Reflection 47: Stewardship

January 9, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989 was due to a failure of consciousness. So was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. As was the Visigoth sacking of Rome led by Alaric in 410 CE, and likely the Achaean sacking of Troy in the 11th-century BCE. In modern times, global warming and sea-level rise result from similar failures of consciousness, along with the Enron hoax, America’s preemptive war in Iraq, unsustainable lifestyles, the current recession, Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion scam, among other catastrophes due to lax regulation and oversight—personal and otherwise.

 

Consciousness is the control center of deliberate human activity. Much of what we do in the world is subject to its governance, including actions meant to gain an advantage by deceiving others who are not privy to our schemes and desires. Let the buyer beware, we say. Which we take as a license for perpetrating all manner of malevolent tomfoolery. Human nature? There you have a good portion of it. Resulting in much of the chaotic behavior we see around us on all sides. And, truth be told, which we ourselves indulge in when we think no one is looking.

 

Bernie Madoff would never take advantage of his friends, he’s just not that kind of guy. Except he is precisely that kind of guy and no one suspected. American consumers would never be stupid enough to sacrifice planet Earth for a few moments of comfort and convenience. Except, that is exactly who we are. Not collectively in the mass, but individually, each and every one. Especially those of us whose way of life demands maximum consumption of Earth’s limited resources.

 

Failures of consciousness are failures of vigilance, of personal husbandry and stewardship. Husbandry refers to careful management of resources. Stewardship comes from an ancient word meaning “to watch out for.” It has overtones of being aware, wary, watchful, and respectful. A steward is a kind of guard, keeper, or warden of nature’s gifts to us all. Consciousness is each person’s head steward. Its job is oversight of personal behavior to make sure it is appropriate to particular situations. When consciousness is devious, distracted, drunk, or asleep at the helm, anything goes.

 

Denial, secrecy, and subterfuge are means of throwing consciousness off track when it comes to governing our affairs. Here’s an example:

 

I am a member of a bay management advisory group on the coast of Maine. Our aim is to take fisheries management to a new level consistent with the ecological health of marine and estuarine ecosystems. Not along the entire coast, but in one small bay serving as a kind of prototype for exploring more effective ways of managing coastal resources.

One way of doing that might be to declare the bay a marine sanctuary or protected area. But Mainers have strong sympathies with folks who make a living at sea, so our group has adopted the double objective of protecting ecosystems and fishermen both through a strong emphasis on stewardship for the sake of sustainability.

          Which is where consciousness comes in. To set a limit on how much of a given resource (scallops, mussels, sea urchins, kelp, etc.) can be taken from the bay without disturbing the ecosystems they depend on, we have to figure how much of each resource is present in the bay, and set an allowable catch as a reasonable percentage of that total. Then we ask fishermen to report daily on their catch of target species and bycatch (of incidental species). Which requires stock assessments for each species, meaning someone has to dive down and count the population per unit area. That is, bring the bay’s actual situation into consciousness, along with the daily catch. If we can’t set the allowable catch as a percentage of the potential catch, we would be working in the dark and might as well pick a random number of pounds as allowable—or give up ecosystem-based management altogether.

          Fishermen are largely opposed to any kind of oversight aimed at their activities out on the water. They prefer confidentiality to transparency. I can’t blame them; who likes backseat drivers, even when they’re lost? Regulatory measures such as quotas, no-take zones, and harvest seasons go against their grain. But accurate stock assessments and mandatory reporting are essential if sustainable harvests are to become a reality. Thereby putting strong pressure on fishermen to become stewards of the marine ecosystems they depend on. Which is a little like appointing a fox as henhouse steward. Or like electing a realtor as head of the local planning board.

 

You see the problem. Consciousness is essentially a private and personal affair, whereas social interactions are best based on transparency and full disclosure. We can never be sure what lurks in another’s mind. If we cannot base our relationships on honesty, then we are wise to become cynics and suspect the worst.

 

What a sorry state of affairs. Amply illustrated by the current state of the world. Sink the Titanic, wreck the Earth—same thing. It’s not that consciousness is inherently flawed, it’s more the way we mortals apply it. We make the mistake of thinking our situation as we view it is at the heart of the real world. What do we know? Very little, it turns out, of all there is to be known. We are like fruit flies dreaming we are the point of life and run the whole show.

 

In the example above I used the phrase, “Stewardship for the sake of sustainability.” Which requires taking a larger view of the world stage than our personal situations allow. Consciousness is fine, as far as it goes. It just doesn’t cover very much of all that’s happening on Earth. We act in small and selfish ways on a planet that nurtures us all. Collectively, our acts are more than Earth can bear.

