Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, ©1960
Isn't that true? Our modern world is busy, complex, dangerous. If you were to ask who we were, we would answer, We spend our time, energy (money, power) on doing, inventing, making things, selling, promoting, forcefully convincing others to become like us--and while busy doing, we have no time, or inclination, to remember who we are.
We worship Change; Progress, we call it. Has Progress lost us access to our selves?
In the world of News, this year has been a succession of calamities and scandals. Eight judges fired, and not at all clear why, but it seems very much like dirty politics. Walter Reed hospital--a model of advanced medical science--was found to make life difficult for patients sent there from our wars in the Middle East. Now we learn that the number of casualties of those wars is not only three thousand plus deaths, but 23,000 wounded and severely wounded men and women. Our leader waxed enthusiastic about ethanol, made from corn or soy beans. The research has not been done yet, we don't know whether burning ethanol (mixed with gasoline) is any better than burning oil, but we rush ahead anyway. But then, ethanol is not forced on us to save carbon. It's meant to save importing oil; so, instead, we import ethanol from Brazil. We invade, overthrow a government, we occupy a country we know nothing about, and to our surprise we are disliked! When force does not stop what we call terror, we apply more force. When that does not work, we "surge" with yet more force.
We act for the sake of doing, blind to history that could have reminded us of what never worked before. We modify the genes of plants and animals, knowing full well what the unthinking mixing of living things has done to local ecologies, but apparently not caring what these newly created plants and animals might do to an ecology twenty years from now. We eradicate rain forests, destroy huge areas of land, with never a thought for consequences. Are we crazy?
Sailing to the moon indeed. So busy doing that we forget who we are.
Why should I not be in touch with my self?
Is the person that others see really me? I am very aware of the years and years of being "shaped" by my parents, teachers, the culture and languages of the people around me. I did not live my own life until well into my middle age, and then only with continuous trouble and struggles. Our modern world--we call it civilization--does not allow people to be themselves. Our society is controlling, rapidly changing, and with changing ideas of who we, homo sapiens, are. Do we even know any more what, who we are as humans?
But isn't it interesting that in a country that begins to look like a bad dream--Big Brother watching us--there are a growing number of young people who stand up, find ways to express their selves. I never knew what the expression "gird your loins" means. I found out: "prepare and strengthen oneself for what is to come." Cannot think of a better way to gird my loins, prepare for what comes, than to stand firm on who I am. Before I am anything else, I am human.
I know, deep down, and also from knowing people who were thoroughly human (and not civilized) that humans are not killers, we are not racist, we are not dishonest.
True, you can brainwash humans to be a lot of things, as you can train tigers to leap through hoops. But that tiger had been made into a circus performer, not a tiger any more. People can be made unthinking followers, forcefully kept docile, even ruthless torturers. But they are no longer human.
I do not know whether there is one western culture; there probably are many versions of it. But something that all colors of western culture have in common is Education. Westerners expect, and insist, on an educational system that instills, often forcefully, over a period of twelve of the most impressionable years of a child's growing, a state-approved body of knowledge (facts and figures), and a remarkably restricted range of allowed behaviors and thoughts.
Americans, and perhaps other westerners as well, seem to think that Man is by nature tough, strong, aggressive, even violent. I have heard people say, Humans are predators. We are not, of course. For at least a hundred thousand years humans survived. If we had been the ruthless killers some people think we are, we could not have survived. I am convinced that the kind of unbridled aggression we now see all over the world is a new phenomenon; it is not human nature.
It was in the early years of the VietNam war, when we lived on one side of the island, and my work was on the other side. Less than a half hour commute each way, across a beautiful mountain pass. Breath-taking views both ways. I often gave a ride to hitch-hikers; that is how I met a young man who in the half hour ride told me his story. He grew up in a trailer, moving around Texas. His father, an alcoholic, now and then would pick him up and throw him against the wall. At sixteen he quit school, ran away from home, joined the Marines. A few years later he found himself in VietNam. He had a talent for shooting, he confessed. "Almost as if I could not miss," he said. One day, when he was idly strolling through a village they had taken, he found a young child bleeding, barely conscious and obviously in pain. He carefully picked her up and brought her to the Army Dispensary, where he was told that American medical care was only for Americans, they were too busy repairing their own to deal with the enemy. For him, that word crossed the abyss: "enemy."
There was a long silence in the car, then, "a child," he said, over and over again. He went on in a different voice. "The next day I went to my commanding officer and handed him my rifle." I looked at my passenger. He had both arms out in front of him, palms up, as one offers a gift. "Here, you can have this, I don't want it any more."
The lieutenant said, "Stop that nonsense, boy. You're a Marine. You need your rifle.."