Friday, January 15, 2016

Many Warm Welcomes Into the Family of Knitters

Want to know something crazy?

While I was in Peru, a woman I hardly knew danced in front of my table at a restaurant because she was so overcome with joy. Another bought me gifts so that she could help me, and we became so close that we both teared up a few days later when she suddenly had to leave the hostel where I stayed and she worked. After returning to the US, yet another dear lady, having just met me for a few minutes a year earlier, gifted me many more wonderful things, again in order that she could help me - all for free. What prompted all this generosity and warm feeling from middle-aged and elderly women?

I expressed an interest in knitting.

And I might not have understood what was really going on if I hadn't read a book earlier this year called "The Continuum Concept", by Jean Liedloff.

The Continuum Concept

The Continuum Concept is the idea that every aspect of every living being exists in expectation of some experience that living being will have in its life. To quote from the book:

Expectation, in this sense, is founded as deeply in man as his very design. His lungs not only have, but can be said to be, an expectation of air, his eyes are an expectation of light rays of the specific range of wavelengths sent out by what is useful for him to see at the hours appropriate for his species to see them. His ears are an expectation of vibrations caused by the events most likey to concern him, including the voices of other people; and his own voice is an expectation of ears functioning similarly in them. The list can be extended indefinitely: waterproof skin and hair, expectation of rain; hairs in nose, expectation of dust; pigmentation in skin, expectation of sun; perspiratory mechanism, expectation of heat; coagulatory  mechanism, expectation of accidents to body surfaces; one sex, expectation of the other; reflex mechanism, expectation of the need for speed of reaction in emergencies.

What's more, this same idea extends to our emotions and social relations to each other. A child expects to receive a mother's milk as she expects to give it. Children expect to have older peers to observe and learn from, as older children expect to lead by example and mentor younger ones. Each person expects to laugh with others, to listen and be listened to. A child cries when she/he feels deeply upset, and adults find this sound very grating and saddening, and desire to care for the child in response.

The Continuum Concept goes on to discuss these needs/expectations in humans' very early life and how in civilized societies, those needs are often systematically unmet, and what effect this has on those children as they grow up.

However, for this essay, the set of mutual expectations/needs I confronted in South America was the expectation of elders to share their wisdom and knowledge with youth and the expectation of the youth to receive this wisdom and knowledge from elders. This is where the knitting came in.

Finding the first latent elder-teacher

I began an extended fast in mid-July in a space I found in the jungle, and after about a week, I decided to move into a friendly hostel in a small town nearby.

There I met Nancy, a sister of the owner, who often worked the front desk. She was bored as could be much of the time, her only job to wait for the odd tenant to happen inside. Mostly she just watched TV.

And I thought to myself, so long as I feel too weak to do much more than sit in a chair, how about learning something new? So I asked Nancy if she knew anyone who knitted and would like to knit with me and perhaps teach a little.

Wow, did she brighten up. Nancy knew how to knit but hadn't done it in years. She was so excited to teach me that she insisted on going into town that evening and buying me a pair of needles and my first yarn. Sure thing, when she arrived the next morning, she gave these to me, refused to accept payment, and then we started our first knitting lesson. We had a few more sessions, either in the courtyard or near the front desk where she worked.

I smile to remember - Nancy wanted to show me how to 'cast-on', putting the first row of stitches onto the needle to begin a new project. One way to do this involves wrapping the thread around the fingers in a certain pattern, then threading the needle through that web of thread in a certain way - the picture below gives an idea of it.

Casting-on new stitches as Nancy showed me
The first time she showed me, she hadn't done it herself in years. Either she wrapped the yarn around her hand incorrectly, or she put the needle through it incorrectly. Then hesitated for a moment, inspected it - just for the briefest moment! - and then quickly undid the work, redid it correctly, and went on creating the first row of stitches at warp speed. However many years her knitting skills had laid dormant, she still had the muscle memory, and it all came flooding right back.

It felt so good to learn from a person rather than a book as I'd tried 2 years earlier, working with my hands with someone else doing the same, to make something beautiful and useful.

Sadly, a family emergency drew her suddenly away from Satipo, and in her last half-hour in Satipo she gave me a crash-lesson on changing colors and offered a few more pointers. We hugged goodbye, both of us tearing up a little bit, and she told me she expected to see a beautiful scarf upon returning.

I never saw her again, but I did her one better than a scarf: I made a multi-color scarf, folded and knitted the sides together into a shoulder-bag, and lastly added on a 3-colored shoulder strap. Sadly I have no picture of this, but the hostel owner mailed it to her with a goodbye/thank-you note I wrote before leaving Peru.

Knitting in the Town Square in Satipo, Peru

Knitting that bag/scarf took a lot of hours, and I spent a lot of them in the town square.

These two images are of the Satipo, Peru town square. Each "U" shape in the top image is a bench as shown below. I didn't take either picture.

Now, in many areas in Peru, knitting in public is associated with impoverished, short, malnourished, dark-skinned women sitting on the pavement with their small children selling low-margin items. Knitting is not associated with well-fed, tall, white, male foreigners. So I turned a lot of heads and had lots of fun conversations. One thing I learned was that almost no one below the age of 30-40, male or female, had learned to knit in that region. A few women in their 30s or 40s claimed they'd learned as young kids but had long forgotten and had no interest in it. They were content to work for money to buy fashionable, branded clothes.

The only knitters were women in their 50s, 60s, and older. Literally every single woman I found in this age group had learned to knit or crochet as a child from the older women in her life.

And as I met more and more older women, I started to see how invested they were in their ability to create clothing and how sad they felt that there was no one to teach.

In continuum terms, the mothers/grandmothers had an expectation to teach, to give. But no child showed a complementary expectation or desire to learn, and so the continuum was broken. When I met older women who became super excited to help me learn to knit, I was fulfilling a need their own kids and neighboring children hadn't filled for them.

I cannot do one of my favorite stories about this justice in text form, so here's this video of myself telling the story:


Yet another warm welcome into the Family

Then disaster struck: upon returning to my family in California, my knitting needles from Nancy in Peru broke on the plane flight!

