Sunday, May 1, 2011

Social Contract- Communal Responsibility


A milk man in a small town goes door to door each morning with a large jug of milk. At midday he sets his jug on a rock while he unpacks his humble lunch of bread and hard cheese.

One day, the goat herder comes by as the milk man is having his lunch. The milk man hollers a greeting which spooks one of the goats which in turn knocks the jug over, shattering it and spilling its contents. Not only does the milk man lose the rest of his day’s wages, but it will take up to a month to get another jug. How will he live without a month’s income? The milk man demands the goat herder sell his goats to pay for the milk man’s losses. The goat herder responds that to do so would bankrupt him.

The two men go to the village judge. After hearing both of them plead their cases, the judge declares that it is neither the fault of the goat herder nor the fault of the milk man. To truly find out whose fault it is, he decides to hold a trial between the goat and the rock. The judge sends his bailiffs to bring forward the goat and the rock. The goat comes fairly easily. The rock comes with a struggle.

Soon, word of the trial spreads throughout the village. The trial is held in the town center, and all of the townspeople come to witness the ridiculous trial. The judge speaks. “You have come to see a trial between a rock and a goat, which is a foolish thing. Thus, you have come to see me make a fool out of myself. The only fair judgment is to fine each of you a few coins for ‘improper thoughts.’” The money is collected and given to the milk man who is able to purchase a new jug and continue his work.

Everyone in the village was involved and while some resented having to contribute their own money to a situation that didn’t concern them, they all felt that they had been part of the solution.

It’s an interesting parable for our time, as we continue to debate the role of taxation, welfare and social security. From the right and the left, we are seeking to find the balance of personal liberty and communal responsibility. It’s also a story that illustrates a profound spiritual truth. As hard as you may try to live an independent life and keep to yourself, your actions inevitably impact others. As hard as a nation may try to assert its independence in the world, it too is part of a global village. And as much as we humans live as if we can do whatever we want, consume whatever we want, control whatever we want, we forget that we too are part of the whole ecosystem of life.

The American pastor and peace activist, William Sloane Coffin, who died just a few years back said,

The new survival unit is no longer the individual nation; it’s the entire human race and its environment. This newfound oneness is only a rediscovery of an ancient religious truth. Unity is not something we are called to create; it’s something we are called to recognize.

Where Does the Responsibility End?

So we are connected to each other in a social contract, or using Judeo/ Christian language a social covenant. How far does this stretch? Are there limits? Where does the responsibility start and end? Your immediate family? Or does your responsibility stretch to include your extended family? As a parent, you might imagine that your job is done when the kids leave home. But they keep coming back! And the family keeps getting larger. Now you worry about the grandkids, and you include in-laws and their extended family in your life. Is extended family the extent of your responsibility? Do you have a loyalty to your communities, or to your nation? Do you have a responsibility beyond your nation and beyond your species?

When the Pilgrims arrived in America on the Mayflower they signed what they called a Social Compact which gave them a way to organize themselves socially and politically. It modeled certain principles that we still take for granted. The only problem was that it didn’t include women and it didn’t acknowledge the indigenous people whose land they were about to invade. Our social contracts need to include as many stake holders as possible. Too often, it’s the loudest or wealthiest stake holders whose interests take precedence.

I will never forget the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. 2000 was the last year that we lived in Sydney and the buzz was phenomenal. The city was full of people and good energy. The streets were all clean. New roads were built. Buildings and facilities were updated. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see milk and honey raining from the clouds. But behind the fa├žade shown to the world, something took place that was completely corrupt and offensive. And now I have discovered that it happens in cities around the world before Olympic Games and large political conventions. Thousands of homeless people were randomly arrested for loitering, and were either jailed or bussed several hundred miles out of the city. Sydney was put on the global map in 2000. But the cost was that we broke our social contract with those who needed support the most. We forgot that homeless people are part of us and our actions affect them.

To bring the thought close to home, this week a junior at a local High School ended his life with a gun. I don’t pretend to know the situation or the motivation, but I have heard that there was a long history of bullying that went back to Middle School. He was apparently a quiet and intelligent kid, which made him a target. This breaks my heart. We are ALL part of perpetuating a culture where some people are not safe, where it’s not okay to be quiet and intelligent, a society where if you are different from the norm you are safer to fly under the radar than boldly be who you are. His death rests in part on all of our consciences for allowing bullying to take place. Bullying is a breach of the social contract that everyone should be able to live freely without fear of harm.

