Another Dimension of Seeing Things Whole
The last entry of the series I’ve posted, to express the fruit of my life’s work, is “The Importance of Seeing Things Whole.”
In that series, my way of Seeing Things Whole highlighted some of the major dynamics that operate in the human world, having a profound impact on our destiny, preventing us from achieving the kind of world that we would wish (i.e. one marked by peace and not war, by kindness and not cruelty, by fulfillment and not misery). It is a schema that Sees Things Whole by outlining the mechanisms involved in the unfolding of the system we call human civilization.
But so vast and deep and incredibly interconnected is the human world, that this analysis of forces – however helpful – hardly begins to convey all the huge Wholeness of that Whole I’ve declared is important to see.
Over the years, I’ve had moments that were special to me that involved one way or another of zeroing in on some slice of this incredible Thing that is what we are, where we are, enacting what we enact, while experiencing what we experience.
While all of these glimpses are in harmony with that more systematic “integrative vision,” to me they are also suggestive of the Bigger Reality that transcends it.
Over the years, those glimpses got embodied in smaller-gauge writings that are close to my heart because each — individually — depicts in some vivid way some drama that plays out in our world.
Collectively, their diversity of spirit and logic and feeling help me remain aware of how big that Whole is. (And remind me of how big the stakes are in whether the human world will be preserved or lost. (I.e. whether the experiment humankind is conducting about whether Civilization can survive, or whether it will destroy itself because we could not sufficiently master the requirements of the Whole of which we are a part.)
So these pieces, below, are kinds of touchstones for me that show me something that feels meaningful for me both because each puts some flesh on the bones of that “integrative vision,” and because of what they intimate collectively by virtue of their often being so strikingly different from one another.
In that diversity, this series of pieces is the opposite of “The Fateful Step” series. That series described itself as an integrated vision of the human situation, and claimed value for fitting some big pieces together into one coherent perspective on our story, our nature, and on the challenges we must meet.
The value of this other series, for me, lies precisely in their diversity, on how each represents a meaningful experience I’ve had of seeing this variety of things in this variety of ways.
Here are links (along with excerpts) to some of the pieces that are closest to my heart, because they pointed me toward seeing more dimensions of that Wholeness that is way beyond our capacity to encompass or register fully.
Mind of the Bread Baker (1995)
“The minds of those who conceived this process of turning grain into bread had themselves been cultivated by generations of experience turning earth into crops of food to eat. What I saw was this: the baker of bread is farming, and what he is growing is yeast.
“Think of it. The farmer tills his –or her– soil; the baker grinds the wheat into flour, preparing a special kind of earth for a particular kind of crop. The farmer sows seed into his prepared soil; the baker adds yeast into the dough. Like the step from the primitive society’s gathering of seeds for eating into agricultural society’s growing of crops, the step into the baking of leavened bread also required people to grab hold of the forces of growth and reproduction: the seed that used to just fall onto the ground is now planted; the fungus that used to biodegrade the grain seed in the earth is now brought to the feast of the seed ground up for the dough.”
[In a scene in the film, Cabaret,] At first we see only the youth’s handsome face. As he sings, the camera pulls back so we gradually see more. Suddenly, startlingly, we see he’s wearing a Nazi armband with its swastika. As the singing proceeds, the spirit of the song changes from the lyric sweetness of the opening into the aggressive drumbeat of a military anthem. The lone singer is joined by more and more of the crowd, whose faces have been transformed from the original warm friendliness into a look of angry resolve.
The singing ends with Nazi salutes…
Our lives are inextricably linked with our membership in our species. What are we to think of our kind— once we have witnessed people whom we have previously considered regular, decent people being transformed into willing agents of evil?
Lucky are those who never have to witness such dark transformations in their neighbors. But history has continued to compel many to see such disturbing things that cannot be un-seen.