My grandmother mentioned this sad fact at a church social function to a friend of hers named Debbie, and Debbie went into overdrive! She invited herself over to my grandmother's home the very next day and gave me a box of yarn, a gorgeous collection of knitting needles and case, and a great book on how to knit. THEN she offered to teach me to knit socks. A few days later, she brought her own knitting with her, and after getting me started on the sock, she began her own work, and we just sat and chatted and knitted, the conversation veering from light-hearted to intimate to profound and back as easily as a meandering stream flows downhill.

Debbie confirmed the continuum-break in her own life: Debbie's in her 50s or 60s I'd guess, and her only local knitting partner is a 93 year old woman, the other knitters in her life living far away. Debbie loves to teach knitting and said she has no one in her life ready to receive from her. When she heard of my interest, she jumped at the chance to help along a new knitter. And I received an education in knitting for free that many people pay $100-$200+ for (where it's available at all), not including the value of her lovely gifts. And of course, I now have a new friend.

In my thank-you note to Debbie, I told her how much her warm welcome into the family of knitters had meant to me, and how I intended to repay her: by passing on the skills, generosity, and warm welcome to other young knitters in the future, and by telling the story of the warmth Debbie had shown me. Long live the continuum!

There is of course an interesting parallel: this is how children 'repay' their parents. Each generation repays the previous by passing on to the next. That this can happen within nuclear families, extended families, and outside the blood-family is awesome, and gives a whole new meaning to the idea of family lineage. I've had a few knitting mothers in my knitting family now! And perhaps someday I'll be a knitting daddy, passing along the tradition as I live it in my life. And perhaps I'll be able to pass on other traditions as well.

Healthy human cultures: fulfilling everyone's mutual expectations

A core part of the continuum is the idea of mutual or complementary expectations, for example the ear and voice 'expect' each other, having co-evolved to operate together. In human cultures, emotional needs co-evolve: the babies need for nurture + the mother's need to nurture; individuals' need to express themselves + individuals' need to feel emotionally close with others and cooperate. Likewise, I have a need to learn a wide range of skills, and now, in knitting and clothing-work, I've found people with the complementary expectation of teaching and mentoring, and so we've instantly bonded.

Learning to recognize mine and others' needs and how they can be met in healthy, mutually-enriching ways will be crucial to shaping the sort of community I wish to be part of in the future. I feel excited to have a framework for thinking of this - the concept of the Human Continuum.

Extra Knitting Stories

I have a few other funny or meaningful knitting related stories from Peru, though not really tied into the Continuum theme:

1) One sunny morning I was out in the courtyard of the hostel, knitting shirtless and enjoying the fresh air and view of the surrounding mountains.

A cute girl leaves her room, and a few minutes later goes back in and comes out with a camera to take a picture of the mountains behind me. I smile at her, and she at me, and I motion for her to come over and say hi.

That's when I learn that I was the scenery - she took the picture of me! Without proof, she said, none of her friends would believe a white man would ever knit, apparently. We chatted for an hour until her bus was about to depart... bummer she left so so soon.

2) After Nancy left, I asked the hostel owner, David, if he knew anyone who liked to knit who might like to work with me. He walked me across town after dark one evening after making an appointment with an elder friend in her 70s or 80s. When we arrived, my knitting and crocheting bag in hand, a woman in her 40s or 50s opened the door and said, very curtly, the elderly woman would not be able to work with me.

She was clearly quite upset, and David asked a question or two and got her to spill the beans: her son had just been scammed out of probably 1-2 months' family income, and she was really worried about their financial situation. After she had told a little about the situation and we listened, David had a brilliant idea: he said, (in Spanish): "Will's come so far, and he wishes to learn from our culture, and he brought his things with him tonight. Will, take out your work and show her." And I took out my knitting project. "See, he's learning."

And the woman said something like, "You knit? Knitting's no good. Crocheting is much better." And instantly I had my crocheting needle and thread out to show her. Then, as we talked, David took the crochet needle from me and handed it to her, along with the thread.

Still in the doorway barring us from entry, she started crocheting. Within minutes, she'd calmed down dramatically even as she vented more, and then she invited us inside. The elder woman wasn't home or available, but this lady invited us to the back area, continuing to crochet rapidly while paying her project little direct attention. After an hour of hearing her express her concerns and catch up with David, calming down the whole time, David asked if she would teach me something, which she finally did. I can't say I learned a ton from her, but the evening was a great testament to the power of hand-craftwork to sooth (as well as a big dose of empathy and listening).

3) I found a place in Satipo that sold decent masato, a fermented, alcoholic yuca drink, and the owner and I agreed that if I came by and got a drink of masato every day, she'd teach me crocheting while I drank. This didn't last long, sadly, as I ended up leaving soon. Still, I discovered that crocheting with a very slight buzz, the most I ever got with her light masato, was quite agreeable.

While I was in that store, it was common for boys aged probably 8-20 to hang out and kill time. They showed tons of interest, coming over and asking questions. The younger ones would practically stick their noses in my lap watching me crochet away.

4) While I was in the market knitting and enjoying a fruit drink, a woman came up and said she was happpy to see me knitting, and did I know of the group of women who knit together in the market every day? I said something like, "No, but thank you extremely very much, and where do they meet and when?" With Nancy gone, I had neither mentor nor book to learn from.

I followed her directions very deep in the market and sure enough, found a woman knitting. Others joined later. I said I liked to knit and could I join her. She paused a moment as if this was a brand new possiblity that needed processing, and then offered me a seat. We knitted together a few times while I was turning my scarf-shaped cloth into a handbag, and the woman who owned the stall where the knitters gathered occasionally looked over and said, "Why are you doing it that way?" Then I'd ask how she'd do this part of the handbag, and she'd show me a more effective technique.

I felt super sad to leave Satipo just a few days after finding this club!

5) I meet so many people knitting in public, I decided to take the knitting out in the evenings when I went drinking.

Haha, not that kind of drinking. At nightfall, lots of (mostly) women set up little roadside stalls where they sell hot drinks made from local fruits or veggies. I loved loved loved the quinoa drink.

I found one woman selling drinks, probably in her 60s, who was very welcoming and actually filled the glass to the rim each time. I'd take my knitting out around 7:00 or 8:00 PM, and often stay until she closed at 11:00 PM.

Individuals, couples, friends, and families would come and go, sometimes staying for an hour or more chatting with me.

