Transcript: Beauty = ?!?
Updated: Mar 11
Season 1, Episode 3
Welcome to “Beauty & Mr. B,” the podcast. I’m Mr. B. Today’s episode is “The Wide-Angle Lens of Beauty.” Here, I will dive just that little bit deeper into the conception of beauty which frames this podcast, a concept that we can associate with the wide-angle lens of a camera. This episode is divided into three segments. First, we’ll take a look at the very narrow lens through which society has trained us to view reality. In the second segment, we will examine reality from a much broader vantage point, in fact, from the widest possible perspective … 3.7 billion miles from Earth. Third, we’ll address some consequences – for us, as individuals, and within society as a whole – that naturally follow from our conscious effort to view reality within the broadest possible context. Will all this be worthwhile? My claim is this: It is only to the extent that we can cultivate ways of seeing what is real -- viewing the whole of reality through the widest-angle lens -- that the beauty of this world will become visible…
This first segment of today’s episode considers how we have all been taught by society to view reality. Simply put, we have been taught to see reality narrowly. When I say “narrow,” here’s what I mean: Society teaches us one way of viewing reality, one and only one way of understanding what is true, and this one way of seeing is prescribed for us by those few authorities in the world who hold the very highest positions of economic, social, and political power. I’d like to begin this segment with a series of examples from the AP European History course I taught for many years.
This course traces, among many other developments, the economic reality of the modern world: free-market capitalism. One truth closely associated with this form of capitalism, often called late-capitalism or neoliberalism, is inequality – both economic and social. The inequalities associated with neoliberal capitalism, over time, continue (and continue) to increase. I'm not sure how much you know about this phenomenon, but in 2017 Oxfam, an international organization dedicated to the fight against global poverty, reported that eight people own half the world’s wealth. Half the world? That’s 3.6 billion people: The eight richest people in the world, in other words, own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people in the world! Indeed, by 2019, the bottom 50% of households in the United States accounted for just one percent (1%) of our nation’s total wealth – a staggering level of inequality that existed here, in the U.S., before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Confronted with these harsh realities, my students invariably perceived the tremendous injustice of such drastic extremes between wealth and poverty. So, I would ask students, “Well, what alternatives might there be to free-market capitalism?” Mostly I’d hear silence, plus, usually, some fidgeting... I would press students for some alternative, any alternative, but the message I received, again and again, from this (lack of an) exchange in class (after class) was clear: “No, Mr. B, there isn't any realistic alternative to free-market capitalism. It’s the very best economic system ever devised in the history of the world, right? Free-market capitalism is, really, the only possible way to organize the economy of society, our society, indeed, all societies.” This, my friends, is what was intended when I stated that we’ve all been taught to view reality narrowly, one way, just one way … and that’s it!
I would also examine, in class, the modern political realities that naturally follow from our system of free-market capitalism. The basic ramifications seem clear enough: increasing conflict, division, and political gridlock. This political conflict exists between the “haves” of society -- the very few who literally own the world, that is, the top 1/10th of the 1%, the economic elite -- and pretty much everybody else. The divide between the haves and “have-nots” continues to increase, until now governments at every level have reached the point of virtual paralysis, trapped within the chronic state of gridlock … while, at the same time, the social problems associated with growing economic inequality, largely unaddressed, rapidly continue to worsen. At this point, it’s time to ask whether my students can think of any other way that the world’s political systems might be organized, whether they know of an alternative – any alternative – that might allow governments to more effectively address the increasingly dire sufferings of humanity. Well, how did students respond? to this effect, consistently: “We don't know, Mr. Blecher. We’re not aware of any alternative. Isn’t modern democracy the very best political system of all time? Honestly, we’re not aware of any other method upon which the political systems of the world can realistically be organized.” This, I submit, represents yet another narrow, extremely narrow, understanding of reality.
