Semi-permeable membranes are essential to the flourishing of most organic life on Earth. From bacteria to civilizations, our lives exist within vibrant walls that delineate, protect, and provision us.
Religious affiliation, ethnic identity, academic discipline, pop fandom, brand loyalty . . . As social creatures, we cluster together in tents of shared identity. For each other, we reinforce what we are and what we are not. Like all social animals, humans generally do whatever we can to maintain group harmony. In doing so, sacrifice and selfishness become two sides of the same coin.
Running a brain takes a lot of energy. We benefit from the momentum that comes from other people’s thinking. Although we can google almost any proposition – regardless of its demonstrable truth or falseness – the landscape of all propositions is overwhelming. Joshua Rothman describes decision-making in 2021 like this: “The realities of rationality are humbling. . . In search of facts, we must make do with probabilities. Unable to know it all for ourselves, we must rely on others who care enough to know. We must act while we are still uncertain, and we must act in time . . .” (New Yorker, 8/16/2021)
Unfortunately, when a person needs to get help with some piece of risk assessment, they almost never turn to anyone who can bring a deep understanding of probability into the conversation; almost nobody even has a grasp on such understanding. Instead, say sociologists, most people seek direction from their “reference groups” . . . “the neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, and friendship networks that help people obtain the income, information, companionship, mutual aid, and other resources they need to live. The price of access to those resources is conformity to group norms.” (Brooke Harrington, Atlantic, 8/1/2021) To betray such norms (by getting vaccinated, for example, or by not getting vaccinated) invites a real risk of losing a job or a friend.
We are traveling together on a finite planet. And we travel as a finite nation, although maybe not so much together. Like Ezikiel, who saw the wheel, and the wheel within the wheel, and the big wheel moving by faith, and the little wheel moving by the Grace of God, we see our future careening around the corner towards us and whirling kaleidoscopically into view. The organelles spin inside the cells, and the cells inside the organs, and we pray for our lives to spin inside the music of the stars and the songs of the angels. But instead, we hear grumblings of disgust and resentment being amplified all around us. Turns out, those sentiments are the best ones for boosting Facebook’s time-on-site metric, which is currently applied to the quarter of humanity (so far) that turns to Facebook for news.
So, agitating side-by-side in the U.S.A today, like a row of washers at the laundromat, are different spinning buckets of the nation’s citizenry. By one analysis, the four main buckets of American identity are: the “free” (libertarians, capitalists), the “smart” (academics, wonks), the “real” (workers, rednecks), and the “just” (revolutionaries, intersectionals). The author of that analysis, George Packer, warns, “These divisions impoverish each narrative into a cramped and ever more extreme version of itself. All four narratives are also driven by a competition for status that generates . . . winners and losers.” (Atlantic, July/August 2021)
The history of our Religious Society of Friends is filled with examples of Friends breaching barriers. While thinking back on a day in August 1761, John Woolman remembered that “Love was the first motion” in his mind as it moved towards an idea “to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in . . .” Even though he did not understand their language, even though he knew that they could take him for a slave, since the American Indian Wars were raging, Woolman traveled two hundred miles by horseback over treacherous ground to pray with the people of Wehaloosing and to “have a quick and lively feeling of the afflictions of my fellow-creatures, whose situation in life is difficult.”
Woolman was able to take such risks because he traveled with the support of his Quaker meeting. He knew which people he came from, and those people knew the one they were sending forth in their name. His meeting helped him take numerous courageous actions during desperate times. Let us try to live up to the examples he lived for us. ~~~
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