken’s relatives on his mother’s side- most of whom lived in Eastern/Central New York State. I enjoyed reconnecting with aunts, cousins, and others in Ken’s family that we didn’t see often and we always had great food, fun games, and story-telling. I had already decided to talk to my father about moving in with him and, as soon as I had the chance, I planned to broach the subject. I was nervous, not knowing where we stood since he was so rarely around and often even canceled weekend visits with us, even though he and Suzann lived only 20 minutes away from Scottsville. Additionally, when I had blurted out during the week that I was going to move to Dad’s, my mother responded that he wouldn’t take me and didn’t want to be a father.
I finally had an opportunity during dinner time. I sat across from my father at one of the reunion’s reserved pavilion picnic tables and said, “Daddy, I want to move in with you. I can’t stay with Mom and Ken anymore.” He seemed confused and a little flustered at my request. As I remember it, after several minutes of stammering and mumbling, he finally said something like, “I will talk to you mother about this. If it is ok with her, we can try it.” I have no idea how their conversation went but, by the end of the trip, it was determined that I would move to his apartment soon after we got back. I was simultaneously elated (I got my way) and sad (why didn’t my mother fight harder to keep me at home?). By mid-August, I had a new address, would be entering ninth grade in September with my Henrietta friends, and was navigating an entirely new family dynamic with Dad & Suzann.
The transition was definitely tough. I went from an environment where I felt constantly judged and criticized to an environment where I felt mostly ignored. My father was obviously uncomfortable with full-time parenthood, and was preoccupied with work and managing his tumultuous relationship with his young fiancée. Suzann disclosed to me soon after I moved in that she was bisexual and involved in a relationship with a woman she met in the Army Reserves and I had little to no understanding of what that even meant. I was as emotionally vulnerable and confused as ever. On the upside, though, I had my own room FINALLY, and knew I would not be completely alone at school, since my best childhood friends and fellow Girl Scouts, Heather & Kim would be my classmates. I thought that this would be my best chance to reinvent myself and have an entirely different life, regardless of the complications. There was, in any event, no turning back.
Reflecting on this significant transition during my early teens now, over 30 years later. I am able to isolate and identify the relational power dynamics that drove my discontent and the very limited options I believed were available to me at the time. I see similar issues happening in many of my students’ lives and hear them say many of the things I did at their age. They feel stuck. Trapped. Desperate for change but powerless to act. Recently, one of my kids (I refer to all of them as “my kids”) moved temporarily from her mother’s home to her biological father’s due to serious conflict with her mom’s boyfriend and associated safety risks. She talked to me about what was going on in advance of her move, during the process, and afterward. It was like talking to my younger self, honestly. There are so many corollaries in her present situation to my past one that I need to actively remind myself not to project my own feelings and experiences into our discussions.
There are major differences, as well. Her family has been reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) and there are professional social workers involved, which was not the case with me. Her sister attempted suicide (at school!) and was hospitalized, shortly before her move. Both she and her sister have endured significant emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. There are drug and alcohol issues in the home and a lack of boundaries and understanding of expectations and roles between the children and the adults. She is 18, technically “an adult” but still a full-time high school student and not nearly prepared for independent living. She is obsessed with finding a man to love and take care of her and I can’t help but wonder if any currently available interventions could be effective in preventing negative outcomes for her in the near future. I know she values our relationship and my advice but I can’t be the only person in her life that shares alternative visions for her possible futures. I’ll keep doing it, of course, and expect to stay in touch with her after she graduates because I am committed to maintaining the relationships I build with all of my kids. I am, however, just one person and I have worked with and stay in touch with hundreds of young people- most through social media.
I constantly question how much impact I may actually have and doubt that I am truly making a difference. Then, I hear from one of my kids that they decided to look into a new educational option, or they tried something they were afraid of, or they made a new friend, or are still close with other young people they met through me, or they didn’t hurt themselves when they were stressed, or they have a great idea and are going to give it a try, or they helped a sibling resolve a conflict, or they understand something better now and they credit something I said or did with giving them the confidence to recognize these opportunities. That is all the proof I need that my choice to be in relationship with teenagers and young adults is having the intended impact. It motivates me to continue and reminds me that it is in the example I set, more than in the words that I say, that I have significant influence. The big question for me is why do so few adults highlight and demonstrate alternative ways to live for our kids? I think it’s fundamentally about the stories we’re told and the assumptions we hold on to, despite all kinds of evidence to the contrary.
