“Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.” -Rumi
Keeping the biggest possible picture in mind, paradoxically, may give us the best lens through which to focus clearly upon the messy details of our lives at every level – internationally, nationally, locally, even personally.
How big a picture? Try: the whole earth and everything and everyone on it, through hundreds of millions of years of time.
What can this abstract immensity have to do with our own lives? More than we think, because we really are a product of the changes the earth has undergone over eons and we are totally subject to the rules that dictated those changes. By rules we mean big processes, ones we are still trying to fully understand. Processes like evolution itself.
When a gigantic asteroid hit the earth in the Yucatan area 65 million years ago, the planetary changes that resulted were enough to wipe out the dinosaurs. New forms of life, ones that eventually evolved into our mammalian ancestors, were able to flourish in the post-asteroid conditions. The dinosaurs were swept aside forever. Organisms that do not adapt to the environment around them cannot survive. The environment determines the required change – no exceptions.
Now, it is human planning and foresight that will determine the fate of all the other species on earth. The true economy is not connected to the health of the stock market, but to the health of the living system as a whole. Our brains are simply not wired to think and plan within this great context. Instead, we have constructed artificial contexts that we can get our minds around more easily: the morning headlines in the newspaper, the nightly news on TV, the latest stories on our iPad, the quarterly profit-and-loss sheet – even all our diverse religious and cultural adherences.
The separating borders of nations themselves are artificial contexts that we hope will come “between too much and me” (Robert Frost), while at the same time we know very well that all our biggest challenges do not respect borders. The earth shakes and the jet stream carries radiation across oceans with the speed of a tsunami.
As this is being written in March of 2011, the headlines are preoccupied with two issues of daunting moral complexity: autocratic suppression of nonviolent revolution in the Middle East and the Japanese effort to regain control of their devastated nuclear plants.
The airways are buzzing with discussion about the pros and cons of the intervention to help the Libyan rebels and, at the same time, with the pros and cons of nuclear energy. Has the United States overextended itself? Is NATO in danger of getting bogged down in a civil war? Was it morally supportable to let Qaddafi massacre his own people? Can nuclear energy ever be made safe? Have we no choice but to turn to it, because the risks of global climate change are even greater?
In the larger picture, we have gone in 60 years from one nation with nuclear weapons to nine nations. That means nine complex command-and-control systems with fallible human beings managing them, with all the potential for mistakes, misinterpretations, or accidents. If our technology, no matter how innovative, does not work in harmony with the larger systems that gave us life, we may all find ourselves in the kind of trouble visited upon Hiroshima in 1945.
The first nuclear-powered electricity was generated in Idaho in 1951. Now there are 442 plants worldwide, again with fallible humans supposedly in total control. If our technology, no matter how innovative, does not work in harmony with the systems that gave us life, we may all find ourselves in the kind of trouble visited upon Japan in 2011.
That is our present “environment.” Can it help us to situate that environment in Rumi's field, out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing? The first thing this does is take us out of the realm of feeling righteous, right, morally pure, full of indignation and blame. In a state of mind that is inclusive of all, rather than our habitual mental condition of “us-and-them,” we can acknowledge our profound moral and physical interdependence as users of energy, creators of waste, payers of taxes, weighers of risk. We can turn toward each other humbly and “meet” – have an authentic, inclusive, responsible, open encounter. We can seek big-picture truth together, acknowledging our fallibility, our subjectivity, our default setting of short-term self-interest – and our common survival goals.
The UN sanctioned intervention in Libya certainly looks like a major step in the right direction compared to the unilateral US intervention in Iraq. But its tragic violence is still symptomatic of a world where humans are very quick to turn to war and weapons as a “solution.” It is part of a dying paradigm, one that is not working in the many other civil wars around the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq – and the Congo. In fact, all war has become civil war, fueled by an avalanche of weapons sales, never really resolving anything. What might replace it? Perhaps, it is the spirit we saw in Tahrir Square, a demand for accountability that includes self-accountability: the great authority of the refusal of violence, a far more exacting discipline than the waging of war. Those courageous Egyptian citizens spoke for more than themselves when they peacefully demanded a freeing-up of their political system.
Our existing energy systems are also part of a dying paradigm, a kind of civil war with the earth. It may be that humans can design a fail-safe nuclear power plant, even figure out what to do with the waste. So far, we haven't come close. But with the biggest context in mind, we can meet together “out beyond” and focus upon our energy challenge the great lens of our earth's story over millions of years. Maybe we will create some entirely new form of energy that is unambiguously life enhancing. Perhaps, we will learn a new nonviolence toward the planet that has given us so much, just as those in Tahrir Square modeled the treatment of others as they themselves wished to be treated. I'll meet you there.