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Life Arts    H2'ed 1/21/13

A Wider View

Message robert wolff
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Sunrise, by Robert Wolff
There are different ways of thinking. I don't mean different opinions, ideologies. But different ways of coming to an opinion, different ways of seeing the world, different ways of thinking of me in my world. Language is the expression of a culture. Imagine that your language has no words for me, mine, his, hers. In that culture you cannot think about your children as "mine" and probably you cannot think of your nose or your toe nails as yours. They are not a possession, they are me. In the Hawaiian language there are two ways to say mine. One word is for a person who has a relationship with me that I cannot do anything about. My parents for instance. There is another word to say my car; I bought it, I chose it. But I choose to have children Hawaiians say. That is different thinking. Hawaiians have three words for we: we, you and I. we, all of you and I. And we, I and someone or people not you; for instance we men, we Americans, excluding the person you talk to. I remember reading that at least one of the Native American tribes had no words for past, present, future. They had only two words. 
One meant here and now, the other not here and now: that could mean the past, the future, or far away. There are many people in the world who do not know how old they are, or what time it is: they have no calendars and clocks. All that makes for different thinking and so a different reality.
   Most of us think that our way is the only way. But I am fairly sure that most women think differently than men. Young people think differently than their grandparents. Someone who has lived most of her life in a small village in the boondocks thinks differently than a man who grew up in a city. 
   I know people who are so concentrated on one goal that they see nothing to the side, or in history, or other people. Thinking of one goal makes thinking to the side impossible. That is dangerous.
I don't have a TV but I can choose what news programs I want to watch on my computer. The feverish discussion now is "gun control, gun violence." The more I hear the more I wonder why the debate is so narrow. Nobody mentions the context. We have the largest armed might in the world, paid for by maybe half of our budget. Perhaps our largest industry is making weapons, bombs, guns, ammunition. We are engaged in a number of wars all over the world. What we call gun violence to me seems but one expression of a violent nation. The president, I understand, has the unquestioned power to have a specific person assassinated. He does not have to explain to anyone why or on what grounds. Our police is probably more heavily armed than any police force in the civilized world (whatever that means). In few other countries guns, weapons of all kinds, are so part of their lives. Crazy people in other countries get mad and throw a stone, but here a young man can have easy access to a gun that can shoot twenty children in so many seconds.
Politicians make and vote on laws that affect all our lives. Lately many State politicians have made laws concerning women's reproductive health. They barred women from the debate. How can politicians make laws about health care? Do they consult doctors, nurses, other professionals? 
A little more than ten years ago this country was shocked by terrorists who attacked two sky scrapers in New York, the Pentagon building, and perhaps they had plans for another target. We retaliated by invading  the country that had hosted the head terrorist, and although he very probably did not stay in that country very long--and he is now dead--we are still there. Now fighting another enemy. There is an enormous amount of evidence that we might be better off just getting out. We cannot think that because we are focused on "terrorists." Apparently it never occurs to anyone that killing individuals with missiles inevitably kills people around the target person. If we kill one man, from the air with a bomb, his brothers, cousins, neighbors will all be our enemy for life. We are making terrorists. Didn't we learn in Vietnam that armies cannot win over determined individuals? We cannot think anywhere but straight ahead. We cannot think history or sideways.
There have been enormous political fights about health care (actually the law is about medical care; health care is a different concept). Were doctors and nurses involved in that thinking? Did any politician study, or even look at, how other nations have measurably better health care systems that cost half of what we pay? 
There are other ways of thinking. Half a century ago scientists coined the term lateral thinking, sideways thinking. Not only straight ahead, focused on one point, but considering context, the surrounding aspects of a subject.
We are taught to think, to live, straight ahead. One goal, one objective. That ignores being aware of the landscape we travel through. it ignores culture, customs, conditions, climate"
Something is happening in central Africa. The country called Mali was created by France, with a number of other west African countries. People there speak French, even now, in addition to their own language. When I looked up Mali on the internet I saw a map. Two right angle triangles connected, at an angle, at their 90 - corners. The capital is Bomako close to that connection in the southern triangle. Close to the connection of the northern triangle is the town of Timbuktu, a very ancient city, where the great north-south and west-east caravan roads cross. Thinking sideways I see that Mali and a number of neighboring countries (also straight line bordered) are part of the Sahara desert that stretches almost across the widest part of Africa. The Sahara is a huge area where not much grows and so people are nomads traveling in camel caravans from oasis to oasis. These nomads are called Touareg and there are some Arab nomads, Bedouins. I remember Muammar Qaddafi claimed to be Bedouin; much of Libya is part of the Sahara desert. The borders of Mali, Niger, most of Libya, Algiers, and other countries are obviously ruler straight lines on a map, nothing to do with the people who live there, the landscape, the ecology, nature, of that part of the world. 
