Sunday, November 22, 2009

Questioning Definitions

There are a few famous lines that each of us hold close to our hearts, that came to us at just the time we needed to hear them and seemed novel and revolutionary. A transforming phrase is a work of art in a concept. When Malcolm X said,” You don’t have to accept anyone else’s definition of who you are”, I was stirred to my foundations. For someone who had been defined by others at every turn, others’ plans and expectations meant to fit me into a narrow cultural slot, it was a shocking thought that took hold and shook me out of the hardening mold. In varying degrees we all grow up surrounded by cultural templates to which we must conform. Serious labels with ominous definitions are slapped on behavior that doesn’t fit the template, doesn’t fit into the cultural machine. This is one of the problems with the old machine paradigm that holds that everything can be explained by the limited actions allowed by the particular function of a part in the machine. It reduces the complex human person to a mechanical function in one of the accepted roles the society and culture has scripted. Parents are agents of the culture and do what the culture says must be done, but in the process young people are bound, limited by standards that signify their unimportance. In Susan Sontag’s novel “In America”, after a young man kills himself the protagonist thinks, “How I wished I could have explained to him that he didn’t have to be what he thought himself sentenced to be. For isn’t that why one thinks of ending one’s life?” and later she wrote, “Happiness depends on not being trapped in your individual existence, a container with your name on it.”
A theme that is emerging in some students’ work right now is emancipation from these limitations. They are creating new images for spirituality, trying to enlarge their view of being in the world that includes vast space, the universe within and without, commingled with ourselves. This is exactly the shift of values that can bring us back into harmony with our environment. Once we are identified with a larger whole it becomes difficult to violate any part of it, because it’s part of us. It makes us joyful (stimulates endorphins) when we help others because we are interdependent. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it so eloquently, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated nature of existence.”
Discussion of art in class is richer because multiple minds thinking together can arrive at ideas that depend on the interstimulation. The web is the metaphor, and the capacity to weave new connections infinite. Not limited by the definitions of a profit driven society we can experience the beauty of being within and throughout an interconnected whole.
James Hillman said that he often thought it wasn’t that his patients were sick but that they’d failed to adapt to a sick society.
The age of competition has made a mess of things, an arms race, war after war, corporate subterfuge, steroids in sports, the proliferation of cheating on every front because winning is seen as the highest value. Apathy and cynicism are pervasive. Because of the limitations of the roles within this system, human beings haven’t begun to realize their potential. They’ve been locked in a conditioned mindset that sabotages growth.
Just like art can change the way you see something, one sentence can be enough to unlock our chains. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s the first step to building new ways of seeing ourselves. If you think people should be kinder, more sensitive, then be kinder and more sensitive. The young people of today are the front lines in a change in consciousness, and a shift to an age of cooperation seems inevitable. They know there is more to being human than the definitions they’ve inherited, and I’m excited to see the changes they will contribute to a new way of seeing our potential as a species.

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