Part 2: A New Understanding of History
“The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.” Dalai Lama
History told by civilization is the history of unkindness. Conventional history is the storyline that chronicles the victories and achievements of expansive cultures, as told from the victors’ point of view. If we invert this story and re-imagine history from the point of view of the “losers” the unkindness is clear. Not the losers of battles between competing civilizations and kingdoms, but the perennial underdogs, the common people and the oral traditional cultures, living by necessity within the physical boundaries of their territories. This is what I have very briefly done in the previous chapter.
To flip history in this way may be illuminating in some respects, as an attempt to balance the historical perspective. The flip side of victor is victim, but they are both sides of the same coin.
Conventional history is a glorified male-dominated history of rise and fall, advance and defeat and of outstanding works of art, literature, science and technology, each surpassing the next. Yet, while this history was weaving itself across the planet and the common people were suffering all manner of oppression to make it possible, a separate strand of history was keeping the whole basket from disintegrating altogether, and humanity falling into violent chaos. This other strand of history, simply stated, is that strand woven by women. ( I will ultimately also include the LGBTQ strand of history as well as much of the stories of indigenous peoples. For now, suffice to say it is not a coincidence that women, LGBTQ people and indigenous groups have been the three most mistreated populations at the hands of civilization.) It is not the history of oppression I wish to look at, but rather the history of care, cooperation, kindness, service and compassion. This other storyline is the history of the mothers, of those who walk the mothering path and those whose bodies, minds, hearts and souls are listening to the mother earth for their instructions.
In order to read this other storyline, one needs to abandon a whole set of assumptions about history and possibly even about the nature of time. Civilization sets its story upon a linear timeline, a timeline of assumed ascendency. By and large, males had the power and positions of influence in this history while women took care of all the daily needs of life: household, food, children. Progress, as defined by civilized culture, is inevitable and it moves in one direction, forward. In its most simple formulation, evolution is perceived to progress along this timeline as a series of competitive interactions between species, societies, individuals, nations and civilizations. To make a mark in this history, one must fully engage in the rules of competition. Greatness comes with firsts, with victories, with notoriety, fame, success, wealth and power over others. This history is real. It forms a very important aspect of every human’s social and environmental landscape as well as proscribing possible choices within that landscape.
However, there is an equally powerful (I argue more powerful) history that runs as a mostly invisible undercurrent throughout all of glorified history. This is the history of kindness, caring, caretaking, cooperation and unequivocal sacrifice. This history takes place in the realm of mothers and mothering, though this is not to suggest that men do not participate in this realm. If this current of history were not to exist, then we would surely not exist as a dominant species today. Nor would we have existed as a thriving, adaptable, intelligent, verbally communicative social species for the millions of years that we inhabited the planet before civilization arrived. It is no coincidence that indigenous cultures are almost universally matrilineal, if not matriarchal. Civilized cultures, that is, cultures that revolve around city life, specialized labor and a warrior class that works for a ruling class, are almost universally patriarchal and patrilineal. There are elements of each in every culture on the continuum, and exceptions to prove the rule, of course. But over the breadth of history, this generalization stands true.
Even in the most aggressive patriarchal culture, the glue that holds society together and gives it coherence is the glue of caring, kindness, connection and cooperation. The bonds of family, neighborhood and workplace keep the flow of the necessities and enjoyments of life moving, no matter what the external urgencies, political repressions, foreign invasions, human or natural disasters might be. The bonds of love, sharing, caring and cooperation can be shaken to their core by human brutality and violence, but they have never been extinguished among survivors of even the most horrific genocide. In anything resembling “normal states of civilization”, that is from minor ongoing warfare to temporary “peace” (which is actually a state of stable truce), the actions that represent care and kindness far outweigh those that are selfish or violent.
We take care of our own, however we define our own to be. This is often taken for granted, but to me, it’s the most significant thread of history and the one that stirs my heart. Until very recently, it was enough for our care, kindness and cooperation to extend only to “our own” while the powers that be competed and fought for territory, resources and influence over one another. There was horrible suffering, yes. But while our global population was low and our technology primitive, nature had the resilience to withstand our demands at a global scale. But with the Industrial Age, modern war technology, modern agricultural conventions, mass production systems and mass extraction technologies, taking care of “our own” on a national, religious, ideological, regional, ethnic or class basis is no longer enough to even ensure basic survival.
Now we must radically expand what we consider to be “our own”. This is a call to kindness, compassion, forgiveness and healing on a grand scale. This gives the Native American expression “all my relations” a universal meaning, going beyond all boundaries and including not only all peoples, but all beings as family. We have made it this far by caring “enough”, but now we are forced to step up our kindness game if we want to survive. This requires an extreme shift of perception and a radical shift of values across culture.