There was a common opening theme, here and in the Satipo square: "You're knitting.. you know you're a guy, right?" Even if they didn't say it explicitly, I could tell I was ignoring a bunch of social norms! But I never sensed scorn or condescension, though a few folks asked me if anyone had called me gay. Luckily I avoided such people, and had lots of fun conversations with folks. And when there wasn't conversation, I got to knit!

The woman at the stall, whose name I never got, often comped me drinks and little sandwiches, sometimes comping me for the whole night's drinks. It was a beautiful gesture, especially for someone living on sales of low-margin drinks and food. It was also probably good business sense, as my strangeness and willingness to converse invited people and kept them at her stall for quite some time! I was happy my Spanish was up to it; I was also aggressively practicing my Spanish in preparation for entering indigenous communities a little while later.

My last night in Satipo, I gathered flowers from various roadside plants and brought them to the woman running the stall. She was a very quiet lady, but seemed happy to receive them. A lot of people, especially men, would bark curt orders for drinks from their vehicles while driving past with nary so much as a please or thank you. Interestingly, many young children treated her the same way, especially ones not accompanied by parents. I imagine a warm gesture from someone was a nice change. As I offered her the flowers, the guy sitting on the stool next to me exclaimed, in Spanish, "See, Americans aren't all bad! That's what I keep saying!"

Thanks, dude.

The morning after I wrote this essay on the train, I was knitting away at my seat, and I met tree-hugger (forest, river, and wildlife-saver) extraordinaire Rudi Bega. He admired my knitting and offered to teach me to crochet. Super generous, after teaching me the basics, he offered me a beautiful golden-colored crochet hook and rich red thick yarn he'd taught me with. Within 24 hours I had a mostly-done slipper to show him! At first I tried to turn down his gift of yarn and hook, but he insisted he wanted me to have it, and so I promised to make beautiful things and to pass on his generosity to others.

As I write this PS a week later, some fellow neighbors on this organic farm in Appalachia have said they want to learn to knit and crochet from me, and I'm excited to share with them soon. The continuum continues!

P.P.S. In the first draft of this essay, I typed the entire chapter of the book Continuum Concept which discusses the Continuum and how it evolved. I described it briefly above, but if you'd like a more complete description from the author, I offer you the chapter below:

For some two million years, despite being the same species of animal as ourselves, man was a success. He had evolved from apehood to manhood as a hunter-gatherer with an efficient lifestyle which had it continued, might have seen him through many a million-year anniversary. As it is, most ecologists agree, his chances of surviving even another century are diminished with each day's activities.

But during the brief few thousand years since he strayed from the way of life to which evolution adapted him, he has not only wreaked havoc upon the natural order of the entire planet, he has also managed to bring into disrepute the highly evolved good sense that guided his behavior throughout all those eons. Much of it has been undermined only recently as the last coverts of our instinctive competence are rooted out and subjected to the uncomprehending gaze of science. Ever more frequently our innate sense of what is best for us is short-circuited by suspicion while the intellect, which has never known much about our real needs, decides what to do.

It is not, for example, the province of the reasoning faculty to decide how a baby ought to be treated. We have had exquisitely precise instincts, expert in every detail of child care, since long before we became anything resembling Home sapiens. But we have conspired to baffle this long-standing knowledge so utterly that we now employ researchers full time to puzzle out how we should behave towards children, one another, and ourselves. It is no secret that the experts have not "discovered" how to live satisfactorily, but the more they fail, the more they attempt to bring the problems under the sole influence of reason and disallow what reason cannot understand or control.

We are now fairly brought to heal by our intellect; our inherent sense of what is good for us has been undermined to the point where we are barely aware of its working and cannot tell an original impulse from a distorted one.

But I believe it is possible to start as we are, lost and handi-capped, and still find a way back. At least we might learn the direction in which our best interests lie and not go on making efforts that have an equal chance of leading us further off the track. The conscious part of the mind, like a good 'technical advisor' in someone else's war, when it sees the error of its ways, ought to work to put itself out of business, not move deeper into alien territory.  There are, of course, plenty of jobs for our ability to reason without its usurping the work which has for many million years been managed by the infinitely more refined and knowledgeable areas of the mind called instinct. If they too were conscious, they would deluge our heads out of commission in an instant, if for no other reason than that the conscious mind, by its nature, can only consider one thing at a time, while the unconscious can make any number of observations, calculations, syntheses, and executions simultaneously and correctly.

"Correct" in this context is a tricky word. It implies that we all agree on what we want the results of our actions to be, when in fact our intellectual ideas of what we want vary from person to person. What is meant here by "correct" is that which is appropriate to the ancient continuum of our species inasmuch as it is suited to the tendencies and expectations with which we have evolved. Expectation, in this sense, is founded as deeply in man as his very design. His lungs not only have, but can be said to be, an expectation of air, his eyes are an expectation of light rays of the specific range of wavelengths sent out by what is useful for him to see at the hours appropriate for his species to see them. His ears are an expectation of vibrations caused by the events most likey to concern him, including the voices of other people; and his own voice is an expectation of ears functioning similarly in them. The list can be extended indefinitely: waterproof skin and hair, expectation of rain; hairs in nose, expectation of dust; pigmentation in skin, expectation of sun; perspiratory mechanism, expectation of heat; coagulatory  mechanism, expectation of accidents to body surfaces; one sex, expectation of the other; reflex mechanism, expectation of the need for speed of reaction in emergencies.

How do the forces that put him together know in advance what a human will need? The secret is experience. The chain of experience that prepares a a human being for his time on earth begins with the adventures of the first single-celled unit of living matter. What it experienced in the way of temperature, the composition of its surroundings, available nourishment to fuel its activities, weather changes, and bumpings into other objects or members of its own species was passed on to its descendants. Upon these data, transmitted by means still largely mysterious to science, the very, very slow changes came about which, after an unimaginable passage of time, produced a variety of forms that could survive and reproduce themselves by coping with the environment in different ways.

As always happens when a system diversifies and becomes more complex, more precisely adapted to a wider variety of circumstances, the effect was greater stability. Life itself was less in danger of extinction by natural catastrophe. Then even if one whole form of life was wiped out, there was lenty of others which would carry on and also carry on complicating, diversifying, adapting, stabilizing. (It is a reasonably safe guess that quite a few "first" forms were extinguished before one survived, perhaps millions of years after the last one, and diversified in time to avoid being snuffed out by some intolerable elemental event.)

