Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Are, Were, and Yet Might Be

Robert Reich recently wrote in a blog his assessment of the main difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  The passage that's gotten the most attention is that in the picture to the left.  His original post has a lot more to say than this, of course (and there is a lot more of his thinking -- about this and a lot more beside -- on his website).  Yet these two sentences raise a question that is applicable in a great many areas of life -- do you work with what is, working towards what could be, or do you "act as if" the change has occurred and work as if it had?

This kind of metaphysical question is not new.  It has been asked before.  In George Bernard Shaw's play Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch, a character says: 
"Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not?"  
This has been quoted and re-quoted  to often that a great many more people know the words than know where they came from.  It's often attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, for instance.  George Carlin put his own spin on it: "Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not?  Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that."  Yet some of us get to blog about things like this and, so, the question again:  

Dyou work with what is, working towards what could be, or do you "act as if" the change has occurred and work as if it had??

We can see that the system, as it is, is not working.  (And we could be talking, here, about our political system, or our justice system, or the schools in the country, or ...)  It is abundantly clear that things have to change, and many would say that's it not just some things, but every thing that needs to change.  Something new is needed.  More of the same -- or, rather, less of the same -- just isn't going to cut it.

Let's use a popular buzz word and say that what we need is a paradigm shift.  A paradigm shift is more than just a change -- more, even, than a whole bunch of changes.  It's something new, something so different from what is that what is is no longer relevant or meaningful.  Albert Einstein famously said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."  Similarly, it could be argued, that you can't solve the problems inherent in our current prison-industrial complex, as an example, with the same judicial and political systems that created the problems in the first place.  

But how do you get from here to there?  How do you make the jump from one paradigm to another?  

When I was in Divinity School I took a course on Zen Buddhism from a Japanese monk. In trying to explain to us the difference between pre-enlightenment and post-enlightenment perspectives he said that before one has an enlightenment experience, it's like the person is looking at a mirror.  It is, of course, a one-way mirror although the person doesn't realize that.  On the other side, the enlightenment side, this becomes apparent and it's as easy to look through as if it weren't there.

That made sense to a lot of us, but he continued.  All that he had just described was a per-enlightenment perspective. After one has had an enlightenment experience they realize that there never was any mirror in the first place.  The problem, he said, in trying to explain this to someone who hasn't had the experience is that the post-enlightenment perspective is nonsensical to the person who is still living in a pre-enlightenment consciousness.  And that's because the difference between the pre- and post- perspective is not simply that of seeing things differently.  It's a different way of seeing ... so different, in fact, that the things being seen are also transformed.  Seeing differently and seeing different things.

Staying with the Zen analogy for a moment -- and my apologies to those who know more about this than I and who can therefore see all of the ways I'm mangling this -- there is a strand of the Zen tradition that focuses on what I'll call a slow and steady progress toward enlightenment; there is another that emphasizes sudden enlightenment.  The first uses the "tools" and perspectives of the pre-enlightened mind to move, over time, to a state in which enlightenment can occur.  (That monk also said, "It takes a lot of ego to become ego-less.")  The second is, if you will, a sudden jump from one perspective to the other.

Which brings us back to Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders and the choice between them as described by Robert Reich.  We agree that the systems is broken and needs to be changed.  So do we use the system to subvert the system, or do we leave the old behind in order to create the new?\

I don't know.  But it's a question not only practical -- who has the best chances of winning -- but philosophic as well -- have things gotten to the point where incrimental change toward a far-off goal is not only untenable but also, realistically, impossible.  The current system, in other words, simply cannot be used to bring about the new.  This was an point of disagreement during the Civil Rights era -- is change within the system possible or do we need to tear everything down and start again.  It's a question in today's Black Lives Matter era.  (This is, at least in part, why there are those who are calling for prison abolition instead of just prison reform.)

It's also a question whenever a paradigm shift is desired (or needed).  Can you, for instance, change the institution of "the church" from within the church as it is?  When the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has been asked why he hasn't just jumped ship and become a Unitarian Universalist or some such thing, he has said that he believe in staying within his faith tradition to work for the fundamental changes he sees as needed.  (His books Why Christianity Must Change or Die and A New Christianity for a New World are good examples of the changes he advocates.  Pretty radical changes to some of what have been seen as fundamental -- nothing short of, as he says, "a new Christianity.")

Others, seeing the same need, leave the denomination (or the entire faith tradition) that they have come to see as incapable of making suffient change.  Not that it would simply be difficult, but that it is just not possible.  And so they go out to create something new, an alternative.

So ... where does that leave us (whether talking about Presidential politics or any other place where such fundamental change is needed)?  Again, I don't know.  I do believe however, that it's important to recognize that this is the question that needs to be addressed, because simply asking whether or not one path or the other is "practical" or stands a chance of "success" is to already cede the choice to the current system, because those are questions of "the level of consciousness that caused the problem."

Pax tecum,

Rev Wik

PS -- in light of the results of the caucus in Iowa an observation:  some are reporting that there was a tie between Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton.  (There was, after all, a difference of less than 1% in the outcome.)  Others are saying the Secretary Clinton won, even as they admit that it was by "the narrowist of margins."  Aren't these two different ways of saying the same thing actually saying different things?

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arthurrashap said...

I like this a lot, much to consider.
And what comes up first for me relates to creativity and the creative process.
A 'bottom line' for me relates to the 'little question' of "Who are we and why are we 'here?'"
What flies in as an/the answer is to create and add those creations to the place/concept/promise that some call 'heaven.'

If what was 'before' this Universe was created (let's agree there was a Big Bang) was what most believe was/is a perfect place. And if the goal of most religions is to help each 'believer' get back to that perfect place then: "What's this (life/existence) all about Alphie?"

How about conceding that that 'perfect' place is perfectible - that its qualities are infinitely expandable or some such concept? Then, here we are in this place and in this time, having evolved from an infinitesimal dot to this state of awareness, consciousness, and quest. What in the end (looking back) that has been most rewarded, acknowledged, and held up is creativity and the products thereof.

So, then, getting back to the question on the table, which alternative do we want to foster? Our founding fathers took a great leap that has gotten us to this place. Is it time to crouch and spring forth anew again? I advise those who will listen to my advice that the way to get results is not to ask: "Can I?" but rather to ask: "How can I?" Then we are all sitting on the same side of the table, solving whatever it is we want to solve.

May it be so.

RevWik said...

Arthur -- I love your differentiation between the question "Can I?" and "How can I?"

You lost me a bit with the idea that "most believe" that what was "'before' this Universe" (the Big Bang) "was/is a perfect place." I'm not sure what you mean by that, exactly. As far as I know the current scientific consensus is that we have absolutely no idea what preceded the Big Bang. Christianity teaches that before creation -- the Biblical metaphor for the Big Bang -- there was nothing -- creatio ex nihil (creation out of nothing). But as I said, I'm not sure what you're meaning by calling this "before" a "place."

The connection I see between your comment and the post is that this question is fundamentally about the act of creation -- do we create by modifying, expanding, developing, what already is, or do we create something entirely new? The arts certainly give a myriad examples of both approaches, and current understandings of evolution suggest that the evolutionary process is both one of incremental change and great leaps.