I am often haunted by moral questions or conceptual puzzles, sometimes for years on end. In the last couple of months, I made some leaps in my understanding about several such issues.
For many months now I was haunted by my inability to understand, from within, members of the Walton family, the owners of Walmart. This practice, of understanding from within, is one of the core foundations of how I do my work, both when engaging with people and when writing. I do not include anything analytical in it, because the analysis separates, and I am looking for connection, for the felt sense, the vibrant humanity. And I couldn’t apply it to the Waltons, because I couldn’t find a way to explain to myself how, as a Walton, I would live with the knowledge of having billions of dollars to my name while my full-time workers need food stamps to cover their most basic needs. I couldn’t fathom what I could only understand in terms of a colossal lack of care.
Last week, I finally put the pieces together and “solved” the puzzle. What I realized in a moment of sharp and instantaneous insight that came from nowhere and hit me at the core was utterly simple: the Waltons and Iseea different reality.
Within the reality that I see, everything is connected, because we are in a closed system, in which nothing is created, only converted, transformed, or moved from one place to another. Over the course of millennia we have steadily made more resources available to humans for consumption. Some of it is clearly based on technology and gains in productivity, and so much of it is based on immense cost to the planet and the biosphere. This year it was on August 8th, Earth Overshoot Day, when we started consuming collectively beyond what can be regenerated within the year, thereby having a debt towards future generations. Also, within a closed system, for one person to have more resources, someone else must have fewer resources. In this way of seeing the world, human wealth is always taken from somewhere; never created from scratch.
Within the reality that the Waltons and so many others see, the system is open, although I doubt many people would ever use those words. They truly believe and experience themselves as creating wealth where there was nothing before. For those who believe in an open system, everyone can in theory be rich, if they only work hard enough, have the right capacities, apply themselves to life differently, or what have you. If they are not, it’s because they are incapable of it. The poverty of many and the wealth of some are entirely unrelated in this way of understanding life.
I can now see how any of the Waltons could carry on the following narrative and feel it as true: “Sure, we inherited wealth from our father. And we did superbly well in tending to it and increasing it. Many people inherit wealth and squander it. We managed to increase our wealth and now all seven of us are doing really well. We are providing the most amazing service to low-income people by offering a huge array of affordable goods they would otherwise not be able to buy anywhere else. If we raised the salaries of our workers, we would have to raise the prices, and our entire mission would be lost. Yes, we know very well that Costco pays their workers significantly higher salaries, and there is no comparing the services we offer. The people who shop at Walmart could not afford to shop at Costco.”
Why is this important, you may ask? What do we gain by having an imaginary understanding of a Walton? For me, there are several gains, each of which is crucially important for me.
A World that Works for Whom?
Given my profound commitment to nonviolence, I want to be able to understand and have an open heart to anyone, regardless of how much harm I believe they create in the world. This is what it means to me to move in the direction of a world that works for all: it will have to also work for the Waltons and others whose actions terrify me. This is the vision at the heart of nonviolence. It is dramatically different from the other project that humanity has been on for the last several thousand years: differentiating the good guys from the bad guys, and making the world work for all the good guys, in part by eliminating, ideally once and for all, the bad guys. This is the myth of redemptive violence that Walter Wink speaks about inThe Powers that Be.
Another way of saying it: any time I am unable to understand anyone, I am giving in to separation, manifesting as seeing that person as “other”, different, and, ultimately, even if only slightly, less human than me. This is a slippery slope, as the history of bloody revolutions shows so clearly.
Our collective task, as I see it these days, is to wrest our consciousness from the grip of the divided world and reclaim and expand our capacity to root for a world that works for all. It starts with caring for all, right now in this world. This is what I do by humanizing the Waltons to myself.
Understanding Separation Better
Humanizing the Waltons goes way beyond my own commitment to nonviolence, important as that is for me. This personal breakthrough also shapes my understanding of how things work. Specifically, as I recover, ever so haltingly, from my own inability to expand beyond my own terms which led me to see so many people as not caring, I am now more able to see the apparent lack of care as itself a product of separation. When the causal link or any other relationship between the wealth and the poverty is erased, the person with wealth can have generic sympathy for the poor without seeing any reason to act differently. There is no moral dilemma any more than there is about any other form of suffering.