I would then do my best to guide my AP Euro students through an examination of ways in which the modern world is organized socially. The social organization of a society determines how its people are encultured, taught, to relate with one another. Well, what principle most governs our social relationships in the modern world? Correctness! In other words, functioning well today means complying with “correct” behaviors and thoughts – as prescribed for us by those who hold the reigns of political and economic authority in society. My students understood this, all this, immediately, intuitively, and seemingly quite well. The social framework of modernity I described in history class appeared to speak directly to the lived experience of students -- in school, at home, in society – but, still, bringing this knowledge into consciousness raised questions that, for all of us, might be frightening: “What, then, CAN I reveal of my true self?” If I’m supposed to remain socially correct, always conforming to whatever Authority decrees as “correct,” then … to what extent can I be genuine and authentic? Am I permitted only to share feelings, thoughts, and beliefs that others will approve of, agree with, and validate? What about the rest of me? What about thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that may not find acceptance with my peers, that may not be approved by teachers, that may not be validated by enough “likes” on Instagram? The real me, I need to hide. My true self, I need to bury. Modernity dictates that (to achieve what society defines as “success”) I must lead a double life … one that must somehow be false, less than authentic, based more upon appearance than reality, where what I reveal in public, especially online, might differ, greatly, from the truth.
Once students became conscious of modern social forces that impel compliance with authority, I would ask, one last time, “Is this the only way? Can you think of how we might break the chains of this social tyranny, a way through which our authentic selves might be freed from the stranglehold of economic and political authority and become more true to our inner selves?” My students (not surprisingly) could never think of an alternative, any alternative, not one way that we can truly be ourselves and still function, authentically and genuinely, within the social straight jacket of modern society. Honestly, I don’t consider this inability to think of alternatives as unique to high school students: Do you, dear listener, know of any real alternative to this one and only one way of understanding? Well? Therefore, on all three levels of modern organization – social, political, and economic – we’ve been presented by established power with just one way of seeing what is real. There’s one “correct” way to view reality, the one way most consistent with the material interests of those who hold social, political, and economic sway in the world today. This set of examples, I hope, helps us all to better understand exactly how narrowly, indeed, how very narrowly, we’ve been encultured to approach reality.
There’s another way – beyond my own experience as a teacher – to convey the narrowness of the lens through which we’ve all been “educated” to view reality. Here I’d like to examine a short and profound quote from the poet, sociologist, broadcaster, and, now, President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. In this quotation, Higgins refers to an “acceptance of the inevitable” which comes with the narrow view of reality that presently characterizes society:
“This acceptance of inevitability in our lives is consistent … with a suggestion that there is but one vision of the economy, an end of history, the death of ethics, and an appropriate individualism that eschews solidarity and any transcendent public values.”
What exactly does Higgins mean by “this acceptance of inevitability in our lives”? As I understand him, we must first accept the “fact” that there’s “but one vision of the economy”: Capitalism! Well, what about the inequalities – and social ills -- that continue to mount because of our reliance on (indeed, faith in) so-called “free” markets? Such inequalities are inevitable, a gross injustice to be sure, but an injustice that, as Higgins acknowledged, we must simply accept. For the most part, at least from the vantage point of my own experience, it appears that the vast majority of humanity today has largely accepted the tremendous injustices of free-market capitalism as inevitable.
What about his next claim, that we’ve been told to accept a single vision of historical change, one that Higgins understands as the “end of history”? History ends! Meaning? Society will remain as it is, now, without the possibility of further change. This, in effect, is the message we’ve been sent, over and over, by those few established in power: “Don’t try to remedy the inequalities that have resulted from free-market capitalism.” Don’t bother attempting to change an unjust economic system that’s effectively reducing the world’s masses to a state of chronic and irreversible poverty, a system that literally is destroying the ecosystems upon which life on Earth depends. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that you (or anyone else) can do to remedy these injustices, to contribute to the progress of society”.… The “end of history” constitutes the one (and only) “reality” of change that has been presented to us. “Accept the inevitable,” we’re admonished by the most powerful: The processes of historical change have ended for all time, as, according to the neoliberal capitalists who write the script for our lives, we have finally arrived at the pinnacle of human civilization. It’s heaven, perfection itself, in the form of free-market capitalism!
