..we might define true community as that place where the person you least want to live with lives… – Parker Palmer
Nature, the Great Spirit—they are not perfect. The world couldn’t stand that perfection. The spirit has a good side and a bad side. Sometimes the bad side gives me more knowledge than the good side. – John Lame Deer & Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer Seeker of Visions
I would really, over the long run, hope America would find some way to provide all of our citizens with extended families—a large group of people they could call on for help. Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
From what I have read, Indian culture, such as that of the Iroquois confederacy which preceded the invasion of white people in the Mohawk Valley where I live, was naturally anarchist. This is due, I venture, to their reliance on shamanic wisdom and oral, face-to-face teaching and storytelling for their cultural underpinnings, rather than on hierarchical systems of top-down authority and order. They truly were/are a bottom-up society, and at least among the “traditionalists,” purposefully maintain themselves as such. For that reason our indigenous neighbors provide the needed model as we move into the era of “adaptation” to climate collapse, (not to mention the era of divisiveness, mass immigrations, and increasing social chaos we have entered) a model we always needed but didn’t know it.
The many-headed crisis we collectively face was avoidable had we been capable of seeing the Indians not as “other” and inferior, but as “others” having helpfully corrective information to give us! The fact that we could turn down their helpful corrective information had everything to do with keeping them, in our collective mind, as “others -” inferior, savage, superstitious, lazy, no-good drunks, etc. which in turn, avoided a crisis for the collective European settler ego. It would be helpful now for white people to enter our long-postponed crisis, a postponement that has brought us so much material good, and visited so much evil on “others,” that is, upon everyone who, for whatever our purposes – grabbing land, building railroads, factory production, or just maintaining the bourgeois reality – could be classified as inferior, not covered under the Golden Rule.
As I continue to look at the “problem” of otherness, the root problem of the white civilization and its tremendous ego malady that still has not been cured – the civilization still not “civilized -” our obvious need for HELP! ought to make us want to address it. It is very difficult – impossible, really – to do so without a capacity to relinquish the ego’s habit of demanding that reality be either/or, instead of “both/and.” For in fact, the otherness of the other, which elicits our defensiveness, aversion, repugnance, etc., is the antipathetic container for precisely the information we need. What that information is, cannot be fully stated ahead of time; to receive it requires trusting, “hanging in,” meeting the other under the auspices of the sacred peace pipe as Sioux medicine man Lame Deer might have said it. In that meeting between irreconcilable differences the saving redeeming information can be exchanged.
Luckily for us, who badly needed this information “yesterday,” the exchange of information between othernesses is not limited to differences of race, language, culture, etc. Every individual is an “other” to all others if he/she can reach the depths wherein the knowledge of one’s individuality – a destiny, not a completed fact – lies. The fundamental human opposites of men and women are particularly crucial in this regard. (The lengths we will go to in order to escape this arduous, never-completed task of reconciling othernesses can be witnessed in social phenomena, from the now obligatory gender questioning among college-trained young to the righteous divisiveness of MeToo.) Most of what we go through in our socialization process, even that which purports to defend difference, is to make ourselves similar.
Although the social conditioning works for acceptance, to succeed in it fully is to be false to our humanity. But, to go into the humanizing, complicating depths we need provocation – something “the other” uniquely can provide! Bourgeois reality being a carefully managed faux “culture” of sameness and shallowness, such provocation is hard to come by. We struggle for rights and equality rather than for the strength and truth of our difference. We do not send our young off into the hills for 4 days and nights in quest of their personal vision. Our society offers no initiatory challenge sufficient to open individuals to their inner depths and to their own “native” indigenous wisdom that could teach the arts of peace. The shallowness, nihilism, relativism, thoughtlessness and religiophobia of neoliberal, bourgeois reality have produced an unintended result: Peace, which never will be made top-down, only from the bottom (the archaic, imaginative layer of the soul) up, is now the real revolutionary threat to our complacently war-making and divisive social order.
The words “peace,” “harmony with nature,” “wisdom,” even “justice,” remain feel-good words, or words to use in the battle of words, no threat whatsoever to the warring, destructive, smart-but-not-wise, wall-building and mistrustful people we are. We need a challenge sufficient to lure, entice, or deceive us into the unknown terrain of otherness that can teach us the kind of wisdom possessed among history’s losers – indigenous people. In that world, learning happened in relation to Nature and Nature’s laws in order that humans might survive in Her merciless (or indifferent), chaotic, mysterious and awe-ful conditions. Civilization has brought us so far from nature, taught us so well to believe in its higher purpose, its progress, its rightness that even confronted by the barbarism and cruelty of which we are capable, our fundamental belief in that rightness, our complacency, however increasingly uneasy, cannot be shaken. Whether “left” or “right” politically, we believe the best we can do with our lives is to replicate civilization, and to raise children who will replicate it with perhaps some tweaking here and there.
