Welcome (back) to what is becoming a fairly sporadic blog. I decided a while back that the world has a sufficiency of words and doesn’t need more from me when I don’t have all that much of significance to say. If the stars line up, my assessment of significance will coincide with yours and we’ll all be pleased with the result. By choosing to subscribe, if you haven’t already done so, you’ll get a friendly reminder from the WordPress folks when I’ve posted something new and exciting and I’ll get a healthy dopamine hit when I see that someone has chosen to read my thoughts.
I’ve written recently about what I see as a significant flaw in our growth as a species. It is the combination of impatience and arrogance which has led us to look for quick solutions and avoid deep analysis. Our superficial analysis and misguided solutions yield greater and greater negative consequences as our world increases in complexity. I recently encountered the work of Charles Eisenstein (more about that in a bit). For context, you might want to look at his About page on his website and check out his thoughts here and here here.
I spend a fair amount of my thinking time trying to connect my professional life experiences with a larger context. The current political climate certainly encourages the posing of big(ger) questions – questions which seem to extend well beyond the realm of public education. It’s in this context that I’d like to share a recent experience.
As many of us have been experiencing, recent weeks have brought a new definition of cold to our region. While the former ski instructor in me would have reveled in the cold and the opportunity for days and night of snow-making, the new, warm weather fisherman in me shivered at the mere thought of having to go out and start the car. As an alternative, I decided to continue my efforts to organize my files and filing cabinets. In the process I found several pages of notes that I didn’t recognize about an author whom I also didn’t recognize.
I found the thoughts summarized on these pages fascinating and later asked my wife if she new the author and anything about the pages I had discovered. She looked at me as if I had only seconds before dropped in from Mars and, recognizing that I was almost beyond hope, she gently suggested that I might like his website. I did just that. Recalling a line from a movie I don’t recall, “He had me at hello”, Eisenstein had me at his About page.
“… I was always consumed by questions like, Where did I come from?” ”Why am I here?” “Where am i going?” so of course, embedded as I was in a culture of science and reason as a source of truth, I tried to “figure out” the answers… My quest had an emotional dimension as well. From an early age I sensed a wrongness in the world. Sitting in a classroom doing worksheets, part of me rebelled. “We are not supposed to be doing this! It isn’t supposed to be this way.” It was half-formed thought, embedded in a cloud of indignation and bewilderment. This perception, abetted by a growing awareness of ecological devastation and social injustice, presented me from whole-heartedly embracing a normal career.”
I suspect I’m not alone in my resonance with Eisenstein’s questions, his concerns, his search.
What I share here is, in large part stolen from my wife or, more accurately, lifted from my wife’s notes about Eisenstein’s book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. This is a new venture for me. In reading Eisenstein’s work, I found a deep longing to gather a group of adults and explore. I see this as an invitation to create an “electronic coffee shop”… a book club discussion group. It’s truly an exploration and an invitation to discuss ideas.
What I’m going to share here is and isn’t about education. Eisenstein isn’t writing about education, but his writing is filled with ideas that beg educational reflection. Here’s Cliff Notes version:
Eisenstein suggests he has found an answer to his question about wrongness in the world. He suggests beginning our own explorations with his most recent book, The More Beautiful World… In it, he introduces the concepts of separation and stories. He suggests that (a) we are all living the same story; (b) It is the story of separation – we are separate individuals in a world that is separate from us; (c) our story creates competition; (d) it tells us that self-interest is the primary characteristic of what it means to be human; and (e) it has a formula that we are told will lead to a happy life.
Our story tells us that we should (a) go to school; (b) get a job; (c) have a family; and (d) plan for retirement. That story is changing rapidly and, for many, is no longer believable. Other components of the story form a kind of mythology that most of us have bought into. Eisenstein identifies the following examples:
- The myth of technology enhanced life — Based upon the promise of the 50s and 60s; specifically, the technological utopia that we were told would result in a more leisurely way of life has not come to fruition. Rather, the opposite is true. We are working more and netting less. We are on an unsustainable treadmill.
- The myth of global leadership — In the 50s and 60s we were told that America was the bringer of peace and democracy to the world. We are now not only hated, but also laughed at by many,
- The myth of conquest — human mastery of the political and natural environment.
These myths have conditioned us how to see the world.
In his work, Eisenstein posits that this formula, if ever true, has disintegrated. We can see it all around us. Our traditional institutions are a mess – Financial, Education, Health Care, Religious, Political.
These myths have conditioned us how to see the world.
