Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches about something he calls interbeing. “If you are a poet,” he writes about a sheet of paper, “you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper.” In his worldview, the clouds, the rain, the trees, the paper, and the sunshine all are the same thing, and, in fact, are the same as all things.
As a former scientist, I know this to be true. All that we see today, everything that exists in our Universe, everything that ever has existed, and everything that ever will exist all trace their substance–their matter and their energy–to a single cosmic event, a single “big bang.” When I breathe out, I exhale carbon dioxide that is taken up by plants and turned into sugars. When I inhale, I take up oxygen given off by the grass and flowers, I breathe in moisture that once evaporated from a far-away ocean.
All that we know, all that we see, all that we experience, is of the same stuff. It is all interrelated. It is all connected.
In my Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, we speak of “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Usually, this phrase is used to refer to the natural world around us. Respect for this web leads us to environmental consciousness and an Earth-centered spirituality. I think we stop too soon in understanding the extent to which humanity is part of that interdependent web.
American society has long been centered on the individual. “Rugged individualism” is part of our national lore, in which people can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and make it on their own. As a nation, we venerate self-reliance and eschew any mention of collective action or collective responsibility. This leads us to be disdainful of people who don’t have enough, as if it is their fault entirely. This leads us to idolize those who have a lot, as if they earned their wealth through some great moral enterprise.
Individualism, however, is a myth. None of us can make it on our own. None of us. If you need proof, just imagine a baby dropped in a field somewhere; that human beings begin life completely dependent on others should give us a clue about the rest of our lives as well. We need one another–for survival, for inspiration, for challenge, for perspective. I need you, and you need me.
My faith teaches me that what happens to you is directly related to what happens to me, and vice-versa. You and I are inextricably bound together in what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “a single garment of destiny.”
I am, therefore, called to be concerned about what happens to you. I am called to be concerned about what happens to each of my human siblings, and each of my non-human ones as well. Put plainly, your fate and your plight are my business.
I wish that our national story taught of interdependence rather than independence. I wish that instead of debating how we might enrich and ennoble a privileged few we would turn the national debate to how we might uplift each and every person in our midst.
I realize that such a wish comes with a very partisan slant these days, and for that I am truly sorry. Americans of all political stripes believe in a society in which all people can be successful–it just seems more and more that we differ on how that success comes about. I believe it comes about when we realize we’re all in this together.