Here we know only that somehow that new war involves a group of people who once belonged to Al Qaeda and split off to become independent. Why does France interfere? Why are we involved? What do we know about life in the Sahara, or Nomads who move across imaginary lines they cannot see or consider. I know nothing about the issues, the war. But my lateral thinking is important. Maybe more important than that one small group of people once associated with, or part of, Al Qaeda. But that one name seems to give meaning to our concern. On a wider screen I can see and think about the context: Africa, the Sahara desert. The truly ancient history of Timbuktu, an important trading center in Africa, as Afghanistan was on the Silk Road between the West and China. A population of nomads with a culture different from any settled people. The peculiar difficulties of meaningless straight line borders. All those things are lateral thinking. Yes, France is involved, the U.N is involved, the metals and probably oil that is there are involved. Now Algeria is involved. The wider I think the more sideways view I can get. The context of that agony obviously goes way back and sideways; we cannot ignore that.
Sometimes it seems that all the artificial straight line borders of countries we in the West created in the last century are fictional. Disregarding tribes, cultures, languages, that had very different boundaries if any.
This country, spanning an entire continent, now seems to be split in at least two but probably more cultures. The Founding Fathers, more than 200 years ago, were a close-knit small group of white men in a tiny area of what is now the United States. I live in what became a State in my life time. I am farther from Washington, DC, than St. Petersburg, Russia, is from Washington, DC. This State has no ethnic majority; all the many ethnic and religious groups are minorities. All of us speak English, but most of us speak another language as well; but not Spanish. When I read of "the Beltway" culture it seems utterly foreign. The idea, for instance, of every man (woman) for himself is so counter to the Polynesian and other ethnic cultures we have here. I wonder whether this country is governable when one of the two parties decided they would say No to whatever this President proposed. Even when the President agrees to a Republican proposal the same Republicans who proposed now say, No.
If I had anything to say--which of course I don't--I would suggest we have three or four or five parties. Then for every issue we would make different coalitions. But I was told we cannot do that because we don't have a parliamentary system. I have never understood that. Now, the Republicans, I hear on the news I watch, have already built a system that almost guarantees that Congress will forever have a Republican majority even when a million more Democrats vote. And they are working on State Laws about the Electoral College that will assure a Republican president forever. That is democracy?
To me so many modern stresses seem the consequence of narrow thinking. Not governing a large country but seizing power over a large country. We are not alone in the world. It would not hurt to look at other countries. Iceland, for instance, has had some fascinating ideas about surviving the financial crisis of 2008. Several countries have done what we should have done about climate change. Well within their budget, even saving money. There are countries with even more ethnic diversity than we have; could we not learn from them? We certainly can learn from many countries how to build a true health care system (including teeth and eyes that we strangely left out) that covers everyone from birth to death for half the price we pay and with significantly better health for everyone.
It seems very important to think laterally. Any problem has a history. People have cultures. What we are told are political issues are really complex human problems. We need to relearn to be aware at all times of all that is all around. It is how to survive. In a jungle you cannot survive long if you look only ahead. Surviving in a desert, in snow and ice, requires that wider view and an openness to think wider. 
Today we may be taught, conditioned, to make our own reality looking straight ahead. That manmade reality does not fit the world as it is. There are no straight lines in nature. Making a straight line railroad or highway destroys nature. A plane can fly a straight line (curved around the planet) but must always be aware of side winds, currents, and adjust to them.
Seeing and thinking sideways is exciting. What can I learn from someone I happen to meet on my path? If I had looked only ahead I would not have noticed him. What open door is there on my right, let's look, it might be something I need to know. From my own experience I know that open doors sometimes have treasures. Other open doors show me how definitely NOT to do something. Blinders make me concentrate on a goal but on the way I am bound to stub my toe or fall over a tree root. Thinking straight ahead looses nuances and nuances are what make reality.
Yes, there are different ways to think, to see, to be aware. Thinking straight ahead makes enemies. Thinking and seeing sideways, even backward and up and down, makes friends and in the end it spells survival.
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robert wolff lived on the Big Island, called Hawai'i

his website is He passed away in late 2015. He was born in 1925, was Dutch, spoke, Dutch, Malay, English and spent time living and getting to know Malaysian Aborigines. He authored numerous books including What it Is To Be Human, (more...)

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