When it comes to morality, Higgins observes that we’ve been told to accept the “death of ethics,” another supposed inevitability. An ethical stance depends on the cultivation of our abilities to place the best interests of others first, before our own self-interest. Jesus Himself revealed this eternal moral guidance: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What does Higgins mean, then, by the death of ethics? As I understand it, what he means is that, today, within free-market capitalism, no place exists for an ethical stance. There is now one -- and only one -- way to achieve success: my own interests must come first; damn what’s best for the community! My individual and material self-interest, within capitalism today, constitutes my sole and exclusive concern. Accept this inevitability, established power advises: No thing or person matters, … except “me.” This view, once more, presents us with the narrowest possible view of reality.
It’s now time to consider Higgins’ profound observations about modern individuality. There’s now one way only to understand ourselves and each other, a view that we must accept, inevitably, as “appropriate.” This narrow individualism elevates personal liberty to the point at which “freedom” – in the limited sense of being unique and distinctive, distinguishable from everyone else – has now become the paramount value in modern life. Such an individualism, however appropriate, represents a notion of freedom that “eschews solidary,” separating and dividing us, one from another, while we each strive to brand ourselves as distinctive commodities to be bought and sold for the highest price in the human marketplace, an individualism that rejects all “transcendent public values” – ethics that seek to benefit the whole of society -- setting us against each other in direct competition for wealth, status, and power. Why must it be this way, the only way, that we’re indoctrinated to understand the “reality” of individualism? This view, so “appropriate” for those in power, ensures that the world’s elite will continue to accumulate wealth and power – unimpeded -- while, at the same time, the mass of humanity will continues to remain (a) in need of the goods and services (offered, conveniently, by neoliberal capitalists) to better distinguish themselves as individuals (contributing, even more, to the wealth of those in power) and (b) divided and in competitive conflict with each other, gradually becoming less (and less) able to conceptualize just systems of governance that might help to orient the world in the direction of prosperity and peace.
Let’s stop here, if just for a moment, to reflect on Higgins’ comments about the requirement that we accept the narrow version of reality presented by those established in power within the global system of free-market capitalism. It’s little wonder that, increasingly, we see whole communities being destroyed, the quality of relationships in precipitous decline, as well as increasing numbers of who feel more and more isolated, lonely, stressed, anxious, and depressed. Indeed, the rate of suicide in the U.S., which, over the last decade has more than doubled (did you know that?), shows absolutely no signs of slowing… The narrow reality which Higgins describes, as framed by the wealthiest of the world’s elites, must, I submit, lead to nothing less than the perpetuation of human misery, afflictions both individual and collective. Even worse, this so-called “reality” has been presented to us as the only possible way of understanding what is true! In the rest of this episode, I will suggest that the whole of reality, in actuality, is much much larger –- in every way -- than this narrow picture. A deeper, wider, and higher lens exists through which to see what is real, a lens more open – indeed, much more open -- to the richness of the whole of reality, a lens that allows for the possibility of glimpsing true beauty … in ourselves, the world, and the universe.
A Wider Lens…
In this, the episode’s second segment, I will flesh out an illustration of the widest possible view of reality … a view of Earth from not quite four billion miles away. Here, I refer to an image that the world-renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan named the “Pale Blue Dot,” a photograph of our planet taken on Valentine's Day, 1990, from the spacecraft Voyager One.