Cry the Benighted Country (2015)
In every society, both constructive and destructive forces are always at work. But the balance of power between those forces is not constant. Such factors as the quality of its leadership and the impact of its national experience can strengthen either the best or the worst in a society…
Many of us in America today sense an adverse shift in the balance of power between the elements that have made our nation great, and those that tear down what’s best about our nation. Some dimensions of this shift can be seen in three key elements of the American body politic….
This combination of the destructiveness of the right and the weakness of the left has resulted in one of the most profound crises in American history. It is a time when, as the poet Yeats said, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are filled with a passionate intensity.” A time when, as a result, the lie has too often defeated the truth.
[About people whose moral structure might be called “Exo-skeletons” in that they rely on the external moral force imposed by society to help keep their conduct within the moral boundaries they believe in.]
[Such Exo-skeletons, I learned from discussing moral issues with them on the radio] assume that people who don’t believe in their firm and strict moral structures — people who don’t believe in God, the Ten Commandments, or inviolable and absolute rules of moral conduct — must be living lives of sin and debauchery. They can’t understand — and often seem unwilling even to believe — that people like Humanists might be living the kind of well-ordered lives, as hard-working and law-abiding citizens responsible and dedicated to their families, that they themselves strive to live….
For one whose moral structure is cast in that exo-skeleton form, the absence of external moral authority seems necessarily to imply the outbreak of moral anarchy. That’s the logic implied by the famous line from Fyodor Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov: “if there is no God, everything is permitted.” It’s what lies behind the fear that if gays are allowed to marry, marriage generally would somehow be threatened, including the sanctity of one’s own.
It becomes clear why such people — possessing intense moral concerns, combined with a reliance on external moral structures to keep their own forbidden impulses in check — would support a state that enforces moral rules and a social culture that stigmatizes those who violate those rules….
Liberals have often failed to understand how…it is the Exo-Skeleton’s dependence on the strength and integrity of the external moral order that drives many on the right to crusade to make the whole world around them conform to the moral system to which they themselves are striving to adhere. The unspoken — and generally unacknowledged — need is: “Please, society, be morally strict enough to keep me on the straight-and-narrow path.”
Our Pathways to Deep Meaning (2004)
As I moved from this place of deeper integrity, I noticed that something significant shifted with regard to my entire spiritual condition. My engagement with people became more open-hearted; my sense of beauty became intensified (I began hearing music, for example, like that Beethoven, at a deeper level); my connection with my wife as a lover became fuller; my capacity for insight into the vast web of interconnections of cause and effect in our incredibly complex world became newly ignited.
I became, in other words, spiritually much more alive. And I was struck by the fact that –even though it was by moving far down one of the pathways that I had come more fully to life, spiritually– going down that one path seem to make all the others open up to me!
It seemed, indeed, as though all the paths fed each other. The more I opened my eyes to beauty, the more I opened my heart to love; the more I came from the core of my being, the more I devoted myself to the path of righteousness, the more I opened my mind to encompassing insight; the more I saw the beauty of it all…. I was reminded of something I’d noticed when I was much younger– that when I fell in love, the flowers seemed markedly more beautiful.
I felt quite intrigued by this synergy among these pathways. And then, one day, another powerful clue –embedded in the pattern of these pathways– emerged for me in starker relief.
[This piece was written in October, 1985, at a time when the cold war had intensified, bringing intensified anxiety about the possibilities of nuclear war, and when the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers – President Reagan of the United States and Premier Gorbachev of the Soviet Union – were about to meet for the first time. This was written and performed as a radio commentary broadcast on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”]
I went to the Kennedy Center the other night. On the way in, I noticed that the huge bank of windows around the entrance, flanked by tall metal columns, formed a visual doorway sixty feet high. The place was designed at the height of the American empire. We thought we were bigger than human, so we built entrances for giants….
I was moved to remember the obvious, that more than anything else the Russians are our fellow human beings. It is those Russians who wept in Leningrad [at the performance of the symphony by Shostakovich that was being performed that night at the Kennedy Center], and their children, and their grandchildren, whom we are poised to vaporize by the millions, I thought; and it is they whose weapons stand ready to annihilate us.