In “otherness” lies the key to shaking up that complacency, by now rotted, riddled with neuroses, prey to addictions and all manner of pathologies. Still we hold to it defiantly, like my 2-year-old granddaughter Cora who loves to proclaim, “Mine!” This moment, when people are talking about and feeling a need to return to and restore lives lived locally and interdependently – about which we know next to nothing – may provide the opportunity for coming to grips with otherness. As the Iroquois teach, only by learning to confederate, to bury hatchets, to make room for grief, to reconcile, to make promises that intend to last “as long as grass grows and water runs” can we learn to live with each other side-by-side in peace.
Some people of my generation, through attending “New Age” workshops and retreats to learn indigenous and eastern spiritual traditions, have contacted the shamanic (mystic) depths. (Something like it happened to me.) However, gained in this (let’s face it – commodified) way, it’s possible to believe the shamanic experience, so completely “otherized” in western society, is “owned” by the medicine men and mystics inculturated in their traditions. I have long felt that the call to shamanic and visionary depths is a call to “the local,” to being centered in immediate local lives, not outside them in workshops and retreats. (Though these can be helpful, especially if the leader says, “Ignore what I’m saying – just go out in the desert and sit there by yourself as long as it takes…”) Mystical experiences are most suggestive in the hands of those who cannot afford New Age retreats, who have been (though they don’t know it) systematically robbed of all real, human-supportive cultural traditions. For when we “steal it” for ourselves, without benefit of workshop leaders, we learn that to be artists, mystics and medicine men/women, creators of our individual lives, friendly with that “other within,” is intrinsic to ordinary for-free human nature, and universally available! Taking back our mystical nature, we can consciously live ordinary human lives, re-inculturate, as co-shamans, within our covenants and promises as spouses, in extended intergenerational family, as friends and neighbors, local farms and businesses, “stickers” in a particular place.
In order for “re-indigenization” to be possible, we will need, at the local level, a raising of consciousness about the need to learn the lost arts of “com-unification” – reconciliation, etc. – in these closest relationships such that these bondings can begin to provide, or continue to provide, understandings and purposes rooted in shamanic depth. At the local level and familial level, we will need to discourage the disabling relativism we’re taught, and actively preserve stable relationships in communities. So that activism proceeds from genuine anarchist (bottom-up) community, we must encourage both the creative and the community arts as the necessary basis for all other activism.
Since befriending Orin and me, a decade or so ago, our thirty-something friend Sam has committed himself to his own creative work. Like us, he pursues his art – his poetry – without hope of financial return, or even of an audience other than our small local one. This year, returning to Utica after a two-year sojourn, he has enrolled in a nursing program precisely so that he can have a financial basis that allows him to write his poems and, important to him, that will allow his partner and fiancee, a gifted painter with a degree in fine arts, to pursue her art. More than once Sam has confided to us that he has to persuade Elissa to do her painting, when, he feels, she takes on too much responsibility at her job at the cost of time and energy for her art, very much as if he believes in her as an artist more than she does.
This “spousal role” of advocacy for the soul and creativity comes from the unique-to-excruciating closeness in couples. It is, you might say, Sam’s shamanic voice that advocates for justice for the soul. Having made his own commitment to his creative work, based on no other confirmation but that from his own soul, which has been mirrored for him in Orin and myself, he encourages Elissa to do the same. Until she too “steals back” her shamanic depths, she has only the confirmation of her degree for her identity as artist, shaky in a time of heavy student debt and fear for financial survival.
Orin and I have found that partners can encourage the artist/shaman in the other against the other’s resistance, even when we face the same ego-hostility in relation to our creative selves. Practically everyone born and raised in this culture is hostile to his/her soul. But we have found that even with the ambivalence, we can act in solidarity with the soul of another whom we know well, and encourage her to enter her identity crisis. Thus committed partners can do for each other what few-to-none outside their “circle” could encourage, possibly redefining love in the process!
Though there’s a price to pay (marginality! relative poverty!) in giving up “civilized” assumptions of exceptionalism and supremacy, white people have an opportunity to confirm our true, deeply-rooted identities. There’s no reason to think it was easier for the Indians, back in the 1970’s, to claim their “Red Power,” just because what they had to give up was their identity as inferiors. To give up a false identity, either of superiority or inferiority, means a return to the soul and its otherness. It means the rejection of the false belief that we can exist independently rather than interdependently, including in our closest relationships, which, though close, can be so at the cost of each one’s individual (shamanic) identity. Our highest good, given the existential human condition of oppositions inherent in our psyches, is to ceaselessly seek reunion, reconciliation, peace, with the “other within” who expresses herself creatively and poetically, and with the immediate others with whom we are bonded in relationship. Even though we communicate poorly, carelessly, often harming rather than helping domestic or communal peace, our souls constantly seek alliance with an other that will support its cause against the egoic oppressor that loyally serves the cause of bourgeois sameness. The social “other” we spurn, in “horror,” in anger, in disgust, is likely bringing us the very information we need which may turn out to surprise, but also gladden us.