Some background first. Voyager One was, and still is, a robotic (that is, unmanned) spacecraft. Yes, it’s still in space! This spacecraft weighs almost 1600 pounds. It travels at the speed of 40,000 miles per hour, more or less. It was launched by NASA (the acronym for “National Aeronautics and Space Administration”) in September 1977. The mission of this space probe was (and still is) one of exploration -- to capture photographic images of the outer solar system. Voyager One would become the first to provide detailed photographs of the two largest planets in our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn. It would also be the first to capture the aquamarine of Uranus, as well as the stunning deep blue of Neptune. Perhaps most incredibly, Voyager One would be first to capture what the author Maria Popova called the splendid fury of Jupiter's “Great Red Spot.” This “Spot” is a storm that’s more than three times the size of our entire planet, a storm that has raged – and, to my knowledge, continues to rage -- for more than 350 years! The very existence of such a storm, Popova acknowledged, “dwarfs every earthly trouble.” See! Already, we’re starting to perceive the benefits of viewing reality from a distance.
How did the image, “Pale Blue Dot,” come to be? Hmm… This photograph was suggested by Carl Sagan near what was then expected to be the conclusion of the Voyager One mission. (This probe was initially expected to work only through its encounter with Saturn.) When Voyager One passed beyond Saturn, in 1980, Sagan proposed that the spacecraft be turned around in order to take a picture of Earth from the distance of nearly four billion miles. His suggestion ignited quite a bit of controversy. First, the picture would have no real scientific value. At this distance, Earth would appear too small for the spacecraft’s cameras to capture any useful detail. Such a photograph also involved potential risks. To capture this image, Voyager One would need to be turned around and face the Sun: an exposure facing the sun risked irreparable damage to the probe’s cameras. Third, this idea stirred controversy because Sagan did not make his request until after NASA had already issued orders – for the purpose of conserving power – to shut down the spacecraft’s cameras. Despite all this Sagan persisted, and steadfastly continued to persist. Finally – after ten years of persisting – in 1990, February 14 to be exact -- the image we know today as the “Pale Blue Dot” came into being. I like to think of this image as a Valentine’s Day gift for the whole of humanity, a testament to all the love that we hold in our hearts for our collective home, planet Earth.
The picture itself is, well, nothing less than historic! (You can see this image on my website, “beautymrb.org,” with a short video narrated by Sagan himself.) How to describe the “Pale Blue Dot” in words? Let’s start here: The image was taken at 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane of Earth. What this means, I think, is that the cameras of Voyager One looked from above and down onto Earth at the moment this picture was taken. While this image contains 640,000 individual pixels, the Earth, itself, represents just a mere 12% of a SINGLE pixel of this picture (hey, did you get that?), a miniscule dot which appears (but only if you look closely enough) in the shape of a crescent near the center of the photograph.
How would this view be described, this widest possible view of our planet? Well, years later, one description would come from the photographer herself, Candace Hansen-Koharcheck, who, in an interview with National Public Radio, had this much to say: “It was just a little dot,… so not very large. You know, I still get chills down my back because here was our planet, bathed in this ray of light, and it just looks so incredibly special.”
Carl Sagan, himself, would write extensively on this image, publishing a book, quoted here, titled (not too surprisingly) “The Pale Blue Dot”:
“Look at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there -- on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Sagan wrote, also, on the place our planet holds within the broad reality of the universe:
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. “
This image would, further, contribute to the transformation of Sagan’s own understanding of our identity, as human beings, within this widest possible context of existence:
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”
I’d like to share one more quotation with you, dear listeners, and it's not about a photograph from Voyager One. It relates to another famous image, “Earthrise,” taken in 1968 from Apollo 8, the first spacecraft to reach (without landing on) the moon. In this quotation, the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in similar but more concise terms than Sagan about the importance of viewing reality from the farthest possible vantage point:
“For the first time in all of time, men have seen the Earth. Seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depths of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small…. To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know that they are truly brothers.”
