By Celia Coates
Of course the fierce competition to decide who the political winner and loser would be has grabbed our national attention this week, but this post is not about the 2020 Election, or at least, not directly. There have always been divisions and differences in human communities, but this natural aspect of existence has now become dangerous. Here is my view on what has created the “two Americas” that are reflected in our politics, my view as the editor of WINN with its focus on spiritual wisdom.
In recent years the word “loser” has been hurled at someone who is being judged and discarded because they don’t measure up to standards chosen by the accuser. And, what is a winner? Well, usually it’s a person who comes in first in a competition. In today’s America it has often come to mean a white man with power, position, status, and wealth who has won the race to accumulate material goods and control resources wanted by others. In our society gaining respect – being a winner – often depends on what and how much we own. A current television advertisement declares, “When you get a big deal, you feel like a big deal.” What if getting big deals and then feeling good about yourself is not an opportunity open to you?
One of America’s great gifts has been to value individualism and personal initiative. The Bill of Rights ensures that each of us has a right to pursue “happiness.” But we have distorted it and taken it too far. When it’s every man for himself running to the finish line or climbing to the top of the power hierarchy, we lose our sense of community. We can forget how to follow the golden rule that teaches us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” A vignette published in TIME * noted this,
“After novelist Ellen Urbani’s farm was spared by the Oregon wildfires, she joined neighbors in a frantic ad hoc operation to help evacuate livestock in nearby towns. ‘It is the most desperate our communities have ever been’, she writes, ‘and the most kind.’”
There was little room for divisiveness when the need was desperate: it became an experience of joining with others and working together for everyone’s good.
But that is not happening enough in our country. We have created the two Americas. We’ve become what I think of as the haves and the have-nots who constantly get involved in battling each other. Both groups struggle with twin distortions: the first is a kind of selfish individualism (life is all about me, what’s mine, and my way), and the second is an overvaluing of money and material goods (life is all about stuff). We seem to have developed a collective belief that what has value is largely about material success and the in-groups that provide it. We lack a sense of a common good that might unite us.
When God was “declared dead” several decades ago and religious affiliation declined along with regular church attendance in large portions of the country, we lost long-shared views about what a good person is and how to live a good life. The non-secular view based in religions was imperfect, yes, but it produced common values different from today’s where, for example, there’s an absence of shame for cheating, lying, or harming other people as long as it gets us what we prize. We can become ruthless in pursuit of status and privilege.
If we experience our way of life as being discounted and our access to what everyone is supposed to have in this very rich country as blocked, how would we find ways to become winners? Would picking up guns to assert our rights seem like a useful idea? I’ve been struck by the use of the word “proud” in the name of a disruptive and heavily armed group of men. What helps us feel pride in ourselves these days?
I often quote advertisements because they can teach us something about our attitudes. Are you old enough to remember the ad for a brand name carpet that showed a door open to a fancy office along with the slogan, “A title on the door and a Bigelow on the floor”? That’s the kind of self-regarding and status-loving approach that has become so vivid in our lives today.
There is a specific “title on the door” issue I’d like to say something about – the need for a college degree (not the education, the degree). Getting in to certain colleges has been seen as such a prize in the struggle for status that it’s been worth cheating and lying to achieve. I find that sad. We all need to have knowledge and skills and an ability to earn a living doing something in line with our values, but we do not all need to spend four years sitting in college classrooms. There is strength in diversity. We might be able to close the divide in America if we followed our motto – E Pluribus Unum – that translates as “From many, one.” I chose the image of a prize-winning quilt to head this post because it shows that many varied and different pieces can be brought together to create a grand whole.
Alexis De Tocqueville was a French diplomat, political scientist, and historian who traveled through America in 1831 and 1832. He was searching for the source of American greatness and explored its natural resources, institutions, commerce, and government. He concluded in his book, DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA,
“Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness, did I understand the secret of her services and power. America is great because she is good and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” **
As I consider the question of goodness in the 21st Century, it seems not based so much in churches but in our developing social conscience, our understanding of human nature, and most of all in our growing spiritual awareness. We can’t mend the destructive division of the two Americas unless we understand what is broken. And for me that is more than a problem of culture wars and identity politics, it is because we do not understand the true nature of reality, what we are, and why we are here on earth. This, of course, is a core concept in WINN. We will not be able to free ourselves from our over-investment in the material world until we know that it is not all there is. The ancient wisdom, the perennial spiritual teachings tell us we are multi-dimensional beings, that we are all connected, and that love is the highest good. It forms the foundation for understanding what a good person is, how to live a good life, and what creates a good nation – the one De Tocqueville found.
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* TIME, October 19, 2020
** Alexis de Tocqueville’s book was published in 1835 and 1849.
Prize Winning Quilt from Needpix.com