Survival and Love
Most of us act with the deliberate intention of making survival and love more certain for ourselves and for those close to us. How many of us feel encouraged by the ease and regularity with which we realize these objectives? Extrapolating the trends of the past few decades, who among us feels confident that the ideas and behaviors upon which we relied in the past will be an adequate foundation for living with satisfaction in the future? The purposes of this essay are to suggest that surviving and loving may now be more intimately related than we generally admit, and to outline an alternative to the approaches by which many of us have pursued them.
For thirty years, Americans have been adjusting our expectations downward. In place of the bold dreams and confident humanism of the thousand days of the Kennedy Presidency we now have the rising fears and confused alienation of the nineties. More and more of us live with disappointment. Today, the 1950's and early 1960's, when we were termed a "people of plenty" and an "affluent society," seem only a mirage. How many times have you read the newspaper or watched the television news and wondered, "Where's the 'good' news?" As more and more of us become aware of the lies by which we live, we are replacing the idealism so long a cardinal element of the American character with cynicism. And that cynicism is like a cancer upon our consciousness, appropriating everything in its path to its own ends, draining away self-esteem, undermining both will and ability.
Increasingly, we look to the future with apprehension. Acts of official and free-lance terrorism reach into every corner of our lives. We live with vivid images of police beating a prone suspect senseless on network news, thousands fleeing in panic from the smoking wreckage of the largest skyscraper in the world in the aftermath of a bombing, one unhappy individual after another wandering through trains, restaurants, streets, schoolyards, and workplaces killing and maiming. Despite a quarter century of environmental protection legislation here in America, we continue to level our forests, extinguish species, deplete our fisheries, and foul our air, soil, and water. As extreme weather patterns resulting from our own activities bring unprecedented destruction to one locale after another, all but the most sanguine among us are beginning to wonder whether those who promised progress have seen the future clearly. Even though we claim for ourselves a grossly disproportionate share of the natural resource capital of the rest of the globe with "trade" conducted on terms negotiated under, and enforced by, threat of war, we lack the wherewithal to maintain our domestic infrastructure. Reports of crumbling highways and failing bridges are accompanied by sobering estimates of the labor and material necessary to replace them. In scarcely a generation, we have replaced the tasks of distributing abundance and adapting to leisure with the challenge of maintaining what we have, or more often, of trying just to hang onto the most important of it. For more and more of us, survival is an issue.
Thirty years ago, many spoke enthusiastically, albeit loosely, of love. Love and lust, often associated in experience, were subsumed under the former with a wink. "Free love" and "making love" were euphemisms with which people made extra-marital sex and sexual intercourse itself topics suitable for polite conversation.
But when the "flower children" of the late-1960's embraced love in its dual meaning, they sought more than sexual freedom; they wanted also a gentler human society. They flocked to theaters to cry over romantic films like Love Story. The believed, or wanted to, when the Beatles, fresh from their encounters with an Indian swami, cheerfully promised, "All You Need is Love."
When the people who generated mass media advertising campaigns turned in that era to explicit and subliminal sexual themes to induce us to buy, they added at least a thin veil of sentimentality and kindness. Models looked at each other, and smiled.
In the current era, lust is undisguised, and we find shrinking use for love. People talk openly, indeed proudly, about topics once taboo. We have supplanted admonitions about reserving sex for those with whom we intend to make a life with threats of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. College students list money at the top of their career goals and public service far down the list. High schoolers are more likely to carry guns and knives than love beads and pictures of love-preaching gurus. In movies, the lust-to-love ratio is enormous and growing. Few question a plot in which one character cuts off another's limbs 'for love.' The leading music genre is a hate-filled series of threats and put-down's from which melody and harmony have been banished. And advertising is stripped of any pretense to vulnerability. Models glower and sneer off the page at us.
