Values and belief systems guide our lives, but every day the news tells disturbing stories of innocent people harmed because their ideas don’t fit a definition of what a person should be. That is disturbing. Belief systems should enable us to live and work together better–to be more compassionate, understanding, and to better be able to forgive other’s mistakes and incompleteness. The complexity of today’s world often exposes us to people with different belief systems from our own. This can make it confusing to find a path through conflicting values and beliefs to follow that guides our actions–one that nurtures the best good for all and that helps people live together peacefully. When we reside in one location for years, we are less likely to see its wonders and shortcomings. It’s interesting to be reminded of how there are many other ways of living and being besides the one we are used to, and that those ways of living and being are just as normal and familiar to them as our ways of being are to us. Outsiders can sometimes be the very ones who help us see ourselves more clearly, or to see ourselves anew.
I began writing this post while still in New Delhi after going to the market, a common task, but one that can significantly differ depending on where you live in the world. What is an every day scene for some in certain parts of the world is uncommon for others in a different geographic area. Images here are of the location in Delhi where I get groceries
Currently, I’m visiting Washington DC, a city of wonderful diversity, energy and life. Every time I come back to the US for a visit after living abroad, I feel I’m entering in a foreign land, an adjustment most people experience when reentering their country after living abroad. It’s interesting returning to the US each year, and each time to look at my country with new eyes. Washington DC has stone monuments everywhere, beautiful old brick homes, and abundant galleries and museums, as well homeless people sleeping in parks and on the streets. Traveling downtown on the city bus, I sit with people from a variety of ethnicities and listen to several languages being spoken as the journey progresses. Though Delhi also has stone monuments, galleries and museums, DC is a very different world.
The other night I went to see the the most recent version of The Hobbit, and I’m reminded of what Gandalf said to Bilbo at the end of the film, just before he returns to the shire after his long adventure. I don’t have the exact words, but something like “It’s a big world out there, Bilbo, and you are, after all, just a little being.” We all are, after all, just little humans in a big wide world of incredible, rich diversity in multiple dimensions. Does it matter that we experience what it’s like in other cities, other countries, other climates, that we experience places where people speak different languages? Yes. The exposure to different realities helps us put our own world in perspective. There are many ways of living and thinking that seem right to many people. When we find ourselves in a completely different world, we negotiate new rules in order to make sense of it. We learn to accept mysteries and paradoxes.
Because travel and computer technology are connecting the world in new ways, everywhere people are having to renegotiate rules regarding behavior and morality. Rules regarding privacy, for example have to be reformulated after people like Snowden and Heidi Boghosian have spoken out, revealing how little privacy is actually left to us, and how democracy and civil liberties are at stake. Huge, complex issues require time to work out as a global community. As citizens in the communities we live in, we can continue to consider how what we say and do affects the lives of those around us, doing what we can to create a sense of neighborliness, and how that affects and informs the world we want to live in on a broader scale.
A nation is made up of communities. The way we relate with those directly around us in our communities will always be important. Our way of interacting with others affects not only our own lives, but also who we become as a larger community and as a nation. If we feel we can’t do much to change what happens half way across the world or with complex issues, we can at least do what we can to learn to live with the diversity we find in our own neighborhood and to nurture a greater sense of well-being with those around us. If at the community level we were engaged in working out ways to listen to and respect the differences perhaps we could also improve the way we respond to differences in other parts of the world. A major obstacle to understanding each other in today’s world, is the way money driven interests intervene with the exchange of ideas in the political process so that the truth about situations can be revealed and a better way of living together emerge as a result. One way a clearer understanding might emerge might be if citizens of diverse backgrounds were more involved directly in understanding each other’s circumstances. What if one of our new year’s goals was make more of a conscious choice this year to learn about and spend time with someone different from ourselves, for example, someone in one of these groups–someone who has disabilities, an elderly person, someone of a different social class, of a different religious or political persuasion, a different ethnicity from our own, or whose first language is different from our own. Choosing to develop a connection with someone from any of these groups of people could help us personally and as citizens to better understand the needs of diverse groups.
On his website, The Center For Courage and Renewal, Parker J. Palmer quotes Terry Tempest Williams, “The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?” Democracy begins at home–where we live. In his book, Habits of the Heart, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Palmer talks about ways of thinking and communicating that nurture democracy, and that can better help us live together. Palmer advocates people gathering together in communities to discuss issues and concerns. These are the habits facilitators guide the conversations around:
1. An understanding that we are all in this together.
2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
4. A sense of personal voice and agency.
5. A capacity to create community.
Living together peaceably is challenging, and more so today because media controls businesses and governments for their own purposes, making it difficult to inform ourselves in ways that enable us to make wise decisions that affect our future. Upton Sinclair said in The Jungle, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Because obscuring the truth isn’t uncommon in our era, it’s worth people coming together in person to discuss ideas, issues and goals in their communities.
Nazim Hikmet writes his poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” about being on a train from Prague to Berlin in 1962, a period of change and reform in what was then Czechoslovakia. He describes as a series of remembered scenes and events, then ends the poem,
the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn’t know I loved sparks
I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty
to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return
As I have looked at various exhibits in museums here in Washington DC, it’s clear that life constantly changes. Truth and the sense of community, however, are worth preserving. Diverse ways of living and being help us to gain a more whole perspective on what is worth preserving. We need diversity in order to be whole. Let us this coming year do what we can to love the world we live in all its diversity before we leave behind what is most valuable.