Whether the reality of our existence is seen from the moon or stars, this view – from far beyond our limited conceptions of space and time – originates from quite an incredible distance. Such a view raises, for me, fundamental questions, … such as, “What naturally follows from taking such a long view of reality?” or “Toward what knowledge does this widest of perspectives lead us?” This elevated and detached way of seeing, I submit in the next segment of this episode, carries with it the possibility of genuine and lasting progress for ourselves, individually, and the whole of society. To the extent that we succeed in cultivating a wider-angle view of reality, the infinity of the world's beauty will naturally begin to show us glimpses of endless goodness and truth.
A New, Beautiful Paradigm…
This might be a good time for a quick summary, before we continue. In the first segment of this episode, we examined in some detail the narrowness of the lens through which modern society teaches us to see what is true: there’s one possible way to view reality, one view only! In the second segment, I shared an image of the “Pale Blue Dot,” a visual example of what it means to view reality from distance, the widest possible perspective, four billion miles away. In this, the third segment of today's episode, we’ll explore what naturally follows when we start to cultivate the discipline of stepping back and away from the narrowness of “me, myself, and I” and begin to view reality within a larger context. What will follow from this opening, I suggest, is that the immense beauty of this world will naturally begin to unfold before us. It is within this revealed gift – the grace of the world’s unending beauty -- that the full potential for human progress, material and spiritual, will be realized.
Before directly addressing the relationship between beauty and progress, one question calls out for attention, … a question of how: “How might a person start to move away from the narrow lens of reality and toward a wider (and wiser) perspective, turning to view the whole of reality within the abundant beauty of existence itself?” Let's start with what this transformation definitely does not involve … me trying harder! The transformation here, please understand, has nothing to do with “me.” It’s not at all about “me” doing more, better. Perceiving reality within the beauty of existence, we must acknowledge first, cannot be reduced to mere human accomplishment. There’s nothing to attain or achieve. I cannot force this progress by an exercise of my will. Nothing within this process is subject to battle or conquest: It's absolutely not like willing myself to keep climbing that mountain or running that marathon. Widening our view of reality involves the opening of hearts to receive a new and infinitely beautiful paradigm of perception, elevating consciousness itself.
At times, people confess to me that they must try harder to relax. This is the problem, I’m told, that “I can’t relax because I’m not trying hard enough.” Trying to relax? This idea seems, for me, to be a contradiction in terms. The more I try to relax, the more tense I become as I notice that, despite all my trying, still … I’m not relaxed. Trying harder to relax, as I understand it, can lead only to more tension and less relaxation. My father sometimes shared a Yiddish saying with me, whenever (too often) I was trying hard, too much, wrongly. In Yiddish, my dad would say, “Bobby, why don’t you go ahead and keep banging your head against the wall?” Here’s what (I think) my father meant: “There comes a time in life to think better, in new ways Bobby, to raise yourself above eye-level, to look down from above onto reality. If you just keep trying and trying, doing the same thing again and again, “harder,” without trying better, you'll probably just end up cracking your head open and bleeding to death, right here, on this very spot, as over and over you keep on banging and banging your head against the wall!” Stephen Jenkinson put my father’s suggestion for detachment into these words: “We instinctively try harder to do more of what we've been doing that got us into trouble, trying to fix what we are hardly willing to learn.” Yes, each of us, me included, must first seek to detach from the illusion that we’re actually in control of every aspect of our lives, to release ourselves from the misguided notion that this transformation, here – from the narrowness of self into the widest and brightest light of beauty – involves merely another tactical object that I can successfully manage, strategize…
This transformation, then, cannot be achieved by following steps prescribed in a “how to” format. Up front, dear listeners, please know that I cannot provide you with the 12-step formula which, if properly worshipped, will somehow magically transform your life into one of eternal happiness. For sure, there's lots and lots (and lots) of self-help prescriptions out there. Bookstores devote whole – indeed, ever-growing – sections to the modern genre of “self-help,” how-to programs that promise instant enlightenment. These formulas are available everywhere, so, let’s be 100% clear, this is not what I’m offering here. Consider this: If “how to” formulas did actually work, would not the self-help sections of bookstores gradually diminish rather than endlessly continue to expand? I wonder …
Well, with this introduction to detachment behind us, our question remains: How can this new paradigm of viewing reality be understood? I've examined what this transformation does not involve – its process lies beyond the capacities of the human will, differing conceptually from the prescriptions of “how-to” formulas for personal growth – but such negativity can get us only so far, and no farther…. Let’s begin to move forward, positively, with this recognition: The spiritual quality of Beauty must reveal itself for us. We step away, we stop, we sit in silence, detached, allowing for wonder, allowing for the emergence of questions, and perhaps, just maybe, as a gift, if we remain open enough to receive, beauty will come out and play, revealing a visible glimpse or two of itself, if just for a fleeting moment, drawing us toward endless charms. Beauty is in control, totally and completely, not me … and not you.
