Monthly Archives: May 2024

Who We Are

Centuries have gone by and human beings have remained busy inflicting all sorts of destructiveness upon ourselves, other animals, plant life, and the Earth’s biosphere as a whole. We call this our history. At times we have called this “progress.”

What is it that we have been doing throughout our history? We have been “othering” our fellow human beings as well as every one of our biosphere’s inhabitants. We have perpetrated obscenities against Mother Earth in the name of “progress.” We have become delusional in our assumption of human superiority and sense of entitlement to dominate.

How is it that so many centuries later we still don’t know what we’re doing?

As a species we still don’t know what we’re doing because so many of us still do not know who we really are. Many of us still believe that we are nothing more than biochemical machines who consume material resources. We believe that we must consume or be consumed and that there simply isn’t enough for all of us.

There is a prevailing acceptance of this view as being based on science and therefore true. Seeing ourselves as biochemical machines, we believe we are separate from each other and independent of each other. We have hypnotized ourselves into believing that our independence is virtuous and that any form of dependency is evidence of weakness and deserving of shame. This perspective has become very advantageous to certain individuals and groups. They have gained and seek to maintain control over others without the bother of getting informed consent. It is a form of covert domination.

We have gotten it wrong for so long now that we assume the pessimism about human nature to be a given. “Why do people do these things?” We ask when we reflect upon the atrocity de jour in today’s news cycle. “It’s human nature” we are told. That is supposed to end the discussion.

“That’s not who we are.”

This has become an almost mandatory statement in defense of our collective identity when one of “us” does something horrific within our own society. We heard this disclaimer time and time again after the killing of George Floyd by police officers in 2020. If the perpetrator is too closely associated with our national power structure there is the inevitable recycling of the “few bad apples” explanation to protect the integrity and reputation of the existing system. The explaining away of the atrocities that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq a few years earlier is another example of this tactic. Police officers and military personnel may need to be held to account but as institutions, the police and the military must not be accused or held responsible.

If we are to stand firm in our denial of being psychopaths we must ultimately answer the question that will haunt us until we do:

Who are we?

The answer to this question is critically important because our understanding of who we are has major implications for how we behave.

So, to what extent do our beliefs about who we are influence how we conduct ourselves in our daily lives? Quite a lot, actually. We have come to know this as the phenomenon of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” This is the process by which one or more individuals live up to or down to the expectations that they absorb from beyond themselves. What are happens if our beliefs about our identity are inadequate or incorrect?

After Martin Luther King, jr. was murdered in 1968, an elementary school teacher provided a fascinating and illuminating lesson to her students and the rest of humanity. The teacher, Jane Elliot, informed her young students that blue-eyed children were scientifically proven to be naturally more intelligent than brown-eyed children. Then each group was given corresponding privileges or challenges. The children quickly adopted their new status. The blue-eyed children lorded their imagined superiority over the brown-eyed children who accepted their alleged inferiority. A day or so later she explained to her students that a mistake had been made and it was actually the brown-eyed children who were the naturally better students and that it was the blue-eyed students who were less intelligent. Now the brown-eyed students took on the mantle of bestowed superiority and dominated the blue-eyed students who were now regarded as the inferior ones.

We identify ourselves in so many different ways. We call ourselves Americans or Russians or Ukrainians or Palestinians or Israelis. We say that we are Hutus or Tutsis or Cherokees or Sioux. We claim to be Muslims or Hindus or Christians or Jews or Buddhists. We wear red and call ourselves conservatives or we wear blue and call ourselves liberals. Others call us communists or socialists or capitalists or fascists.

We tell ourselves all kinds of stories about what it means to be whatever label we choose or have imposed on us. These stories typically invoke a comparison that serves to clarify that “I’m one of us and not one of them.” This seems to have satisfied humankind for much of our history.

It has also been the source of much of humanity’s greatest suffering.

The time has come to stop accepting ownership of any label that invites an “us and them” framework that colonizes our hearts, minds and the fabric of human society. This corrosive mentality promotes fear and hostility. It sabotages compassion and rationality. It blocks our true potential as human beings. It makes us far less than who we are.

So who are we?

We are schoolchildren on a field trip. Our field trip isn’t simply a matter of going to a national park or a museum to look at what is there. Instead, we have been sent to a little blue planet orbiting an average star within an average galaxy. Rather than simply observing the inhabitants of this little blue planet, our teacher has arranged for us to become them in order to learn all that we can about what it means to be human beings living in human societies. One thing that we didn’t know is that upon arrival, our memories of who we really are would be hidden from us. A little surprise from our teacher perhaps? So we “forgot” who we were and believed that we were the humans we came to learn about. So for thousands of years we have lived as human beings with all the imperfections that are part of the human experience. We have had innumerable opportunities to make all kinds of mistakes from which to learn and we have indeed made an incredible number of them. We have learned from some of those mistakes and it is painfully obvious that we still have much to learn.

And yet…

There are occasions where, like the title character of The Truman Show movie, we have started to notice small oddities and little cracks in the illusion of who we think we are. While not all of us are haunted by a nagging sense that there’s something more going on in life, some do experience a persisting mystery that is difficult to dismiss. We hear the stories of people like Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and the Buddha as well as more contemporary stories of the lives of Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, Mother Theresa, Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan. The lives of these compelling people and others give us moments of insight and awareness that question the assumption that we are merely biochemical machines. We begin to doubt how separate we really are from each other. We become skeptical of the hyper-competitive “survival of the fittest” mythology that would have us believe that only the “strong” deserve to live. We begin to remember echos from the past reminding us not to be afraid. We become open to the possibility that those reminders come from a truthful source.

What happens if we listen to the voice saying: “Do not be afraid”? What happens if we make choices and act based on a foundation of something other than fear? If we are no longer blinded and dominated by fear, what will we be able to see and know? When we get beyond the obstructions of our fear what will we then have room for in our hearts and lives?

As we find our way beyond our fear we will be able to reconnect to who we are.

There is an apocryphal story about the legendary artist Michelangelo. The story goes that he was asked how he was able to create such extraordinary sculptures out of blocks of stone. He replied that he saw the completed sculpture within the block of stone and that his work was to “free” the sculpture by chipping away all that was not part of its true form. He considered his work complete when he had removed everything that was not part of the encased figure.

Might we be living versions of Michelangelo’s sculptures? What if we are the ones encased within our own “stone blocks” of fear? As we help each other and ourselves to become free of these prisons we will know that we are so much more than just combinations of subatomic particles interacting with electromagnetic radiation. We will come to discover that “human evolution” is far grander than any mere materialistic process.

When we remember who we are, when we connect the dots and get the picture, we will be unwilling to hurt each other anymore. We will come to love and respect the other forms of life with whom we share our one and only planet. We will know that competing against each other is pointless and absurd. Competition becomes uninteresting. Instead we will find that we are now much more interested in helping and supporting each other. “How can I help you?” becomes our default setting replacing the “greed is good” ethos of our time. Each of us will come to experience our identity as both “me” and “we” without contradiction.

No one is sub-human or super-human. All are lovable and deserving of love. No exceptions. This is our journey from the illusions and distortions of our fearfulness to an ever increasing awareness of our true identity as beings made by Love, from Love and for Love. Despite the multitude and magnitude of our mistakes, we are loved beyond our comprehension. All of us belong in the Beloved Community.

When we finally realize who we are, we will fully understand that we have no enemies. It will become obvious to all of us that any attempt or inclination to harm is unthinkably absurd. We will know ourselves and each other as the sacred children of the Ultimate Mystery, loved beyond our wildest dreams.