Red Pill, Blue Pill, or Purple Pill? Escaping the Matrix in the New Year

It’s another new year. Like many other people, I’m taking stock and considering choices. Intention and action are the engine and wheels of personal change. This issue surfaced for me in the latest Matrix movie which I watched over the holidays. Without delving into the complex plot, the Matrix movies center around the idea of choice. Taking the Blue Pill keeps you “asleep” and trapped in the existing reality. Taking the Red Pill opens your eyes to what is really going on and puts you on the path to revolution and rebelling against the state of things. In the past, I have tended to opt for the Red Pill and the path of disruptive change. More recently I’ve started to wonder about an alternative – that of a Purple Pill.

Here the choice is the middle path between red and blue. Rather than try to overturn the current reality, you work to nudge it in a positive direction. We often want change to happen sooner, and there is indeed a lot of change that is desperately needed in the world. Change agents are impatient and unwilling to settle for marginal progress. George Bernard Shaw offered this perspective, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

A concern that change agents have is that in playing along with the establishment you get played by the establishment. The establishment has much vested in the status quo and maintaining the Blue Pill reality. Yet, the problem with the Red Pill path is that it entails a vicious fight as in the violent Matrix. Victory is elusive and the battle sparks a repeating loop of retribution. The Purple Pill offers no guarantee of success but it offers a steady and sustained path that cuts between good and bad, right and wrong. 

In the short frame, the prevailing reality is often distressing and the pace of change seems frustrating. It is tempting to go all out and often flame out. Yet, when we zoom out, it is possible to see how much progress has been made in so many fields – from education to human rights to hunger – over time. 

This choice is also in play with New Year’s resolutions. We start with a burst of intention and commitment but quit when we don’t see results as quickly as we might hope for. The literature on habits suggests small and sustained steps are a better bet for generating results. James Clear of Atomic Habits states: “You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results.” So here, the path here is neither taking the Blue Pill of complacency nor the Red Pill of urgency.  The Purple Pill works slowly in small and sustained doses. Martin Luther King evoked this notion with the work of social justice. He said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

As I ponder the year ahead, I plan to take more of the Blue Pill in the new year and tuck the Red Pill back into the medicine cabinet. I hope to hold intention close and lean into committed action, and to do so with greater patience. 

Sustained intention and action are expressed by L.R. Knost in this evocative reminder that we can travel light in the face of darkness:

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”

The Real Heroes Amongst Us

Antonio del Pollaiolo - Ercole e l'Idra e Ercole e Anteo - Google Art Project.jpg

I am reading a book on Greek mythology and the great heroes like Heracles (also known as Hercules) and Jason (of the Golden Fleece legend). Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his framing of the Hero’s Journey, suggests that we’re all heroes of our own lives. The question is what is the quest we’re on, what are we striving for, what is the success we seek, what do we generate as a result? In the Greek myths, the heroes often pursue glory by overcoming adversity and vanquishing enemies, often with great bloodshed. Heroes may be exceptional characters but they are also archetypes, role models who inspire others. Alexander the Great attempted to emulate Heracles, down to his lion headdress and his conquest of the world.  

The more celebrated modern-day hero is not a great conqueror but an entrepreneur who generates enormous wealth. Take Elon Musk, the world’s richest man who has also just been named 2021 man of the year by Time Magazine. Musk has accomplished a lot on the world stage – innovations, money, growth, etc. He is also a somewhat self-made man – he didn’t inherit his wealth. But Musk is also reviled in some quarters for what he chooses to do with his great wealth. 

File:Happiness. The Dalai Lama at Vancouver.jpg

Another kind of hero is the Dalai Lama. He’s cherished for his wisdom and his response to great challenges. He is a broker in compassion. While Musk generates innovations and wealth for himself and investors, the Dalai Lama generates wellbeing for others. The Dalai Lama also has had a heroic life, fleeing his native Tibet and the Chinese takeover. His response to this adversity is grace rather than animosity to the Chinese regime. His capital lies in the goodness he generates in compassion for others.