And this shift applies to all cultures, new and old. Indigenous cultures varied in the kindness they extended to “others”. It could be argued that they were mostly not kind to outsiders. Most were neutral, adopting a “wait and see” attitude with important cultural protocols to follow for greeting and establishing a tentative peace that had the possibility of growing into trust. Some were hostile and violent. Some were welcoming toward visitors and guests. But without exception, they took care of their own.
The narrative that tracks caring, kindness and mothering is of a completely different nature than conventional written history. It is cyclical, repetitive, humble, patient, rhythmic, listening, gentle, receptive, enduring. The heroism of this history are the stories of great acts of kindness, forgiveness, endurance and sacrifice in the face of terrible brutality and overwhelming odds. Some of those heroic stories do make their way into conventional history, thankfully. But the current of history out of which those stories spring is under the radar of conventional history-telling. Conventional history is fire, punctuated by water. The undercurrent of history is water, punctuated by fire. Conventional history is vertical, the undercurrent of history is horizontal. Vertical history ascends towards the heavens, horizontal history goes around and around on the surface of the earth. It is very, very difficult for people who have been dazzled by the accomplishments of vertical history and culture, continuously listening to preaching about both material and spiritual ascendance, to perceive the value and worth of horizontal history and culture, much less consider giving it greater value than vertically ascendant culture. But this is precisely what we must do. We must give the cycles of tending life and culture, and the social and spiritual practices of those cycles precedence over our vertical aspirations.
When Malidoma Patrice Some’ introduces his Dagara culture’s cosmological system and worldview to western students, he uses a diagrammatic medicine wheel. This is not something that the West African Dagara themselves use, but rather a creative way to represent some of their cosmological notions to westerners.
As a central tenet of his teaching, Malidoma emphasizes that the balanced cosmological relationship of the element of water to fire is about three measures of water to one of fire. His most basic critique of modernity is that we have the balance of water and fire reversed, thus we are quite literally burning up the earth: physically, socially and spiritually.
In the Iroquois Confederacy the clan grandmothers had political veto power. The men conducted political debates and oratory and made decisions in council, but if the clan grandmothers didn’t like the council decisions, they had the institutional power to veto them. This particular balance of power was somehow left out of the United States Constitution when it borrowed much of the other governing wisdom of the Iroquois. Institutional political veto power granted to women came from the observation that women carried the wisdom associated with bringing life into and sustaining life in the world. This wisdom was more important for the long term health of culture, society, the people and the earth than the male oriented wisdom of the warrior, hunter, scout, innovator, protector and statesman. Fire is needed for people to thrive, survive and protect themselves but it is meant to be in service to the health of the people and the land. Fire is greedy and narcissistic by nature. It needs to be tempered, humbled and contained in order to be a tool that serves the welfare of the people and land. When fire governs itself, it consumes everything that burns.
This is the stage in history where we find ourselves now. Fire is governing itself and consuming everything that burns. Open fire has its place in some biological systems. It serves as a radical way to purge the stagnation that develops with excessive accumulations of dead biomass. This can renew biological succession and the biodiversity that ensues. This knowledge was used by many traditional native people who practiced controlled burning on a wide scale to increase game habitat and maintain habitat for important root harvests. On a metaphorical level, social fires can carry the same quality of renewal in their wake. Mass social movements and revolutions that cause dramatic regime change make room for new kinds of social organization.
However, if these fiery movements are not infused with enough kindness, respect, reconciliation and healing, they can often lead from one form of despotism to another, without truly significant change like communism in The Soviet Union and China. Social movements tend to adopt the underlying conventions of the institutions they are trying to change out of either blindness or expediency. It is most common that the grand aspirations of these movements fail while only relatively small, though often significant institutional shifts are accomplished.
The abolitionist movement succeeded in making slavery illegal in the United States, but it did not end the institution of racism or the economic oppression of dark skinned people.The civil rights movement made significant gains by ending state-sanctioned segregation and getting the Voting Rights Act passed, but it did not desegregate communities or end race hatred or racial prejudice in America. The labor movement achieved the eight hour day, the right to collective bargaining, workplace safety laws, minimum wage laws, child labor laws and many more achievements. But the owning class has only gotten richer and capital, more globally mobile. This causes economic hardship for working people around the world as well as creates difficulty in monitoring and controlling pollution and worker’s rights globally.
