This week 40 people were killed and 200 injured at a Turkish airport. There was an attack at a restaurant in Bangladesh. Just a few short weeks ago, a man killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and injured 53 others. Last week, Britain voted to leave the European Union. Our national discourse has reached a fevered pitch of hate and xenophobia.
Meanwhile, President Obama has described globalization as a fait accompli. He said it is “here” and “done.” He was referring to international integration and global economies. But what he also said is that how those relationships get shaped remains to be seen.
So far how those relationships are being shaped seems to me more like global injustice than global community. What we seem to be witnessing is a world and a mindset forged by fear and separation rather than appreciation of interdependence.
And while science verifies that our destinies and well-being as individuals and as countries are linked on this planet, human hearts and spirits have some serious catching up to do. And so on the threshold of Independence Day, I have been thinking about what it means to reset our course toward a hearty interdependence and mutually beneficial relationships.
I found myself thinking about the stages of human development. Psychologists have created various models for understanding human social and psychological development. Humans are said to grow through three stages from dependence to independence to interdependence.
Infants, we know, cannot survive on their own. They need to be fed and nurtured. As they grow, their developmental tasks as children include mastery and competence, leading to independence. Independence peaks in the teen and young adult years. Some of you are living that right now. The third phase is interdependence. It involves reciprocal relationships that lift everyone up for success. It seems that as individuals, communities and nations mature, they grow their potential to appreciate and function interdependently.
The truth is our world is one world. An interdependent world. We do not need to do a thing for that to be true. Fences and walls can interrupt connections among individuals and groups, but ultimately cannot entirely insulate or isolate any of us from each other. Drones, climate change, terrorism, and economic fluctuations are unwelcome examples.
The butterfly effect, a term coined by Edward Lorenz, suggests that even small occurrences in one part of the world can have great impact elsewhere. The fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in one hemisphere can have repercussions in another. Whatever happens, both good and bad, large and small, affects us all, admittedly affecting the most vulnerable people and beings disproportionately. Just imagine who in this morning’s wisdom story of Four Harmonious Friends would have been hardest hit by a lack of cooperation. Probably the bird, but ultimately all of them.
Yet, even though interdependence is a reality, humans do not always act like it is or strive to create a harmonious interdependence. Most of us need more tools and more practice and more hope for unlocking possibilities. Our wisdom story models an approach to being healthfully, respectfully, and happily interdependent. By working together and practicing care for others, the four harmonious friends are all able to reach and savor the fruit of life. The relationship of those four friends can be interpreted as a metaphor for members of a human family or a religious community like ours. It can serve as a metaphor for neighborliness, multi-faith connections, and alliances among countries.
In creating the word, “inter-be,” Thich Nhat Hanh gives voice to the reality that “all things are connected.” And as Peter Raible says, “together we are more than any one person could be.” Certainly all the animals were more than they could be alone. Even the elephant had the benefit of usefulness and the joy of friendship. The animals succeed because they lean on each other. They work together. They each use their own talents and contribute what they can for the success of all of them. Working together is in their own self-interest and also what they owe one another. They devote themselves not to what is owed to them and certainly not to what they own.
In a world that too often insists on rigid isolation and fear of the other, these four harmonious friends represent an ethical and compassionate way to be in relationship. The story’s wisdom, so ancient, seems so self-evident that we may barely absorb its full condemnation of modern isolationism and the power of kinship as an antidote to our modern dystopia. We humans desperately need to cultivate, grow, and amplify our capacity to cherish and care for one another. We need to be about the business of lifting each other and leaning on each other.
Okay. This is the moment of confession. Maybe you are thinking what I keep finding myself thinking. I am not always so able to inter-be. I cannot help but imagine there were days the monkey did not feel like lifting the rabbit. I suspect there were days the elephant grew impatient with all of them. The bird is the one that made it all possible by planting the seed that grew into the tree. The bird is the true hero of the story. Yet the bird is also the most vulnerable of the four, needing to lean on so many friends to get by. I imagine some days the bird got really tired of having to ask for help. I know I would. We have not even talked about the tree. The tree receives no credit for providing sustenance. Yet the tree yields the fruit that made all their lives possible. At the same time, the tree owes its life to the bird.
