Since moving to America in 2004 I have grown to appreciate the rich history of this country and especially the July 4 celebrations. I can hear local fireworks as I type. The founders seemed both excited by independence from England, and also sobered by the responsibilities of self determination. They go together, independence and responsibility. Independence is not to be confused with being isolated or selfish. The highest form of independence is acutely aware that we are intimately related and responsible to each other. You are never more yourself than when you remember your unity with others.
Martin Luther King put it like this-
I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.
This is the social contract. The contract includes a gratitude clause for those who came before you, a mindfulness clause towards those who will follow you and a responsibility clause to all who share space in this universe. The contract is signed with the blood, sweat and tears of your compassionate actions. It’s binding because your choices impact the whole interrelated ecosystem of life.
On September 18, 1793, George Washington laid the cornerstone for the United States Capitol building in Washington D.C. Many portrayals of the event show Washington dressed in full Masonic attire. The Freemasons attempted to create space that matched their inclusive values. Buildings such as the Capitol, with Egyptian, Greek and Roman themes, remind us how much our lives are impacted by diverse cultures.
At the top of the dome of the Capitol is the Statue of Freedom standing on a sphere, which probably represents the earth. Around this globe is the saying “E Pluribus Unum” which translates as “Out of Many, One.”
Alongside the wings of independence, you need to balance your responsibility because your life and actions impact others. We are part of a global village and the whole ecosystem of life.
We are connected to each other in a social contract. How far does this stretch? Your immediate family? Your extended family? As a parent, you might imagine that your job is done when the kids leave home. But they keep coming back! And the family keeps getting larger. Now you include the grandkids, and you include in-laws and their extended family in your care. Is extended family the extent of your responsibility? Do you have a loyalty to your communities, or to your nation? Do you have a responsibility beyond your nation and beyond the human species?
How do we extend the social contract to include more people? We can tighten the social contract by loosening the belt of our consciousness.
Stretch your consciousness to include all living beings. Take some responsibility for the suffering of people near and far and do what you can to ease their suffering. Take some responsibility for the suffering of the earth and do what you can to ease her suffering. Take responsibility for future generations and do what you can to protect their rights to life and liberty.
The more self aware you are, the more connected you feel to others. The suffering of others feels like your own suffering, and your compassion compels you to live with greater care and kindness.
How far does your responsibility stretch? Our responsibility stretches as far as our consciousness has revealed to us that our connections run. In this day and age of global communication, and rapid movement of information, there is little excuse for having a limited or tribal mentality. We are connected all the way from east to west, south to north.
Gratitude and the Social Contract
The contract is retroactive. It includes gratitude for those who went before you. And the contract exists in perpetuity. It includes mindfulness for those who follow you. This simple story makes the point well. After a heavy rain an old man began digging holes in his garden. His neighbor asked him, “What are you doing?” “Planting mango trees”, he said. The neighbor said, “Do you expect to eat mangoes from those trees?” He replied, “No. I won’t live long enough for that. But others will. All my life I have enjoyed mangoes planted by other people. This is my way of showing them my gratitude.
It’s a beautiful story that reminds us that many people worked hard to make possible all the things we now take for granted. Second, our actions now create the ground on which future life on earth will sustain itself. Gratitude creates connections we hadn’t even thought of; connections with the earth, connections with each other and connections between our actions and future life.
Gratitude is one of the most enlightened human responses. It gets you beyond yourself. Gratitude helps us to appreciate others and to see our life as an opportunity to pay this gratitude forward. Gratitude brings us back to the web of life that supports our existence, our social contract with all living beings.
Patriotism and Unity
Patriotism is natural. It’s good to enjoy fireworks and flags and feel a deep kinship with your neighbors. However there is a higher loyalty to the family of all beings, including the earth.
E M Forster wrote an essay called, “Two Cheers for Democracy.” He wrote it in 1938 when Hitler was building momentum. He raised some important questions about loyalty and priorities. He wrote in it, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the decency to betray my country.”
Sometimes an expanded consciousness will ground you in the people closest to you, no matter what their background or culture. Your loyalty to them will be high. Other times an expanded consciousness will focus on kinship beyond your home or country. Either way, feel your deep and intimate oneness with as many beings from as many places as possible. This is a version of an ancient Hindu text, Indra’s Net-
There is an endless net of threads throughout the universe.
At every crossing of the threads there is an individual.
And every individual is a crystal bead.
And every crystal bead reflects
Not only the light from every other crystal in the net
But also every other reflection
Throughout the entire universe.
In practical terms, independence and unity go hand in hand. What’s good for the bee is good for the hive. When you are at peace with yourself, you are at peace with the world. What is truly good for the community is usually good for the nation. What is truly good for the nation is usually good for the world. We have now learnt from the destruction of the earth that the entire world is intimately related.
The American pastor and peace activist, William Sloane Coffin, who died earlier this year said,
The new survival unit is no longer the individual nation; it’s the entire human race and its environment. This new found oneness is only a rediscovery of an ancient religious truth. Unity is not something we are called to create; it’s something we are called to recognize.
Happy Interdependence Day! Imagine all the people, living life in peace. Why not?