Today, I was coordinating a time to meet up with an elderly friend of mine for the LGBT Pride Parade this coming Sunday. My friend is brilliant, accomplished, 86 years old and gay. In his note to me, he included the following comment:
“It has been a lifelong, (and) at times, a tough journey. Alas! Liberation came too late to be of much help but it’s good nonetheless. It seems Sweet on the scale only has meaning relative to Bitter.”
There is a depth of pain hinted at in those words. At the same time, I believe there is a separate, important truth.
Many who grow up today really will never know “how great they’ve got it.” This same friend has reminded me before that my entire lifetime and that of my parents has happened within a context of unprecedented peace and prosperity. We are living in a time of limited conflict.
This is not how “the world” always works. It certainly isn’t how the rest of human history has worked. And it incompletely resembles the patterns at play within ecosystems more generally.
Part of this derives from the fact that we have lived during a time in which we’ve been spending “wealth” at an unsustainable rate. Energy in the form of fossil fuels took millions of years to capture. And we are burning through it as fast as we can. In the short time-frame of our lives, the energy we are fueling our lives with seems to be free. It is not. The world is quickly waking up to this fact. Nonetheless, the experience of our lives is shaped by this frittering away of our earth’s inherited wealth.
Regardless of the long-term consequences, the short-term impact has been an incredibly harmonious life for those fortunate enough to live in the developed world. In fact, we have become so accustomed to this situation of plenty, that many of us have no real experience with direct threats to our survival from the natural world or from our fellow man.
While that is wonderful, it also means that many of us have no “hands on experience” with how ecosystems really work — with the ways that they self-balance — with the ways that things don’t always work out for the individual.
Most humans today, and certainly the bulk of them throughout history have had lives that included much more conflict and struggle than I have had to deal with.
As my friend pointed out with his words of wisdom about how the bitter makes it possible to taste the sweet, we only gain awareness of anything when we are also able to witness its absence or its opposite.
I’ve come to realize over time that I see the world very differently than most other people.
However, it was only recently that I was able to put my finger on some of the reasons why that is.
My childhood of international travel and membership in a fringe minority religion with beliefs that challenged the status quo (like not trusting the evidence of the senses) shaped me into a questioning animal. Living in different cultures and in different socio-economic classes let me witness the variety of circumstances experienced by humans, as well as gain exposure to their different belief systems. Studies of history gave me additional exposure to other eras and societies, but there is nothing quite like seeing a whole different thriving culture with your own eyes.
When I look at the broad sweep of history, and even of the breadth of human experience today — it becomes startling just how great I have it. However, beyond that, being witness to the subtleties of these other cultures enabled me to “see” the nuances and assumptions of my own culture. Some of their bitter helped me to see my own sweet. And some of their sweet helped me to understand my own bitter.
At the same time, being raised as a Christian Scientist (a questioning religion, if ever there was one) I was confronted by 1) a physical world that I could see, touch and taste and 2) a belief system that urged me to stay skeptical of the credibility of those — and all other — senses. Like the movie The Matrix, my belief system asserted repeatedly that simply because our senses tell us that something is real — does not necessarily make it so.
I believe that these childhood experiences led me to routinely ask myself two questions, and that doing so repeatedly has been the habit responsible for all of the discoveries I’ve made.
The pattern of questioning is simple:
1) “Is that really true?”
I believe that simply going one “why” further tends to unlock all the interesting answers.
If contrast truly is the key to awareness, what contrasts have you experienced and what have they made you aware of?
Please share your thoughts in the comments.