How shall we put love, in the sense of caring for each other and the environment we share, back into our culture? Ours are lives of individualism and competition, where a very large proportion of what we do is devoted to exchanges of various kinds. How often have we been taught that by hoarding our talent and resources, and offering them only when we can trade to our advantage, we will create maximum satisfaction for all? Given this conditioning, who can profess surprise that we think primarily as individuals, emphasizing our separateness and uniqueness? To compete more effectively, we ask recognition and credit for even our very beings, downplaying the many accidents, both genetic and cultural, which account for so much of who we are. As we maneuver to enhance our relative status, we drain others of their value and arrogate whatever we can to ourselves.
Focusing on the advantage to be gained by increasing our personal power, do we even imagine the greater security potentially available by satisfying the needs of all? More likely we treat interaction with others, including "love" relationships, as exchanges, and repeatedly question whether we are "getting enough" from them. How often do we hear "She's too good for him,", "He ripped me off," and similar expressions indicative of this outlook? By demanding service or personal compromise of those we claim to love, we reveal pervasiveness of commercialism and exchange in our consciousness.
Even when we think we are magnanimously giving, we often speak of "exchanging presents" and almost always expect something, if "only" gratitude, in return. Among people who characterize interactions in these terms, the capacity to give freely is rarely well-developed. But do we acknowledge this openly, or do we conceal the extent to which we withhold and feel separate from others by promising to do, "what I can" for them, rather than admitting that we intend something far more limited than devotion of every breathing moment and every capacity we possess to serving them? Who will deny that "what I can" is less "all I can" than "what I please?"
How rare indeed is the "I love you," which means, "We are one; I serve our mutual being; your satisfaction and my own are equally important to me; even to the point of survival itself am I prepared to share equally with you the risks and rewards of living"? Love of this nature, when we do offer it, usually passes only among intimates: parent and child, husband and wife, and lifetime collaborators. Given the increasing impermanence and shrinking reliability of even these ties in our culture, such love may be on the verge of extinction. With how many others will you "draw straws" for the right to survive? Do you sense any connection between the rarity of this kind of loving and declines in our individual satisfaction and collective security?
For more than two hundred years, beginning at least as early as the era in Western European history presumptuously proclaimed "the Enlightenment", we have placed growing faith in our ability to increase our security by mastering new techniques for more rapid and larger-scale matterenergy conversions, and competing with one another in using them. How happy has been our choice to seek control over the earth, instead of learning to live gently upon it? How wise have we been to develop laws of property which perpetuate privilege, and to devote enormous resources to maintain the public and private armies and arsenals by which we enforce them at home and abroad? What have we gained by postponing action by which to redress the gross disparities in human circumstances?
Perhaps such behavior is understandable in terms of our historical relationship to our environment. Wherever we turned there were new frontiers with untouched resources. The pace of our scientific learning produced a seemingly endless sequence of new ways to make useful that which previously had been unappreciated. For awhile we imagined that all might share, if disproportionately, in this bounty.
In the absence of such relatively modern global threats as nuclear holocaust, gross atmospheric and oceanic poisoning, or the emergence of some super-pathogen through human malice or carelessness, survival was a much more individual task. Plague might sweep a continent, but some people lived in places sufficiently remote to escape danger. Parisians might party while Romans were besieged. Long after the English found wood too precious to burn, Americans wasted forests just to clear land. Separate communities were somewhat autonomous and self-reliant, and most of the world's people lived in ignorance of each other.
Our situation is now quite different. We who are supported by the highest levels of matterenergy conversion are dependent on a global supply network. Accessibility of information by telecommunications has exposed our dependence. Those who slave so that we may luxuriate are increasingly skeptical of the justifications we offer for this inequality, and grow almost daily more ready and better prepared to disrupt our exploitation. Who can in good conscience ask them to accept promises that they may someday share in ever larger benefits from newly-discovered resources and newly-developed technologies as even we who managed such triumphs in the past recognize the completeness of our science and the finiteness of the planet?
Today our question is less, "How shall we sustain growth and achieve a better life for all?" than, "How many shall die so that we may continue living as we do?" Unless we reach agreement as one humanity on the bases on which this question is to be answered, our selection of potential responses is likely to become frighteningly narrow. Already we are constrained by a growing human population and an environment made lean by past plunder. After two centuries of industrial bounty and clever competition, we face a future less certain than ever before. How long shall we persist in our current approach? By what wisdom can we develop another?
