A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.
I was at the airport, traveling to New York, waiting to go through security with my passport out, when I noticed for the first time that each page has a quote on it. And two of them, back to back, capture the way we work with and against community in our American culture. On page 20, Lyndon Johnson says, “This is what America is all about… Is our world gone? We say ‘Farewell.’ Is a new world coming? We welcome it—and we will bend it to the hopes of man.” On the page before, Dwight Eisenhower says, “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”
Johnson reveals the dark arrogance of our American will over centuries to bend whatever we encounter toward our desire. Of course, bending by itself is a creative skill and, done with care, has released the potential of the world. But bending others to the point of breaking has led to tyranny and atrocity across history. In modern America, consuming is a form of bending resources till they break. We bend things to innovate; we bend animals to make our labor easier; and we bend people to make ourselves rich. But along the way we’ve bent and consumed the Earth until it’s become dangerously out of balance.
Yet Eisenhower reveals the core of what has made America at its best the beacon of the world: our ability to change the world around us by embodying our values. Gandhi said, “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him… We need not wait to see what others will do.” When we can let who we meet and what we aspire to pass through the heart of our community, we cooperate with life and relate to things, animals, people, and the Earth—much like the Native Americans who cared for this land before us.
Since our Founding Fathers conceived of a free society while also institutionalizing slavery, America has struggled between bending the world and loving the world. Today, we hide in isolation until we’re jarred into letting the world pass through our heart. When we bend things to the point of consuming or breaking them, we manufacture a world of tools and debris and are seldom satisfied. When we cooperate with what we meet, we animate a dynamic world of living things we can love. If blessed to be broken of our arrogance, we can face what’s before us humanely and inhabit a deeper sense of security.Often, the difference between arrogance and humility is whether we insist on our self-interest above all else or accept that our welfare is mutual. Our insistence on self-interest has plagued the human experiment since the beginning. Robert Kegan, a pioneer in the dynamics of adult life development, calls the insistence on self-interest centrism. Centrism of any kind—whether egocentrism, gender centrism, religious centrism, national centrism, or family centrism—can hinder our understanding of others and the world around us. Kegan defines centrism as installing what is familiar as true and sacred, accepting what is comfortable as foundational. Then we base our experience of the world on what is familiar and not necessarily true. When we assume that what is familiar is true, we start to push away new experience.
Centrism is the seed of fundamentalism and prejudice. We all have cultivated centrism. It’s a psychic habit we need to reform, more than once.
In a modern world in which self-centeredness and competition are brutal driving forces, resistant cancers have proliferated dramatically. No mistake that cancer is a disease of rabid self-interest in which the part (the cell) lives at the expense of the whole (the body). No mistake that in an increasingly impersonal and complex hive of centrism, depression is more prevalent than ever. No mistake that attention deficit has become a psychological epidemic in a world of seven hundred channels that bombard us with thousands of images with no time to digest just one. Given all this, receiving each other freshly each time we meet, simple as it sounds, is an act of courage.
A Question to Walk With: Bring three friends together. In conversation, have each of you describe one gift you inherently have to offer the world. Then, as a group, explore how you might extend and combine your gifts to make a difference.
This excerpt is from my new book, More Together Than Alone: Discovering the Power and Spirit of Community in Our Lives and in the World, which was published last month by Atria Books.
*photo credit: Pixabay