 

What to do? We’ve all got to become good stewards of the personal bailiwicks consciousness presents to us rather than sacking them for our short-term advantage as if they did not connect to every other bailiwick and to our common Earth as a whole. Which means acting not for ourselves alone, but acting as if we were delegates of Earth itself, which we are. That is, we have to rediscover transparency as an essential value so that in acting in light of personal consciousness we are acting on behalf of consciousness as a planetary accomplishment. We are conscious, not for ourselves alone, but for Earth itself. We are Earth’s eyes and ears.

 

That is what becoming stewards demands of us: being stewards unto ourselves so that we may share in the sustainability of all. Which is the opposite of the Bernie Madoff approach. It is up to us to take the initiative and do unto others as a sustainable Earth requires, not as a reflection of our puny selves-writ-large would do unto us.

 

Honesty, stewardship, and transparency first; sustainability will follow as a matter of course. That is one challenge humanity is facing (the other big one is our excessive population). Are we up to it? Each of us has the basic equipment. It is our choice whether to skillfully apply it or not.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Clouds, nothing but clouds. I am looking for a first sight of the Rocky Mountains, but all I see through the windshield is clouds. Flanked by my brothers and two dogs, I am in the back seat of the car. My parents are in front. I am leaning forward, looking down the road toward the horizon. Which is hidden by clouds. The family is moving to Seattle. We’ve gotten to eastern Colorado, which is flat, offering long views ahead. Of clouds. I keep looking. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Half an hour. Nothing but clouds. I am about to burst with disappointment when, suddenly, the white clouds, those same ones I’ve been peering at all the while—turn into snow-capped mountains. The Rockies! I see them! Nobody says a word. They’ve seen them all along.

 

Strange business. Looking, but not seeing. Or seeing wrongly. Then in a blink seeing rightly. We project what we know onto what we see, and if we are unprepared for novelty, we see the same old, same old. The people elected Bush-Cheney (according to the Supreme Court), not once but twice—because of the war in Iraq. Fooled ya, suckers! Suddenly we realize Bernie Madoff is a crook! All along we thought he was a pal. Everyone did. Ha. He madoff with their dough. Suckers! Me included (as if I knew Bernie, or had any money to invest). In my own way I’m a sucker. Maybe you are, too.

 

Fresh out of high school, I’m in Nespelum, Washington, on the banks of the Columbia River. This time there are clouds too, but I’m not looking at them, or at the river. I’m too busy digging a hole in the ground. Looking for Indian artifacts. The Chief Joseph Dam is under construction, and this ground will be flooded. I’m a volunteer with a team of archaeologists from the University of Washington. Three feet down, I think I’ve found something. Hard, white. I switch from trowel to whisk broom and toothbrush. There’s a suture. Looks like a skull. Brush, brush. Blow, blow. See, it’s rounded, like a dome. Brush, brush. Gotta be a skull. We haven’t found any human remains on this dig. I’m gonna be first! Brush, brush. The dome has a funny edge. Brush, brush. A ridge, like Neanderthals had. This has gotta be really old. After hours of brushing away a few grains of sand at a time, I have much of the dome exposed, ridge and all. A real archaeologist comes by to see how I’m doing. Whatchagot there, Steve? Looks like some kind of turtle.

 

Rightly or wrongly, seeing is believing. Along with Bush-Cheney and Bernard Madoff, even my own eyes can deceive me. And so can yours. Who can we trust? Who indeed? John D. Rockefeller’s dad played a game with him in the kitchen. Little Johnny’d climb into a chair, stand up, then jump toward his father. Who always put his arms out to catch him. Until the one time he didn’t. That’s to teach you not to trust anybody, not even your father, he said.

 

That’s a hard lesson to learn. Not even my own eyes? Not even your own eyes, or your own ears. What can I say? If you want to work with your consciousness, you might as well enjoy the adventure of learning how to do that. It won’t be easy and will be full of surprises, but learning how to double check your senses and the reality they present for your approval will be well worth the effort.

 

Then you can move on to establishing a working relationship with your unconscious mind, which will take even longer. The more we learn about the workings of our senses, the farther “reality” drifts off into the middle distance. Sadder perhaps but wiser, we are left to contemplate the view from where we are standing.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

I once spoke at a wedding, advising those assembled to lead an original life. I was addressing the happy couple, but spread the word more broadly. The couple had a child in short order, but she soon found out he was a druggie and of little use, so she divorced him. It is harder to be original when coupled with a demanding other than by yourself. Even so, it is never easy to deliberately and consciously live your own life.

