Saturday, December 20, 2014

Shifting the balance from the individual to the collective, without apology

Headlines tell a small part of the story of the world's shifting tides. Daily weather reports also tell the most immediate impact of shifting tides of climate.
Underneath headlines documenting the water-cooler talk, however, are tectonic cultural plates that rarely shift, and if and when they actually do move, the world trembles.
Yesterday, for example, under a temporarily lifted but normally strictly enforced rule, Israeli citizens were permitted to visit Bethlehem, under permission granted by the Israeli government, to a travel company headed by two women, one a Jew the other a Muslim. They magnetized some friendly stares from the Muslim residents of that city, and participated in a shared meal in a Muslim home as part of their pre-arranged visit. This is merely a grain of highlighted sand on a beach of otherwise quite dim grains in the history of Israel-Palestine conflict. At this holy season, however, it provides the kind of ratings fodder for the news industry that is so desperately desired throughout the year.
It was President Obama who pointed directly to the "job" of the fourth estate, in his press conferences yesterday, to tell the story of all of the problems and the screw-ups and the dangers facing their audiences, while progress on so many fronts remains behind the news, underneath the news, obscured by the news, and even obliterated by the news.
For a brief period in another life, I was asked to do a small segment on radio entitled, The Good News Report, into which I inserted all the warm "fuzzies" in the community I could find. None of those stories, however, would ever have been the subject of a political debate, let alone the topic of an election for office on any level, municipal, provincial or national.
Polite conversation, we have all learned in our formation as respectable citizens, excludes conversation about religion and politics, two topics almost guaranteed to divide whatever participants engage in their unpacking.
However, and this is where the rubber meets the road, none of our topics of "polite conversation" can or ever will really exclude either religion or politics, in spite of our best efforts to preserve the polite component in our conversations.
For example, we can and do talk about individual liberty and freedom, achievements of whatever dimension and design, without actually referring to the bedrock of our world view that puts the individual above the society in our consideration of our priorities.
The collective, the society, and the community, however, will as it always has, have a significant impact on our framing of the "individual" value we place on so much of our conversation, and our attitudes and even our beliefs. Conversely, of course, the individual will also have a significant impact on the development of the collective, the society, and the community.
It is, however, our tainting of the concept of the collective, ( as a slippery slope to communism, or unionism or even totalitarianism and "mobism") that renders our perceptions and our conversations somewhat skewed in favour of the triumph of the individual as a human value. Somewhere in our collective conscious, however, is the notion of "team" a smaller version of the community, one in which one can and does participate, on the premise of both growing one's person while never losing oneself in the processes and the demands of the group.
On the basis of how  the "team" operates, including and excluding individuals  based on many dynamic factors like perceived personality quirks, previously established links within the group, cultural habits of the group, espoused goals of the group and the degree to which the group is and has successfully accomplished those goals (almost always moving goal posts as needs and aspirations shift), one learns to "fit" into the larger activities of the whole group. Finding and celebrating the talents, experience and expertise of the individual is one of the time-honoured themes of all successful groups, teams, and micro-communities. Actions that require the participation of a number of "members" will bring people together to achieve what have become common goals, within the larger framework of the group's stated purpose.
How the group accomplishes the healthy balance of group aspirations and group achievements on the one hand, while developing the leadership qualities of individual members is essential to avoiding the danger of both chaos and tyranny within the organization. And all organizations sail an unchartered and unpredictable course between the rocks of osteoporosis and chaos and the whirlpool of tyranny by an individual or a small group of insider-gate-keepers.
Leadership, the sine qua non of all groups, is one ingredient that has two levels of application: the individual who is manifesting those qualities considered enhancing of the groups' purpose, and the level of acceptance/rejection of those in "leadership" within the perceptions of the members of the group. Leadership is a function of both one's capacity to envision a shared future for the group linked to  the necessary prescription for how the group might consenually accomplish that future. Objectives, with strategies and tactics dedicated to the achievement of those objectives, are mixed in some cocktail that includes the "mysterious" ingredient of something the Greeks called "charisma" or the more pedestrian description "magnetism" or perhaps "likeability" or even "star" quality....always elusive from the known methods of quantifying those qualities that make one a leader.
Leadership development, too, includes the predictable training in thinking outside the  box, in seeing into the future those pictures that one imagines could become the next chapter in any group's growth and development. It also includes those historic and cultural givens that, once again, are too often premised on the lens that champions the individual over the "group" as the west's contribution to the pursuit of political, economic, social and even philosophic "freedom" from the restriction imposed by the collective, the state, the organization. The question of whether or not creativity, the exercise and discipline of the imagination, is and can be "taught" as opposed to whether it is innate within each individual will be left to another time. Suffice it here to say that while we "champion" the individual in most normal and conventional discourse in North America, and denigrate much of the value of the collective, the union, the state and all organizations that purport to represent the whole, (knowing and acknowledging that no representation of the whole can adequately represent each individual within that whole) we also have relegated the whole to many microcosms, almost as if the melting pot has morphed into what has historically been considered the mosaic, a defining archetype of Canada as compared with the United States.