For centuries, there have been those who devote attention to philosophical, religious, or mystical contemplation aimed at extending human experience beyond the sensate, material realm of everyday life. Some such people, termed moral philosophers, undertake a search for the "good". In their explorations, they inevitably consider the positive and negative qualities of various attitudes and behaviors towards other people, and frequently they speculate on the nature of loving. Within both the secular and religious philosophical traditions of East and West, are exultations of a loving "oneness" tantamount to complete identity of self and others. Both Christ and Buddha taught such loving as a path to personal realization, happiness, and enlightenment.
The seeming incompatibility of such a sense of self with the day-to-day behaviors by which some of us cling to luxuries while allowing others to perish has long been a source of conflict for thinking people. How often do the actions which promote our own welfare and those which protect and nourish others seem to lie on divergent paths? The compartmentalization of charity is evidence of our failure to reconcile these two goals. Despite the proliferation of service organizations, most of us continue to devote the majority of our life and other resources to insuring our own survival, admitting and even touting our gains at the expense of others.
Knowing that we kill or let die for selfish reasons, how can we anticipate any but similar behavior from others? So long as any are more powerful than we, where all of us live more from expedience than from principle, can we be secure? Suppressing awareness of the contradictions and paradoxes in our lives, we stubbornly repeat old behaviors. How many of us consider ameliorating the suffering of others the best way to lessen our own anxiety?
Humanity is now a far cry from the days when injury and death in the jaws of cave bears and sabre-toothed tigers, or as a result of other non-human-mediated events, inspired our greatest fears. Today the indifference and hostility among us may be the greatest risks we face. In a world where we are more cognizant of each other, and where even the relatively weak are increasingly able to affect any one of us, who will refuse to question whether the means by which we subdued and in some cases extinguished other life forms remain appropriate for use among us? Just as the tiger and the bear have gone, so may the missiles and bombs give way to new techniques for meeting the dangers of a different age. Rather than look outward for more sophisticated technologies by which to dominate our planet and each other, perhaps we will look inward to create an ethos by which we can quiet our fears.
The actions by which we express fear are often the same as those by which we elicit it from others. They range from design and manufacture of weapons of mass destruction to isolated murders, from buying food away from the lands of the starving to burning gasoline for pleasure trips while the peasants of the Himalayan foothills deforest a subcontinent in search of cooking fuel. So long as we persist in our collective failure to make the security of all the goal of all, can any of us escape fear or find enlightenment?
By devoting resources to maintaining unequal access to satisfaction and survival, we reduce the amount of need-fulfilling goods and services which we collectively share. By our refusal to live as equals, we unnecessarily deplete all that can satisfy our needs. With our stubborn persistence in old ways we waste human life, land, minerals, and energy. Those of us who insist that we are entitled to something more than 1/nth of the world's resources (where 'n' is the world population) are left to enforce our claim with threat and violence.
Some ask, "Can humans be different?" North Americans have long recognized the common interest in providing through government for the basic needs of the indigent. Private groups like corporations, unions, mutual insurance companies, and cooperatives may offer even more comprehensive benefits to members limited in capacity by illness, injury, or old age. Some families, communal groups, and monastic orders extend such protection to its practical limit, sharing resources on the basis of need and contributing to group welfare on the basis of ability. In this they are much like a number of non-Western, non-industrialized cultures which have existed in the past and endure in remote areas even today.
By learning to love in an ever larger, more charitable sense, by expanding our sense of self to include more and more of the world's people, we can take further steps towards mutual security. By joining with those whose needs are unfilled, we can lay the foundation for a society of peers. Perhaps in doing these things we will become less preoccupied with fear of one another, better able to find common purposes, more adept at living within the limits to earth ecosystem stability, and thus more likely to protect the ability of all to survive and to love, now and in years to come.