It is a near constant frustration for me that our human and social service systems are perceived by many as unnecessary or wasteful- especially in the absence of natural communities of support for this young person and the millions of others in our country who don’t have their basic needs for safety and security met. What options exist for children, teens, and young adults who have been left to basically raise themselves? Foster care is notoriously inadequate and often seriously harmful. Kinship care is generally better, if there is a family member who is able to step in and assume the role of ‘parent,’ when necessary. More often than not, however, kids are marginalized and/or criminalized for behaving in ways that are entirely predictable and natural when their most basic needs aren’t being addressed.
There have been exponential increases in referrals of children and youth to criminal justice systems in the United States and other developed countries, worldwide, in recent years. Many books, articles, and research reports have been produced about the “School to Prison Pipeline,” and the “School to Pathways of Confinement Pipeline,” and I won’t be focusing too much of my commentary on it, other to say that it reflects a broader pattern of social dysfunction inherent to our dominant, civilizational worldview.
The core argument of law and order evangelists seems to be that laws are necessary to protect a population from those who seek to do harm to others. Regardless of age, cognitive differences, or any other individual factors, those who engage in criminal activity (as defined by legislation) must be punished in order to maintain social stability because punishment serves as a deterrent to others who may consider committing crimes. Schools are, supposedly, places where children are to learn information and practice skills that will prepare them for healthy, productive adult lives. The rules imposed within educational environments are intended to reflect the social norms of the community. Likewise, the consequences of not following the rules are, ostensibly, intended to reflect what happens when individuals make choices that run counter to stated social norms.
It seems logical, then, to take a punitive approach to youthful transgressions. Out in the “real world” people are punished for breaking social rules (laws). Students, therefore, should be punished for breaking institutional rules to dissuade them from future bad behavior. The documented impact of punitive responses to childhood rule-breaking, however, demonstrates that they actually have the opposite effect. Rather than deterring future transgressions, early experiences of punitive discipline actually increase the likelihood that a young person will be involved in increasingly harmful behaviors over the course of their lives. Additionally, institutional responses to “antisocial” behavior are disproportionately applied to people of color, immigrants, individuals with disabilities, and other marginalized individuals and groups. They are, effectively, tools of oppression within a civilizational model that has always and will always impact the most vulnerable among us.
In my work with young people, I have heard dozens of stories that reflect damaging experiences within their schools and communities that have left our kids traumatized. Anxiety, depression, anger, and isolation are natural byproducts of the harmful practices we perpetuate year after year, generation after generation. I applaud the efforts of individuals and groups who are fighting for system reforms and I am active in those movements. I am hearing encouraging dialogue about the need for interrogation of the structures, themselves, and for designing entirely different school models that center the experiences of our most vulnerable populations and restore relationships and communities.
There are many examples of individual school leaders reorienting their approaches with an understanding of the harm our dominant educational paradigm imposes and these are tremendously encouraging. Amplification of these alternative narratives and wider adoption of genuinely restorative philosophies and praxis will have untold positive impacts. Without systemic and institutional re-imagination, however, it’s likely that the hierarchical worldview will continue to overwhelm our efforts. Changing the system from within is part of the solution and should be supported but we must also consider the value of alternatives that exist entirely outside of the formal system, such as homeschooling, unschooling, and democratic schools. We must first begin to understand the importance of transmitting cultural information to our children that ensures their safety and security within the world they are inheriting, rather than merely teaching them to perpetuate the harm our way of life is causing.
I recently reread Daniel Quinn’s novel, My Ishmael, the third book in his series about how our civilization came to be so uniquely destructive and how we might move beyond civilization to “save the world.” In Ishmael, the protagonist was a middle-aged man, which framed the story in a way that many adults could understand and relate to. In My Ishmael, however, a similar story is told but through a 12 year old girl’s perspective. My Ishmael resonates powerfully with me because I relate so deeply with the narrator, Julie, and the insights she uncovers through her interactions with Ishmael.
There is significant interrogation of the educational system, as a whole, throughout the book and it delves deeper into the “why of schooling” than any other resource I’ve ever seen. For hundreds of generations prior to the dominance of state societies, or civilization, children learned by observing and doing what the adults around them did. From infancy, human beings absorb and adopt sensory information and internalize its meaning. Play is learning, exploration is learning, making messes is learning, imitation is learning, bonding is learning, making art is learning, ceremony is learning, gathering food is learning, eating is learning, daydreaming is learning, communicating is learning, fighting is learning, reconciliation is learning… literally everything we do is learning. By centering human education within systemic structures, we have actually disrupted our natural ways of knowing and being intimately connected to ourselves, each other, and the rest of the world.