I wouldn’t have been able to get to this understanding without a prior piece of clarity that descended on me and helped me understand what separation actually did in the world. For this, I had to overcome a piece of separation within me that was showing up as a strong aversion to the concept “abundance”. I knew that I was being reactive, because of my deep concerns about how much abundance has been intertwined with the idea of “prosperity” that strikes me, once again, as a manifestation of not seeing that we live in a closed system, in which prosperity can only come at the expense of others.
Gradually, and in large part through my exposure to the thinking about the commons and about gift economies, I came to see the difference between abundance and surplus, and finally, all in one lightning bolt, I got to understand that what we have done as a species was to convert natural abundance to artificial scarcity coupled with artificial surplus and excess.
Let me unpack this fully. I now see abundance as a fundamental aspect of life and nature. It’s not about too much; it’s about there being enough ongoing flow of resources to continue to sustain life in all its intricate relationships. It includes within it adaptation to the ups and downs in resource availability which all life forms excel in doing. This is the fundamental mystery of life: there is life, death, even killing, and yet it’s all in an amazing dance of interrelationship and a thriving ecosystem balance.
Surplus, or excess, is different, and more so the more it is the result of conscious accumulation. Abundance depends on flow, and accumulation removes resources from the flow, making them less available to life, only available to those few individual humans who are doing the accumulating.
Why did we do this? Why did some of our ancestors decide to begin accumulating, or even to begin the process of interfering with the natural flow by forcing nature to grow things on a human schedule (aka agriculture)? I am in deep humility as I say what I am about to say. Even though I experience it with a degree of clarity of “knowing” that is striking to me, I know that I don’t know what happened to our species; I don’t know that anyone will ever know, no matter how much archeological evidence and ingenuity we bring to it. So this is only my conjecture.
It seems to me that at a certain point we may have experienced higher than usual degrees of scarcity that led to loss of trust in the flow and abundance of life, and from there to the possibility of having enough to keep for the future once dry goods were a possibility. From there, accumulation in the hands of the few was a sad short step, fueled by scarcity and reinforcing separation. We’ve been at it ever since.
The Challenge of Talking about Privilege
Understanding the Waltons better also gives me a deeper, more resonant understanding about why, in general, it’s so often challenging to talk with people about privilege, especially their own. For the last year or so there has been an ongoing conversation about the topic of power and privilege on the email listserve of certified trainers with the Center for Nonviolent Communication, of which I am a part.
I am so relieved and excited that we are finally taking on this conversation, giving me hope that we will, collectively, make some important leaps in our effectiveness as a network of practitioners. I am also, at the same time, heartbroken about how difficult it’s been to have the conversation move towards convergence in our collective understanding about how to speak about privilege. Odd as it may seem, this very challenge also adds to my excitement about having the conversation. It helps me see just how extremely challenging it is to bridge the gap of understanding about how the world operates. The people who are part of this listserve are my beloved colleagues. These are people I hold in very high esteem, who are very committed to the vision and principles underlying the practice of Nonviolent Communication, fellow travelers open and eager to engage in significant conversations. We are all skilled at listening and at speaking with a high degree of transparency about inner process. If there is challenge there, and if we can figure out how to come together, then this can help those of us who are aching to find a breakthrough in the larger conversation about these topics.
Understanding the Waltons is giving me a clue about the challenge in this conversation. Not entirely a new clue, and still, a deepening of what I know. It helps me understand even more fully than before why it’s easier for at least some people to talk about “social location” or even “unearned advantage” and not about “privilege”. The word privilege, as I understand it, signifies not only the benefit to the person having it; it also points to the relationship between that person’s benefit and someone else’s lack of benefit. While I knew it before, the understanding of the difference in perspective between closed system and open system really helps me have more compassion – both for the people who are not seeing what I am seeing, and for me and others in our exhausting and often unsuccessful efforts at conveying to others what we see and understand.
