When We See the Sacred in Each Other, Social Movements Flourish

Deep in our hearts, humans hold a longing for authentic presence with one another, the need to deeply see and be seen. In his book, The Desire for Mutual Recognition, Peter Gabel traces this longing as it shows up in different forms, in different places and times.

Sometimes this longing bursts forth in waves within a community and draws many people out of their protective shells all at once. The 1960s saw such an upwelling of “redemptive mutuality” as many Americans collectively took the risk of loving one another and freeing one another from their existential solitary confinement. The counterculture reverberated with this newfound communitarian freedom. Gabel makes the case that it is this very kind of mutual liberation that “moves” in social movements. It is the heart and the foundational prerequisite of anything else that social movements may try to accomplish.

Along with this concept, Gabel describes our pattern of retreat. Starting at a young age, our participation in the social world is predicated on our withdrawing our true and authentic self. We are forced to deny the innocent, loving child within, and interact with others through filters, masks and social roles. We then build social structures that reflect and refract these filters, masks and roles. We reduce ourselves and all our rich, shared humanity to isolated monads, each negotiating and hustling for our own self-interest.

When anyone tries to transgress their own isolation or question the dominant logic of our culture, they may wind up socially or even legally punished. This social punishment usually takes the form of humiliation. We are ridiculed — even subtly through a word or glance — for wanting connection, for showing vulnerability, for exposing ourselves even one degree more than the other has exposed themselves. We are informed that we have lost power, shown weakness and ceded ground in the competition of life. So, like a turtle retracting her head back into the shell, we retreat. Who could blame us? But when we retreat, we unwittingly reinscribe the alienated world as the “real” world, and the cycle perpetuates.

The resistance mechanisms of our false selves alongside these systems of alienation are powerful and highly adaptable in the face of our innate impulse to break free. Most interestingly, to me, Gabel traces how this resistance shows up in various, ingenious disguises. It shows up in the disguise of liberal democracy, triumphant over the forces of hegemony. It shows up in the disguise of a fair and just legal order. It shows up in the disguise of our economic system. It shows up equally in Karl Marx’s critiques of that system.

Another resistance mechanism from the alienated world is the one in which the beautiful, diverse, kaleidoscopic array of life paths are replaced by multiple, substantively identical consumer choices. Each group, subculture and community is assigned its own uniform of clothing and goods we buy in order to cement our place in it. Within the range of the uniform, if we can afford it, we then choose products to express our individual “personality.” (Each person is thought to be as unique as a snowflake and yet that uniqueness is somehow best expressed through products marketed to the masses.)

Our purchases play a vital role in constructing who we are. As marketing expert Seth Godin puts it, when we buy a product, we are buying the opportunity “to join a group that matters.” Our impulse for an authentic collective sensibility is co-opted by the market system. The market — acting on behalf of our own alienated self — interjects its own conditions for group membership and substitutes its own framework for our connections with each other. God forbid we should spontaneously and together create our own cultural expressions.

Gabel makes a wonderful observation about this point — that when such expressions do occur, the dominant culture does its very best to appropriate them. One example of this is in the story of Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit at the back of the bus. He describes how on one level, Parks’s act was an act of civil disobedience targeting the literal ordinance that required Black people to sit at the back of the bus. But on a much deeper, ontological level, she disrupted and rendered absurd the entire social construct concerning skin color and bus seating. She showed that the alienated matrix was imaginary. Gabel writes, “Whereas in the prior moment, the white establishment of Montgomery was able to rely upon the reification of a collective perceptual field in which blacks simply ‘sat in the colored section’ as a matter of fact … once Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat she revealed that the prior ‘fact’ was merely possible, that indeed the entire bus as a traveling vehicle might not have any preordained cultural order at all.”

This act was therefore profoundly destabilizing — an intolerable threat to the emperor’s new clothes of alienation through race. It carried so much moral authority that it was impossible to reject entirely. So instead of outright rejection, the dominant culture sought to subsume the act and the “problem” into its own matrix — the political language of individual rights, the legal framework of adjudicating the competing interests of individual actors. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, while vital and crucial, also stripped Parks’s act of its revolutionary potential and returned it to a neat place on the shelf, thereby rescuing the alienated universe that had come so close to being blown open. Legislators and judges appropriated the meaning of her action.

This same “strategy” of appropriation is applied with great success against the upwelling of ecological-spiritual consciousness. Our innate sense of the sacredness of creation — our primal knowledge of ourselves as made of Earth and our recognition of the vast grandeur of the ecosystems on which we depend — these are natural wellsprings of humility. The awe and wonder elucidated so beautifully in many religious texts as well as in art and music around the world; the direct experience that so many of us have in a forest, a snowfield or at the ocean of union with the divine all — these are the natural catalysts for care for the Earth’s abundance.

Indigenous activists such as the Water Protectors at Standing Rock have powerfully and repeatedly articulated their environmental struggles in relation to the sacredness of the Earth. But non-Indigenous environmentalist groups have rarely followed this leadership, choosing instead to wage their battles over “the environment” in dry economic and legal terms, using the language of policies, laws, regulations.

This is a fundamental misstep because, as Indigenous activists have demonstrated time and time again, caring for the Earth and its creatures from a place of love and reverence has the power to disrupt the systems of alienation, along with the alienated economy and politics that keeps those systems in place. Such a fundamental reorientation of our place on this planet can spill over into authentic presence and compassion with other humans.

Unfortunately, mainstream environmentalist nonprofits and legal advocacy groups tend to eschew the language of awe, beauty, holiness, care, humility and stewardship. They lean on scientific explanations of the usefulness of biodiversity, rather than name as sin the acts by which humans force a sister species to extinction. Too often they talk about the economic cost of climate change or inches of sea-level rise, rather than lifting up the inherent, nauseating horror of human beings abusing life systems to the point of collapse.

By couching their arguments in the dry, de-spiritualized, materialist language of the dominant culture, they relinquish the possibility of an alternative universe, failing to ground their work in authentic community and authentic relationship with the Earth.

Our relationships with non-human animals also gets mediated such that they are either pets or food (or a danger, or invisible). Creatures of other species, similar to human infants, can open our hearts to a kind of authentic presence that we are rarely allowed with other humans. Their wildness touches our own wildness. They can evoke our longing for our pre-social self. It can be unbearable to glimpse our own wild, raw soul and then be forced to bottle it again. An encounter can cause panic. So instead, we attempt to contain the wildness of other species so that we don’t have to face what we’ve lost within ourselves.

Instead of us entering the abundance of their world, we force them — Procrustean-style — into our matrix, our definitions, our language and our roles. One need only look at a New York City toy poodle trussed up with ribbons and riding in a baby carriage to know what I mean. And the practice of carnism in this country, in which other species, en masse, are forced into servitude, their reproductive systems hijacked and rendered as machines, living lives of suffering and then being cruelly slaughtered for our culinary enjoyment, is a tragic example of how far we will go to deny our own yearning for love.

I am grateful for Gabel’s archeological dig through the strata of our socially constructed worlds to uncover the yearning, fossilized as it may be, for mutual recognition. It is inspiring to me to imagine that we can begin to topple our grand systems of oppression simply by creating “mutually confirmatory” spaces. By taking the risk of showing our own vulnerability and need for love, we can give others permission to do the same.

By sharing our own spiritual connection to the Earth and its creatures, we can inspire others to risk sharing their own. We can end the cycle of humiliation and replace it with a “ricochet of recognition.” We can create a world where people freely speak of love and watch the constructed house of cards that is our “society,” come crashing down. In the wreckage, perhaps we can build the world of which we all, deep down, share a dream.