I have to admit, I have been feeling just weary about our species’ inability to get along, to evolve just the tiniest bit faster, and to figure out how we can do things better. In my heart of hearts, I do believe that there is goodness in all of us, that there is “that of God in everyone” as it is expressed by several spiritual traditions. Then why is it so hard for us to appreciate each other, accept our flaws and differing points of view…and just chill?
Feeling the sense of deja vu, I was drawn back to some of my previous columns, so I will plagiarize myself some in this article. But very recently I read an article by David Brooks of the New York Times, discussing how Scandinavia got great. It was not, he contended, because they have a generous welfare state as progressives like to say; it was not because the Scandinavian countries score high on free market openness, as Libertarians believe; nor was it because they were ethnically homogeneous societies until recently, as those who believe in restricting immigration argue.
Brooks explains that they were homogenous and dirt poor in 1800 and that their economies grew after 1870, well before their welfare states were established. So what happened? The privileged, educated, Nordic elite class realized that in order for their countries to thrive, education and lifelong learning needed to be available to everyone. They called these new schools “folk schools,” which went beyond teaching crafts or academic skills.
“Bildung” is the German word they used to describe their educational philosophy. Brooks said, “It means the complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic transformation of the person. It was based on the idea that if people were going to be able to handle and contribute to an emerging industrial society, they would need more complex inner lives.” In their book, “The NordicSecret,” Lene Rachel Andersen and Tomas Bjorkman said, “Bildung is the way that the individual matures and takes upon him or herself ever bigger personal responsibility toward family, friends, fellow citizens, society, humanity, our globe, and the global heritage of our species, while enjoying ever bigger personal, moral, and existential freedoms.”
The schools focus on helping students understand complex systems and see their own relationship to society: their family, town and nation, hoping to instill an awareness of belonging to these wider circles and to cultivate an eagerness to share responsibility for the whole. Christopher Arndt Bruun wrote, “That which a person did not burn for in his young days, he will not easily work for as a man.”
I’ve heard echoes of this refrain, as in “Teach a kid to volunteer, and you have a volunteer for life.” Those who love and advocate to protect the wilderness are often people who had opportunities as kids to canoe in the Boundary Waters, hike in the Rockies, or swim in undamaged ocean reefs, and they recognize that people won’t become guardians of natural treasures if they haven’t experienced and loved them.
How have we missed the boat on this? Social trust is low, cynicism about the political situation is high, the citizenry seems lethargic, and solutions aren’t evident. Some factors seem obvious. I understand that civics is barely given a passing notice in high schools and apparently not taught at all in some places, when it should be integrated with appropriate material and activities into all grades. I’m sure most elementary classroom teachers emphasize the need to get along, respect each other, and be kind and thoughtful, yet bullying goes on in the hallways, the playgrounds, and on social media. How are children to learn when they see the adults around them fighting and disrespecting each other? I’m sure children all over the country are taught values in churches, synagogues, and mosques, but how are they to emulate lovingkindness when the religious leaders castigate those with different views? How are they to trust and value their political system when they see endless ads of candidates attacking each other and ongoing stories about the head of our country blustering, contradicting himself, lying, and treating individuals and groups of people without respect?
I remember when Mother Teresa visited the U.S.; she said we suffered from a poverty of spirituality. “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty, it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
A Course in Miracles states that there are only two emotions, love and fear, that all other emotions emanate from one or the other. If love underlies the feelings and actions we think of as positive such as joy, happiness, caring and service, and fear begets anger, sadness, anxiety, bullying and greed, what then are we afraid of? Maybe a better question is, “What aren’t we afraid of?”
All of us have trotted through life having experiences and collecting bits of identity that coalesce into a self-concept, and woe to the person or group that challenges it. We spend time and energy supporting and defending our image that we have worked hard to create, often reluctant to change. If someone questions our values, criticizes our family, demeans the place we live or threatens any of those by their actions, including by introducing change, we may just react negatively.
I am an incurable optimist, believing we can continue to evolve in our personal lives and community relations, learning how to carry on civil and even friendly conversations with each other even when we disagree, recognizing that we are more alike than different, and valuing the part that each and every one of us plays in our community.
Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” If there’s one thing that folks up here know about, it’s surviving changing conditions. People here have a heritage of hard work and innovation in tough conditions. Many of us work multiple jobs for less money than we could earn elsewhere, slipping and sliding through the depth of winter in order to stay here. It’s not spring yet, but we can see it from here. We will most likely survive, and possibly even thrive, so let’s give each other thanks when we’re doing well and encourage each other to do even better.