All of these phenomena are the result of our struggle with the central paradox of being human. Humans have opened the Pandora’s box of choice. Choice and conscious innovation are intimately wed. Innovation is what leads to invention, and invention is the root of technology. Human technology has powerful consequences on the natural environment and on other groups of humans. Innovations seem positive to those that conceive of them and to those who possess new or better technology. The long term and more global consequences of new technology, however, are much harder to evaluate.
Take the Stone Age technology of the stone-tipped spear and cooperative human hunting strategies. In every instance where humans arrived in previously uninhabited lands with the stone-tipped spear, every species of herbaceous megafauna or large flightless bird was soon extinct. This almost happened to the megafauna of the entire ocean with the innovation of steel-tipped harpoons. Coupled with shipbuilding and sailing, new technology drove global whale hunts in the 1800’s which nearly wiped whales off the planet. Within a thousand years of the arrival of humans on the American continents, the mastodons, giant ground sloths and other megafauna and their predators were extinct. The giant flightless birds of Hawaii and New Zealand, extinct. The demise of the giant marsupial megafauna of the Australian continent is more of a debate than these other examples, but circumstances around the timeline of the arrival of humans there point to human involvement in their extinction as well. On the African and Asian continents the evolution of humans developed slowly, along with the megafauna and large predators. The plants and animals had time to adjust to the new human hunting strategies and use of fire to modify habitat and thus the megafauna have survived until the present era.
It was most likely a combination of human practices that caused these mass extinctions, not the least of which is the use of fire to modify landscapes. Habitat destruction is the leading cause of extinctions today. The long term consequences of habitat change are much harder to perceive and even more difficult to reverse.
Some indigenous people take exception to these tragic human intervention theories. Deeply held ecological ethics and practices of give and take are woven intrinsically into many indigenous cultural heritages. Therefore, the point is not to blame humans, but to understand the patterns of human behavior as they relate to innovation and technology. Human ingenuity creates technologies that give the inventive groups advantages that they didn’t have before. Our conscious relationship to inventiveness is one of the key qualities that separates humans from other species of animals. The advantages of innovation give immediate results that pay off in relation to gathering or generating food, increasing mobility across the landscape, increasing the habitat for game species, displacing other humans, etc. But the long term effects of the use of these technologies is not nearly so apparent as the short term benefits. The ecological feedback loop for hunting and gathering cultures is relatively quick. Overhunting and over-harvesting have effects that are felt in a matter of years, or seasons, certainly within a generation; while the long term effects of habitat modification may take many generations to express themselves. Plow agriculture leads to loss of organic matter and water-holding capacity in soil unless very important practices are used to maintain soil health, especially on irrigated landscapes. Thus historically, in the lands where wheat has been the staple crop, agriculture has led to soil depletion and desertification. The removal of forests to provide grazing habitat has also changed local weather patterns, lessened rainfall, led to desertification, biodiversity loss, human displacement and the fall of entire civilizations. Such long term effects are much more subtle in their cause and effect relationships, even to the extent that they are being debated by scientists to this day.
It is my belief that hunting, gathering, early herding and proto-farming communities learned the lessons of excessive “taking” early on in their histories and thus developed their powerful ecological knowledge, awareness, skill and wisdom within the context of their relatively limited home territories. It only makes sense that this would be so. These sophisticated integral patterns of relationship to place were culturally passed on from one generation to the next, woven deeply into the fabric of tradition and orally transmitted wisdom.
For generations, the dire warnings of indigenous groups have been spoken to advancing civilizations about the perilous consequences of their greed. We have been warned that to take without giving back to the earth is perilous. Finally these arguments are beginning to register, as modern science is catching up with indigenous wisdom. Now the consequences of species extinction, pollution and global climate change have gotten our attention as tangible threats to our own future. Yet we are still acting as if we can continue on the same path, even though we know that we can’t.
The irrational disconnection between knowledge and behavior is disturbing. None of us would deliberately starve our children, but that is essentially what we are doing. Only we are starving them in the future, so we can deny that we are doing it at all.
The paradox of choice is behind this reality. Within the paradox of choice is an inherent conflict between two qualities of the human mind and soul, the conflict between two kinds of intelligence. The glamorous intelligence of cleverness that leads to innovation and new technologies, and the steady experiential intelligence of mentored wisdom founded on tradition, awareness, connection to nature and the broad observation and purposeful development of human character over time. The innovative mind is more or less adolescent. It is unconcerned with the future and has an arrogant faith in its own abilities. “We will come up with a solution for that problem when the time comes. Our cleverness will save us. Technology and science will save us.”
If innovation is not contained within a culture of wisdom, the innovative mind becomes enamored with itself and its obvious powers,falling easily into service of greed and short-sightedness. That is the state of the modern world today. This is the fire that is burning up the world.
