In the past few years, as Parabola has searched for ways to survive and be useful in the world, the question of how to live as if we are all interconnected has moved to the center of my life. We mutually belong to one another and to a greater whole—this ancient idea resonates with me on the deepest level. Yet, on a less deep, more worldly level it also feels dangerous, something to be practiced by special beings like Jesus and Buddha, or at least in very special and safe conditions with like-minded individuals.
Younger contributors to Parabola disagree. Nipun Mehta, offers a profile of his friend. Pancho Ramos Stierle in the current Burning World issue, that includes images of Pancho meditating while getting hauled away by police in Occupy Oakland, picking up broken glass in the street. The son of an economics scholar and author, Pancho came from Mexico to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics at the University of California at Berkeley, only to leave school to become an uncompromising activist of compassionate and nonviolent social change, much influenced by Gandhi: “For Pancho, the whole world, every moment, is his field of practice. When he was recently asked what nourishes him, his response was clear: meditation and small acts of kindness. “
Reading about Pancho, a reader can’t help but feel uplifted but also full of wondermet, that such purity of heart and action can exist in this world. What about the rest of worldlings? Well, it turns out that Pancho and Nipun have many like-minded (they might prefer “like-hearted”) friends. Last winter, Nipun and his wife Guri were invited to UNESCO headquarters in Paris to speak at a conference with youth leaders from 193 countries. Mehta used a word that isn’t yet in the dictionary: “giftivism,” which he defined as the practice of radical acts of generosity to change the world. Admitting that youth are best equipped to do the impossible, Nipun proceeded to describe how he and friends started a volunteer-run, internet-based charity organization called ServiceSpace that today has 350,000 members.
“Gandhi, Teresa, MLK, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela all have one remarkable trait in common: generosity,” Nipun said in his speech in Paris. “And in our era of the Internet, everything has been dis-intermediated, and our heroes are no exception. Era of celebrity is over as we usher in the era of everyday Gandhis.” He went on to describe a gift economy from the inside, as inner shifts in attitude from consumption to contribution, from mistrust to trust, from isolation to community, from scarcity to abundance—in which you begin to notice and value non-material resources, like connection or “social connection.”
What does it really take to change? Most of us have had moments when our attention shifted from figure to ground, from narrow egocentric centered way of looking at the world to feeling as if we are participating in something much larger. Often this shift involves a shock of some kind. In my last post, I described being young and trapped in a narrative of being small, only to have Meryl Streep walk in my little office and show me that kindness and responsiveness are actually more interesting and alive than a concept called celebrity (in that instance of simple kindness, a celebrity was actually choosing to be an “everyday Gandhi.”) Yet those moments pass and my old conditioning takes over.
Learning to spend more time in the gift economy will be a long journey for me. But I know that times have changed, and ideas and ways that used to seem idealistic and for younger people are beginning to seem incredibly sane and sensible. Indeed, the nonmaterial wealth that we can draw on in these hard times may be closer than we think. What do you think? Do you know people who are shifting the way they live and what they count as wealth?
Here, as food for thought, is an exchange I had with Jonathan F.B. Rose, also in the Burning World issue.
Parabola: How are we to change?
JR: The first thing we have to change is the way we see things, moving from a linear view to a holistic view. It is hard to understand one’s effect on the whole system. To reduce environmental impacts, many more people are paying more attention to turning off lights when they leave a room, for example. This is a very good thing but many Americans are far more polluting in their auto use and other transportation habits. One of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves and for the world is to walk. Yet we don’t live in a world that is organized for walking. Many Americans live in suburban areas that are designed to require auto use and make walking very impractical for most activities so there is an inherent pattern in the land use system that deeply shapes our environmental behaviors.
If we want to shift our environmental behaviors, we will not get there by proposing changes that lead to increased suffering. Environmental solutions will be mostly accepted if they lead to increased pleasure and increased quality of life. What we are seeing is that when cities and communities create bike lanes and great safe sidewalks planted with trees, when the train stations have winterized parking for bikes, when the system is designed to encourage people to have healthy behaviors, they eagerly do it. Somebody told me today that the biggest problem with the bike lanes in New York is that they are crowded, and that’s because they were made safe and convenient.
P: Consciousness seems to change when it has to. In northern Westchester where I live, during this power outage the Salvation Army has set up a warming center in the local middle school. It was like the village green. People of all ages and income levels were mingling there to get warm, to charge our phones and computers, and to talk about how the weather is changing and what we can do about it. This willingness to change and to pull together just seemed to appear. Of course it may be very temporary.
JR: From an evolutionary point, human beings have the patterns of a “we map” and a “me map.” These are cultural but also cognitive and neurological patterns. The “me map” is the self-preservation model, single issue, single response, very linear. If a bear jumps out of the woods, you fight or flee. The “me” issues, the ego issues, are all either based on fear or desire based issues. We have a world that has increasingly has been designed around stimulating that. Advertising tries to get you to want something and since 9/11, the language of politics has been based on fear and encouraging consumption. It’s very difficult to deal with complex issues from this “me” way of thinking. But we are also highly evolved for altruism. We survived much more in groups than as individuals, and you need a different set of skills to live in a group. You need to collaborate, to concede, to compromise, and to lead, and you need to balance those all the time. Altruism is a positive evolutionary trait. It comes with a neurological system—mirror neurons. It comes with a cultural system—every culture has a system of collective decision making and a way of appreciating the common good. This system is very good at dealing with complexity.
We learn that the way we frame messages can stimulate an altruistic mind or an egocentric mind. Just by reading the word “money” right now shifts you more into the “me” part of the mind. We know that we can also trigger pro social behavior through the messages and commitments of our society. As individuals, we can put our fingers on the scale of the collective good—which is really not the opposite of the individual good because everything we use or rely upon comes from so many sources that the collective good is our individual good.