To deepen our knowledge of beauty, how its spirit works on the world and penetrates our hearts, I’d like to share something from the late poet, theologian, and philosopher John O'Donohue. In his search to articulate the elusive nature of beauty, O’Donohue returned to ancient Greece, where he found the origin of the word for the spiritual quality, “beauty”:
“In Greek the word for beautiful is ‘to kalon.’ It is related to the word ‘kalein,’ which includes the notion of ‘call.’ When we experience beauty, we feel called. The Beautiful stirs passion and urgency in us and calls us forth from aloneness into the warmth and wonder of an eternal embrace. It unites us again with the neglected and forgotten grandeur of life…. [I]n some instinctive way we know that beauty is no stranger. We respond with joy to the call of beauty because in an instant it can awaken under the layers of the heart a forgotten brightness.”
We cannot reach for or possess beauty, in other words. It is Beauty who’s in charge, who calls on us! When beauty does call, its spirit has the ability to stir within us, each of us, the wonder of an “eternal embrace” and call us toward the “joy” and “grandeur of life.” O'Donohue understood this fundamental reality of the human spirit, “to experience beauty is to have your life enlarged.”
This new knowledge raises us from one question to the next. We’ve considered how the process of spiritual transformation begins to take place, through our detachment from the illusion that we’re actually in control of our lives. Here’s the next “how” question: “How can this transformation – toward the viewing of reality through the wide-angle of beauty – lead both the individual and the body of humanity forward … in the direction of genuine progress?” This question, of progress, will be examined on two levels. First, how does nurturing the habit of viewing reality through the widest possible lens empower the individual to move forward, to progress? I will then frame this same question in terms of the collective, addressing the progress of humanity as a whole: How can opening the lens through which we view reality, wider, to see more (and more) of the whole of what is true, lead to the advance of civilization, worldwide?
Let’s grapple with the question of progress in terms of the individual, first… There are so many ways through which I can develop myself intellectually and spiritually by enlarging my view of reality, so many that we cannot possibly cover all these ways here. Instead, in this space I’ll do my best to develop just one illustration of our limitless potential for individual development, by cultivating our spiritual capacity for humility. Most people have encountered this concept, but, let’s admit this much, humility is not the easiest idea to put into words. To be clear, here’s what I mean by ”humility”: I do not exalt myself above others. To the extent that I live within the state of humility, I treat everyone with affection and respect, approaching each person I encounter from the posture of learning. Humility constitutes a spiritual virtue, one quality that, as I understand it, allows for my individual growth and development.