While Musk and the Dalai Lama are rare larger-than-life figures, there are far more quiet everyday heroes, working ordinary jobs, quietly helping others, creating ripples of joy and change. I have encountered many such people, as you likely have as well. There was a humble office cleaner at the African Leadership University who placed exquisite vases of flowers in the staff break room as an offering of beauty. There is an aunt who was crippled by arthritis but wore a grin and broke out frequently in infectious giggles. There is a gentle woman I met in Mauritius who lost her son in a violent attack but only radiates kindness and generosity. 

I recently conducted a hackathon for a community change agent named Juanita Montgomery in Greensboro who created an organization named WIIN (https://www.walkinginitnow.com/) that promotes stepping up to a greater purpose. When I invited her to introduce herself, she instead chose to speak about everyone else in the room, naming what she valued about them. The message that emerged from the hackathon was the quality embodied by Juanita, the concept of love capital – multiplying goodwill and mutual assistance.

Juanita at the community hackathon

The author David Brooks states” “To lead a worthy life, you sort of have to have three projects or three accomplishments. One is to be in internal harmony with yourself. And that’s to do the practices that will elevate you. I like reading spiritual books as my way to get my insides elevated rather than degraded. The second is to be in harmony with others. And I think the crucial skill there is the ability to see people and understand them and make them feel that they’ve been considered, heard and understood. And then the final thing is to commit to some great loves, to fall in love with great things and really commit to them.” Many heroes easily check the third element of creating great things from a place of passion, and some may even manage the first element of being at peace with themselves (though most don’t), but very few can claim the second attribute of offering kindness to others.  

We live in a time when we need many more true heroes like Juanita who spread love capital in communities. Unlike other forms of capital, love capital is infinite and not a zero-sum game. Love capital doesn’t require strength, power, money or fame. It asks us to invest our time, our attention, and our efforts in kindness to others. What love capital generates, compounds. Kindness received is often passed on to others. 

Who do you know who is a hero who creates love capital? How do they generate, invest in, and multiply this resource? What can we ourselves do to become brokers of love capital? As we head into the holidays, I will be thinking more about love capital and what I can do in the New Year to create more of it in a world much in need of love.

Sign at West Market Church, Greensboro
Sign at West Market Church, Greensboro

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Star Wars & Story Wars: Changing the Narrative

Long ago, I watched the first Star Wars film. The dazzling science-fiction spectacle is set in an alternate universe but Star Wars tells an old and eternal human story — about the battle between good and evil. It is a familiar narrative. The bad guys are faceless stormtroopers. The good guys are human characters, waging a courageous battle against a powerful enemy. Good triumphs over evil. 

Here, on Earth in the year 2021, the battles that are most actively waged are not Star Wars but story wars. The world over, we are fighting big battles over stories of what happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future. And there are fierce battles over which stories can even be allowed to be told. 

In the US, the fiercest political fight is not on the state of the environment or the economy but over what can be discussed in schools about race and history. In my native India, textbooks are being rewritten by the government to offer an alternate narrative of the past. In the US, statues of Confederate generals are being pulled down. In India, statues of Gandhi are being toppled and those of his assassin are being raised up in places. In both cases, this is a fight over the story of the past that projects an alternate script onto the present state. 

Stories, after all, are important. They help us make sense of the world. Yet, the fight we are caught in is less about the stories that we ourselves believe rather than about imposing our stories on others. Why? Because collective stories matter. They mobilize people. Stories can keep people in chains because there isn’t a narrative of hope. Stories can liberate people because we believe that great change is possible if we act. Rewriting the stories of the past is an effort to change the narrative of right and wrong in the present and also invoke future possibility. 

In “The Dawn of Everything,” anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow offer that we “are all projects of collective self-creation”. “What if, instead of telling the story about how our society fell from some idyllic state of equality, we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?”

Historian Yuval Noah Harari states that stories have been indelibly part of the human journey: “Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the stone age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.”