Living Between Stories
“We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. Some may cling to it all the more desperately as it dissolves, looking perhaps to Donald Trump to restore it, but their savior has not the power to bring back the dead. Neither would Clinton have been able to preserve America as we’d known it for too much longer. We as a society are entering a space between stories, in which everything that had seemed so real, true, right, and permanent comes into doubt. For a while, segments of society have remained insulated from this breakdown (whether by fortune, talent, or privilege), living in a bubble as the containing economic and ecological systems deteriorate. But not for much longer. Not even the elites are immune to this doubt. They grasp at straws of past glories and obsolete strategies; they create perfunctory and unconvincing shibboleths (Putin!), wandering aimlessly from “doctrine” to “doctrine” – and they have no idea what to do. Their haplessness and half-heartedness was plain to see in this election, their disbelief in their own propaganda, their cynicism. When even the custodians of the story no longer believe the story, you know its days are numbered. It is a shell with no engine, running on habit and momentum.”
Charles Eisenstein, Essay – The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story
We are living in an age of hate-based politics which points not further than to a superficial diagnosis: It’s not us. It’s them. This is a reiteration of the war mentality – find the bad guy, go to war. (Wars on Drugs, Poverty, immigrants…or…Trump supporters).
We are using superficial ways to diagnose a complex problem and in the process we are missing a deeper matrix of causes. As Trump supporters judge immigrants or the lying media or the left for wanting to “rewrite our nation’s history” by wanting to remove statues honoring confederates, what are we doing that is any different from what they are doing? Are we not judging them just as harshly? In spite of what we might see as our righteous indignation are we too not contributing to the Story of Separation? Do we not feel morally superior to those on the other side? Are we not implicitly implying that if we were in their shoes we would do it better than they? Both sides are operating from a deficit of understanding. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that you can use hate as a weapon but you can’t use hatred to defeat hate.
Eisenstein suggests that, when we rethink the fury, what lies underneath the rage is a longing for reunion. We are suffering the collective wound of separation. Hate is a bodyguard for grief. Profound change comes only through collapse. And the world around us in collapsing. People feel powerless. They don’t feel valued. They feel alone. We can feel a sense of wrongness that we often can’t describe or can describe only in terms of “It’s not supposed to be this way.” Our idea of what’s normal has come unhinged. Can you hear these feelings, these frustrations in your professional life? Is this a connection worth exploring?
We express this low level suffering indirectly: addiction, self-sabotage, procrastination, rage, chronic fatigue, laziness, depression. These are all ways we withhold our full participation in and engagement with life. When our conscious mind can’t find a reason to be okay with the mythology we have been told is true, we express it unconsciously.
Eisenstein believes in a new story: The Story of Interbeing. The Story of Interbeing replaces a conscious of judgment with a consciousness of empathy. He feels that this has already begun. Grandmothers… kindergarten teachers… anyone doing something out of love, in anyway.
One of the fundamental precepts of the new story is this. We are inseparate from the universe and our being partakes in the being of everyone and everything else. This is why we can feel hurt when we hear of another coming to harm. This is why we hurt when we see mass die offs and bleaching of the coral reefs or see a picture of a pelican tangled up in plastic. We can no longer hold up the barriers that protect us from our feelings. We are a mirror of all things. Everything that happens to the world is happening to us.
The world outside of ourselves is not just a bunch of unrelated stuff but a mirror of self with qualities like consciousness and intelligence that are not just in humans but in all things.
We feel isolated and powerless because we have numbed ourselves to knowing that we are all connected. Everything we experience is geared toward showing us that we are not connected. So we think we can protect ourselves by building more prisons or building walls to keep the bad guys away.
We are destroying our health, we are destroying ecosystems, and we are on an unsustainable path.
The Story of Interbeing says that my very existence depends on the existence of all beings. A basic practice – a way to replace the culture of judgment with a culture of empathy is to ask what is it like to be you? To have more than just superficial conversations with our Trump supporting family and friends…to discover what led someone to become racist.
By simply taking the stance that the other is wrong, we just gratify our egos “You are bad…I am good.” “I am right….you are wrong.”
Eisenstein and School Culture
I believe we seek to make sense of the world through the lens of our own experiences. I believe that Charles Eisenstein speaks directly to us as educators. I see the separation that he describes. I see the end of a story that we have grown up experiencing and accepting. I see the sense of frustration, isolation and powerlessness. But I have been fortunate in my life to have experienced moments of connectedness… moments where a commitment to empathy transcended significant differences in social status, in lifestyles, in ways of thinking and created the beginnings of interbeing and community. I cling to these memories and experiences as proof of the possible.
The war on evil has gone on for several thousand years. It has not worked. Maybe it’s time to give peace a chance. Where better to start than helping our colleagues and young people experience leadership through empathy.