Our systems are broken. From economics to education to government, there is widespread agreement that the structures we have created are not working for most people. With smoldering anger beginning to flame, we want someone to blame.
Who is ultimately responsible?
We crave villains. Our wishes are granted by the faces on our screens, emails in our inboxes, and the pronouncements from soap boxes everywhere. We gather, shake our fists, and agree upon the source of evil. It feels good, for a time, because we connect through establishing a common enemy.
We demand victims and heroes, surrogates for our pain and desire for freedom. The media exploits this Drama Triangle: Hate the bad guys. Weep for the victims. Cheer for the heroes. We cannot just blame the media. We are the media. The media is us.
I am completely uncomfortable with this perspective. There are real victims, real heroes, and real evil in the world. People are harmed in subtle and tragic ways every day in every culture. Billions of people devote their lives to family, justice, and wellbeing. But conveniently simplifying the madness and injustice of this world into a triangular equation is bad math.
Fritjof Capra writes, “The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent.”
Not only are the problems interconnected and interdependent, so are we. You don’t need to believe in the butterfly effect to grasp that we cannot escape the systems we live in. We are in the systems. We are the systems.
What if I am partially responsible for the rise in mass shootings, though I do not own a gun? What if I have played a part in one in six women being sexually assaulted, even though I am a feminist? What if I have contributed to the quadrupling of people incarcerated in America in the last thirty years? What if I am responsible for the waters of this planet being dammed, polluted, and poisoned?
In Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons, the enigmatic monk Tikhron says to the guilt-laden Stavrogin, “In sinning each man sins against all, and each man is at least partly guilty for another’s sin. There is no isolated sin.”
On the right, we have people upholding the importance of “individual responsibility.” On the left, we have people fighting for “collective responsibility.” What if they are both equally valid? I am responsible. We are responsible. I am a part of we.
I am still uncomfortable. It is easier for me to live with “They,” not “We” and “I.”
“The whole world is filled with all these horrors. But you have felt the whole depth of it.” This is the compassionate statement of Tikhron when Stavrogin confesses to the monk that he has taken advantage of an 11 year old girl, leading to her suicide.
If I can sense my own interconnectedness, then I can feel into the impact of any injustice. They are not just harming them. We are harming us. This shift, as well, is so difficult because I fear that life will be only suffering as I experience the world suffering. I already feel guilty for not having done enough. How could I possibly feel more?
“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering,” writes Parker Palmer. Perhaps we need more connection to suffering. Perhaps my intellectualization of the issues, my avoidance of the pain, are attempts to escape this suffering. Who could blame me? We have so much access to others’ pain.
It is not only people that suffer, but other living beings as well whose perspective is often overlooked. As novelist and essayist Chinua Achebe writes, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Gus Speth is a US advisor on climate change. He writes,
“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.”
Perhaps the embrace of our interconnectedness, the opening to suffering, the allowance to feel, is one of the seeds of this transformation.
We need people on the streets, in the corridors of power, and voices in public and private venues speaking boldly about the injustices of our time. We need people to resist, to educate, and to spread compassion.
But perhaps we also need to open wider and deeper, to the water, to the “other,” to the wildly inclusive “we,” and trust that we can make space for all that is there. I also know that in opening to suffering, we open more to joy.
I do not want more suffering in the world. Therefore I am willing to suffer, not as a martyr, but as a participant in the transformation.