By and large modern culture is so in love with innovation and cleverness that we have literally forgotten how to generate wisdom or even to recognize wisdom, much less give elder wisdom its due respect and honor in society. We are in love with the young, the new, the shiny. Our cultural idols are youthful, or attempting to keep the appearance of youthfulness. We no longer hold meaningful rites of passage from youth into adulthood or from adulthood into elderhood. Old age is stigmatized and old people are institutionalized, separated from the natural recipients of their guidance and patience, the young.
Instead of masters of wisdom, we take our instructions from masters of success, experts and professional doctors, scientists, politicians, engineers, educators and business leaders whom we entrust with the critical decisions of society. No longer do we take our full share of social responsibility, informed by the wisdom of elders, to participate actively in the decisions of our communities. Indigenous decision making processes are almost universally consensus based, the most basic and thorough of democratic processes. Each voice is valued and social unity is of utmost importance. In such decision making systems, it is the duty of all adults to participate fully so that each person can be 100 percent informed, responsible and accountable to the decisions made by their community.
It is no coincidence that the modern shift in values away from involvement and responsibility corresponds with an almost thorough disconnection from nature. Most people living in the modern, developed world haven’t got a clue how to grow or collect their own food and medicine, much less harvest and prepare fiber for clothing, make their own containers or build liveable shelters from the landscapes they live in. These plant and landscape skills, coupled with careful animal and bird observation and “tracking” skills are foundational in the traditional indigenous world. They are carefully developed by the cultural mentoring practices of these societies. Every member of society must master these primary skills to a basic level of competence. Nature is the obvious direct source of everything.One’s relationship to nature is personal, immediate, physical and sensual. In this world view, the individual is a participant in the natural world, not an owner of it. One cannot own what one belongs to.
Our modern language lacks a term for this awareness and skill set. We tend to refer to it with terms such as “reading the signs of nature” or “nature literacy.” In reality, the sensual field and body-mind integration of the primary skill sets of the oral traditional world have almost nothing in common with the abstract interpretation of two dimensional symbols into language. The use of terms from modern linguistic technology to metaphorically reference nature awareness confirms how invisible the oral reality is to the literate world view. The weave of cultures that orient themselves toward nature connection, caring for place and kin and the development of human character as their primary function are the cultural systems that have generated and perpetuated ecologically integrated elder wisdom for the vast majority of human existence. Indigenous culture is the original “production system” for social and ecological wisdom.
Although the development of human character is complex and individual, in a traditional oral culture it could be summed up most simply as the process by which we develop kindness and caretaking into a high art. Young humans, in addition to being creative, curious and willing, are impulsive and selfish. There is a process through which we mature into adults not governed by ego, by impulses of self-interest or reactive impulses of anger and jealousy. Rather, we evolve by considered motivations of genuine care for others and for all of creation in the process that I refer to as “character development”. Here is Salvatore Gencarelle speaking about the Seven Sacred Attributes.
“When people are fully connected they have very healthy conduct. This conduct is called the Seven Sacred Attributes – which are the laws of nature in human form. The teaching of the Seven Sacred Attributes is a Lakota teaching taught to Gilbert Walking Bull by Horn Chipps and Moves Camp. They are a measurement of connection in an individual, and are an indicator of the regeneration of healthy culture. The more people display these attributes, the stronger the community becomes. The attributes give us a method to gauge grief, connection and healing.
The seven attributes are given below with their Lakota names and an English translation.
The Attributes or Virtues (Wo-ope). One: Wo-wah’wala – a state of peacefulness or inner quietness (humility.) Two: Wo-canto’gna’ke – a feeling of deep love. Three: Wo-wa-unsila – a feeling of deep caring, love and compassion for all of creation. Four: Wo-wa’wo’kiye – the act of being helpful. Five: Wo-bli’heca – being fully alive and working with a sacred purpose. Six: Wo-wi’yu’skin – a sense of happiness and delight, being pleased, delighted and joyful. Seven: Wo-za’ni – being healthy in all parts of a human being; the heart, the mind, the body, and the spirit.