But worse than just having days when I am not inspired to be so helpful, there are just some people I do not want to inter-be with. Practically speaking, there are just some people who I do not want to be standing on my shoulders and some people whose shoulders I do not want to stand on. There are some people and countries who I despair of ever being able to be team players, and who I struggle to imagine having on my team. Let’s be honest. Interdependence is fun and relatively easy with people and lands we like. Beyond that, there is nothing particularly glamorous about our interdependence. Harmony in relationships is rigorous and hard-earned. The result can be incredibly fulfilling and beautiful, but challenging and risky and imperfect.
So many times we come into difficult spaces where there are fundamental differences, clashes of values, and so much pain. To inter-be asks far more of us than we may sometimes feel we have to give, including learning to understand people and communities we would rather keep at a distance.
I remember one spring, when I was working for a nonprofit where there was recurring staff discord. The boss decided a retreat on an obstacle course was just the thing to pull us all together. It was like a scene out of a sitcom. People who disliked and distrusted one another all had to team up to get through a high webbed wall with holes of various sizes at various heights, some necessitating lifting and passing people through to the other side. I honestly could not imagine putting my life, my body, in the hands of some of those coworkers, and luckily did not need to. Somehow though we managed to pass one unlucky coworker through the narrow hole in the webbed wall without dropping or injuring her.
There was not exactly a kumbaya moment, and we did not all become best friends forever, but our working relationships did improve. Our lives were already linked on the job, but being on that course together helped us realize the inescapable. Success meant working collaboratively and listening to each other’s ideas. Otherwise, someone would get hurt. There was no escaping our inter-being. To inter-be is an invitation to look at the world with new eyes and to experience a new way of being together. Inter-being asks us to rise above despair and discouragement and pettiness and dehumanization.
Krista Tippett, a journalist who hosts the public radio program On Being, was one of the speakers at General Assembly, our annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists in late June. Her lecture was Mystery and the Art of Living Together. She said we are learning to develop the capacity to think as a species and see that our particularities are a gift to the world. We are learning that the well-being of others beyond one’s tribe is linked to one’s own well-being.
As humans continue to live into the new reality of the modern world – new technologies, questions of authority, gender, identity, and so much more – she advises, among other things, that we rediscover the art of listening. Too often we listen at the surface with only our well-established ideas and opinions filtering every word. Even Unitarian Universalists who work so hard to be open-minded are prone to doing this. To truly listen is to be present with a big and whole-hearted curiosity. To truly listen is to allow vulnerability and space to search and encourage possibilities.
In light of the xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and hate unleashed during this election cycle, Tippett suggests asking the question: “what hurts?” To listen to the answer to that simple question is to hear beyond and through hatred and anger and to be present to the ache and disappointment people are experiencing. The question “what hurts?,” is one we do well to ask ourselves, as well.
The art of listening is not the same as accepting or tolerating abuse or violence. Accountability and good boundaries are absolutely essential and actually enhance our relationships. I do not need to allow someone to shout me down or put me down. Nor do I need to dehumanize others. Because one day I may be the elephant and another day the tree. One day I may be the bird and another the monkey. One day a logger may come along ready to chop the tree for paper. One day I may be the logger. Then what?
When I think about the question “who owns this world?” which our first reading was said to respond to, I cannot help but think: all of us and none of us. This planet nourishes, inspires, heals, delights, and holds us. Our world is one world, a shared space, and an interdependent web. “We must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back,” as Dag Hammarskjold writes.
I cannot help but think that even to ask “who owns the earth?” is to deny our place in the web of life. For “The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.” We all belong. And we all belong to each other.
Amen. Blessed be.