At the same time, the stabilizing principle was at work in each form and each part of each form, taking its data from its inheritance of experience, from its contacts of every kind, and equipping its descendants in ever more complex ways to deal more efficiently with those experiences. Therefore, the design of each individual was a reflection of the experiences it expected to encounter. The experience it could tolerate was defined by the circumstances to which its antecedents had adapted.

If the evolving creatures had been formed in a climate that never exceeded 120 degrees for more than a few hours nor fell below 45, the going form could do the same; but no more than its ancestors could it maintain its well-being if exposed to excessively long bouts at the extremes of its tolerance. the emergency reserves would be drained and if relief was not forthcoming, death would follow, for individual or species. If one wants to know what is correct for any species, one must know the inherent expectations of that species.

How much do we know about the inherent expectations of man? We know quite well what he gets, and we are often told what he wants, or should want, according to the current system of values. But what his evolutionary history has conditioned him to expect as the latest specimen in his ancient line of inheritance is, ironically, one of the darker mysteries. Intellect has taken over deciding what is best and insists on sovereignty for its vogues and guesses. Consequently, what was once man's confident expectation of suitable treatment and surroundings is now so frustrated that a person often thinks himself lucky if he is not actually homeless or in pain. But even as he is saying, "I'm all right," there is in him a sense of loss, a longing for something he cannot name, a feeling of being off-center, of missing something. Asked point blank, he will seldom deny it.

So, to discover the precise character of his evolved expectations, there is no point in looking at the late-model, civilized example.

To look at other species can be helpful but may also be misleading. Where the level of development corresonds, comparisons with other animals may be valid, as in the case of older, deeper, and more fundamental needs that antecede our anthropoid form, like the requirement for air to breathe, which arose hundreds of millions of years ago and is shred by many of our fellow animals. But to tudy human subjects who have not left hte continuum of appropriate behavior and environmnt is obviously more useful. Even if we manage to identify some of our expectations which are less evident than air to breathe, there will always remain a great mass of more subtle expectations to define before we can even call on a computer to help us catch up with some small fraction of our instinctive knowledge of them. It is therefore essential to keep a constant watch for opportunities to reinstate our innate ability to choose what is suitable. The clumsy intellect with which we must now try to recognize it can then occupy itself with tasks it is bettered suited to do.

The expectations with which we confront life are inextricably involved with tendencies (for example, to suckle, to avoid physical harm, to crawl, to creep, to imitate). As what we expect in the way of treatment and circumstance becomes available, sets of tendencies in us interact, again as the experience of our ancestors has prepared them to do. When the expected does not take place, corrective or compensatory tendencies make an effort to restore stability.

The human continuum can also be defined as the sequence of experience which corresponds to the expectations and tendencies of the human species in an environment consistent with that in which those expectations and tendencies were formed. It includes appropriate behavior in, and treatment by, other people as part of that environment.

The continuum of an individual is whole, yet forms part of the continuum of his family, which in turn is part of his clan's, community's, and species' continua, just as the continuum of the human species forms part of that of all life. Each continuum has its own expectations and tendencies, which spring from long, formative precedent. Even the continuum that includes every living thing expects, from experience of it, a range of suitable factors in the inorganic  surroundings.

In each life-form, the tendency to evolve is not random, but furthers its own interests. It is directed at greater stability - that is, at greater diversity, complexity, and therefore adaptability.

This is not at all what we call 'progress.' In fact, resistance to change, no way in conflict with the tendency to evolve, is an indispensible force in keeping any system stable.

What interrupted our own innate resistence to change a few thousand years ago we can only guess. The important thing is to understand the significance of evolution versus (unevolved) change. They are at diametrical cross purposes, for what evolving creates in the way of diversification, ever more precisely adapted to our requirements, change destroys by introducing behavior or circumstances which do not take into account the entire range of factors concerned in serving our best interests. All change can do is to replace a piece of well-integrated behavior with one that is not. It replaces what is complex and adapted with what is simpler and less adapted. As a consequence, change places a strain on the equilibrium of all the intricately related factors inside and outside the system.

Evolution, then, gives stability; change brings vulnerability.

Social organizations, too, follow these rules. An evolved culture, a way of life for a group of people which fulfills their social expectations, can be any one of an infinite variety of structures. The superficial features of these structures are the most variable, their basic tenets the least, and in certain fundamental respects they are bound to be identical. They would be resistant to change, having evolved over a long period of time like any stable system in nature. It would also follow that the less the intellect interfered with instinct in the formation of behavior patterns, the less rigid the structure would need to be on the surface (about behavioral detail, ritual, requirements for conformity) and the more inflexible at its core (in attitude toward self, attitude toward the rights of others, sensitivity to the signals of instinct that favor survival, health, pleasure, a balance of types of activity, an impulse towards the preservation of the species, economical use of the plants and animals in the environment, and so on). In a word, the more a culture relies on intellect, the more restraints on the individual are necessary to maintain it.

There is no essential difference between purely instinctive behavior, with its expectations and tendencies, and our equally instinctive expectation of a suitable culture, one in which we can develop our tendencies and fulfill our expectations, first, of precise treatment in infancy, and gradually of a (more flexible) kind of treatment and circumstance, and a range of requirements to which adaptation is ready, eager, and able to be made.

The role of culture in human life is as legitimate as that of language. Both begin with the expectation and the tendency to find their content in the environment. The social behavior of a child develops among expected influences and examples set him by his society. Innate drives also impel him to do what he perceives is expected of him by his fellow humans; the fellow humans let him know what they do expect, according to the culture. Learning is a process of fulfilling expectations for certain kinds of information. The kinds increase in a definite order of complexity, as do the patterns of speech.