Not surprisingly, the richest and most powerful people in the world are trying to write narratives about the future. Elon Musk and Bezos are building rockets to fly to space. A narrative is that our planet is doomed and we must find ways to get out. The doomsday narrative is a common tale. A bevy of tech gurus and thinkers are waving red flags about how AI will soon eclipse human intelligence and enslave us. Others are waving the flag of impending doom from environmental collapse trying to get nations to change course. There are counter-stories that climate change and the COVID outbreak is a myth, that they are conspiracies that seek to control us and take away our way of life.  Conspiracies envision secret stories told in the shadows. Out of sight, the bad guys are plotting evil and must be destroyed before they destroy us. The clash of narratives seems intractable. So, what can we do? 

The thing is that we can’t really convince those with alternative narratives about our own chosen stories. This is because stories are not really about facts but beliefs and desires. If we mistake our stories for absolute facts, we’re then locked in righteous battles. If we see stories as containers of meaning, values, and hopes, there is an opportunity to weave connections between narratives and find a way of acceptance. 

In places of great diversity and relative harmony, like Singapore and Mauritius, there is an honoring of diversity, people celebrate the holidays of others. It is not that a Christian believes in the Muslim beliefs or a Hindu adopts Christian rituals, but there is still space to respect and honor the people who practice an alternate faith. There is a meta-story of shared humanity that transcends the mirco-story of our own identities and rises above the hurts and transgressions of the past.

In Germany, Rwanda, and Cambodia where genocides that taken place, people have found a way to acknowledge the past so as to move towards the future in peace. Acknowledging what happened creates space for healing. If the horrors of history are buried and untold, there are more likely to return to be replayed again. In acknowledging them and seeing them, we release the ghosts of the past. 

This path here is neither about fight or flight, winning or losing. It is about engaging and finding common ground that we can live with. We can do this if our battle is not seen as one of good and evil, if our adversaries are not mindless stormtroopers. If we peel back the mask of our adversaries, much as Luke did with Darth Vader in Star Wars, we often find that they are human figures with fears and aspirations, much like us. In seeing them fully, our stories about them then change. It is possible to write a new story together.

A critical challenge of the future, then, is to do better to author shared narratives that we can all work to bring into being. Without this, we will continue to wage our wars of stories all the way to the stars, as we seek to escape a world where we can no longer live together.

Related Posts:

http://spiritualsushi.com/are-we-wired-for-conflict-or-coded-for-collaboration/

http://spiritualsushi.com/recalling-rumi-in-afghanistan/

http://spiritualsushi.com/across-the-divide-bridging-belief-and-belonging/

http://spiritualsushi.com/wars-of-the-worlds-the-internal-and-external/

If Life is a Game, Are We Playing the Squid Game?

Like many millions of people around the world, I watched the hit Squid Game Netflix series. At a base level, it is a gripping thriller. At a deeper level, it is an exploration of human nature and culture. I offer some reflections here while trying to avoid any spoilers. 

Material gains. Magnified dissatisfaction. 

Squid Game resonates with Korean viewers because it speaks to the inequality that has become pervasive there. South Korea, which was once as poor as India in my childhood, is now the 11th wealthiest economy in the world by per capita income, surging ten-fold since 1970. This kind of meteoric rise creates its own dysfunctional dynamics. 

While South Korea is exceptional in terms of economic growth, we live in an age of exponential change and social mobility the world over. Success is linked to growth and measured by the material gains you chart over the course of your life such as wealth, career, and popularity — all the way down to your social media following. Furthermore, it is not just the progress you make but also about how you stack up against the gains made by others. And it never seems quite enough. Even in the rarified millionaire class, a millionaire is relatively poor compared to the thousands of individuals whose wealth scales into the billions, tens of billions, and hundreds of billions. If modern life is a race to the top, we are as doomed for failure as the participants in Squid Game.  We are set up to lose. 

