Ely, Minnesota -I’ve been working through a book called How to Find the Work You Love by Laurence G. Boldt. It’s a great book, emphasizing the pursuit of a life that integrates work and meaning. He quotes Aristotle: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.” This simple sentence, Boldt says, tells you everything you need to know to find the work you love.
There are some exercises. One of the first is to formulate an orienting question that you can use to help shape your search for meaningful work. This should be a question that gets to the center of your own personal values, the heart of meaning. What are you looking for, really?
I’ve decided to post my Orienting Question(s) and the response I initially wrote (really a further elaboration of the question rather than an answer), because it brings up a lot of the issues I’ve been thinking and writing about lately. It’s a reflection of my own thought processes, an internal debate. It wasn’t really intended for an external audience. But here you go, anyway. Good Luck.
The Orienting Question(s):
- How can I be most useful?
- What am I willing to commit my life to?
- What could I do with my remaining time, given my current lack of experience, limited capital, and personal emotional/mental limitations, to develop a calling that most effectively addresses the need for global sustainability, justice, and an equitable future for all people?
- What could I do that would be of most benefit to all sentient beings?
Clearly what is required in this world is a global change of consciousness that raises the scope of personal identity from the local to the global. A global realization of the central Buddhist principle of interdependence. Or in Christian terms, loving your neighbor as yourself. There is some argument to be made that globalized networks of communication and commerce in combination with the global ecological crisis are together forcing that realization upon us. But there are massive countervailing powers that are either taking advantage of globalization to secure material wealth and power for the very few (corporate empire) or are reacting to globalization through the fundamentalist reinforcement of localized identities and interests (nationalism, religion).
What is needed is spiritual transformation, but as that, in principle, cannot be forced upon another, we have to live with what we have and where we are and create democratic laws and principles and agreements for conduct that strive for equity based on the premise of the mutual pursuit of self-interest. Where the spirit does not prevail, the law is required. As the law cannot enforce community, the law’s premise is the protection of personal autonomy and the freedom to pursue self-interest as long as it does not impinge upon the corresponding rights and freedoms of others. In our globalized context, we ideally create legal and material incentives for sustainability and peace in light of the recognition that they are each requirements for the continuing equitable collective pursuit of self-interest. The Law doesn’t necessarily argue that its own premise is true (that the common good can be built upon the creation of an equitable field for the collective pursuit of individual self-interest). The Law just recognizes that people are motivated by self interest, that this does come in conflict with the interests of others, and that somehow this has to be managed as equitably as possible. In the world, we fight for the establishment and enforcement of globally equitable laws of conduct based upon these inalienable human rights. And that is good.*
The other reality is that of present suffering, which is a consequence of the lack of spiritual realization, the pursuit of self-interest in opposition to others, and the corresponding inequity of global conduct. People can function neither in the the arena of the spirit, nor in the arena of the law, when their sole focus is survival. Not just spiritual, not just legal, but material efforts are required to help redress the gross inequity, relieve the suffering, and provide people with at least the minimum of both the material and educational resources they need to participate at the other levels.
This is a question of direct aid and of policy. Because of the existing inequity based on both lawlessness and unjust laws, justice requires that laws must now be weighted in favor of the poor in order to redistribute material and intellectual wealth and establish the equitable playing field that the law presumes.
I believe in democracy, which means I trust in the essential goodness and capacity of the majority of the world’s people to, given the opportunity, make healthy decisions that will benefit everyone. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that our ecological resources are limited, are being strained to the breaking point, that we are all in this together, and that we better figure it out fast and realize as a human race that our own individual interests are not other than our collective interests when it comes to the sustainability of life on earth. The problem is ignorance and division and destitution.
Two interrelated but not identical developments are the defining aspects of our unique historical era: globalization and information technology (computers). Computers have been a powerful tool facilitating the deadly efficiency of agents of globalization, whether applied towards commercial development or environmental and social destruction. But whatever the devastating consequences of globalization have been so far, they have also lead to the global distribution of information and communication technologies. Mobile phones and the Internet are rapidly changing the lives of almost all the world’s people. Perhaps ironically, these very tools are becoming a means of redressing the injustices perpetrated by the monopolistic and often imperialistic methods of the corporations and nations responsible for their distribution.
There is a huge opportunity here. Provided that information and communication technologies remain, at least in some measure, a part of the public commons, we have an unprecedented potential for both the redistribution of intellectual capital (global knowledge) and the establishment of democratic networks of solidarity. We can empower and connect people. Those who suffer most clearly the injustices of our current arrangement can be given a voice that is both informed by access to the global knowledge base and is strengthened by networked communities. With the new technologies, communities of solidarity are not restricted by geographical or political boundaries (they are, however, restricted by access to the technologies— whether because of absence of infrastructure, technological illiteracy, or government/corporate control). The poor and the conscientious rich can conspire together in advocating justice and sustainability. Powers will be held to account by the collective voices of their victims, who bear in their own bodies and communities the consequences of injustice. Also, as global transparency is brought to bear on the overwhelming evidence of our global interconnectedness in respect to ecological limitations, the spiritual movement towards the transcending of local interest for the sake of the universal will increase. The local will remain, but no longer under the pretense of the privilege of the isolated pursuit of self-interest. We are all in this together. Unity in Diversity.