When these seven qualities rise within the youth, they ensure the continuation of human life upon the earth. In ancient times elders knew that when young people have these qualities, they will live as caretakers to themselves, nature and each other. They will be truly helpful to all of creation in such a powerful way that modern people can only recall this way of life in legends, myths, and dreams.” (http://www.circleofliferediscovery.com/uploads/images/ELDERS.pdf)
Each of these attributes is a quality of character that supports the individual to choose care and kindness over other possible choices. The more one develops these attributes, the more likely one will discover the path of kindness, healing and peacemaking in ever more challenging circumstances. Thus the journey of character on the path of kindness is never ending. We can always learn to show greater love and kindness in our words and actions. Elders are those who have mastered this path to a greater degree than others in society. Such eldership can only exist in a cultural context that recognizes it and prioritizes its value. An elder without a community is more or less just an eccentric old person. Eldership is not just an individualistic process of mastery but an integral process that is woven into a cultural basket. Elders are not experts. They may be experts of particular skill sets, but that is not what gives them their status as elders nor what qualifies them to guide society. Rather, their nuanced understanding of human development, their mastery of the Seven Sacred Attributes (or their own cultural equivalent) coupled to a deep and sophisticated connection to nature and a thorough mastery of their cultural cosmology are all at work.
In addition to a cultural equivalent of the Seven Sacred Attributes, many traditional societies have sophisticated and effective processes for social healing and reconciliation that function within their specific language and kinship culture. These processes are of a completely different quality than the justice systems of modern societies. Modern justice functions more or less within the domain of assigning blame and punishment for violations of our social agreements. Modern justice is based upon retribution and little, if any, attention is given to social healing. In general, indigenous justice processes are about restoring social wellbeing to all members of an offended community, to true peacemaking. This requires healing of wounds caused by social transgressions at a community level, a very different orientation than that of the modern court system. More attention will be given to this important subject in future blogs, and to the modern movement for restorative justice.
The important thing to consider now is that these processes work well for communities that see themselves as family or tribe, where tradition, cosmology, language and cultural assumptions are the same. But they do not necessarily bridge across cultures or apply directly to conflicts between cultures, especially deeply entrenched cultural, ethnic, racial or national conflicts. It would be false to claim that indigenous societies were universally compassionate toward persons or tribes from different language groups and cultural traditions. Some traditional societies that practiced a high degree of kindness and caretaking within their own tribe and lands might also raid neighboring tribes or clans, take slaves, even practice ritual cannibalism or human sacrifice. “Others” were not necessarily considered to be “people” to which the rules of care and kindness applied.
The promotion of an ethic of compassion toward all people is a relatively new development in human history. It is found in Buddhist teachings and in some interpretations of Christ’s teachings. And it is found in the Peacemakers’s Story of the Iroquois Confederacy. But the spiritual and philosophical “innovation” of universal compassion may have only been around for the last few thousand years. Interestingly, the notion of universal compassion seems to have surfaced within civilized cultures as well as indigenous culture in the Americas in relatively the same time period. There may be other examples of this that I am unaware of. And we can only speculate about the values of the peoples of pre-history or outside the scope of written reporting. Within history, the first modern political social movement to utilize a philosophy of universal compassion was the nonviolent movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa and India in the early part of the last century. The philosophy of nonviolent social action has since spread and profoundly influenced movements for social justice around the world.
Universal compassion could be described as kindness of the highest degree. We know how to be kind. We have been practicing kindness for as long as we have been human. Even when civilized history usurped the attention of humanity with horrific violent practices, , we continued to take care of one another, weaving the fabric of society with sufficient kindness to hold it together through the unimaginable circumstances of violent conflict. To extend the kindness and understanding we show to our own families and allies to every person doesn’t seem like such a great thing to ask—but out in the “real world” it seems to be a very great challenge.
The New Old Way proposes that we must somehow link the wisdom of the old ways to the call for universal compassion of a new way. We must somehow govern ourselves from a place of deep connection to nature and we must become effective advocates and practitioners of universal kindness and peacemaking. We somehow need to find ways to translate the kindness at the core of our humanity, that we already express toward our kindred, into a universal compassion that can actively heal the wounds of history that are driving global conflict. The cultural processes of the indigenous world that recognize and develop the guiding qualities of eldership have much to contribute to the call for universal compassion. The insight of modern movements and spiritual traditions that advocate universal compassion also have much to contribute. Both of these threads require modern people to deeply examine the conventions of awareness, thought and behavior patterned into us consciously and unconsciously by “civilization”. Modern and indigenous persons alike need to step far outside of our physical, social and psychological comfort zones to learn what we need to learn. We need innovation, but not so much on the technological level. What we need now is social and cultural innovation that can govern and direct our technological innovation. We need water to cool the fire of civilization. The source of the water of social healing and cultural repair and reconciliation is the deep well of kindness that resides at the heart of humanity. The caretakers of this sacred well have been those indigenous cultures whose core value is care-taking and women, mothers and grandmothers who hold the core practices of care-giving even in modern patriarchal cultures. This is where we must turn our attention for guidance.