However, the "melting pot" theory of historic development that brings all individuals into a common purpose and identity, while necessary and even highly significant in the early stages of development in a nation's youth, is quite counter-intuitive to the later historic development which is based solely on the economic "achievements" of that nation. Melting pot also emphasizes a common history, a common legal system, a common language and currency, a common set of ideals and perhaps, at least in the case of the United States, a common religion, albeit exhibited by different colours of the same pallet, Christianity. Keeping that religion out of the structures of the state has been one of the defining characteristics of the United States' legal framework, once again demonstrating the high bar (perhaps even unrealistically high) the early settlers set for their ancestors.
However, at the core of that "religion" (blending all expressions of Christianity into one, for this moment), lies the question of salvation, the ultimate gift promised to those who "believe" in the interpretation of the words of scripture. And in a culture in which the individual is "king" and "queen" in the sense of the social, political and cultural applications of those words, salvation would inevitably become a personal achievement (gift, blessing, reward or promise) depending on the degree of one's acceptance of the rigours of discipleship to Jesus Christ Resurrected.  The United States is a culture dominated by the archetype of action, production of goods and services, including their sale and distribution, development of agents of action like the military, and all social programs as agents of both the government and the culture of "action" including the essential ingredient of competitive norms for ascertaining the success of those actions, both public and private. In this culture, one's actions in demonstrating one's faith in the rigours of individual discipleship to God and to Jesus the Christ, obscure the Lutheran concept of "salvation by grace" (and that not of one's self, but from God) and leave the field to those espousing actions, and the larger the action (including the larger the monetary contributions) the greater the social, political and even religious acceptance and elevation by the respective community. Also obliterated in this culture in which both the individual itself and personal "action" (as expression of one's faith commitment) have become sacralised, is the notion that salvation itself includes a "collective" aspect, and that the salvation of the individual is intimately and inextricably embedded in the salvation of the whole.
The social, political and cultural credo of a country whose literature in replete with stories of individual heroes, including the exposition of the definition of  individual accomplishments, either through measureable achievements warranting public acclaim, or through enduring impossible odds warranting public adulation, would eventually become linked to one's spiritual life and the success of that enterprise. God's apparent endorsement of the political ideology of one's country, however, is a very dangerous political dictum.
First, such a perception reduces the God component in the equation by overwhelming that component by human will and human cultural credos. Secondly, such a perception also reduces, or worse eliminates, the need for one to grow and develop a faith component that includes all the human community, not merely those who attend the same church, or live in the same community, or speak the same language, or eat the same "permitted and sanctioned" foods or celebrate the same holy days.
Turning swords into ploughshares, while historically and culturally appropriate to the time in which those those words were first written, might have applications to the much more sophisticated and deadly "swords" we have at our disposal, and ploughshares might have applications to concessions to both soft power and even the laying down of arms, as acts of both political ideology and more importantly, expressions of any faith worthy of the name, faith.,
And we can no longer close our individual and our collective eyes and ears to the facts that we now idolize the individual at the expense of the wider community, the neighbour, the town, the province, the nation and the world. And while there are some benefits (in the short run) to such a cultural practice, there are even greater dangers to continuing down that very steep hill. Digital technology has, for example, greatly exaggerated the perception of the importance of the individual, especially as it applies to "recording wrong-doing" for the purpose of prosecution. Only the success or failure of the giant corporations, linked peripherally to the score being recorded of entrepreneurial ventures, occupy the landscape of our social and political discourse. Occasionally, we add to the mix the tragedy of some individual mis-adventure, some tragedy or some despicable act, as if to remind ourselves of our own righteousness.
And then, we like lemmings spend at least one news cycle on the disaster of a tsunami, or a nuclear meltdown, or a military bombing, or a terrorist beheading....without according a similar concentration to the underlying, shared and universal conditions that led to such headlines. Tokenism, in our personal attention span, like instant gratification in our pursuit of consumer "needs," tarnish and even  rust out our best and shared intentions.
The cleric/poet John Donne reminds us of his respect for individual human beings, as well as his contempt for the mass of society.
It is time for human history to reflect upon, and to plan activities that grow an enhanced awareness of our common and shared humanity, including our strong preference for sharing, for equality, for opportunity and for ennobling each other, as the better angels of our identity. And while we can continue to debate the relative merits of one political ideology over another, we must not permit such  debates to erode the shores of our tenuous appreciation  of the values and the blessings of our collective needs and aspirations, here and in whatever world there might be hereafter.
"We are in this together" is not merely a political slogan for a particular campaign or issue; it is an inexorable fact of human existence, denial of which will do much to push all of us toward a shared and potentially swamping fate, in a future whose seeds have already been planted in the gardens of our collective and our individuals minds and hearts.
Balancing the needs, aspirations and beliefs of both the individual and the collective is not merely an ethereal dream; it is a component of our best angels exposed and energized.
And our shared deployment of vengeance and punishment can and eventually will give way to a more balanced pursuit of celebrating our unique gifts, and supporting the pursuit of that goal, as a shifting of the tectonic plates of our shared geographic and cultural globe.

No comments:

Post a Comment