Conversations in a Porch
A thoughtful essay from Arsenio Rodriguez in the Wall Street International Magazine, https://wsimag.com/feature/62082-conversations-in-a-porch. Arsenio held senior advisor positions, with the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank, in the design and coordination of programmes for sustainable development, co-founded and coordinated the Alliance for a New Humanity; a coalition for human understanding.
My mother passed away at 93, on September 9, 2001. While she was alive, I used to visit her periodically in Puerto Rico. She was a good conversationalist and her mind was until the end, very alert. We would sit down in her porch and talk about the state of the world. At that time, I was working for the UN, in the field of sustainable development, involved in global and regional negotiations and doing a lot of travelling.
She would talk about her concerns, about growing inequalities, about the lack of intergenerational respect, about the rising wave of materialism and greed. I would counter with the advances we had made in civil liberties, the recognition of universal human rights. I would point out to her, that the world now was a bit better than when she grew up in the 1930’s, because at that time inequality and suppression of human rights were more rampant, and racial, gender and social biases more prevalent. Like that, we shared our different worldviews, in that little porch in San Juan, in a most loving, albeit intense debate.
Today, living the second decade of the 21st century, I don’t have the joy and the pleasure of conversing with my mother, but I continue our conversations, within myself. About the same theme: are we progressing as a human species? Are we better off now than we were before? How do we measure progress? Human rights, economic equality, self-awareness, lifespan, availability of education? Are all of them equally important in measuring the progress of humanity? What indeed is progress?
As I am now approaching the end of my life, like she was in that memorable porch, and realize, like she did, that the present world is very different from the one I grew up, and ponder -are we progressing, are we better off?
It does seem that we have become more inclusive, in the sharing of opportunities and freedom of choices, in recognizing humanity as an equal condition of all humans. The definition of “us” today, is ampler than ever before, in principle at least, we are beyond accepting serfdom, slavery and the demonization of other tribes. Yes, there are still biases, bigotry, emergent tribal and racial biases, but they don’t seem to have broad acceptance as a principle, although there are prevailing and emerging pockets in practice.
Another concern is sustainability. We are so many now. Today we have a population 15 times larger than we had in the 16th century. A population that uses vaster resources per capita and has a greater impact on our life support systems than ever before. Yet again, it seems, that generally our awareness of the interconnectedness of living systems and the environment is today greater than ever before. But alongside this growth of sensitivity there is also the multiplication of insatiable greed.
It appears, that our understanding and capacity to manage or mismanage the energies of nature, is placing us in a crossroads of civilization. If we do not arrive at a consensus of social behavior, that matches the awareness of interconnectedness and of the negative impact of the mindless exploitation of the life support systems, we would be setting up a bleak and difficult future ahead.
This is just a continuation of our porch conversations. Of course, on these matters there are knowledgeable treatises, analyzed from all perspectives, material, political and spiritual.
There are schools of thought, professional debates, political upheavals, religious admonitions, dogmas and reasonings, about progress, about the purpose of life, about the meaning of it all. There are also innumerable and weird conspiracy theories about this and that. Theories that before social networks were just a fancy of isolated imagination, small group gossip, now instantly and widely distributed ideological memes.
I have browsed some of the above catalogues of worldviews, including the informal conspiracy mills and will continue, I hope, to do so. Yet, I find that now it is more difficult for me to wholly accept one or another view, I am less prone to use only rationality or belief, to adopt a point of view without considering others. I find it even harder to say that I understand what life is about.
Beyond word contexts manifesting thoughts, opinions, beliefs and facts, I sense, using the same sensing that one uses in moments of appreciation of beauty and love, or during the silence of a profound embrace, that maybe there is a design, and that the apparent turbulence and contradiction, is part of the unfoldment of that unknown design.
This reflective mode must have come with old age because when I was conversing with my mother, my sources were impeccably intellectual and scientifically sound. There was no room then for sensing “unknown” designs.
I remember that she would look at me as if I were still her child and smiled. And for a moment, almost unbeknown, I ceased to be a pundit and somehow, a subtle wisdom would take hold of me, coinciding with the time she was giving me a farewell embrace. At that time, I would feel her fragility and her strength, while she was giving me a secret blessing, as I went back to the world. We did not come to an agreement on the state of humanity, yet somehow, in some unfathomable way, I left her porch feeling that everything was okay.
The world continued brewing and churning. It seemed that awareness of interconnectedness was becoming stronger; social activists, governments and business were becoming involved, albeit not at the pace that would be required, in restricting the impact of human activity on the environment. On the other hand, new communication technologies, the proliferation of travel and the globalization of economic endeavors, made possible by a world largely at peace, was making the planet smaller. The mixing of the tribes was taking place at rates never seen before. The international collaboration systems, set in motion after the second war, looked as if they were providing an appropriate platform for global integration.