Of course technology is just a tool. This pleasant outcome depends upon my original assumption (which is not just an assumption, but is a personal conclusion based on my own observations while traveling) of the essential goodness and intelligence of the majority of the world’s people, as well as on ongoing democratic access to the tools. There is also the potential for massive abuse of power in the use of the tools. One scenario is that elite powers could seize total control of the tools and brazenly dictate access and use (the police state). This could be a blatant power grab. Or they could argue that it is their right as the original distributors of the technologies. Or, more likely, that it is in the national or global interest to secure the tools against the likelihood of use by terrorists or other demons. Or they could encourage public use of the tools, all the while tracking, archiving, data-mining, targeting the minute details of the behavior of citizens, all of which could quickly and efficiently be used against those citizens. In fact, all this is happening to some degree or another, in one place or another, right now.
Also there is no guarantee that even true democratic access to these tools will increase global community. If in fact people are inherently more selfish or lazy than I suppose, then the tools become a means of facilitating their own addictions, interests, increases in power and wealth without concern for the consequences suffered by others; further empowering the craven and fearful ego that drives American consumerism. A world of Internet porn and mass American Idol media. The tools do not discriminate in respect to the nobility of their employment. Also, as much as they could be a means toward the increase of global consciousness, they also allow for increased insularity. Given total choice, you can choose to only hear the voices you already agree with, to conspire with your own kind, to cultivate hatred of others. The tools can be used to empower subcultures and identity groups that have no qualms about asserting their own interests at the expense of the demonized others. We are willing to kill to protect our own. The threat of terrorism (whether at the hands of states or groups) is real. All of this is also happening right now.
So it’s a gamble. But I also think that there is no going back. This power has been unleashed upon the world and it is not going to go away. This is the terrible moral burden of knowledge and power— you are responsible for what you do with it.
But, at this point, I still think the best thing we can do is get this knowledge and power into the hands of as many of the world’s people we can as fast as possible; to get the word out and to facilitate networks of resistance to global injustice and networks of advocacy of global sustainability. On the material front, we get the tools out there and educate people in their use. On the legal front, we make access to the global network of communication and information an inalienable human right. We establish laws checking the abuse of power, both by governments and by interest groups. Just as we do now; we allow for freedom of speech but prosecute violence. It is a similar set of issues that we find in respect to the freedom of the press, with opportunities for both benefit and abuse — only much more powerful in its potential impact, for good or ill.
So my question, the one I’m trying to wade through right now, is whether my own efforts are best applied toward facilitating the deeper spiritual transformation directly (fostering spiritual practice) or towards establishing global justice and sustainability in the rule of law (which will involve confronting power) or towards addressing material access of the world’s poor to the information and networking tools of our age.
What I’d like is to just do my own thing and not worry about the rest. And I don’t discount, in theory, the option of simply trying to live a good life wherever I find myself, with an eye to the larger world, but without necessarily dedicating myself to global change. There is something to be said for mindfully cultivating your own garden, blooming where you are planted (hmmm, a curious mix of metaphors.. are you the gardener or the seed?). It is also true that you can’t help others when you are a wreck yourself.
But I’ve been working hard on the wreck of myself. There has been significant relief on that front; a good portion of the tangled mess seems to have come unwound. And as I now find myself capable of looking at the larger world without having my spirit crushed, honesty just precludes the fantasy of continued insularity. My garden is the world. Not that I harbor the illusion that I will make a massive difference— I don’t even know where to start and it certainly is late in the game, but I recognize that I will never be deeply satisfied without directly addressing in some way the needs of the world at large.
So I try to discern a calling.
* But isn’t it inherently impossible to pursue self-interest as though it did not effect the other? Isn’t that the whole spiritual point? Is global justice based upon mutual self-interest possible? Is the playing field ever fair? Is this a zero-sum game, in which my advantage is always your disadvantage? Or is it possible for all to benefit in the simultaneous pursuit of their own interests?