To better understand this relationship – between embracing the widest possible view of reality and individual progress – we’ll need to revisit the example of the “Pale Blue Dot.” Remember that Carl Sagan described Earth as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” the very tiniest of specks. “The Earth,” Sagan continued, “is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.” Check out my website, beautymrb.org, and see for yourself the size of Earth in relation to the universe -- just 12% of one pixel in a photograph that contains a total of 640,000 pixels! Such an encounter with the true nature of existence begs the question: In what ways has this wider understanding of reality influenced Sagan? It’s helped him to develop, within himself, the quality of humility: “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe … are challenged by this point of pale light.” Human self-importance? Imagined! Privilege? Delusion! In his book, Sagan referred explicitly to this image’s humbling effect: “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” For Sagan, after contemplating the larger context of existence, our “human conceits” have been exposed for what they are, really, nothing more than pure “folly”…
So, you might ask, how would the development of humility allow for my own progress? The dominant modern idea of “success” operates to degrade the value of humility, encouraging us to view humility in terms of weakness, anything but progress, indeed, as failure itself. Isn’t this what the modern exaltation of competition is, in fact, all about? The idea that greatness emerges from competition involves taking pride (the opposite of humility) in vaunting oneself over as many others as possible. It’s in the arena of competition, society teaches us, that I demonstrate success, where I come to define my own success in terms of superiority over others. This idea is now as ubiquitous as our acceptance of the concrete axiom, “money = success.” It can be expressed, too, through the higher social positions which frequently accompany increased wealth – influence over the behavior, thoughts, and feelings of others – positions of authority that operate to define whole social groups as superior in the never-ending Darwinian “struggle for existence.” For those of us still in school, this form of idolatry might be expressed as simply as, “my grades are higher than yours. Therefore, I must be smarter than you.”
So, what's the problem with defining success in terms of competition? I mean, what problem is posed by seeking to demonstrate superiority over others? For me, this failure to appreciate the quality of humility is a problem, really a problem, a very big problem, one that we must address. Why? Pride, simply put, stops progress! Let's take grades. If I earn a higher grade-point average than you, what could I possibly learn from you? I'm obviously superior to you, so you’ll need to learn from me. How about the case where I hold superior authority, a higher position in society … as in “I’m the employer and you’re the employee”? Well, if my authority is superior to yours, it should be clear: You must listen to me. Today, perhaps the best illustration of this dysfunction can be found in those who define success (and reality) in purely material terms: I make more money than you, so, as the accepted “logic” goes, I must also be superior to you. If I earn more than you, and, therefore, I’m more intelligent than you, why should I listen to whatever you might have to say? I cannot tell you how many times I've run into the most absurd expressions of this nonsense, such as when I've been at a dinner party and a wealthy stockbroker begins to lecture me on how to teach and coach high school students. Why? He makes more money than I do, that’s why! This man must therefore know more about just about everything, including my own profession…
I leave these conversations, saddened. There must be nothing more for this stockbroker (or others like him) to learn from others. He’s succeeded in closing himself off from others, living in a state of isolation, above others, solitary, superior, high upon the pedestal of pride, effecting a hard stop to his own development. In the absence of humility, I’m sorry to say, every possibility for progress comes to a halt! The #1 condition for development -- the way toward personal growth, indeed, the one state that allows for endless learning and progress – involves living within the requisite state of humility. Only by actively living within this state can we become and remain open to possibilities for our intellectual and spiritual growth. This reality remains true without regard to how much wealth I might (or might not) accumulate, regardless of whatever social position I occupy, without regard to my grade-point average in college. Within the condition of humility, I treat every person I meet with affection and respect, that is, I stay open to learning from each and every experience. In this humble posture of learning, the door to my individual growth remains wide open…
How can I develop this sense of humility? A start might be to emulate Carl Sagan, someone who, despite his high position in society, took upon himself the individual responsibility of stepping back and away from the narrow view of reality that modern society teaches and, instead, actively nourished within himself the discipline of viewing the beauty of reality from an elevated distance. The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, also provides us with knowledge we may need to start this process of moving forward. His best student, Plato, reported that Socrates once acknowledged this spiritual reality, “true knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” Embracing this foundational truth -- which becomes clearer, for me, as I’ve come to “know” more -- has definitely encouraged my own heart to remain steadfast in the continuing pursuit of intellectual and spiritual development. The process of life-long learning, it’s fair to say, begins with opening our hearts to view each and every person we meet as a true friend and, quite possibly, a wellspring of infinite knowledge.