Suitability to the standards of our expectations, maintained by each individual's continuum sense (encouraged by pleasure, kept on course by natural revulsion that mounts as the limits of aptness are approached), is the foundation of the viable culture's system of rights and wrongs. The particularities of the system can, again, vary infinitely so long as they remain within the essential parameter. There is plenty of room for differences, individual or tribal, without transgressing those limits.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Judging Cultures and Belief Systems To Improve My Own: Part 2

This essay is the second of two parts. Part one described how I realized that how a culture motivates its members to act seems more important to me than whether its spiritual beliefs are strictly accurate:
I've discovered a new question for judging cultures and spiritual belief systems: does your culture encourage and empower you to a) understand your needs, b) express yourself to others and listen to them so that together you can c) meet your needs effectively?
In this second essay, I'll share some thoughts on how to identify needs, how we can know others' and our own needs, and how I attempt to draw practical lessons from observations of cultures I visit.

What are our needs?

The most powerful effect of propaganda, I believe, is to confuse people about their needs. We're told we need to let the state defend us from 'terrorists', but that terrorist label has been applied to peaceful social activists, people only seeking to escape intense suffering (like the muslims in the news as I write this), 'uppity' women or minorities, etc. We're encouraged to feel our worth is defined by our consumption, and to use consumption to respond to emotional problems.

For example, I know a medical doctor who, in response to a depressed patient, decided the patient's depression didn't rise to the level of prescribing anti-depressant drugs. Instead, this doctor wrote a 'prescription' on the prescription pad which told the patient to go home, log into Amazon, and shop in order to feel better. In other words, go home, alone, stare at a screen, alone, spend money you probably don't have or even go into debt, and purchase something which you obviously don't really need, and which will clutter your home and thus cause more anxiety later. This, instead of recommending that the patient learn to and seek to build deeply intimate relationships with other people who can help deal with the underlying causes of the stress.

More examples of needs we're conditioned to have:

We need a 'steady' career which hopefully is also fulfilling. A “good” job is one that is high-paying, not necessarily socially valuable. A 'successful' relationship is one that lasts, not one that lasts only as long as both partners feel happy in it. We need a big house with an immaculate lawn in an area with nice schools and convenient shopping. A good citizen is an obedient citizen, one who helps make things better by working harder and only ever protests the status quo through approved channels, such as letter writing, donating to approved charities, voting, or grumbling at the TV. A nice car is an expensive car. “Good transportation” in the suburbs in which I spent a lot of my adult life meant a neighborhood had such overbuilt road capacity that you could drive anywhere you wanted with minimal traffic in 20 minutes or less.

(I swear, in Sterling, VA I once looked up a neighborhood I was walking through on a real estate website and in the 'neighborhood amenities' section, all it could list was a 7-11 and gas station. But the school buildings were pretty new!)

So our beliefs about our needs can be quite distorted.

It gets worse than that though: humans can have very unhealthy needs due to all manner of emotional trauma suffered early in life or throughout life. Bullies may feel the need to put others down or abuse them to feel better about themselves, trauma victims may feel the need to numb their feelings in order to avoid the pain associated with deep introspection and remembering. Many feel the need to work hard even in unhappy jobs to prove their worth to themselves and others or to find meaning. Others need electronic distractions to numb a constant anxiety or meet an addictive need for stimulus or feel 'connected' to 'friends' through 'social' media. Many parents need their children to 'succeed' to make up for their own compromises and perceived failures - to help them feel better despite their own insecurities.

Many feel the need to avoid deep intimacy with others, including members of the opposite sex, because of physical and emotional trauma associated with past intimacy. Many feel the need to dominate others, often for fear that if they do not dominate (in business, politics, intimate relationships, whatever) they will be dominated, or left to live without. Many seek to maximize their earning potential because the culture of consumption with which they identify, the parties and self-image and fun and neighbors and friends, all depend on that high income. Without it, their social sphere would disappear. Their sense of self would disappear!

I've known people who feel the need to fight with their spouses, as it's the only way of resolving disputes they know. As both partners' parents had modeled angry yelling during their childhoods, each spouse feels a need to fight and act in anger in response to frustrations; it seems just a normal part of relationships to them.

Ok, our needs and our beliefs about our needs can be really distorted!

Ahh, but it gets even more challenging! Then you get into the uber-thorny issues in understanding needs. Some examples:

Imagine how a white family's need for safety leads them to discriminate against black people in housing and job selection, hoping to avoid living and working in high crime areas. In some districts, I perceive that black people do commit more violent crimes than whites. This seems easily explainable by the systemic, structural violence black people face in America, including in part that discrimination imposed by the white family only seeking their own safety. Is the white family's need for safety and their decision to discriminate based on race 'reasonable', especially when individually that family has little control over the levers of government and corporations which largely determine the structural violence?

Or how about a person who, through discrimination or simple bad luck in life, can find no legal work, no legal way to earn enough to even feed a bowl of white rice to the family each night, and so needs to seek illegal income to survive, maybe even involving hurting others through encouraging drug addiction, stealing, or causing injury?

In communities without a commons, and with no tradition of people coming together to discuss shared challenges, the needs of the individual and the group often oppose each other. It's common for many community members, in meeting their need for income to meet their needs for food, shelter, water, and self-worth, to work in fracking, or mining, or some other job that leads to the poisoning of that community's soil or water. In the case of fracking, people are causing earthquakes in their own communities!

I traveled near native communities in Peru crushed into utter poverty by illegal loggers, miners, and fishers, the military and paramilitary forces, kidnappers, and others. The natives' food from hunting and fishing had practically disappeared, the children had been shipped off to official indoctrination centers/schools; their freedom of movement disappeared and their way of life was dramatically altered. Food insecurity was a constant concern for these native groups. And thus many communities actually sold out their forests to the loggers, earning enough to eat awhile longer. This need to eat, a challenge but not a problem before oppression ratcheted up, has lead to the need to earn money, and they take every money-earning opportunity available because such opportunities are so scarce: hence the need to cut their own trees for money. Of course this only further impoverishes them once the money runs out.

So understanding peoples' needs is complicated. Furthermore, understanding needs without understanding the individual's and community's social context seems impossible to me.

Distorted and undistorted needs

I've worked hard to observe carefully what (almost) all humans' common needs are. These probably won't seem surprising: clean and secure food and water, shelter, personal safety, dignity, privacy, freedom to move and express one's self creatively and playfully, a community of people of many ages to whom and from whom each person can give and receive mentorship and love, the opportunity to do meaningful work, deep emotional intimacy with at least a few other people. Certainly there are others – which other common human needs can you think of?