Countries once classified in underdeveloped blocks, were now burgeoning, the economic model of capitalism, in different shades, had been adopted worldwide, mass production lines were globally distributed following cheaper labor sources. The latter, together with the emergence of automation technologies, were creating unemployment and forgotten segments of national populations. In addition, international migration more than tripled in size rising from 77 million in the 1960s to an estimated 300 million at present. The relative economic intensity shifts, due to global production lines, shifting technologies and automation, combined with the influx of international migrants and generated tensions that were stimulating a rebirth of latent nationalistic and racist ideologies.
Communication networks, while enhancing interconnectedness, were also being used to promote separateness and fear. Today, in a world that faces the crossroads of sustainability or collapse, exemplified by the exacerbation of inequality and the impact of climate change, autocratic leaders are taking charge. Politicians with retrograde visions, are taking advantage of fear, rousing nationalism, and eroding the platforms of regional and global integration. On the other hand, the availability of information by individuals and the capacity of organizing ideological movements, remotely and in real time, challenges national and international representational structures. The usual iconic influencers based on mainstream established systems are being replaced by multiple generating pockets of information and disinformation.
For each of the above statements there are supportive and contrarian arguments to fill several hard disks and perhaps the Internet cloud. But I am not a pundit having a debate in a panel, or in a blog, nor I am saying that what I am saying here is true or not. I am just having a conversation with my mother in the porch of my mind.
So, what lies ahead, -she would have said.
I reply, I do not know. Now, with this pandemic overtaking the world in suddenness, the economic machinery coming to a screeching halt and the dearth of visionary leadership, who knows what will happen? It might take a year or two to tame the new virus with a vaccine or therapies, but how long to tame the fear of tourists to travel in cramped airplanes, to take cruises, or for sports fans to jam stadiums, parishioners to densely populate restaurants and bars, and commuters to board sardine-packed trains in cities that are now burying more people than they could handle in a day?
Will the panic, the hype, the forced pause, stimulate people to reflect more and more on what this is all about? Life I mean. Will people reflect on their fragility? Would their sense of compassion be heightened? The need for collaboration? The realization that we are in the same boat?
As of now, prevalent outward signs, in the usual platforms of political organization, both at national and international levels, suggest a buildup of partisan and nationalistic ideologies. In the United States, where the pandemic is having its greatest impact, the political national structure is more fractured than ever, the acts of compassionate and intelligent response have been all in local hands. National leadership has failed in most countries to offer a suitable response, and the international collaborative framework has virtually collapsed. The global threat has not been deeply experienced as a disaster that affects the entire world community.
Anxiously, I now say to my invisible interlocutor; is fear, rather than hope, going to shape the cultural imagination of the 21st century? I continue thinking that recent political shifts in Europe, US, and Brazil, for example, suggest that the market of fear is indeed thriving, and that media, politicians, and social network brigands, are gaining from and manipulating this fear accordingly.
Inger Andersen, the Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, reflecting on the current viral virus said that “...as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.” But if you look at what is being done with environmental policy in the United States and in the world, we, as a collective, are not only not doing enough to have nature as an ally, we are still promoting our conquering and destructive role.
What we need, -interrupted my mother- what we need, is a process of awakening, rather than understanding, an awakening of love. People will only come together when they authentically feel in the same boat, when their instinct of self-survival, the fear, is replaced by a sense of ‘we are in this together.’ Then collective strength will overcome the individual desperation. It does not matter how proficiently people declare something, if it is devoid of soul, it will not move them. It is the heart that needs to lead now, because we have been relying on mind for too long. Yet, we still do not believe in the wisdom of our hearts.
Her intervention inspired me to feel, like when she embraced me in a farewell, in that always porch. I felt moved deeply and answered her:
Gardens pass through different stages, if you look at them without a vision of continuity, so that when the earth is removed to plant seeds, or when the dung is applied to fertilize it, gardens do not look as if they are going to bloom, they look as being in an awful critical state, unkempt, almost lost. But the gardener knows better. And gardens grow and progress as a whole, but not all plants bloom at the same time, so humanity, like in a garden, has experienced progress in a collective sense, throughout evolution and history, and we all know that there have been many magnificent blooms of plants, whose fragrance still inspires the surround, and that the garden is now larger, that there are more plants, and that many more are getting water. And sometimes weeds tend to grow. But maybe, like all gardens, there is some pruning and cleaning that happens now and then, and it might look to the uninitiated, who is looking at just that moment of garden and not the continuity of the process, that the garden is doomed. Maybe -I continued- just maybe, there is another realm; an interiority, that lies beyond our control, that is unfolding its full potential, overcoming apparently insurmountable barriers -in a new pulse of the cosmos. After all, the self-organizing forces of life have so many times before jumped insurmountable circumstances. Maybe, there is in the making, a new consciousness experiment, a civilization of wisdom, a planetary moment of joy and compassion.
I now was fully back on the porch, saying adios to my mother, and silently feeling that all concepts and theories do not compare, with the revelation that is present in a single embrace of a mother.