Thursday, September 18, 2014

On human nature, nationalism and self-determination

Scots are voting on independence today. I'm not a Scot, and I don't vote in the United Kingdom. I have no opinion on the referendum, nor am I entitled to have one. But the debate has stirred a lot of thoughts in my distracted brain.

Above the auditorium entrance in Georgetown's Intercultural Center, which houses its School of Foreign Service, is a quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist:
"The age of nations is past. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudices and build the earth."
As a 16-year-old college freshman more than 30 years ago, I believed that. I wanted to do that. I saw that the division between our side and theirs was artificial and unsustainable, and I believed we were moving toward a new era of communication and peace.

This is why it's always young people who lead revolutions.

It's not cynical to say that human beings can't be trusted to do the right thing, it's history. The gift and curse of our creation is free will: we are capable of great goodness and great evil, but mostly we incline to indulgence and expedience. As an old boss of mine liked to say, we are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. That's not a moral judgment, that's just biology. We breathe, we excrete, we eat, we reproduce. We fear darkness and danger, so we band together, and then we fight with each other because no group allows every member to get everything they want (Yeats on Ireland: "Great hatred, little room"). But because we are human and not rats, we yearn for meaning and we dream of freedom.

Teilhard wrote about nationalism in the wake of the Great War, where he had served as a stretcher-bearer at the first Battle of the Marne, and the battles of Champagne and Verdun. After the war, he got a doctorate in geology, and he spent most of the rest of his life doing paleontological fieldwork in China. What he learned and what he found gave him a mystical insight into the universality of the human condition, over both time and geography, and an understanding of the futility and wasted energy of national boundaries.

Because the first thing that nationalism does, Teilhard understood, is dictate who does and doesn't belong to a group. We are Us; you are Them. We celebrate Us, we reject Them, like that "Simpsons" episode about the old enmity between Springfield and Shelbyville. If you believe, as Teilhard did, as I do, in an omnipresent and all-forgiving God that created us all, there is no Them. Who would be Them? Who does God call "Them"?

Do away with nationalism, then, but it leaves us still with the drive to self-determination, which is not only a human desire but also, in this post-Eden exile, a human obligation. Especially now, in 2014, when our religions seem to be failing us and our governments and public institutions have become too large and complex to be held accountable in any meaningful way, we crave some sense of agency over our own lives. Or at least I do, which is why I have been self-employed for the past 15 years, and why I moved to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, and why — or at least one reason why — I never married. It's not a noble thing; it's not so far removed from my three-year-old self, who snatched away utensils, washcloths, and items of clothing from adults with a shove and "By myself!" It's the teenager's manifesto: You're not gonna tell me what to do, man.

The problem with insisting on independence, I have found as I approach my sixth decade, is that people will give it to you. Cooperation and collaboration take time, energy, compassion and compromise. It is, in the short term, often harder to do something as a team than on one's own. It's just that teams can do more, for longer, without tapping out every one of their members.

My big lesson, after almost five decades on this planet, is that it's a lot harder to be a good team member than it is to be a solo operator. The mistake people make — or at least, the mistake I made, and continue to try to correct in myself — is thinking that belonging to a team means that the team comes first, and that the team's interests override its individual members'. The best teams balance the needs of the group with the needs of the individuals, and operate on a constant cycle of feedback: What do you need? What do we need? How are we doing? What are we doing? It's hard, and the bigger the group, the harder it gets.

So maybe Scotland has the right idea: take it down a notch. Make the group smaller, so that we all listen better. Can we get to a point where no country's big enough to marshal an arsenal that will destroy the world? That's probably naive. It's certainly romantic. But I watch today's election with fascination and hope. Whatever the outcome, it would be nice if it meant everyone listened to each other a little more closely.

5 comments:

Debra C said...

You've helped me frame this in a whole new light, Ellen (or Clair... oh, but I always knew you as Ellen!) Thank you for a very thoughtful post.

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

People still call me Ellen! I answer to both names equally...

hoyameb said...

This speaks to me so powerfully. Thank you.

Muthahun said...

Well thought. Well spoke. Go, you!

JenC said...

Really interesting thoughts. I've often thought America is just too big to be well run...of course, having states should take care of that, but it doesn't, I guess because we answer to the larger government. Of course, I would only want the states who's policies I agree with to run themselves completely!