Our responsibility in the social contract extends to homeless people and to teenagers in the local school, and to future generations who will inherit the planet. How far does it stretch? Our responsibility stretches as far as our consciousness has revealed to us that our connections run. In this day and age of global communication, and rapid movement of information, there is little excuse for having a limited or tribal mentality. We are connected all the way from east to west, south to north. One of the best ways to expand this consciousness is gratitude. Rather than make our responsibility to each other a matter of guilt or shame, think about it in terms of gratitude that stretches all the way back and all the way forward.

Gratitude and the Social Contract

After a heavy rain an old man began digging holes in his garden. His neighbor asked him, “What are you doing?” “Planting mango trees”, he said. The neighbor said, “Do you expect to eat mangoes from those trees?” He replied, “No. I won’t live long enough for that. But others will. All my life I have enjoyed mangoes planted by other people. This is my way of showing them my gratitude.

It’s a beautiful story that reminds us that someone once worked hard to make possible all the things we now take for granted. Second, our actions now create the ground on which future life on earth will sustain itself. Gratitude creates connections we hadn’t even thought of; connections with the earth, connections with each other and connections between our actions and future life.

Gratitude is one of the most enlightened human responses. It gets you beyond yourself. It’s close to altruism. There must have been a time, many years ago, where someone in a cave decided not to eat the food and instead to share it with others. One of the first acts of community, and you can imagine the surprise. And there must have been a first time that someone extended generosity beyond their tribe. And so it began. There must have been a first time that someone extended their sense of responsibility to include all living things. Gratitude helps us to appreciate others and to see our life as an opportunity to pay this gratitude forward. Gratitude brings us back to the web of life that supports our existence, our social contract with all living beings.

Social Contract and Human Nature

The idea of a social contract was part of the Enlightenment that arose in England and France in the 18th century. Their new understanding of human nature and community spread to America and was hugely influential in the foundation of the rule of law in this country. They wrestled with the question of what happens when people are left to their own devices. What is human nature capable of doing to a society?

The big breakthrough of the Enlightenment was that everybody was included in the social contract. Up to that point the religious sense of tribalism and God-ordained order justified excluding or marginalizing certain people or groups. Now the social contract included all people, in theory at least. The social contract says that all people are free and equal, and each person has inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This sense of egalitarianism was one of the great benefits of the Enlightenment, that emphasized the freedom and self empowerment that we now enjoy to craft our own spiritual path.

The downside of the Enlightenment view was that they didn’t have an optimistic view of human nature. The basic idea to come out of the Enlightenment was that if we were left to our own devices, our human nature, there would be chaos. It would be Lord of the Flies on a global scale. Each would act selfishly to ensure their own survival. Because human nature is essentially rational, we agree to enter a social contract to overrule our human nature. We now have a more nuanced view of human nature. I will return to this theme.

In general terms, the social contract is a fine ideal. However we know that even with a social contract homeless people get bussed out of town before Olympic Games without a thought to their rights, and kids commit suicide without enough questions being asked about the culture of bullying.

Community and Consciousness

As long as people suffer innocently there is more work for all of us to do. Stretch your consciousness to include all living things. Take some responsibility for the suffering of people near and far and do what you can to ease their suffering.

At the same time, continue to explore the essence of human nature. While much religion takes a mostly negative view of human nature saying that the basic human impulse is selfish, look more deeply into human potential. Traditional Christian language speaks about repentance as if you are changing natures. In this scheme, you are changing from the sinful nature to a holy nature. It’s a disempowering view. Another way to think about repentance is the movement from unconscious thoughts to conscious thoughts or awareness. The more you make your unconscious mind, which drives the majority of your life and decisions, conscious, the more successful, connected and compassionate you will be.

When you think of going deeper, or exploring the inner world, think of this as making unconscious thoughts conscious. The deeper you go, the more you discover “the inner extrovert” as David Brooks described it in his new book The Social Animal. The more self aware you are, the more connected you feel to others. The suffering of others feels like your own suffering, and your compassion compels you to live with greater care and kindness.

I’m going to revisit this issue over the coming weeks to explore practical ways of making the unconscious world conscious. This is not just an academic discussion. The safety of teenagers, the rights of indigenous people and the very future of the species, rides on our ability to participate in this shift to consciousness. More to come on this issue. For now, simply consider your social contract and how far your responsibility reaches. Instead of taking a guilt trip, explore an attitude of gratitude as a pathway to consciousness that includes more and more living beings in your care and concern.

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