Mark Hanson - January 02, 2013
Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs
At the beginning of each New Year, we often take stock of our lives and consider what we might improve or let go of. Rarely, though, do we evaluate our successes or shortcomings by looking at the character and quality of our society or the world around us. It may be, however, that such an endeavor is more revealing of our true selves, and may give us more rewarding goals for the New Year and beyond.
It is one of the universal teachings of the major religious traditions that we are not ultimately separate from that which surrounds us—from other people or from the natural world. Martin Luther King Jr. captured this idea powerfully when he said, “The wounded man is part of me, and I am a part of him.” Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.” Some Buddhists call this “interbeing,” and it affirms the idea that there is no fully independent self.
Yet grasping the meaning of this interconnectedness is difficult within our Western tradition, which over the centuries has come increasingly to emphasize individuality and separateness, and which sees morality primarily in terms of individual rights and autonomy. And if we add the Enlightenment’s legacy endorsing our mastery over nature and capitalism’s doctrine of the benefits of the pursuit of economic self-interest, it becomes difficult indeed to think of ourselves as fundamentally connected to others and to our natural world.
One way to think about our interconnectedness comes from the Christian Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who reminds us that in an important way, our successes are not our own. Who we are, the resources we have available to us, and the conditions that led to our success were prepared by others. Likewise, our successes also prepare the way for others—for our children, fellow citizens, and subsequent generations. Similarly, our failures, too, may spring from the failures of others—such as parents, teachers, and social institutions. But where we fail, others may step in and succeed. Thus, Merton writes, “The meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my own achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time.”
To evaluate ourselves, then, requires us to evaluate our society and our world. Such an undertaking is ominous but worthwhile, for our own society is struggling at critical junctures with whether the solutions to our problems will respect interconnectedness, or continue to emphasize the isolated individual.
Consider, for example, the recent tragedy in Connecticut. When a mentally ill man enters a school and kills twenty-six people, we recognize our interconnectedness through our shared grief for people most of us did not know, and for the very real sense that our community has been savagely ruptured, even though the incident occurred in a faraway state. But then we must also ask, are the failures that led to this tragedy that of the killer alone, or also, to some extent, ours together? What are our attitudes toward the mentally ill, and why are prisons our primary place of choice for them in our country? How much do we respect our interconnectedness if the one right we refuse to limit involves the means to kill other people? Why is our culture so incredibly violent? Can we not see that a proposed solution to arm a teacher to kill a mentally ill man also constitutes our failure?
Likewise, as we may resolve to improve our own health in the New Year, how much do we consider that our body is made of the elements of the earth and sky? For example, can we truly say we’re interested in being healthy if we don’t reject the ways in which we poison our food and land? Further, our health depends on public health services such as sanitation, and clean air and water. It depends on state-sponsored schools that produce health care professionals and on government-sponsored institutions that undertake medical research. And our health is threatened if others are not healthy too.
If we recognize, then, this basic element of interconnectedness, we will see that our measures of success and failure encompass something far greater than the sum of our resolutions to improve our individual selves. And while may feel like we are taking on the weight of the world in doing so, we will at least see ourselves more truly as we are, and in the end, resolve to seek for ourselves a better world, as well as a better self.
This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.