I do not argue that the other needs I listed earlier – the needs for a house full of stuff, nice job title, high government spending on security, etc – are not real needs. They motivate people's behavior, so they seem quite real to me!

I'm still considering how to distinguish some needs from others. How do we compare the need for a large-house-with-lawn with the needs for social acceptance, parental approval, a sense of self-worth, safety, and shelter which the large-house-with-lawn, in some sense, fulfills?

I'm still wrestling with how to understand all these needs. Right now, I consider some needs to be 'fundamental' or 'undistorted' and others as 'distorted'. Clearly the distinction is fuzzy and debatable in many cases, but it seems a useful way to think about needs.

A fundamental, undistorted need is for healthy and secure food. A distorted need is for massive amounts of sugar, salt, and fat, or for branded, GMO, less-nutritional foods which most advertising promotes. The addiction/craving many feel for sugar-rich foods is real, in that it drives peoples' behavior, but it seems helpful to consider it a distortion of the underlying need for healthy sustenance.

So given all this, in trying to understand and learn from cultures I visit, I attempt to understand and focus on people's undistorted needs: are they aware of them? Do they act to meet those fundamental needs, or do they focus more on other, distorted needs? Do they cooperate or compete?

I do not judge 'good' or 'bad', and I do not seek to blame

I do not judge one culture 'good' and another 'bad'. Instead, I ask what lessons I can take away, what would I like to emulate or avoid?

I do observe that some cultures raise children with a distorted sense of their own needs, and other cultures encourage an understanding of their undistorted, fundamental needs. It may never be 100% one way or another, but many cultures do sit near one end or the other of the spectrum!

I also do not blame the victims or even the perpetrators, though I do acknowledge each's role in any unhappy situation. It's not the natives' fault they were oppressed so heavily that the only way to eat was to sell their forests. It's not the childhood rape victim's fault if they feel unable to tolerate certain forms of emotional intimacy later in life. I do not even blame the sociopathic corporate leaders whose personal decisions cause so much damage; upon deep inspection, I've found they're also generally victims of their own trauma: childhood trauma, or deep insecurity, or fear or inability to have emotional intimacy, suppressed feelings of guilt plus unhealthy coping responses, etc.

So I don't blame or label individuals as 'good' or 'bad'. In unhealthy situations, I find victims as far as the eye can see. That's not to say that the suffering is equal: I'd certainly rather be the owner of Walmart than a floor associate or working in a supplier's sweat shop in Vietnam, if forced to choose. It seems obvious that the perpetrator and victim do not seem to suffer equally from an act of violence. Still, perpetrating violence has its own costs: many soldiers, to take one example, suffer severe PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – for their role in committing violence, leading to severe trauma, suffering, dysfunction, and even suicide.

The distant corporate and political leaders who orchestrate the violence seem easier targets for blame. And their decisions do lead to great suffering, but there is a power even greater than theirs: the tendency for large groups of human beings, including governments and corporations, to select for sociopathic leaders. Sure, I get angry at the leaders of Coca Cola for corrupting local Mexican or Indian governments so they can take all the fresh water, impoverishing thousands upon thousands of local farmers and causing much suffering. But a CEO who didn't order such behavior would be replaced by one who did, and if this didn't happen, Pepsi would jump in and take that water, or another company would come along. And if a government of the people prevented such corporate behavior, some super power would cause a coup of some sort, as the United States did in Guatamala in 1954 after the Guatamalan government tried to end the brutal labor system and land ownership system which benefited international corporations such as the United Fruit Company, which had close ties with the Director of the US CIA and the Secretary of State.

So long as we cannot prevent sociopathic leaders from rising to the top, I believe we cannot prevent mass exploitation and suffering. So long as politics is more about responding to the needs of a few while managing perception for the rest, we'll see the exploitative behavior we've seen, each person from the bottom to the top of the social hierarchy responding to their own perceived influences and needs.

Separately, I recognize that one aspect of successful exploitation is ensuring that there is no obvious way for a native or independent community to protect itself from abuse. Individuals may save themselves by finding a niche in the occupying culture, but the independent culture or community as a whole under attack may not have any real options available. I witnessed this power disparity almost everywhere I went in S. America. Almost always, in superficially free-seeming societies, the oppressor's power is not continuously on display but is nevertheless ever-present. It's something I constantly remember as I observe myself and people around me, and something I keep in mind as I consider how effectively people attempt to meet what I consider their undistorted needs.

Likewise, another aspect of domination is to so impoverish individuals that they have no time or energy to consider anything except where the money for their next meal is coming from. Such a person may not work effectively with others to improve their situation together, as I described in my short story here, but I see no point in blaming or labeling them good or bad.

I'm also not saying we're helpless to stop the exploitation - the Guatamalans escaped international corporate domination for 10+ years between US-approved dictators, and the Chileans elected marxist, pro-worker Salvador Allende before the military coup killed him.  I just note that if we wish to understand our situation and act effectively, we should be aware of each person's needs, motivations, and external influences at each level rather than resort to caricaturing people as villains.

Why blaming often seems unhelpful: it leads to tunnel vision 

In simple situations, blaming seems to work alright: if a guy waves a knife at me and demands my money, I can go ahead and focus on him when I consider the money I'm about to lose, or how I'm going to fight to defend myself, or other possible responses. But in larger-scale social problems, blaming often seems too simplistic to lead to useful conclusions.

I've seen that people who blame one person or group for an unhappy situation often isolate one factor rather than recognizing the constellation of factors which lead to unhappy outcomes. This is why I have found that spending time and emotional energy trying to pin blame on individuals or groups rarely leads to useful insights: it isolates one problem from other problems, over-emphasizing one issue and obscuring others.

Blaming seems to get emotionally heavy; it feels cathartic seeking out a villain or group of villains, but often clouds a deeper, more complete understanding of why unwanted social conditions persist. I've also often noticed that people who insist on blaming individuals will often caricature them. I feel like this is why so many assassinations or revolutions end without the participants achieving their goals: the actions often do not lead to structural change, only a 'change of the guard', and so for most people, little changes as a result.

Instead of blaming, I observe everything I can of cultural elements that lead to positive and negative outcomes. For example, I observe how mindless obedience is taught or discouraged, how learning through personal exploration is encouraged or not, whether individuals are taught to recognize or unconsciously ignore instances of human exploitation and suffering, whether children are taught to wait for heroes or learn from a variety of role models, etc. I consider how healthy and unhealthy cultural elements interact. Then I consider what insights I can draw and apply to my own life and the culture I seek to be part of.