Inequality is a Race to the Bottom

Even as we strive to get ahead, doing so is often a race to the bottom. As inequality has increased, with many South Koreans deeply in debt, unemployment is at 22 percent, nearly half of the elderly live in poverty. An average apartment in Seoul now averages upwards of a half-million dollars. Squid Game speaks to the sense of desperation of those trapped in debt and poverty. For those unable to make it, life can be a dog-eat-dog existence. This is a pattern present across the wider world. In the Pulitzer-Prize winning book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, the author who lived in a Mumbai slum for a year found that the people in the slum preyed on each other in a struggle to survive. The Squid Game sets this vicious cycle in motion by creating a fiercely competitive dynamic. People form and break alliances. This very human element of friendship and betrayal may be the most compelling aspect of the fantasy series. In life, many of our deepest disappointments are betrayals by others. This attribute of Squid Game is particularly haunting. Almost every character in the show lets others down. 

Freud observed: “We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to other men. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other.”

The Game is a Collective Choice

In modern life and Squid Game, once you opt-in, you can’t easily opt-out. In real life, you take on the responsibility of family and bills. As in the Squid Game, the game we play in life is a collective game that we get locked into. To truly shift things, requires a shared decision and cooperation to change the game. There are some societies that have chosen not to play the likes of the Squid Game. These show up as the happiest places on Earth — the Nordic countries, New Zealand, and Canada (https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/happiest-countries-in-the-world). These societies have prioritized giving all people a strong start through good education, created a broad safety net for all, and prioritized holistic wellbeing that values relationships, vacations, and nature. The choice most nations have made, however, is not one that prioritizes individual rather than collective happiness. In far too many places, we’re trapped together in the tentacles of competition, playing against each other.

In children’s games, the ultimate purpose of a game is having fun. In the Squid Game, the game is not fun and there are dire consequences for losing. This is done by creating winner takes all pay-offs that force competition. If we see through this plot, scarcity is a manufactured reality. In real life, as in Squid Game,  there is truly enough for everyone if shared. There is no need to pit ourselves against one another. We can choose to play a different game than the likes of the Squid Game.    

Changing the Game

Martin Luther King offered us an alternate paradigm of success that framed winning as “letting no person be defeated.” This “we’re in it together” perspective and “we can win together” paradigm is an altogether different game.

Squid Game offers the Korean concept of Gganbu which means close friends who have each other’s backs. This is not how things play out in the series and the consequences of cutthroat competition are clear. Martin Luther King called out this dynamic as well. He said, We must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools. Squid Game is a parable for how we often find ourselves playing a fool’s game. But unlike the characters in the TV show, the game is not over for us. We can still choose to play a different way. 

Dealing with Disruption: Of Black Elephants and Blind Spots

Disruption is the word of the day, almost every day. Things that take a long time to build can collapse quickly. Afghanistan is a case in point. And there is disruption from COVID, technological change, and disasters. 

Sometimes big and catastrophic change is the result of an unforeseeable crisis like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. But more often, the patterns are present and hidden in plain sight. In looking at the recent flip in power in Afghanistan it is possible to see all the indicators that we missed or simply ignored because we were not tuned to the signals out there. This is a black elephant. 

A black swan is a rare disruptive event caused by our blind spots. A black elephant is similarly disruptive but it is like the elephant in the room, visible but ignored. 

We are all subject to this tendency. There is more information available to us than ever, yet we tend to be tuned to a narrow feed. We tend to listen to the same sources and people. Social media — and even mainstream media — is increasingly an echo chamber of similar agendas and ideologies.

Staving off sudden disruption is about becoming less insular and more open. Disruption comes from the periphery and can be invisible at the center of systems. At the center, information that is received is likely to be relayed via multiple handoffs, filtered, and distorted like in the old game of telephone. Getting out, seeing things first-hand, talking to people is key to getting ground truth. With this, our world widens and we will become fuller beings.  (I’ll write about this in a business context in a future post.)

As we journey to new spaces, we become acquainted with what once was alien. Jim Morrison of The Doors sang: people are strange when you are a stranger. When we befriend the unknown, the unknown morphs into a more familiar face. And in the grander scheme of things, embracing the unknown is about encountering our own selves — our assumptions, fears, and patterns. Joseph Campbell, who wrote about these transformations as the hero’s journey, indicates that this is a perennial and continual human journey that we are all called to make. He wrote:

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Here, the true heroic path is not ignoring change or forcing our existing preferences on the world but exploring ways that both change us and the world for the better. As Campbell offered, the goal is to be in and with the world… in more harmonious wholeness. In this way, the risk of disruption is diminished as we reach out and dance with the elephant. 