Schooling has been developed to perpetuate our particular culture and the inherent hierarchies contained therein. In My Ishmael, a long-form Socratic dialogue between Julie and Ishmael results in several significant realizations, including the idea that schools are ultimately tools of detention, keeping young people institutionally contained for 12-27 years (if they pursue graduate studies) in order to prevent them from competing in the economy because our current economic system could not withstand their entrance sooner. Imagine the unemployment numbers if we started expecting 14-year-olds to work full time! They are certainly consumers prior to socially-prescribed adulthood, however, and their relative immaturity makes them tremendously vulnerable to misinformation, propaganda, product marketing, and peer pressure.
Individual responsibility has been a primary focus of the civilizational worldview since quite early on. It seems to me that the purpose of making individuals feel personally responsible for their fortunes and fates without much regard for the impacts of systemic and institutional structures, enforced through policy and policing, is to effectively deny that any such impacts even exist. The stories we’re told from earliest childhood reinforce this concept and establish a foundation for believing all the myths I laid out in the beginning of this book.
Despite compelling arguments and examples within the Social Sciences and Humanities, including history, economics, sociology, anthropology, theology, literature, and philosophy, which persuasively challenge the primacy of the notion of individual responsibility, it persists and grows because it is central to the dominant economic and political narratives of the most powerful governments and corporations in the world. As with the myth of perpetual growth, the myth of individual responsibility compels our cultural slide toward mass destruction. What will it take for humanity to visibly shift toward collective social obligation and benefits?
I believe this shift is already well underway but it is being obscured and actively opposed by the “powers that be.” Millions of organizations are working for human rights, social justice, and environmental conservation/restoration but they are still typically seen as separate initiatives. In his 2007 book, “Blessed Unrest,” noted environmentalist, Paul Hawken, describes this as the largest movement in the world, by sheer numbers, and the greatest hope for social and ecological renewal on Earth. The book jacket says:
The dawn of the 21st century has witnessed two remarkable developments in our history: the appearance of systemic problems that are genuinely global in scope, and the growth of a worldwide movement that is determined to heal the wounds of the earth with the force of passion, dedication, and collective intelligence and wisdom. Across the planet groups ranging from ad-hoc neighborhood associations to well-funded international organizations are confronting issues like the destruction of the environment, the abuses of free-market fundamentalism, social justice, and the loss of indigenous cultures. They share no orthodoxy or unifying ideology; they follow no single charismatic leader; they remain supple enough to coalesce easily into larger networks to achieve their goals. While they are mostly unrecognized by politicians and the media, they are bringing about what may one day be judged the single most profound transformation of human society.
Transformation is the goal but the process seems so fragmented and slow and the dominant cultural forces described herein render much of the progress being made essentially invisible to most people. How do we connect and combine our efforts so as to make them clearly visible? In my own relatively small city, there are thousands of different individual and group initiatives operating in our communities- some formally, others informally, but they are clearly here. The myth of separation, however, has done its work well and effectively prevented the recognition that these efforts are fundamentally all parts of one whole.
Striving for human rights and sustainable livelihoods for all are the core values of each, with divergence existing in the rigid definitions of identity and methods. I have been involved in many of these initiatives and have tried, with limited success, to connect them but I’m beginning to see areas of convergence that are very encouraging. A number of activist leaders locally are beginning to connect the dots and see the bigger picture. More of us need to say it out loud- we are all working for the same end goals and we are so much more than the sum of our parts. Isolation and institutional “silo-ing” are, in and of themselves, part of what we need to address.
When people are passionately engaged in a particular issue, based on their lived experience, the tendency toward issue ranking is difficult to avoid. This is especially true when the oppression and exclusion experienced by certain groups is so egregious as to represent a clear and immediate existential threat to those who identify as belonging within those groups. I am referring to women, LGBTQIA+ and non-binary people, indigenous people, people of color, immigrants & refugees, people with physical and intellectual disabilities, children, the elderly, and poor people. In recent years, the concept of intersectionality- or the belonging of individuals to multiple marginalized groups at the same time. I think this is really important and believe that an understanding of intersectionality will lead us to more inclusive definitions in the future. Given the urgency of the current moment in time, however, it seems incumbent on those of us who recognize that we are all, ultimately, included in the existential threat of ecosystem collapse to move the conversation forward as quickly as possible. Daniel Quinn used a short parable to illustrate this idea:
The ship was sinking—and sinking fast. The captain told the passengers and crew, “We’ve got to get the lifeboats in the water right away.”
But the crew said, “First we have to end capitalist oppression of the working class. Then we’ll take care of the lifeboats.”
Then the women said, “First we want equal pay for equal work. The lifeboats can wait.”