Rather than 'good' or 'bad', I judge whether people's behavior seems healthy, whether people seem deeply happy, satisfied, and fulfilled, whether they exploit others or cooperate. I observe whether people protect the aspects of their environment on which they depend for their health and happiness: clean air and water and soil, rich forests or grasslands, space to move in and explore, etc. Do they maintain dependence on exploitative institutions, or do they work to free themselves from dependence? Do they listen with such an open mind and loving heart that others feel able to express themselves without reservation, or does everyone act guarded even towards their closest family members? To what extent do they recognized their undistorted needs, and to what extent are they able to fulfill them?


In summary: I don't care if you believe in Jesus or Allah or Vishnu or Confucius. Objective accuracy in belief systems seems mostly irrelevant to me now.

Instead I ask, do you recognize your fundamental needs and those of your community? And do you feel motivated to work with others to effectively meet those needs? I do not judge good or bad, or seek to blame, but instead identify cultural patterns that lead to healthy or happy people, and draw concrete lessons I can apply in my own life.

A final note on judging

I seek to work with other like-minded people to build a community, a society, a culture different from the one I grew up in. Many have warned me that it's not 'my place' to judge other cultures or belief systems: who am I to judge? How can I know enough as an outsider to draw any meaningful conclusions?

I'll tell you who and how: I want to figure out what a healthy culture looks like, what a healthy spirituality looks like. How do I do that if I cannot observe others' cultures, and my own, and draw conclusions about them? I carry a deep humility, recognizing the limitations in my capacity to observe, and I desire to update my judgments or hunches as I learn new things. Still, I recognize the need to have the strength to come to meaningful conclusions and behave effectively based on those conclusions!

And so, I observe and ask questions very carefully, and I take what insights I can in order to learn how to live in right relation to other people, to myself, and to the living world around me.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Judging Cultures and Belief Systems To Improve My Own: Part 1

I've gone through three stages in my life of judging culture and spiritual belief systems.

Judging other cultures 1: Non-Judgement

The first stage of judging you might call 'non-judgement': without deep reflection, I accepted the Methodist Christianity my parents brought me up on, going to church each Sunday when they decided to go, secretly grateful to have my Sunday morning back when they chose to stay home. I had a deeply spiritual, euphoric experience reading about God's love in “The World's Religions” by Huston Smith while on a 3 week-long Boy Scout canoeing trip in 8th grade, and this kept my faith for a while longer.


Judging other cultures 2: Accuracy of Beliefs

In my junior year of college, I asked a question with which I couldn't square my faith: if I'd been born into another family, wouldn't I believe just as firmly in what those parents taught me as I do in Methodism? And so what evidence was there that my parents happened to be the right ones in judging religious truth?

Within a year, by the fall of my senior year, I finally identified as atheist, and felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. I could finally square all my beliefs about the world with a) my actual observations and b) my understanding of how religion has been used to manipulate masses of people for the benefit of the manipulators. I no longer had to avoid considering certain questions, or feel uncomfortable considering them – I had felt cognitive dissonance, and ending it felt so empowering! What a breath of fresh air.

So I had my new judgement of religions and cultures: I supported cultures and belief systems to the extent that their beliefs matched observations of reality. I never claimed to have any sort of objective perception of reality, or that anyone could, but I felt that a culture which demands believing in things for which there was no evidence at all (that I could identify) should surely discredit a belief system and lead to people abandoning it. These beliefs included life and justice after death, an all-powerful all-knowing supernatural being who occasionally stirs things up down here, the universe being born 6,000 years ago, etc.

I felt pretty good about this position. But now I feel differently.

Judging cultures 3: What are the effects of your beliefs?

I've settled on a new framework for judging and learning from cultures and spiritual belief systems: does your culture encourage and empower you to a) understand your needs and b) express yourself to others and listen to them in order to c) meet your needs effectively?

About 5 years ago, I started seriously trying to understand power, politics, economics, fraud – the large-scale human world around me. I saw a supposedly science-based, rational society making incredibly foolish, short-term, corrupt decisions, lying and bribing and numbing and drugging and bludgeoning and educating itself into submission – in short, not acting very rationally despite priding itself on scientific, rational understanding and decision-making.

About 2 years ago, I moved to Earthaven Ecovillage and met a girl who verbally, lovingly warns and calms down flowers before she transplants them – and I met a lot of other people like her. I shared the story of observing an otherwise sane-seeming person talk to a plant here.

Within a few months, I identified as pagan, and eventually as animist. Animism, to me, is the belief that everything in the universe is alive, at all scales, and I do not really distinguish between living things and non-living things in my spiritual relationship with every thing, but acknowledge my connection to the whole and all its various parts at all scales.

This actually seems rational enough: is rain alive? Maybe not, by some definitions, but I'd sure better not do anything that would scare the rain off, leading to drought! How about snow? Same thing! How about rivers? If I poison them, or dam them, or fill them, surely I harm myself and other more-obviously-alive beings to a great degree. Same with ocean currents or global or regional carbon or oxygen cycles: alive or not, an environment hospitable to human life requires them in something like their current state, so I would seem wise to treat them with the same respect as I treat more obviously living beings upon which I depend.

The difference between some large molecules and certain viruses and other semi-alive particles is minute, and the question of 'is it alive or not?' seems irrelevant: all is part of the web of life we find ourselves in upon this planet, in this universe, and the balance of life, including climate, in which humanity evolved to be most happy ought to be preserved for our long-term happiness and prosperity. Life depends on non-life, such as the sun, so why distinguish? Let us acknowledge a profound dependence and interrelationship with all of everything and seek to preserve the balance humanity evolved into.

Along with this 'rational' explanation of my feelings, I've begun to feel an emotional/spiritual attachment to life, to the world, a deep love for its beauty and complexity and especially the vision of developing a mutually beneficial relationship with it. Sometimes I talk to plants, and yes, sometimes I still feel sheepish doing it. But I also feel joyful as I learn to accept their gifts and care for them in turn. This desire for a loving, joyful, mutually beneficial relationship extends to fungi and animals, including other people as well.