Recalling Rumi in Afghanistan

I wrote this piece before the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. The tragic event puts a sharper point on the need to shift how we operate in Afghanistan. A long war has come to a close. The shape of peace remains to be determined. 

For many of us watching the situation in Afghanistan, there is a sense of shock. The impact of 20 years of war, the might of the most powerful military aided by troops from other powerful nations, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, two trillion dollars spent, four US presidents of both parties, and things seem to have returned to much the same as they were at the start of the conflict. All seemingly in the blink of an eye. It is a reminder of the limits of power and the fleeting nature of victory. Afghanistan is an old land that has seen many empires roll through. It weathers time differently. 

There is plenty of blame to go around as we replay the many missteps. And yet, Afghanistan is just one place in the larger global landscape of conflict. These dynamics lie under the surface in many places, waiting to erupt when the time is right. We must learn to not repeat the story that played out here. 

Afghanistan was made to bleed but not enabled to heal. Trauma unhealed resurfaces. And when it does, it eats more than itself. Holiday Phillips offered three different options for engagement that ring true here: 

Privilege says I could help, but I don’t need to.

Courage says I will help, you need me.

Love says I must help, we need each other. 

In the conflict in Afghanistan, the US held the first and the second stance of superiority and benefactor but not the third stance of seeking mutual wellbeing. If we did, we might have felt a greater need to help Afghanistan to succeed and prosper. This is how the US engaged Europe after WWII. There was a desire for Europe to return to a place of wellbeing. Perhaps, despite the animosities of the war, there was a sense of shared identity with Europe. Afghanistan feels foreign to Americans. The people there who we are keen to protect are our citizens and the Afghan translators and colleagues who we got to know and who worked alongside us and who became friends. It is hard to abandon them. And, as so many of us watched, they ran alongside the departing US planes desperate to hold on to us as well. 

So, the key to caring is relationships. It may feel too late for that now but the Afghans play the long game and so can we. We can extend the hand of friendship to provide aid and help Afghanistan succeed rather than take the usual tact of enforcing punishment that deepens trauma and resistance. If the Taliban didn’t break after decades of punishment, they wouldn’t likely soften under sanctions. We need a new approach and if we widen our outlook it is there to be seen, right there in Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan after all is the birthplace of Rumi, the renowned Islamic poet who wrote many profound expressions of love and compassion. The country was once a center for Greek and Buddhist learning that melded knowledge from East and West. It was a major hub on the silk road, where civilizations met for trade, not war. In my earlier years, when I collected National Geographic magazines, I was transfixed by the images of the people of Afghanistan and marveled at the immense diversity in a small country. These different identities are part of Afghanistan’s roots too. Roots that can regrow as well when cared for. War is not the only narrative that this ancient land holds.  

At the end of the day, Afghanistan is a lesson in the limits of war and the path to peace. Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” We need to find these fresh fields of possibility. 

Every ending is also a beginning. It is an opportunity for change, a reason for hope, and a call to lean in rather than bow out. 

Across the Divide — Bridging Belief and Belonging

Amazon.com: The Best of Enemies [DVD] : Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell,  Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Nick Searcy, Bruce McGill, Robin  Bissell, Danny Strong, Fred Bernstein, Matt Berenson, Robin Bissell,

I watched a film named The Best of Enemies. It is based on a true story about a Black organizer facing off against a Klan leader over school integration in Durham, NC back in the 1970s. The film revolves around a mediation process that is to end in a vote to integrate the schools or not. The default stance of a few representatives who will cast a vote is not in doubt but there are a few swing votes each side aims to influence. The stakes are high for the Black community. The White school is well resourced. The Black school is not.

Ibram X Kendi points out that at the heart of racism are systemic inequalities. When these systems are changed, the fight to preserve them usually evaporates. Few people in Durham, NC today would try to challenge the integration of schools. What’s behind the fight is fear and bias. But how do we shift this?