The racial minorities said, “First we need to end racial discrimination. Then seating in the lifeboats will be allotted fairly.”
The captain said, “These are all important issues, but they won’t matter a damn if we don’t survive. We’ve got to lower the lifeboats right away!”
But the religionists said, “First we need to bring prayer back into the classroom. This is more important than lifeboats.”
Then the pro-life contingent said, “First we must outlaw abortion. Fetuses have just as much right to be in those lifeboats as anyone else.”
The right-to-choose contingent said, “First acknowledge our right to abortion, then we’ll help with the lifeboats.”
The socialists said, “First we must redistribute the wealth. Once that’s done everyone will work equally hard at lowering the lifeboats.”
The animal-rights activists said, “First we must end the use of animals in medical experiments. We can’t let this be subordinated to lowering the lifeboats.”
Finally the ship sank, and because none of the lifeboats had been lowered, everyone drowned.
The last thought of more than one of them was, “I never dreamed that solving humanity’s problems would take so long—or that the ship would sink so SUDDENLY.”
I’ve used this parable as a discussion starter with various groups and had some interesting feedback. Some have defended the positions of those in the story talking about the need for particular groups points of view to be understood and accepted before we can attend to the issues that affect everyone. Others have struggled to see the real life corollaries to our current global situation because their knowledge base and experiences are limited. As the captain said, they are all important issues. What are the consequences, though, of not dealing with the big picture issues as a matter of priority?
Based on my research and experience, it seems clear that the issues affecting the most vulnerable among us continue to get worse in most cases, despite the increased efforts of those dedicated and passionate people working to improve their circumstances. If it is the overarching civilizational model, itself, that is the source of oppression, exploitation, and violence against individuals and groups, it is the model that must change before any lasting improvement in the lived experience of human beings may be achieved. Our ship is sinking. To save ourselves we must understand that our belief systems are bringing us down. Let’s lower the lifeboats FIRST and build on what we know works.
What does it mean to lower the lifeboats in the context of the events of the last 9 months? I wrote the previous seven chapters before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States and shifted my focus to creating a website and blog (www.mama-sara-says.com) so that I could communicate ideas and resources more immediately, having no guarantee that my book would be published and a sense of immediacy, given the rapid transmission of a novel, deadly virus. I posted the initial chapters of this manuscript there as blog post and as a distinct “page” as an attempt to bring these ideas to the public without delay. As I write this, on December 24, 2020, my site has had approximately 1,600 views by 825 visitors. On one hand, this is encouraging because prior to creating the site, only a few people had engaged in conversations with me about these topics and those conversations were much more limited in scope and potential consequence. On the other hand, I find myself impatient and wondering how these ideas may have a meaningful impact on the scale necessary to actually make a difference in our collective direction as a species if I don’t reach more people more quickly. I’ve determined that I can’t be more focused on the outcome than I am on expressing these ideas while I’m having them. I see this as lowering one lifeboat and having confidence that others are lowering theirs.
In the year since I started recording my thoughts, everything has changed- how we work, how we socialize, how we plan… all aspects of society have been radically affected by COVID-19. When I began, I mentioned global pandemic as one of the inevitable consequences of our cultural worldview having no idea that there would be an imminent outbreak and I take no pleasure in having predicted this would happen. It is evidence, however, that there is evidence to support my position beyond the theoretical.
Today’s numbers, according to the John Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard, are staggering:
- Global Confirmed 78,822,167
- Global Deaths 1,732,961
- U.S. Confirmed 18,466,231
- U.S. Deaths 326,232
Nearly 80 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide- 18.46 million in the US, alone. Over 1,700,000 people have died as a result of this virus. How can anyone wrap their heads around these data and truly understand their significance? A year ago, this disease was unknown to almost everyone in the world and now it dominates our lives, our relationships, and our collective future. In the early days of the pandemic, most of the world complied with state authorities and shut down their economies and their social lives in order to “stop the spread” and “flatten the curve.” This was, initially, a strategy to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed with emergency patients who require medical interventions to treat the symptoms of this novel strain of Coronavirus. As the pandemic has worn on, however, the desire to reopen the economy overwhelmed the public health imperative and many were encouraged and/or forced to go back out into public spaces to work, go to school, socialize, shop, etc. Predictably, the numbers have exploded ever since.
