Starting with Community
By John Fridinger
There is a common idea that "philosophy" is ineffectual thinking that gets in the way of what is necessary, understood to be actions, projects, accomplishments, etc. Though sometimes that is the case, everything is a two-edged sword. Underlying and informing all human action, thought and ideology, even the most instinctive, is a set of beliefs, sometimes conscious, but largely unconscious. Engaging and affecting those beliefs, as a collective, is what practical philosophy is essentially about. If human society is to transform in a creative sense, conscious change to our underlying belief systems must be a part of it. It takes time and a lot of attention to re-create a set of shared beliefs. Often the best any of us can do is describe our sense of a larger reality forever shifting, the fluid dynamics of existence, so to speak, in order to inform the possibility of a positive and creative change to underlying social and individual structures of understanding.
I am attempting here to address awareness in the context of community, rather than the specifics of particular projects, or what should be done. An essential element in everything that we do is the process, that is, how we go about things. Process in this sense is the way individual actions and activities join together and inform the dynamic context of our relationships. Process is, to a great extent, shaped by how well we are able to keep important questions in front of us as we go about our daily lives and interact with each other.
Contemporary human global society, fractured and conflicted in so many ways, is essentially united in its opposition to evolutionary change, everywhere committed to ideologies disconnected from the earth. This inherent alienation destroys indigenous (local) culture, diversity and the natural world. We are all shaped by that schism. The very nature of existence dictates that everything must change creatively if it is to survive as a healthy part of the whole. Equally important is the need to maintain continuity with our roots, the past and tradition. What's called for is balanced perception, sometimes known as the middle path.
Clever and powerful technologies divorced from life, along with a philosophy of domination based on fear, have nearly destroyed the once- amazing diversity of human cultural and individual perceptions, along with the natural world. The promotion and manipulation of brand-name identities enforces dependency upon an increasing separation from each other, other life forms and the earth. This addictive behavior is often called "progress," an event-driven affair of predictable appearances and superficial values. Any society based upon such values is compelled to oppose healthy cultural and evolutionary change, unique perspectives and traditional place-based communities. The focus becomes the uniformity and regulation of ideas rather than an engaged and enlivening consciousness—that is, separation rather than participation. The more we separate from each other and the rest of life, the more we will find unique viewpoints and bold tendencies disappearing into a look-alike world of corporate-controlled, media-de ermined virtual realities.
Losing touch with our roots, intuitive insight and the authenticity of local community takes us down a destructive path. Not being open to questions that are meant to raise the possibility of change merely sustains ignorance. As environmentalists and social activists we need to realize that saving bits and pieces of the environment and/or culture, without also changing the way we live in relationship to each other and the rest of life, simply doesn't work.
"Bits and pieces" is not what Life is about. The alienating and powerful influences that we are up against see only a Universe of bits and pieces, and they are empowered every time we oppose them on such terms. Another way of saying it is that by living our lives and caring for the natural world and human culture in fragments, our efforts become co-opted by the very forces we believe we are opposing. This fundamental cause-and-effect reality, sometimes understood as "means shaping ends," will almost always overwhelm our efforts after awhile.
Feeding a lot of society's alienation is an infatuation with diversionary stimulation and an attachment to unconsciousness. We need look no further than drugs, television and consumerism to understand this. Waking up is the only response, through awareness shared as a part of community rooted in these places where we live. In this context, our actions are no longer about bits and pieces but rather about something whole, involving us in a world that is greater-than-human in scope.
Technologies and ideas are not bad. That is a given. The shift I'm searching for has to do with what it is we perceive ourselves to be a part of. Is it really a world of over-consumption, clever techniques, power over others, and idealized self-images that we want to support, a world that ignores spirit and basic values like honesty and caring for others, and uses the earth, life and the natural realms as mere resources to serve our illusions of separation? Or do we want to embrace a world already here, one that we are a part of whether we like it or not, a world that is served with useful ideas and appropriate technologies? Do we want to thereby join with each other in recognizing that diversity, living community, honest work, the natural realms, art and the realities of spirit are beautiful possibilities that enable a positive human participation in the dance of creation?
Real change begins with real people in a real place, here, and now. Learning to identify with our center rather than with the shape of our boundaries is a part of it. The latter identity is never satisfied, always seeking to increase in size and ideology, opposed to life, and compelled by the inadequacies inherent in periphery and superficiality. Scale is also important. World-level social organizations have a necessary part to play, but we need to understand that world-level organization is achievable without world-level domination based on narrow and alienating ideologies. The ethics that inform such a possibility begin in diversity and in real local communities linked together through an interconnected ("organized") world already in place—the Earth.
Corporate-controlled media and most educational institutions teach a system of alienated values and an ideology of fear in order to dominate language and the imagination, and it has become very difficult to communicate other ways of seeing the world. Indigenous culture has become a symbol for a different kind of imagination, an imagination that has reverence for life, intuition, mystery and the Wild, the experience of a whole Universe founded on beauty, truth, love and the self-organizing principals of life emerging into consciousness.
Native cultures such as the Apache and the Gwich'in evolved over hundreds and thousands of years, out of circumstances local in nature, centered in connections, community and a spiritual commons arising out of context and place. These nations were originally made up of smaller nomadic groupings identified with and immersed in a local environment that shaped their world views. It was the health of the individual groupings, connected to their own identities as a part of the places they occupied, that made possible the vigor and extended reach of the tribe as a whole.
Neither the environment nor human culture will be saved, restored or otherwise preserved, unless contemporary human society, via local community, recovers its connections to the Earth. It really is as simple as that. And, just as simply, human community cannot change in such necessary and essential ways separate from the places where we live. Working for the environment and social justice separate from participation in place-based local communities will almost always in the end become another part of the problem.
Nothing I've written here is meant to imply that urban community and world community are not valuable and essential human cultural and economic dimensions. The problem, once again, is what is missing for humans as a whole, to be awakened, evolving and fully present participants in the creative cycles of Life. This place where we live is, at least to some extent, why a lot of us are here, and this is also where our responsibilities and possibilities lie. The Gila Valley is not urban, and though Silver City is a town, it is not "urban," either. Some of the changes that are urgently needed have to begin in places like this. It is fundamental. Urban communities, on the other hand, must begin to find their own connections to Place in a larger and different way. Urban interests also need to realize that self-identified, place-based rural communities integrated into a healthy environment make healthy urban realities possible.
It is all about beginnings. We must start somewhere. Like a seed, do we take root in the Earth, this real place we are already a part of, or in the world of our imagination, separate from ourselves and life? If we step into new beginnings apart from ourselves, our imagination defeats us. By starting here, where we are at, our imagination and our efforts become a creative and healthy part of the whole.
A goal, for some of us, is about a direction, a focus, rather than a place not here. It is my effort that counts, rather than how far I actually get. Before anything real can occur, I have to be here, that is, who I am and where I am at, this place where my own insecurities lie. We are a part of what is becoming, in a real sense, only from where we are at. I also believe that it is through our shared efforts that we creatively shape our common human destiny. I think it was Gandhi who said, "Anything we do as individuals will appear insignificant in the end, but it is very important to try."