Because of our present spiritual condition, in which we tend to act without regard for the other, political systems that attempt to prescribe and manage the common good by force, disallowing individual freedoms (in other words, systems that attempt by design to force us to behave altruistically) will always end up in the control of the few (the party, the church) who actually create the laws and manipulate the system to serve their own interests (power). Because of our spiritual condition, the rule of law always ends up, either explicitly or in effect, based on self-interest. In whatever system there is, those in power will tend towards the consolidation and retention of that power; those who have will opt to increase and protect what they have. Altruism, spiritual consciousness, can’t be forced. Equitable political systems acknowledge this from the start and try to create a condition in which there is at least a check on the abuse of power, limits to its accumulation, and mechanisms designed to keep the playing field fair. In other words: democracy. The rule of law is critical and necessary to restrain the most egregious offenses of the pursuit of self-interest, but has no power to change hearts and minds.
But isn’t there an inherent contradiction in what I am saying? On the one hand, I am suggesting that Law must presume self-interest and that, because of our present spiritual condition, we tend to act without regard for others. On the other hand, I am asserting my faith in the intelligence and goodness of humanity in general to make decisions beneficial to all. So are people selfish or not? Answer: the pursuit of self-interest is rarely wholly selfish. Most human beings do not live as islands. Our identities, our senses of “self”, are established in community. We are members of groups— of families, communities, religions, nations, etc. “Self”-interest expands to include all of those within in our communities of identity. We implicitly recognize that our own interests are bound up with those of others in our group.
And here is where the reality of globalization has the potential to change everything. In the past, communities often existed in enough isolation from each other that the consequences of our choices were either limited to our own communities or were hidden from view. Nature, the space between our communities, seemed unlimited both in respect to its resources and in respect to its ability to absorb the consequences of our actions. There seemed to be an unlimited potential to pursue self-interest without negative consequences for ourselves. The flip side to this is that we also believed we could pursue self-interest at the expense of others without negative consequence to ourselves. But globalization has fundamentally changed our relation to Nature and to each other. There are no more spaces between us. We realize that Nature is limited in both its bounty and in its ability to absorb the consequences of our actions. We realize that we ourselves invariably suffer the consequences of our own actions. We can’t pretend that harm done to the earth or to others is not harm done to ourselves.
My confidence has more to do with the belief that people, given the opportunity, make the best choices for the health of their communities, not just “me” but “us”, not just “mine” but “ours”. Globalization creates the incentive for the expansion of that sense of community to include the whole of humanity. This is the word we have to get out.** This is the truth. It can be proclaimed openly and transparently. Anyone can check the facts. We are organic beings. The organic foundation of our survival is being undermined by our actions. As our reach is now global in scope, so are the consequences. Even science is beginning to see that the world is a single system, a living organism. We are members of this single, living body. It makes no sense for the hand to prosper at the expense of the foot when the life of the body itself is at stake. This is mutuality, not competition. We’ve got to get this notion into our heads, fast. This world body, through us, has come into consciousness of itself, and that consciousness has meant power over the life of the body as a whole. Evolution or God has put us in charge, like it or not. We can see now. We need to act.
The stakes are total. This is the moment we decide how it’s going to go down. Because we have reached the limit conditions of our collective activity on this earth, because we know that resources are limited, the lines are being drawn. Everything is ramped up; volatile. And everything depends upon this spiritual transformation, on expanding the sense of the self to include the whole of humanity. If this does not happen, there will be unprecedented competition between identity groups for the limited resources that remain. Resource wars will be rampant. Global chaos. Potentially: Armageddon.
My own (guarded) optimism is founded in the sense that people will soon realize that this is, in fact, a single global community, and that, given the opportunity, they will make decisions that are in the best interest of that community— which is not other than their own self-interest.
We have no choice but to create some global mechanism, some governance, for the equitable distribution of our limited resources, for the cultivation of universally sustainable practices, and for the global balance of competing interests. As we can’t force the necessary spiritual transformation, we have to at least create the conditions for a truly democratic global forum.
And so my dilemma— what is my place?
** I realize that so far I’ve completely left the role of media and the arts out of the discussion. This is a critical arena, to which I might also be willing to dedicate myself. The battle for the individual heart and mind is largely waged in the cultural mind-space of media and the arts. This becomes a question of justice when a small cartel of media elites enjoys monopoly control over the content and channels of cultural communication. Again the question of confronting power and attempting to establish equitable rules of democratic access and distribution. Here also the potentially revolutionary role that the developments of our age could play in transforming the situation as it stands. Any form of expression that can be translated into a digital format— text, video, music, speech, imagery, etc— can be duplicated indefinitely with very little cost and transmitted virtually instantly to any other location on the globe. Like a virus, it can be dispersed to multiple locations. Also the costs of producing quality media are exponentially less now than in the past. In other words, the tools in the hands of the people become not just a means of access to the global knowledge base, and not just a means of establishing networks of solidarity, they become a means of formulating a voice, of being heard, of contributing to the global cultural mind-space through media and the arts. How are we going to get the word out? Make art, make media, make news, make headlines.
It all depends upon getting the tools into the hands of the people, teaching them how they are used, and demanding the legal right of democratic access to the channels of communication. Information wants to be free.