Through the spring of 2020, those of us fortunate enough to have safe homes and jobs that could be done remotely, were compelled to adapt to this new reality and did so without severe disruptions to our bodily security. Others, including “essential workers” in health care, retail, food service, manufacturing, and other sectors of the economy that require onsite labor, have been required to put themselves at risk of contracting this debilitating and deadly disease in order to maintain their income. Still others, including the unacceptably high numbers of unhoused individuals and families; people engaged in the shadow industries of sex work, prison labor, and other forms of desperation economics; and the most economically disadvantaged disabled, elderly, and impoverished members of our society have been effectively abandoned by our governments at every level- sacrificed on the alter of capitalism, yet again. The data prove that global impacts of the pandemic have disproportionately devastated the already most vulnerable members of our human family. In America, this means that Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor people have died at a much higher rate than more privileged groups- not because they are more susceptible to the virus, itself, but because they are forced to be exposed to it in greater numbers.
“We’re all in this together,” is a pleasant-sounding slogan that has become ubiquitous throughout the pandemic but it rings hollow when considered in context. For those members of our culture and societies who are dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 within relatively comfortable circumstances, it is nearly impossible to understand and acknowledge the desperate conditions that were a daily reality for millions in America and billions around the world before the pandemic hit. Some pundits and social critics have rightly stated that COVID-19 has not created the imbalanced impact of this crisis of the working poor and others listed (and unlisted) in the previous paragraph but has shone a light on the pre-existing injustices resulting from our foundational social structures and systems. This image, created and shared by Barbara Kelley, and shared widely through social media, reflects the idea that we are all in the same storm but not in the same boat/s.
This ties in with the lifeboat metaphor from Daniel Quinn’s parable of the Sinking Ship and draws additional insights on our individual positions within collective crises. The overlapping and interrelated existential issues of the pandemic, global warming/ecological crisis, and economic/social inequity have converged in this moment in history more vividly and visibly than ever before and this has led to what many have called an awakening of our collective consciousness to some of the myths I discussed earlier in this book. Others have called it a reckoning, forcing the privileged to see the horrors their comfort has caused. These interpretations have the same basic idea at their core but are described through distinct lenses with different implications. I will explore these in detail in the next section.
Section 2: Awakening, Reckoning, and Reconciliation
Awakening is a complicated concept. Partly because our human brains are influenced by so many uncontrollable elements including biological, physiological, phenomenological, experiential, environmental, somatic, and spiritual. There is quite a lot of talk these days about “being woke,” in the wake of massive protests against police brutality and other structural oppressions of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (current terminology, expressed in the acronym, BIPOC). The slang term for being awakened, “woke,” predated the current Movement for Black Lives and has been commented on publicly and at length by artists, cultural critics, pundits, and politicians. There are those who focus on the origin of the term within Black slang, also know as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and it’s usage being outside of “proper English” and justify it’s dismissal on that aspect alone. Others take issue with the usage of the term by anyone outside of Black identity, calling that use “appropriation” or “performative allyship.” Whether one calls it “woke,” “awakened,” “aware,” or “awake,” the idea is the same- it’s about shedding illusions or mythologies one once held and noticing that one’s own experience of the world is incomplete and biased by all of the elements I listed and probably others that have no known language to describe them.
Consciousness is one of the most contentious areas of philosophical discourse and has proliferated innumerable books, articles, research studies, reports, films, and other forms of communication. Gurus, coaches, writers, faith/spiritual leaders, and others have found space within a burgeoning “consciousness industry” as the acceleration of man-made destruction has left masses of people suffering, confused, isolated, and grasping for certainty. One might conclude that my own effort to illuminate ideas about hierarchy and its conflicts with the nature of humanity as I understand it is an attempt to profit from these conditions.
I do seek to have influence on the collective consciousness, to illuminate potentially transformative ideas, and engage with others on as broad a scale as possible. I’m committed to using whatever privilege and platform I have to facilitate what I recognize as a necessary worldview shift and being intentional about doing that in a way that exploits no one. In a culture that conditions us to believe that our value is determined only by what others will pay us to do, I seek to demonstrate that we may offer our gifts to the world without material compensation and rediscover the knowledge of our ancestors that what we actually need to survive and thrive are the will and skills to build communities of care, tending to each other and the land, air, and water upon which we all depend.
We have, for the most part, been convinced that we must work for corporations and other artificial institutions in order to live. What our indigenous communities and a long view of human history tell us is that ecological economic models are not only viable, they are necessary, if we are to create safety and sustainability for ourselves and future generations. I recognize that the confluence and convergence of social and environmental justice movements- led by long-marginalized voices of Black, brown, indigenous, female, young, queer, nonbinary, disabled, and poor people- is our best hope to shift from a culture of harm to a culture of care and repair. This is what we are being called to awaken to in this time. It is not an intellectual exercise but something I believe we all feel on some deep level and that every one of us has a role in enacting.