By Carolyn Baker
Most individuals who recognize that something is terribly wrong with the world and who for all their complaining are consciously struggling to create a more humane existence on planet earth, also empathically perceive that the essence of empire is its merciless, relentless ability to divide and alienate human beings from each other, from themselves, and from the earth community. As a result, awake, compassionate, twenty-first century earthlings understand that human consciousness cannot be transformed until we have learned on every level that there is no separateness-no “us and them”, no division, no “other.” Certainly, all persons whom I perceive as allies in our collapsing world work very hard to move beyond their empire-inculcated “otherness disorder.”
Yet as we know, reality in the human story is usually complex and multi-faceted. While it is true that none of us on a fundamental spiritual level is separate from anyone else, it is also true that in order to function harmoniously and equitably in our day-to-day existence, human beings require the establishment and maintenance of limits. One of the most obvious tragedies we must recognize when confronting the collapse of civilization, is that we have arrived at this juncture in human history precisely because we have failed to honor limits.
In thinking about this, I invite you to bear with me beyond what may at first sound like psychobabble because the reasoning process I’m laying out is meant to supersede the unavoidable jargon which I believe is both necessary and useful.
Human development begins with a state of absolutely no limits as an infant symbiotically bonds with its mother and is incapable of distinguishing itself from its caretaker. This glorious union is unequivocally crucial for the ultimate physical and emotional wellbeing of the infant. If the boundary-less bond does not occur or becomes dysfunctional, painful emotional wounding results which may set the stage for a lifetime of anguish.
Somewhere around the first year-and-a-half of life, the infant begins to experience himself as separate from his caretakers. Gradually, and then with great gusto, he differentiates his identity by pushing against his parents (both literally and symbolically), testing the limits in order to discover that he is himself and not them. However, if there are no limits against which to push and test, the differentiation process is impaired which can also result in severe psychological wounding and agonizing identity issues later in life. Since testing the limits always involves some anger, subsequent anger management or non-management may be shaped by how freely the child can push against the limits and how adequately his caretakers respond to his testing.
In a reasonably functional parenting process, early emotional bonding occurs followed by the toddler/”Terrible Two’s”/ limit-testing/differentiation stage. If all goes well, a stable three or four year-old emerges who feels secure and confident and plays and works, for the most part, harmoniously with her peers.
When we think of empires and cultures of empires, we tend to picture them as rigid and tyrannical, and indeed they may be. In some imperial cultures childhood is short, and the urgency of working hard to become a model citizen of the state is inculcated early on with abject severity. But the opposite may also characterize the culture of empire, especially in a society marinated in affluence, consumerism, and indulgence.
One hallmark of such a society is its inability to tolerate and work through conflict. Conflict, after all, implies that all is not well and that there may be trouble in paradise. Whether in parenting or at the office or at school, it’s much easier to go along to get along-and get ahead. Conflict, after all, draws attention to oneself which is anathema in a culture where the machinery to keep it running smoothly is greased with anonymity and conformity. Those recalcitrant minds who have refused to succumb to imperial inculcation from Henry David Thoreau to Allen Ginsberg to Cindy Sheehan have always risked ostracism and banishment from the capitalist feeding trough.
But at this momentous hour in history we find ourselves swirling in the waters of the collapse of empire, and we flail and struggle to both ride the waves and swim upstream but above all, just live our lives from moment to moment navigating the torrent of changes with which we are daily deluged. In the madness we are delighted to occasionally discover others who share our perspective, who don’t call us insane when we firmly state that the river is propelling us toward some bottomless waterfall over which we have little control. We grasp each others’ hands and sigh, “My people, my tribe!” and often see only our sameness because we can’t bear to consider our differences. We fear that were we to see them and name our diversity, we may all perish. It’s so hard to be alone with all we’ve learned about collapse; we feel so isolated and alienated, cherishing so much the few people with whom we can talk about it that we dare not contemplate conflict with them.
And yet it is crucial to remember that for the most part, all human connections tend to follow the path of our own individual development-that is, bonding, followed by differentiation, followed by autonomous interactivity which means engaging, disengaging, then re-engaging, ad infinitum. Conflict, we soon discover, is a fundamental underpinning of autonomous interaction. But occasionally, we go our separate ways, and re-engagement does not happen. At that point, we have choices about what we tell ourselves about why it didn’t.
What is it in the culture of empire that causes us to be so pitifully inept at navigating conflict? Our indigenous brothers and sisters seem immersed in it as their tribes and clans argue and negotiate and fiercely celebrate their differences. What is our problem? I believe it originates, in part, with “Whatever” parenting.
Parenting in a consumeristic society is inherently devoid of limits. The intention is to satisfy the child’s every need with “things” and experiences that make the child feel good about him/herself. The assumption is that the child “shouldn’t have to” endure even brief amounts of emotional pain. To have to do so would mean that parents have “failed”. Therefore, the criterion for “good” parenting is how much stuff one can provide for the child and how positively one can make the child feel about self, others, and the world.
Consequently, conflict is to be avoided at all costs because it might evoke emotion in both the child and the parent. Instead, the parent simply capitulates to the child’s wishes or pays him/her not to resist. For example, the parent may refuse a 16 year-old’s request for a car by purchasing some other thing or experience for him until he turns 17 or 18. There may be little discussion of why the request cannot be fulfilled in current time such as insurance rates, gas prices, family finances, driving lessons, emotional maturity, or other issues that affect the parent’s decision to grant the request or not. There may be a great deal of argument or what looks like conflict around the request, but genuine conflict doesn’t actually occur.