The Best of Enemies film is instructive in how this shift can happen. The Klan leader is devoted to the racist fraternity because it provides him with a sense of belonging and a sense of superiority. The debates on inclusion only harden his stance and his allies on the Klan play to intimidate the White swing voters. Yet the battle is won on another front (spoiler alert). The Klansman himself flips sides. He’s won over by an act of kindness by the Black organizer on behalf of his son who has Downs Syndrome and is at a facility that the father can barely afford. It is a source of deep helplessness and pain. The unexpected kindness from “the enemy” cracks his hard but brittle shell of separateness and superiority. 

In the book Humankind that I am reading, the author points out that empathy cuts both ways. It can bond us to our tribes and harden us against the other. Cracking this wall of who belongs in our kin group is the challenge. 

In the film, a White business owner who is a designated voter refuses to be intimidated by the Klan or be pressured to vote against integration. His stance is rooted in a relationship he has with a Black colleague who he fought alongside in the war. Discriminating against people who put their lives on the line for him was unconscionable.  

I spent my early years at a boarding school that had kids from different ethnic groups across India — religion, caste, and linguistic identities. We became close friends and are still closely connected some 40 years later, though we are scattered across multiple countries. Furthermore, many of my classmates married outside their identity groups, which is rather unusual in India. This exposure to difference helped us claim a larger identity for ourselves. 

So, if we want to defeat systemic racism, we need to indeed change systemic policies but the way we can best do this is to create friendships that pave the way to change. What divides us is not perhaps belief as much as belonging. 

Outer Space and Inner Space

Bezos, Branson, and Musk have their sights set on space. These are smart, successful people who have a great deal of determination and wealth to fuel their dreams. Why does a trip to space beckon them so? Perhaps it’s an ego trip. The companies they have created will likely fade in the decades to come but making history puts them in the books for the ages, much like Columbus, Magellan, and Vasco Da Gama. Some say it is about exploration and discovery and the need to escape our troubled planet. I have trouble with this latter rationale. 

There are plenty of great challenges to take on here and many places to explore on earth. Escape suggests that we’ve given up hope. Yet, the problem is truly not with the planet but we the people. Chances are that even if we are able to make it over and colonize Mars — a foreboding planet that has far less to offer in sustaining life than our troubled earth — we’ll be transporting our human limitations there — our capacity for greed, competition, and conflict. 

Ekskäret Island, Sweden

The greater and more valuable expedition is to conquer inner space. By breaking out of our present-day consciousness, we can change the world within. With this shift, we are more able to constructively engage the challenges that we have rather than try to flee as far away as possible.  With greater consciousness and compassion, we will be more equipped to transform our beautiful and miraculous world — that truly offers everything we can humanly need — into heaven on earth. If we then someday reach for the stars, it will not be to escape our shortcomings but to extend our best selves. That’s a trip I’d sign up for.

Are We Wired For Conflict or Coded for Collaboration?

Are people inherently good or bad? Are we wired for kindness and collaboration or selfishness and conflict? A book I am reading, named Humankind, makes a case for our goodness. It contrasts the fictitious and popular Lord of the Flies narrative about a group of English schoolboys stranded on an island who viciously turn on each other with a real-life but a lesser-known narrative of a group of Tongan schoolboys who were shipwrecked on an isolated island but found a way to survive in harmony for a year until they were found. 

Art by Lyndon

I believe that both of these tendencies –for conflict or collaboration — are within us as part of our nature. Humans have unleashed great violence and horror on others and have also demonstrated the kind of extraordinary collaboration. What accounts for the swing between these two poles? Is it just chance? I don’t believe so.

I believe that these behaviors manifest in response to circumstance and socialization. Stress and threat tend to generate a fight or flight response. Yet, these are not the only choices we have. We can also engage constructively (http://spiritualsushi.com/attend-befriend-part-2-engaging-transforming-suffering/). Social systems also play a role in elevating or reducing our threat response.