I do not have answers. Maybe I won’t ever have them. I am not delaying speaking of what I discover just because it’s incomplete. I see reframing the question as a step in the direction of clarity and hopefully movement. The new question for me is how to help people connect the dots. The challenge is huge. First, because these connections are not usually directly observable. (Note that the same challenge applies to why people don’t agree with there being global warming.) Second, because seeing the connections is bound to create immense discomfort, and thus there is every good reason for the connections not to be made.
Sobered and excited, I end this piece open to learning more.
Image credits:Top: Alice Walton and Jim Walton at the 2011 Walmart Shareholders Meeting, by Walmart, Flickr, CC BY 2.0; Middle: Earth Overshoot Day logo from www.overshootday.org; Bottom: Wal-Mart Beijing 2004, by Fruitnet.com, Flickr, CC BY 2.0
It is good to see the “other” as just as human as oneself, and it is good to try to understand the world from their perspective and according to their scheme of values. But there is also real wickedness in the world, and sometimes it is necessary to recognize it and oppose it. There is this story about Sam Walton – did he know what he was doing? Did he see a clear connection between his gain and another’s loss? What was he willing to do to preserve that gain against even a small threat?
When the minimum wage was applied to any business over $250,000 annual turnover, he split his business into separate stores, to keep under the limit. When a court found him in violation of the law, and ordered him to issue checks in back pay to his employees, he complied. Then he called a regional meeting of employees, and told them he would fire anyone who cashed their check.
Look into that mind. Can you find any way to sympathize or understand that point of view? Direct and ruthless selfishness. Belief that he was above the law, if not in letter, than in spirit and practice. There are real choices, real alternatives, in human life – for self or for others. The Waltons may be able to rationalize their choices, and present them in terms they regard as moral, but putting oneself into their minds needs to include their self deception, their willful blindness to the things they do deliberately.
When Gandhi confronted the British authorities over the Amritsar Massacre of 13th April 1919, he told them that this was no aberration, but simply the real face of empire, what empires were willing to do to maintain their hold. The perpetrator, Col. Reginald Dyer, no doubt thought that he was defending the Empire and doing his duty, but he also knew that he was ordering his soldiers to fire on a large number of unarmed civilians, including women, who were penned into an enclosed space with no escape. He was lauded in Britain by those who shared his values. How far do we need to go in entering into such points of view? At what point do we recoil, and turn to challenge such values and expose the hypocrisy?
You expressed your point so very well…….which i share with you, though with reluctance and deep sadness.
I don’t actually BELIEVE that some people are or can be innately EVIL, yet, belief is a sort of fantasy, not based in facts. Maybe that’s why when experiencing or witnessing evil being perpetrated, we most often respond with feelings of hate and wishes to retaliate or at least blame and punish. Those are usually immediate gut reactions, probably instinctive, which time and distance often soften.
Humans are a mystery and our most basic workings, like those of the universe, will likely remain a mystery, beyond our ability to ‘master’, fully comprehend, and resolve.
Mystery could be beautiful and wonderful. Too bad the key to ending suffering is locked up within.
It may be that people that do not feel a need to share their excess wealth, are those who feel disconnected and separate, and also that they must always be on their guard because of their being alone, and always being threatened by by others, because of it.
I applaud Miki’s effort to overcome the tendency to separate oneself from evildoers; to see them as “other” rather than as one with ourselves. Only good can come of this effort. But the fact remains that regardless of how well or poorly any of us may understand the Waltons or other malefactors, the more important practical issue is that they understand themselves. Hopefully our increased understanding will enable us to reach out to these folks in such a way as to increase their awareness and thus improve their behavior.
With regard to the question of “having the answers”: The mystics say that “the only sin is ignorance”. Well, ignorance of what? Of the real, actual truth of all that is. Things, after all, are precisely what they are; the question for us humans is whether or not we can understand what they are, and the whole of human history shows a steady increase in that understanding. The more a given individual (e.g. Jesus) understands, the more they assure us that we too can understand the truth of things, which turns out to be wonderful beyond our present ability to imagine.