 

In Self-Reliance, Emerson wrote: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Which I wholeheartedly endorse. At first as well as last, your consciousness is your most valuable possession. Let others lead their lives while you tend to yours. They will be full of advice as to how you should go about it. Listen, but then trust your own judgment and inspiration. Yes, you will make mistakes, but the main thing to be sure of is they are your own mistakes so there’s no one else to blame. That way your learning will belong to you.

 

Which sounds like a retread of a moral tract worn smooth. But I intend it as a spur to creativity, not conformity. Our value to one another is in our originality, not our sameness. If we were composed of interchangeable parts, we would be robots and live interchangeable lives. But that’s not how it is. Each of us has something to add to the world. For proof, look to the blogosphere. All those voices in the wilderness, no two alike. Offering their wares, thoughts, opinions, feelings—whatever they care about. To dismiss them is to miss the point. They are trying to make it happen, whatever it is. Every blogger has his or her private agenda. Blogs are like sunspots: they erupt from the inside.

Which is why we are a mass of damp protoplasm run through with strands of sinew and muscle wrapped around a core of consciousness and unconsciousness. We are here to make things happen in our current situation, the circumstances that in practical terms make up our personal world. The world that counts for us because we are a part of it and it is a part of us.

In a world where others usually make things happen to us, how do we do that—make things happen inside-out? By using consciousness to our advantage. By pushing our mental worlds as far as they can go in framing our projects, whatever they may be. That is, laying the groundwork. Starting with the known and familiar of firsthand experience and heading toward the unknown and strange. Then letting go, trusting our mysterious unconscious to show us the way from there.

That is how I have written every blog in this series. I start with a small hunch or smattering of experience, and head out from there. I seldom know where I am going. There’s no outline, not even a goal. But I am heading somewhere for sure; it’s just I don’t yet realize my own destination. By jotting down keywords and phrases, then concentrating on filling in the gaps along the way, I get somewhere at least. Then I back off and let my other half take over—my unconscious mind. It already knows where I’m heading and helps me along, extending and completing what consciousness has been able to do on its own.

Consciousness and unconsciousness are flip sides of the same self. We are familiar with one; the other we don’t know, even though they are both flesh of the same flesh. The two work together, one in full view (on camera), the other in the shadows. You know this full-immersion approach is working once your project bubbles over into your dreams and dreamlike thoughts at 3:00 a.m. You’ve got to consciously prime the pump by throwing yourself into the project. Then let your unconscious carry you from there. One of life’s greatest discoveries is that it always will.

Before the Cuban missile crisis came to a head in October 1962, JFK carried on a secret, frank—and very unofficial—correspondence with Russian Premier Khrushchev, the two leaders comparing notes on their visions for what amounted to the future of the world. It was the mutual respect and understanding generated by this exchange that laid the groundwork of trust for the solution to the crisis when Russia removed its missiles from Cuba in exchange for removal of US missiles from Turkey. Without those backchannel letters that, once made public, outraged the military-industrial power structure so beloved of the CIA, the crisis likely would have festered into World War III and an exchange of nuclear missiles. (The full story is told in James W. Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable, Orbis Books, 2008.)

Our conscious and unconscious minds work as a team, exchanging data and feedback by channels we are completely unaware of—until a full-blown solution is announced. When I wrote during my island retreat in 1986-1988, I would often come to a block, which I took as a hint to go for a hike. Walking on snowshoes through the woods, my attention kept pace with the rhythm of my legs, but I stayed clear of the blockage that send me out. Until, after forty-five minutes, I suddenly saw through the obstacle to the landscape beyond. I just had to give my unconscious mind time to sort through the problem and come up with the answer that lay just out of reach. Which it did, invariably.

Consciousness frames the problem; unconsciousness works it through. If I (my conscious self) does its part, my twin (covert self) will finish the job. That way, I somewhat control my own output. I make conscious suggestions based on experience and research; my silent twin rounds out the whole. Both are in the same loop; I’m the one who knows only half of what’s going on. My unconscious half knows the rest. It’s a great feeling to discover the full picture spreading before me. After my hike, I pick up where I left off as if there’d been no break at all.

You don’t have to hike to give your unconscious time to work. You can listen to music, dance, stretch—any nonstressful activity will do. You can even take a nap or go to sleep. Your unconscious twin will stay at the helm.

The key to living an original life is doing your part the best you can, then trusting your shadow self to carry on while you do something else. You’ve got to prepare, practice, rehearse, mull, write drafts, and so on. There is no way you can avoid doing your share of the work. And doing it again, and again. This is your life; your task is to live it. After a while, you will so internalize what your are striving for that your unconscious self—which is as original as you are—will pitch in and give you a hand.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is get out of the way. That is, forget what others are telling you and listen to what your mind and your body are trying to tell you. As Emerson put it in Self-Reliance: “Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”

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(Copyright © 2008)

In this blog I have presented consciousness as a means of assessing novel situations so to derive and execute appropriate courses of action. Which sounds all very judicious and reasonable. But consciousness has its dark side. What can we make of the human mind when it perpetrates vicious acts inflicting excruciating pain and suffering—and even death—on other beings?