Clean, authentic conflict is about dialog and reasoning. Individuals discuss their differing viewpoints and negotiate or compromise based on in-depth conversation about the issues involved. For example, when a child makes a request, the parent has three options. She can immediately refuse the request and become rigid, adopting an authoritarian position of “Don’t argue with me. I’m the parent, and I said ‘no’.” She can be cajoled or manipulated into granting the request, or she can engage with the child in a dialog process that invites critical thinking and mature reasoning in the child and in herself. The latter requires time and effort, and is usually very hard work for both the parent and child. To expend the effort, however, can be invaluable for both parties. In addition to engaging in reasoning, the child has the opportunity to think for himself, make choices, become accountable for his choices, experience the frustration of having his request denied or the joy of having it granted or the “aha!” of a third option that neither the parent or child had previously considered but which may open up new opportunities for both of them. Ultimately, the most profound rewards are the strengthening of trust and intimacy between the parent and child, not to mention the cultivation of a sense of responsibility for personal choices.
Twenty-first century parenting in the culture of empire which endeavors to avoid emotional intimacy, deflect conflict, make the child feel good about him/herself, and circumvent dialog with buying the child things or experiences creates a generation of human beings whose watchword is “whatever.” If you spend five minutes with any adolescent or college-age individual these days, you’ll probably hear “whatever” in their vocabulary sooner rather than later, especially if the conversation moves toward controversy or differences of opinion.
“Whatever” means that I don’t have to think; I don’t have to be accountable; it isn’t my problem; one option is as valid as any other because no one has pointed out to me that there are many options and that some are much more useful/safe/viable/substantial than others. “Whatever” belies abandonment in the context of parenting devoid of authentic conflict which engages the hearts and minds of children and adults. “Whatever” means no limits or perhaps not even knowing what limits are, let alone why they might be useful. Because a child grows up in the land of “whatever” she may come to believe that people who set limits and maintain boundaries are mean, cruel, rude, heartless, and lack compassion. After all, “whatever” means that we include everyone and everything because-well, “whatever.”
Lack of limits creates nothing if not entitlement. If I’m not responsible and I’ve never experienced the rewards of navigating with a parent or wise, caring elder the turbulent waters of meaningful, conflict-resolving conversation, then I can only conclude that life “should be” easy and that if it’s not, it’s someone else’s fault.
As I converse with individuals from all parts of this nation who at one time or other have endeavored to live in community with others, I hear endless litanies of painful partings and profound hopelessness around the possibility that conflicts can actually be worked through. One theme I consistently hear is that communities have often failed because they are doggedly committed to inclusivity-the notion that sameness should be emphasized, differences minimized, and that conflict should be downplayed. Even more so, in short-term living situations such as workshops or retreats, the notion of inclusivity may be pervasive and may forbid excluding anyone lest we prove ourselves to be callous creatures with ice water in our veins.
In thinking about and preparing our families and communities for the severities of societal unraveling, the image of the lifeboat is frequently used, and many individuals speak openly of who they want in their lifeboat. I believe the lifeboat is a useful image for many reasons, not the least of which is that a lifeboat has limits. Not everyone can jump in and occupy it. As with a calamity at sea, anyone fortunate enough to inhabit a lifeboat must make agonizing decisions about who is invited into the boat and who isn’t. Otherwise, the lifeboat becomes a death chamber rather than an instrument of survival.
So then the question becomes: How do we make these decisions? Do we exclude as well as include, and what are our criteria? Lifeboat communities may be forced to make life and death decisions about who will share their space and their implements of survival. What horrifying scenarios come to mind as we contemplate building lifeboats and inviting others to join us-or not? In a completely unraveled society where violence, upheaval, famine, thirst, war, homelessness, pandemics, and climate chaos have created cultural mayhem, what limits must we set and how and with whom?
It is impossible to construct rigid “lifeboat policies” in current time and nothing less than absurd to imagine that every exigency of collapse can be planned beforehand. What we can ponder, however, are principles which do not originate in the culture of “whatever” but have guided indigenous peoples for millennia. Many of those cultures have been grounded in the motif of the warrior/elder which provides compassionate leadership with limits. I hasten to add that warrior energy is not about combat but about taking a stand on behalf of the tribe which often includes “doing battle” with agendas that advance individual egos rather than the wellbeing of the community. Frequently in indigenous cultures a council of elders exists for this purpose, and while it is understood that each member is human and therefore fallible, each has earned his/her place on the council as a result of the depth of wisdom demonstrated and how skillfully he/she has preserved and protected the integrity of the community.
A seasoned elder understands, as she takes in hand the youth of her tribe, that they must be guided, taught, reasoned with, and invited into conscious dialog so that ultimately that young person can mature into elderhood and carry on the wisdom tradition of the tribe. He or she is instructed in the art of setting limits for him/herself and for the community and is schooled in the fundamental realities of human existence, not by avoiding, but by taking on the messiness of conflict. Above all, the elder emphasizes that the young person’s life journey is not about being happy, but about becoming conscious.
As the collapse of civilization exacerbates and intensifies, the most well-intentioned and open-hearted human beings will make many mistakes. And at the same time, it is possible to become adept and wizened by warrior/elder principles that skillfully set limits and to adhere to them when it would be much easier to garner kudos from self and others for indiscriminate inclusivity. It is a delicate and daunting dance-sometimes ecstatic, sometimes excruciating. But regardless of its outcome, its pathway traverses nowhere near the land of “Whatever”.