If I were to tell you that I came of age in America in the 1960s and that from that experience, I believe that reality has many “levels,” you might infer from my statement that this would be the logical outcome of the drug culture of the time. While that path may have been true for some, many of us came to this notion through the potent cross fertilization of ideas, accomplished through exposure to the stories, literature, philosophy and politics of multiple cultures. Heartfelt conversations and shared experiences flowed freely, among those for whom the group “member card” consisted of being simply “under thirty,” after which time some sort of rigid calcification was believed to most assuredly occur. While this cut-off date was arbitrary and many extraordinary people over-thirty proved this idea to be patently untrue, there was a palpable sense of passion and urgency to the search for self-expansion and self-realization at the time.
Traveling and living in “foreign” lands around the world, learning more languages and seeing lives lived in many different ways did much to relieve us of the idea that there is only one way to live a good, meaningful life. For, even when any of us agree on and accept a vision of reality, and we must to some extent in order to maintain a functioning society, they are others elsewhere, for whom our reality may make little or no sense. It is a paradox we live with, this putting our faith in something we know to be so subjective. But it is also an opportunity, even a playful opportunity, to experiment with different possibilities, to see with “different eyes,” to engage with other, different stories. The immense political, cultural and deeply harmful divide we are currently experiencing in our country speaks loudly of our unwillingness to listen to each other and our inability to understand each other. Yet, we are all human beings. How did we get this way?
Lend me your colored glasses
Imagine a group of toddlers with a basket full of see-through glasses or transparent tiles of different colors. They first try one and then another. They trade back and forth, delighted with the changing, sensory experience. They tell each other – look at mine! Everything is pink – or orange, or blue. Shouting gleefully, “You’re GREEN”, they collapse in unbridled laughter. The truth is, when we cling to one set of glasses, we filter out the other colors. It’s the same with our ideas.
So, why are toddlers able to “play’ with something that seems so “reality altering?” Perhaps because they are so newly arrived from God and haven’t been on planet Earth long enough to have acquired a fixed set of ideas? They are still so new, so free, seeing and experiencing everything with new eyes. Without a fixed notion of how things “should” be, they are free to “play” with anything that “could” be, and to enjoy, to experiment, and to entertain all the possibilities of what “might” be.
We encourage our children to “talk” like the animals – to growl, and hiss and quack. We encourage them to take on the “persona” of “the other.” And we smile when they surprise us disguised as a bear, a fox or a duck. It’s all great fun!
So what’s so different adult to adult?
There are subtle, but critical changes that occur between toddlerhood and adulthood. Bit by bit the child learns through feedback from family, church, school, race, ethnicity and/or national identity, what is required to be a member “in good standing” of that group. And, little by little what doesn’t fit the norm as accepted by that group is purged, sometimes gently, sometimes harshly, until by the time the child enters grade school, the seeds of identity have been sown. “Playtime” is over and decisions have consequences. To a greater or lesser extent the individual has entered a fixed, communal state of consciousness – a cultural trance.
But, we individuals are unique. Each of us plays the central role in determining what each of us experiences. It is sometimes difficult to share even the simplest of experiences. Is my blue, your blue? Is your aqua – blue or is it green? In even these mundane examples, we must admit that what we perceive is not always what others perceive. There are –I believe by design – subtle, and not so subtle, beautiful differences in the way we see things, the way we take in information. Our “scaffolding” to which we attach every piece of new information we gather is one built piece by piece by our upbringing and the families and cultures with which we identify. Ask any two jurors in a jury room what they heard. Ask any two people at the scene of an accident what they saw. Chances are there is some overlap, but there is also a “story,” a context that resonates with that person, that accompanies how he/she interprets what he/she saw or heard – a context they have carefully, likely unconsciously constructed, one that fits their sense of reality, as recipients of the cosmology of their family, race, class and/or culture.
Yet, we continue to believe that there is a single reality “out there” and furthermore that it is fixed, rather than a product created by our own individual consciousness.
How DO we find common ground?
The truth is we’ve lost our moorings. These are troublesome times. Without a sense of our shared, common ground, we become fearful and anxious. We’ve lost a sense of creating something together – something great, something of universal benefit, something for the common good. We might think that what we are choosing is for everyone’s common good, and that if everyone will just “get with our program” they’ll eventually understand that it’s in their best interest. Unlike the toddlers, we aren’t trading our colored glasses anymore. We aren’t talking and listening with open hearts, with curiosity to learn and expand our awareness. We are wedded to our own pair of glasses, whatever color they might be. We are divided and we suffer for it. It’s hard to be optimistic. We live under a blanket of tribalism, blame and unforgiveness. We’re hunkering down, tightening our grip, afraid to loosen up, to open our hands to others. We’re in a state of contraction, shutting and locking door after door, until we feel “in control” of the chaos, meanwhile living in fear and tribulation. And, with “the proof being in the pudding” as they say, even being “right” really doesn’t feel all that good anymore, or give us any relief – because there’s always the subtext of “but, how could they. . . .”
How then do we change the way we think, or even share what we think with others? How do we “try on” the “reality” of another in an effort to find common ground and understanding? Given these powerful, essential differences, is there any hope?
First, we breathe. It’s hard to continue to grip so tightly even to an idea, when we breathe deeply. It encourages the energy which has been pent up, to flow. Next we work at being willing to recognize that there is more than one way – to grossly understate the number of possibilities (!) – to see and interpret the world. Step three would be to admit to and accept the fact that other realities have validity, given their context. It is in attempting to share the context that we can find each other, in being able to stand in another’s shoes and be able to say, if your life were my life, I might be choosing/believing as you do.
How might we share context? We share context when we share our stories about ourselves. Stories allow each of us to find an entry point into the experience described by another. When toddlers share their see-through colored glasses, they share the experience they’ve just had. I believe that’s the closest we can get to really knowing another person’s life experience. To state the obvious, we need to talk to each other.
Somehow, we have lost our ability to “play” as toddlers do. You might find this example simplistic, what can a difference in colored tiles possibly matter in any important way? It’s not serious enough, perhaps?
I think that’s the point. We take ourselves too seriously, grip our beliefs with white-knuckled fierceness and dare anyone to question them. We have left no space in our lives for the curiosity that is the essence of creativity. We are unwilling to have even a brief look through the “green glasses.”
Why is that? Why are we threatened by the new or the different? Are we so comfortable and satisfied with ourselves as we are that we are sure, we can do no better, so sure that we have nothing new to learn, not even a deepening of our thinking regarding beliefs we already embrace? Are we the best we can be? Have we reached the pinnacle of our personal evolution?
We suffer when we are not building anything. It’s against our nature and the nature of the universe. That’s why it’s painful. When we create, we join in the evolution and flow of the universe. This is what it means to live life. We grow by purposely trying on new experiences in our lives, by stretching and challenging ourselves, by entertaining differences and paradox. And, yes, we may feel confused until we ascertain what rings true for us personally. May I try on your colored glasses? I’ll lend you mine. It’s fun! Perhaps we will discover a story we share.