Here's a key element to animism though: whether a person arrives at the belief system through 'rational' means or a spiritual or emotional love, the person will develop a deep respect for the soil, for animals, plants, weather, humans in their own and other cultures – everything, including the things and processes upon which that person depends for their health and happiness.

But! With this deep respect, does that animist come to feel the need to defend these things? Does this person defend the trees from loggers, the rivers and forests and unlucky communities from miners or frackers and their toxins, and attempt to stop industrial warfare and the radiation, poisons, and mass-suffering that results?

I recognize my own well-being is tied in closely with the trees' and the animals', the cleanliness and availability of river water and air, and so I understand the need to defend these in order to defend myself and friends and family. This love compels me to act in a meaningful way. I identify with the land; preventing pollution benefits both of us. I empathize with people who are suffering, exploited by others, similarly.

And so I've discovered a new question for judging cultures and spiritual belief systems: does your culture encourage and empower you to a) understand your needs, b) express yourself to others and listen to them in order to c) meet your needs effectively?

I can finally stop caring whether Jesus really existed

It's not the belief that matters, it's the attitude compelled by the beliefs and all the conditioning the culture provides.

Do you believe in Jesus? If so, let's imagine two possibilities:

1)  You believe you're helpless to stop the evil in the world; you can only believe strongly in Jesus and believe that he'll return someday to make things right. He'll also, in the meantime, bring justice to the present evildoers after their deaths, and after you die he'll reward you for your belief.

2)  You recognize that Jesus/God work through you to do good in the world, and thus it is incumbent upon you to act to bring about profoundly positive change.

Clearly one perspective preaches helplessness, the other empowerment. Two months ago in California, I attended a methodist Christian sermon that preached the disempowering version exactly. I almost stood up to interrupt the sermon and preach the opposite!

Another Jesus comparison. Here are two perspectives a church might teach:

1) You are sinful. It is in your nature as a  human being; we all tend towards evil and require the church to save us. Morality is black and white and context is irrelevant, meaning there's no room for your personal judgement in determining right or wrong. For example, alcohol is bad in any quantity under any circumstances. Belief in Jesus and following the dictates of the Church are your only hope for escaping God's punishment after death for your sinful nature. Yes, some bad people are causing evil in the world, but never forget how sinful you are when you reflect on others.

2) Jesus taught that we should work to end unnecessary suffering.  It's not always clear how to do this effectively, but your responsibility to yourself, your community, and God is to work with compassion to seek effective ways of ending this suffering. There is no perfection, as every action comes with costs, including opportunity costs. Mistakes and occasional failure will be the inevitable consequence of a process of intense personal growth. Rather than feel shame at failures, celebrate and reflect on them, as they are opportunities to learn and thus channel Jesus' love more effectively in the future. Recognize that Jesus was only a model, and cannot give clear-cut directions for every situation, so learn to judge for yourself how to bring about positive change based on the principles and values you hold dear.  Serve God through working personally to achieve the same goals as His Son.

I met a missionary in Peru who firmly espoused perspective [1] above, making him one of the most disempowering people I've ever met. And Peru and Ecuador were full of disempowering perspectives!

One last Jesus comparison, about the prime goal of His followers:

1)  You believe in Jesus, and your primary duty is to grow the number of people in your belief system and live by the Biblical strictures you've learned. You donate much time and money to proselytizing.

2)  You believe in Jesus, and you recognize the most profound way to serve God is to preserve and celebrate what He has created. If God ordered Noah to place a pair of every animal on the ark to preserve them, who are we to cause them to go extinct, each species' extinction a creation of God dead for all eternity? You take responsibility as a Christian made in the Image of God to defend God's creation, and you fight for clean air, clean water, river and forest preservation, clean, non-toxic (including non-GMO) food, etc.

I've had fun engaging with proselytizing Mormons who approach with the attitude (1) above, only interested in increasing their number of followers. It feels gratifying watching the wheels in their brains spin rapidly when I offer the second attitude.

Do you identify as atheist? Let's imagine two possibilities:

1)  You take the cynical, if defensible, view that we're toast. The environment's toast, no group of well-intended citizens will stop state violence and surveillance, any large-scale social change will only make things worse, resource limits and environmental degradation ensure mass death is in our future, etc. This could lead you to hunker down, solely insuring the safety and comfort of you and yours, or perhaps it leads to a “get while the getting's good” attitude.

2)  You study the history of exploitative human systems and study why some societies are exploitative and others not. You recognize that even if you do not immediately see a way to 'win' and end the exploitative social systems currently dominating, you see that the only way to find a solution is dive in with others and seek out a solution with the attitude that we can live better than this, and we must if we wish to pass a happy, healthy life on a  healthy planet on to our children. You accept the wisdom that the opportunity for making things better often does not exist until we create it, and you decide to work with other caring people in order to create that opportunity for meaningful change and then seize it.

So I have learned that I really really don't care if Jesus lived, or whether you're Protestant or Catholic or Islamist or Jew or Scientist or atheist or consumer.

What I care about is: do you understand your and your community's needs, and do you have the wisdom, strength, compassion, and open mind to work effectively with others to meet those needs?

In your culture, is Jesus presented as disempowering: the only source of salvation, the only source of ultimate justice, the only possible savior? Or is he a model for us to follow in our own lives, an example of someone who risked and eventually, painfully, gave his life to fight exploitation, including attacking the financiers of his day, to rid his culture of unnecessary suffering?

Same with Allah. Same with Buddha or Yahwey or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Does your culture encourage selfishness, disconnected or short-term thinking, baseless hope, unthinking obedience, numbing of feelings of compassion, self-hate, isolation from others, inability to know your own feelings or needs, inability to compassionately listen to the feelings and needs of others? Or does it encourage active awareness of yourself and the social and ecological world around you, and encourage you to work productively with others to make meaningful change?

Prelude to Part 2

So... what exactly are our needs? And how can I judge others' needs, especially if I don't know them intimately? How can I know what needs people actually have in common and ensure I'm not just projecting my own feelings or needs onto others? How do I distinguish between different sorts of needs, such as the need for a big house vs the need for shelter? What insights can I safely draw from observations, and what practical lessons can I apply to my own life and community?

I'll share my reflections on these questions in part 2.