 

When I went through basic training at Fort Ord in 1955, I was taught to kill with pistol, rifle, and bayonet. I remember the infiltration course, Sarge leaning against a framework of beams holding a straw dummy suspended spider-like in its web, him shouting “Kill, kill, kill!” as I met the dummy, me thrusting bayonet into straw, so tired I could barely gasp a weak echo, “khill.” I was a mock killer.

 

But there are real killers in the world. As conscious and aroused as they are cruel. And fully conscious victims of atrocities, often women and children. And fully conscious indirect victims (it is safer to kill a wife than her husband, the intended victim, who gets off being humiliated). And fully conscious witnesses. And, drink in hand, fully conscious watchers of the news seated in comfortable living rooms on the far side of the world.

 

Here, too, is the human mind making sense of real life situations.

 

Journalist Ann Jones has a devastating piece on pages 16-20 in The Nation (Dec. 29, 2008): “A Crime Against Society: Rape destroyed the social fabric of Congo. Now women are beginning to repair it.” The gist is that women are trying to put social life in eastern Congo back together again. But the heart of the article is her depiction of the atrocities that Congolese women have suffered—and are still suffering:

 

Men singly or in gangs rape women and girls of all ages. (Recorded victims range in age from 2 months to 83 years.) Men also cut off women’s nipples or breasts, mutilate or cut off external genitalia, and eviscerate living pregnant women to remove and kill fetuses. After rape, men commonly insert foreign objects into the vagina: sticks, sand, rocks, knives, burning wood or charcoal, or molten plastic made by melting shopping bags. Killing the rape victim by firing a handgun or rifle inserted in the vagina is a common practice; some victims have survived. Rapists have blinded many women, apparently to prevent identification, and left countless others to die in the forest after chopping off their arms and/or legs. Soldiers also abduct women, and especially girls as young as 10 or 11, as captive “wives.”

 

Reading these words, I cannot imagine the women and girls’ suffering, but I can feel sympathy for the victims. I am stunned. Shocked that such things can happen. This is beyond truth and reconciliation. My urge is to round up the soldiers, cut off their penises, and leave them to die. Beyond that, I try to put myself in the killers’ place. What would drive me to perform such violent acts of deliberate cruelty? Who are these men, and how can they find such behavior appropriate? Ann Jones suggests a few answers in her article, but none of them justify the acts she depicts.

 

Then I remember crimes against humanity committed in other locations on other occasions. The Holocaust. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Darfur. Pearl Harbor. Incendiary bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, London. Assaults on Native Peoples everywhere. Napalm and agent orange in Vietnam. Mai Lai. Civilian deaths in the current Iraq War. Israeli bombings of Palestinians in Gaza.

 

Such horrors as Ann Jones relates are not limited to eastern Congo. Every one of us can be trained or driven to commit atrocities. And when questioned afterwards, we justify our actions because we feel we had ample reason to do what we did under mitigating circumstances. Consciousness always makes sense to itself. We did it because. . . (select your rationale of choice).

 

Those of us alive today are the survivors of atrocities. Born to survivors, who were born to earlier and earlier survivors, back to the beginning. Consciousness has been with us the whole way. Consciousness of drought, flood, famine, disease, war, cruelty of others, our own cruelty.

 

Does that excuse us, or make us a better, tougher, or more deserving class of people? Are we one bit nobler or more moral than the soldiers of Congo? As far as consciousness goes, is morality even relevant? Is the precious cargo of our genes the only thing that counts?

 

In Congo, countless women died horrible deaths. And even if they survived brutalization, part of them is dead. If soldiers are the victors, what kind of world—what kind of consciousness—have they won for themselves? As survivors, what kind of consciousness have we won for ourselves? If one eats while another starves, what kind of world is that? If one “earns” billions by victimizing others while billions scrape by, what kind of world?

 

We know what kind of world because we wake up to it every day. Consciousness has much to account for; it is no justification in itself for simply surviving. It comes at great price. Our assignment, should we chose to accept it, is to honor the suffering that got us where we are and sustains us today.

 

How honor suffering? By being aware of it, remembering it, and conducting ourselves accordingly. By doing our best by all concerned, which is everyone. Women as well as men. Children as well as adults. Aborigines as well as settlers. Workers as well as management. Strangers as well as friends.

 

Here it is a new year. In 2009, let us be fully conscious of those who suffer and die for us, that we may live the bravest we can on their behalf.

 

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