While accepting our current limitations, we must never give up on the possibility (the inevitability, over time) of our overcoming those limitations. There are those of us who feel that the extremity of our current condition is rapidly propelling us into a vastly increased understanding of reality; of what we’ve done wrong and how to do it right, as well as of what happens when we do get it right. Our hope and expectation is that the Waltons will open along with the rest of us to this expanded awareness. Maybe with a gentle nudge, should we figure out how to provide it effectively.
Again, I applaud Miki’s earnest desire to be inclusive. Many of us are familiar with the saying: “Anger, hatred, fear, and doubt; they drew a circle that kept us out. But love and I found a way to win; we drew a circle that kept them in.”
We know that it is never justified to sit in judgment of others, that we are one with all humanity, both in our strengths and in our weaknesses, in our virtues and our vices, in goodness and selfishness. From a cosmis perspective, it may make no difference, and from the deepest spiritual perspective, differences must not divide us from one another.
But in our limitations, we are compelled to draw distinctions, to make choices based on our perceptions. We cannot rest in the characterisation of all actions, all choices, as nothing more than differing perspectives. If that was all that we needed to do, then there would be no impetus to work for change, because any view, any action, any goal, would be as legitimate as any other. If people know that they are damaging others, and continue to do so systematically, for the sake of goals which benefit themselves alone, we cannot say, “Ah, well, from their point of view, it seems good to them.” No doubt it does.
Need I say that, all through history, and for many of us in our own experience, there are deeds done, causes furthered, and values proclaimed, that must be regarded as destructive, motivated by hate or greed, harmful to humanity on whatever scale, local or world-wide. These things may all be “good” in the eyes of those who do them, but what of us? What do we really see, or think, or say and do? Are we justified in doing anything to stop harm being done? Are we even justified in speaking about it?
Yes, the contradictions seem to be built right in to the essence of things, to our dismay. “Love thy Neighbor”, or even “Love thy God” sound very beautiful, but has there ever truly been anyone who fully or even near-to-fully was able to fulfill those ideals?? We, or, especially religious people or political zealots, build entire systems on those ideologies, when, in essence, nobody knows whether even the ‘great prophets’ truly fulfilled those commandments or not, especially in their hearts…
We humans are excellent at deceptions at all levels, including self-deception, even if/when unintended.
I tend to see, in the larger picture, more mystery and unknown than any other element in our world and our cultural systems. Whenever we think we’ve found the solutions, something always appears to contradict any certainty.
Very good article .You say that you do not know what happened to our species but the answers are there in most cultures .That is younger dominating cultures not older Indiginous cultures who had no words for ownership and mostly worshiped Mother Earth .They had a natural connection with life and understood it’s inter connectedness and that it is a process .
They had a word for European dominator beliefs it was called Wetiko ; means eating yourself that is what we re doing now more than ever before .As your article beautifully points out .We have used more resources in the last 40 years than we have in the last 40 0000 and we are not slowing down .Some like the Waltons might call this progress but it’s progress towards our own demise .
But why are we here ? Well it’s because of the cultural stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves that get passed down the generations .These myths are fallacy but we believe them to be real that they create our on the ground reality.
The first human cultural myth is the problem and the rest that follow create our behaviours .Until they change nothing else will change .
The first cultural myth is that humans are inherently evil .This is the myth of original sin .Not only is our basic nature evil we were born that way .
The second cultural myth which arises from the first is that it’s the fittest that survive .Some say this is the survival instinct and looking at our planet creates much of the behaviour of our species .Yet our basic instinct is not survival but fairness ,oneness and love .This is the basic instinct of all sentient beings everywhere .It is our cellular memory our inherent nature .if our basic instinct was survival and basic nature was evil we would never move instinctively to save a child from falling or a man from drowning or anyone from anything .When we act on those basic instincts and display our basic nature and don’t think about what we are doing ,this is exactly how we beahave ,even if we do so at our own peril.
So we can know understand that our instinct is clearly not survival and our nature has never been evil ,our nature is to reflect the essence of who we are ,which is fairness,oneness, and love.
Just a few thoughts on what we can clearly observe around us .And to the why we are we we are .
Solutions We are all One and There’s Enough to go around for everyone .Share and share alike and see everyone as you.