Alone or together
What's the best response to collective need?
I was chatting with a friend and student on Friday, and we got onto the topic of the sense of urgency we both often feel, and which seems so common amongst our communities, in the face of the world, quite frankly, going to hell in a hand basket.
The effect of that urgency is a tendency to leap forward into action in the world, to attempt to alleviate the collective need that we see; to leap away from self and towards others.
While that is an understandable and generous desire, it is also deeply counter-productive. That counter-productive nature is based on three false assumptions.
First, the assumption that I know best what is needed by the world, by the collective, by other people.
This is one of the most common errors made by ‘helpful’ people; that what we perceive as being the problem actually is the problem.
It is why charitable and government projects and programmes to help ‘those in need’ fail, so often and so spectacularly: they perceive a problem, view it as urgent, and go into action to solve it, to alleviate need, without stopping to ask the beneficiaries of their aid whether the help offered is in fact helpful, or even if the problem it is directed at solving is the one that is most urgent in their lives.
“The times are urgent. Let us slow down.”
The very urgency of the desire to help hinders the ability to actually help, because stopping to ask what is needed, and what might actually help, requires slowing down. Really paying attention to another human being, listening, and understanding, takes time.
The second assumption is that I am the right or best person to take charge, and to take, or direct, action.
When I was studying the Anthropology of Development in the early 1990s, we were taught about an example of this assumption, called ‘expat experts’.
‘Expat experts’ were (and still are) usually white people from coloniser countries, employed by governments and aid agencies, to parachute into developing nations and tell them what they were doing ‘wrong’ and how to do things ‘right’. And of course the ‘right’ way was almost always the one that fell into line with the economic theories and political interests of wealthy nations.
This attitude has a long history in philanthropy, and not just in international development:
- Georgian Lady Bountifuls handing out charity, but only to the grateful (and therefore deserving) poor.
- Victorian capitalist families like the Cadburys, who were so concerned for their workers that they created whole model villages to house them, but only if the workers followed strict moral rules, laid down by… the Cadburys.
- Present-day Christian evangelical ‘charity workers’, who provide food and shelter for the homeless, but only if they’re willing to be preached at and converted.
- Abled people who decide to ‘help’ a visibly disabled person by seizing hold of a wheelchair and pushing, or grabbing a blind person’s arm to direct them.
Whether directed by ‘correct’ theory, by the power of wealth, class, colonialism/white supremacy, abledness or any other privilege, or by religious fervour, the result is the same: certainty of one’s right to take over. Those of us who are not wealthy, not upper or middle class, not white, not abled, or not zealously religious can still fall prey to this tendency.
And this is a massive problem, because the other thing that is required in order to ask what is needed, what might help, and who the best person is to take on which tasks, is humility.
Not the humility of ‘I know nothing’ or ‘I can’t do that’ — which is just as much of a problem as the hubris of taking charge — but the humility of knowing oneself to be just one knowledgeable and skilled and capable person among many.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s
These two assumptions are underlain by a third: the belief that I and the collective, I and the world, are separate.
In my spiritual/magical tradition, the human being is viewed as being made up of four parts: the physical body, the instinctive or animal self, the self-conscious or human self, and the inspired or divine self. These latter three, together, make up the human soul.
We become our most effective when all three aspects of the soul are aligned, grounded in the present, and centered in the physical body and its place within its more-than-human environment. When I am aligned, grounded and centered, I am part of everything. My body is part of the living ecosystem; my animal self is enmeshed in the energy field of Life; my divine self is everything.
My human self? Well, my human self is the most separate aspect of me. It is how I know that I am I, not simply an indistinguishable part of the mass of atoms and subatomic particles that makes up the universe. Individuation, developing a sense of self that is separate from one’s parents, one’s partner, or one’s community, is (within Western cultures at least) an important stage in human development, and one which we may need to revisit at different points in our lives.
However, when it comes to taking action to address collective need, we need to tread the line between the separateness of individuality and the connectedness of community.
We need to know ourselves as individuals in order to have a strong sense of what specific skills, knowledge, and capacities we bring to the table. We need to know the self as individual in order to take on particular tasks, and to be accountable and responsible for their completion.
But we also need to know ourselves as more than individual in order to be effective. We need to know ourselves as part of the collective — of our ecosystem, of our community, or of humanity — if we are to avoid falling into assuming that we are the ones who know what is needed (or know nothing), and should take charge (or can do nothing).
We do best not by doing to others, but by acting together, for all of our benefit and liberation.
What might that look like in practice?
Well, that will be different for each one of us, depending on our circumstances. Some of us need to develop our sense of connection and interdependence more; others of us need to work on our sense of self and individuality. (Many of us, myself included, need to work on both concurrently!)
But almost all of us will learn best by doing. So I invite you to pick one issue that feels urgent and important to you, and to start by slowing down, and paying attention, both to others affected by the issue, and to yourself.
In light of COVID-19, it’s best to do this via the Internet or telephone at present.
What do you notice?
Do you think of yourself as bound up in the issue, or as separate from it?
What happens when you slow down?
What do you learn when you pay attention?
Make notes. Reflect. Then decide what to do, how, and with whom.