Let’s now move forward, beyond individual growth, and start to explore the question of collective human progress. How, exactly, might cultivating a wider view of reality help humanity as a whole, civilization itself, to begin moving forward again? Embracing the wide-angle view of reality moves society forward through our collective recognition of this fundamental truth: All humanity, in fact, is “one.” All humankind constitutes a single “whole,” one people, a single human race. We, each of us, belong to one family, the human family. It takes the broadest perspective, this widest possible view of reality, before the collective consciousness of humankind will be raised to the point where, together, we can all acknowledge, accept, and, ultimately, embrace the spiritual truth that, despite every outward appearance, we are all members of one extended human family.
Indeed, it took an image of our planet, captured from the distance of Saturn, before Carl Sagan himself came to openly acknowledge this reality: “Consider that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” Archibald MacLeish’s recognition of our fundamental “oneness” – after viewing Earth from the moon – was even more explicit than that of Sagan:
“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know that they are truly brothers.”
This humble opening of hearts to the whole truth reveals what we need to acknowledge as the indisputable and indispensable reality of our times, that all humankind must be understood as “riders on the Earth together.” And, as MacLeish also understood, now we must openly embrace each other as “brothers who know that they are truly brothers.” We, yes, all of us, are one.
Okay. Great. We belong to one human race. “I get it, Mr. B!” Still, you might ask, “So what?” How might this collective consciousness, of humanity’s “oneness," allow for the progress of society? On this, I’m clear: Cooperation! No family, any family -- no matter how small or large – can move forward without active cooperation. (This idea, not incidentally, contradicts just about everything we’ve been taught in the competitive cauldron of modern society.) In order to progress, heartfelt bonds of friendship and fellowship must first develop and be sustained between races, ethnicities, religions, and nationalities. None of these artificial human demarcations have any relation whatever to the truth of our “oneness.” Wholehearted cooperation must then develop between ourselves, now one unified humanity, and the physical environment which supports life on Earth. Indeed, the extent to which we succeed in aligning the life of society with our spiritual nature -- as cooperative beings -- will mark the degree to which the body of humanity advances from its collective adolescence toward the fullness of its maturity.
One more time, the knowledge gained by Carl Sagan from his reflections on the widest possible view of our existence is instructive:
“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all its vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else…. Like it or not, the earth is where we make our stand.”
Sagan underscores our individual responsibility, first, to deal more kindly with one another, and, then, to collectively preserve and cherish this “Pale Blue Dot,” the only known support system for life in the universe. All this, needless to say, will involve the active and loving cooperation that naturally must follow from our realization and embrace of this truth for our times, that each of us belongs to one extended human family.
What does this truth require of us? What’s required, in other words, before we can begin to progress, to move forward individually and collectively once more? First, each of us, alone and together, must step back and away from the narrowness of “me, myself and I” (symbolized perhaps too well by the modern phenomenon of the “selfie”) and begin to actively cultivate the everyday discipline of viewing ourselves and each other within a new paradigm, one that’s wide, deep, and high enough to encompass the beautiful truth that, here and now, we all belong to one global family. Indeed, if we hope to save ourselves and our precious home, Earth, it’s become an absolute necessity for all of us -- aligned in “oneness” -- to progress toward the maturity of collective human adulthood. Before signing off, I’d like to leave you with one final reminder of what is demanded from us by the spiritual reality of our “oneness,” words of wisdom from the founder of the website “Brainpickings,” Maria Popova:
“I don't think it is possible to contribute to the present moment in any meaningful way while being wholly engulfed by it. It is only by stepping out of it … that we can then dip back in and do the work which our time asks of us.”
Thank you, Maria Popova, for putting this truth into words. And, also, thank you, dear listening audience, for spending some of your precious time with me today. Until next time, I have one and only one overriding wish and prayer for us all … Peace!