The Privilege of the Few

Institutions that maintain soothing contact between men under unexpressed conditions and within unadmitted limits are certainly indispensable for communal existence; but beyond that they are pernicious because they veil the truth in the manifestation of the human existence in illusory contentment. (probably Walter Kauffman)

Culture was a pyrrhic victory for mankind. This “fig leaf” did accomplish its original purpose in that it covered our existential nakedness and allowed the development of what I often call this “dog and pony show” that we live and breath in each day. And without this contrivance we could not live together even as well as we do. We would still be a bunch of even smaller tribes always warring with each other as opposed to the present arrangement in which the number of tribes is actually quite limited though the violence and potential violence is lethal.

But our “illusory contentment”, satisfying as it might be, always comes at the price of excluding someone that we might describe as “the other” or “them.” Our smug satisfaction always rests on the backs of those who have been denied admission into the club.

There are many dimensions to this problem but let me focus on merely one, the often discussed “haves” versus the “have nots.” And technically, this poses a personal problem for, relatively speaking, I am one of the “haves” though that is the case only in comparison with the human tribe as a whole. Relative to the hordes who live in poverty, my middle class existence would have to be described as “plenty” and I would have to be considered one of the “haves.” But trust me, I am not wealthy! Everything is relative.

So, how do we solve this problem? I understand that we could solve the world hunger problem, for example, if we wanted to so why not? Part of me remembers the admonishment to “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor” and I’ve heard of those who have done so. Well, I’m not inclined to do this and do not feel it would be the appropriate thing for me to do. But I do think solving this particular part of the “have not” problem would cost me something and I can honestly say I would be willing to incur that “something” even to the point of discomfort. How could I insist on maintaining my level of comfort when millions and millions of people in the world live in squalor? But the same question needs to be considered collectively, not just with my country, but with the world and all of us would have to begin to think in terms of the human collective instead of our local tribe. We would have to begin to answer affirmatively the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

But this would require a profound paradigm shift in world consciousness. It would require that we create some space around our tribal identity and begin to see that the “other” is human also and deserves a quality of life that we could probably help bring about. And, I’m not saying that we would have to, or even could, give up our “tribal identity” but only loosen its grip on ourselves just a little, just enough to see that other people, and other tribes, are human also. A tribal identity is just another way of saying an “ego identity” and these dimensions of reality are imperative. But another dimension of reality is also imperative, that one of “space” which unites us all, an inclusive “space” or “field” which many have termed “Spirit.” Rumi put this so eloquently when he noted, “Out beyond the distinctions of right doing and wrong doing there is a field. I will meet you there.” He was noting that beyond the distinctions that we draw with our ego or tribal identity there is a “space” and if we are willing to embrace this space…or allow it to embrace us…we can make connection with other people.

Let me close with the wisdom of a kindred spirit, my brother in Spirit, W. H. Auden, who noted:

What except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie?

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