These two sides — our individual capability and collective social systems — are both elements that are not pre-ordained or random but can be deliberately cultivated. How we respond is dependent on awareness and self-management, which I have written about at length in earlier blog posts. The evidence is that we need to start to build this kind of social and emotional development at an early age and for all, as part of the fabric of education. This development matters every bit as much as anything else we might learn in school. 

Creating social systems that engender fairness, equality, and collaboration is also possible and essential. That said, all societies haven’t opted for choosing the common good in equal measure. The stark contrast between Scandinavian countries that are high on social cohesion and wellbeing stands in contrast with other technologically advanced and affluent but unequal societies like the US. There is a choice made based on our values and consciousness that in turn hinge on our own personal development and socialization. If we are grounded and happy, we will want it for others as well. If we believe that conflict is unavoidable, we focus on building our capacity for war. It is good to remember that the peaceful Scandinavians and Mongolians of today were once the vicious Vikings and Mongols who violently decimated other societies. These people are biologically the same. What changed is the social construct they operated with. Changing the social construct is a choice. 

In the midst of the Vietnam War, John Lennon pleaded that “all we are saying is give peace a chance.” Yet, the societies that are peaceful don’t leave peace to chance. They make it a strategic priority that is supported by public policy and social practice. Goodness then is not a gift of birth or the result of random chance. Rather it is a choice that we can make, a choice for good.

Art from Deep Roots Sangha notice board

Where the Underground Railroad Leads

A plaque about the Railroad outside the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro

I am not Black but like so many others, I have a sense of the immense injustice and struggle Black people in America have endured for so long. I recently finished watching The Underground Railroad mini-series based on the Pulitzer Prize book by Colson Whitehead. The film is both shocking and haunting. It is an unflinching look at the brutality of slavery yet presented in an almost poetic way. This mix of brutality and beauty is not accidental. I’ll come back to that. 

The Underground Railroad, which was a secret escape route to the North from the South during the era of slavery. The path, which led through the woods and swamps, was marked by safe houses and supported by human conductors who opposed slavery. One of the first conductors — and a man called the president of the Underground Railroad — was a Quaker named Levi Coffin who came from Greensboro, the city where I live. Levi was moved by his faith which emphasized equality and his own experience seeing slavery up close in the South. He was an ally and helping slaves escape was an act of moral courage with great consequences. Yet, attempting to escape as a slave was an act of greater courage. Being caught meant a slow and torturous death that was intended to terrify the other slaves who may think of escaping. 

The Mother Tree in Guilford Woods that marks a station on the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad series tells of a woman named Cora who flees a Georgia plantation and was relentlessly pursued by a slave hunter. She never gives up. Through the episodes, the series repeatedly offers hope for Cora and repeatedly descends into horror (won’t offer more spoilers) as the potential for a better life is bitterly crushed. This narrative of setbacks mirrors the Black experience in America — brutality, cause for hope, and repeated horror, and somehow hope again. The ability to rise and hope despite all the setbacks shines in Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise:”

You may write me down in history

A piece of art in Haiti

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

I also saw this in the words of Langston Hughes from his poem “I, too, am  America” that I read on the walls of the National Museum of African American History and Culture:

I, too, sing America. 

I am the darker brother. 

They send me to eat in the kitchen 

When company comes, 

But I laugh, 

And eat well, 

And grow strong. 

Tomorrow, 

I’ll be at the table 

When company comes. 

Nobody’ll dare 

Say to me, 

“Eat in the kitchen,” 

Then. 

Besides, 

They’ll see how beautiful I am 

And be ashamed— 

I, too, am America.

Bob Marley offers this refrain of transcending time and struggle in one of my favorite songs:

Old pirates, yes, they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation

Triumphantly

What I walk away with from the Underground Railroad is an appreciation for the spirit of the people who have made this horrific journey — stolen from the shores of Africa, bound in chains in the dank holds of slave ships, passed on as property via generations and centuries of brutal plantation slavery, shackled through the era of segregation and overt discrimination, to today’s battles for fairness and equality. Through it all — the horror and hardship — hope prevails with a sense that triumph lies ahead. May that hope be finally and fully redeemed. Soon. And may more of us step forward as modern-day conductors to help those trapped in injustice. 

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