In the Hindu Upanishads, there’s a passage that speaks to how those who become wise lose their names in the Great Oneness, the way rivers lose their names when they flow into the sea. In this transformation from the solitary to the communal, there’s a mysterious physics that each generation has to relearn regarding what is possible when we can work together.
Time and again, we’re asked to discover, through love and suffering, that we are at heart the same. How do we come to this knowledge in our lives, in our families, and in our communities? What brings us together and what throws us apart? How do we inhabit what we have in common as well as what makes us unique in ways that deepen our daily practice of service and compassion?
The word community derives from the Latin, commun, meaning “common.” The same root informs the word communicate (to share our understanding, to have understanding in common) and communion (to share our experience, to have experience in common). It’s not by chance that the word community contains unity. Our possibility is rooted in the very word. For community is an ever-potent seed waiting for our effort and care to animate what we have in common, so we can share our understanding and experience in our time on Earth.
In the beginning, when the first humans came across each other, I imagine the more fearful one said, “You’re different. Go away.” The other said, “You’re different. Come, teach me what I don’t know.” While our reasoning has grown more complicated throughout the centuries, our reactions are essentially the same. “Go away” or “Come, teach me.”
Along the way, the two tribes have had their philosophies. The “Go away” tribe believes that human beings by nature are self-serving and untrustworthy, in need of control. The “Go away” tribe believes in stringent laws and constraints, both moral and legal, to ensure that people don’t run amok. The “Come, teach me” tribe believes that human beings by nature are kind and trustworthy. The “Come, teach me” tribe believes in cultivating laws that empower freedom, to ensure that people actualize their gifts through relationship.
The truth is that we are born into both tribes and can move from one to the other, depending on the level of our fear. The times of genocide throughout history mark the extreme, malignant manifestation of the “Go away” tribe. Distorted by fear, it’s not enough to say, “Go away.” For strident, unbridled fear turns to anger, which normalized turns into prejudice and hate. Such deep, embedded fear tries to exclude those who are different, to make them invisible, to exile them, jail them, hurt them, and—in extremely ugly cases—persecute and kill them.
Times of enlightenment throughout history mark the extreme manifestation of the “Come, teach me” tribe, which fosters wonder, learning, compassion, and cooperation. Empowered by trust, curiosity turns into interdependence and a belief that we need each other and our diversity of gifts to make life whole. This ethic is what gave rise to democracy in the first place. This is why America has grown so strong from welcoming immigrants for over 200 years.
We as a nation have moved between periods of isolationism and inclusion as people shift between the two tribes. Today, our nation has coagulated into these primary camps and we seem to be heading into another period of isolationism and fear of those who are different. I pray for our return to each other.
I believe it’s imperative that we educate our children to live according to the fundamental dynamic that all the spiritual traditions teach: that we are all parts of one indivisible whole, which love and suffering reveal. And while we come apart from time to time, and push each other away in our fear, the natural resting position of life on Earth is to join in order to release the life-force inherent in the biological, societal, and mystical fact that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Trust, courage, and the ability to listen are the agencies of heart that allow us to rejoin. These are the qualities that each soul has waiting within it like golden seeds to be watered by the strength of our kindness. This is the purpose of community: to water these seeds and to join and rejoin.
Why tend to all this? Because somewhere another child is being born who will ask us things we don’t yet know, and we must have some sense of how to account for our time on Earth. As the forgiveness researcher Robert Enright has said, “We need to prepare the hearts of the children for the conflicts they will inherit.”
We need each other more than ever.
Question to Walk With
Tikkun Olam is Hebrew for “You are here to repair the world.” Since we are the world, we are here to repair ourselves. Bring four or five friends together. In conversation, have each of you describe one way you need to repair yourself in order to change the world. What is the first step in this healing? In the next three weeks, commit to taking that first step