We are all living now in an era over which terror rules. Our fear we have in common, yet we have allowed our fear to divide us. From fear of being vulnerable human beings, we make ourselves into nuclear giants. These giants hide their fear behind the fortifications on which they display their bluster and threat. Bigger than human, but less than human too.
The true “high frontier” lies not in an outer space to be filled with still more weapons. It is in our inner space, where we are challenged to find that common humanity that can bridge over the walls we have built between us.
The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large… (2022)
It is an inescapable part of the human condition that we all lose people we love…
I was reminded of this lately by a deeply meaningful experience that my wife, April, has had regarding her mother, who died back in the late 90s.
Only recently there came into April’s hands a packet of stories her mother had written. As April read the stories – many of them drawn from the life of the family in which April had grown up – she suddenly felt her mother’s presence again, quickened in her consciousness…
Reading these stories – feeling again in contact with the parents she loved — moved April to tears.
These stories turned out to be an “Heirloom”—defined as something passed down the generations that the generations of the future will experience as something of value.
[This is from the first entry in a series titled The Heirloom Project.]
The Sacred Space of Lovers (2019)
Lovers, ideally, inhabit a space that’s safe for intimacy and vulnerability—which pretty well captures the inevitable circumstances into which the human infant is born. Lovers support each other in being their best selves, which is also the task of parents in raising children best able to flourish in their world. And lovers experience together the feeling that life is good, and our feeling an attachment to life makes not only for happiness but for survival as well.
The more that lovers can realize together the ideal of that “sacred space,” the more they can provide a template around which children can grow up to be whole, with the strength and soundness conducive to navigating life’s challenges well. And the more they can carry in their own hearts the ability, when they are grown up, to establish a lovers’ relationship that will provide the same for children of their own.
This ideal “space of lovers” is sacred, then, because life is sacred, and because the space of lovers –in all its dimensions– is at the heart of how our human form of life has perpetuated itself.
And we experience that wholeness as sacred because our nature has been crafted to find fulfillment and beauty along those paths that have best served the life of our kind.
Cumulative and non-cumulative
The Forest is Coming (1997)
What was visible to me was that something powerful was emerging from the earth—not just emerging during that burgeoning spring, but gathering strength and gaining ground over the years since we’d moved here.
It was as if my mind were now able to play out a years-long time-elapsed film, and could discern in that mental reel what it is that the earth is up to.
What the earth wants to create here is a great forest, and laid out before me was the evidence of how substantially the earth had progressed in this vital endeavor…
In the flush of the spring, I could see –I could feel– the forest growing toward us, rising around us.
What a beautiful and mighty living thing I saw, reclaiming its domain.
“This is what happens on this part of our earth,” I said to myself, “when we get out of the way.”
It is a significant fact that a non-negligible portion of humanity has experiences of a special kind, experiences they describe as breaking through to a dimension of reality that’s deeper, bigger, more illuminated. …
From such experiences, people can return feeling “spiritually transformed.” And bearing what they regard as “spiritual truths.” Such experiences are exceptionally impactful, often changing the course of a person’s life.
That is a factual reality in the human world.
The fact that people have such special experiences is sufficient to prove that the spiritual dimension is real. (What could be more real that something that can blow a person off one life-path and onto another?)
And the fact that people experience this breakthrough level of experience as having a special level of importance is sufficient to confirm that it is important.
One more thing to be said about the capacity for these real and important experience: this capacity is also life-serving, as we can infer from these facts:
1) The capacity for such an experience – one that feels like a breakthrough, and perhaps even “revelatory” — seems to be widespread in the human genome. A significant fraction of the population reports having such experiences. (And it’s possible that many more have the potential for that special dimension of experience, but have never realized that potential.)
2) Such a capacity would not be a widespread part of the human genome unless it had been actively selected for… And
3) That capacity would not have been actively selected for if it had not proved to have survival value. (I.e. had it not proved to be the case that those populations among our ancestors that contained people with the capacity for deep spiritual experience were more likely to pass their DNA into the future than those who lacked that capacity.)