Tipping Points

A year ago this weekend, my husband and I attended a rally in Madison to protest changes made by our then-new governor and a state government whose Republican majority supported him. That Governor Walker won the election with only a 52% majority perhaps foretold the divisiveness to come, but I don’t think many of us anticipated the cataclysmic changes or acrimonious conflicts ahead.

Over the past year, the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public sector employees (with the exception of police and fire fighters), the draconian cuts to public school funding (in the neighborhood of 900 million dollars), the implementation of voter identification requirements, and dozens of other measures taken to ostensibly “manage the money” of our state, have split its people and created an atmosphere of such vitriol and mistrust that friends and families have parted company and once-strong professional alliances have broken beyond repair.

Whatever merit existed in these changes and whatever “good” they have contributed to the state budget, they have come at too great a cost to the spirit and people of the place I have called home most of my life. I continue to protest the manner in which these changes have been enacted and I am anguished by the attitudes of disrespect and indifference with which those in the majority have flouted their power. But I am equally affronted by much of the oppositions’ language and inability to focus on policy rather than the individuals with whom they disagree.

Over a million signatures—540,208 were required–were collected to force a recall election of Governor Walker and his lieutenant governor, and other signatures have ensured the potential recall of other state legislators, including our own district’s senator, the majority leader of the state senate.

These recall elections will take place within the next few months. I’ve joined thousands of others in supporting the recall elections, but I dread the anger, distortions, and noise the campaign advertising will likely spew and the bitterness they will engender. My conscience led me to protest the choices and to participate in what I felt were just actions to stop those in power from creating further damage, but I’m so disappointed it’s come to this, and I’ve tried to proceed cautiously. I want to remain hopeful regarding the outcome.

What continue to sadden and perplex me are the perceived and dangerous changes in our degrees of dialogue, courtesy, and compromise that have shadowed this entire process, a reflection of the larger national shifts in political and social discourse, and in the sensationalized way they are presented and reported by our media.

I wonder a lot these days about lines that are drawn with humorous intent that then becomes sarcastic, then cynical, and then hate-fueled…when do these lines become too dangerous to cross? When do they become walls?

At what point do words incite action and then violent action? Are there a given number of rally cries, or decibels, that convert a crowd into a mob? When does a discussion become an argument and an argument a war? When does a perceived threat overtake reason?

What creates the necessary energy to make me forget my connection to everyone in my community and align myself with only those who think as I do?

What, finally and irreversibly, causes us to see each other as enemy? 

When did some Germans, or Poles, or Hungarians look at their Jewish neighbors and begin to see them as expendable? And how did “some” become “more” and then “enough?” What shift allowed Rwandan Hutus to pick up axes, and knives, and spears to murder their lifelong Tutsi neighbors? How could the English elite turn away from my own ancestors’ starvation? How could they ignore Irish people eating dirt and families dying in fields? How could anyone ever consider anyone else his property? How were the United States shaped by justifying the destruction of those who were already settled here? Is it possible to freeze the moment when my vision alters, my self-awareness fades, and my heart turns?

We’re always walking on see-saws and there are tipping points everywhere.

People read historical accounts of human atrocities and shake their heads. How did that happen; what were they thinking; how could they allow it? But I doubt those living into such times conceived what they would become. We must always be aware of our words and their power, our energy and what it can harness, our shadow and where its neglect may lead us.

The usual suspects: greed, power, fear and ignorance are like liquid mercury, and only mindful attention to the direction they’re flowing and ways they’re joining forces—within and without–works in our favor. So we must slow down. See the human frailty in ourselves and the other. Be brave enough and energetic enough to counter injustice before it overwhelms.

We must never be willing to sit back in silence when there are people and governments who must be held accountable for their behavior, but we have to focus on the behavior, the flawed thinking, the likely damage, not engage in hating the individuals. And we must be willing to take a long and penetrating look at our own motives and behavior. Make apologies when necessary. Proceed with care.

Begin and end with love.

 A news program I admire for its maturity and impartiality is The News Hour on PBS; an added attraction is that women guests, reporters, and newscasters are as prominent as men. I especially enjoy David Brooks and Mark Shields for their respectful way of presenting opposing views: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/indepth_coverage/politics/political_wrap/


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5 thoughts on “Tipping Points

  1. The current tone of public comment is shocking to me, i try to isolate myself from it as much as possible. I have a friend who is dealing with being a minimally prominant TV personality , and seeing her dealing with the opinions of the underinformed and overly opinionated has been interesting.

    It is hard to see clearly as part of a group. I’m currently reading “Savages and Scoundrels” by Paul VanDevelder, as a follow up to “1491” by Charles Mann. Quite the antidote to “Litlle Women”.

    I’d be interested in your take on collective “historical guilt” . Is there anything beyond awareness of what have been the turning points? And to whom can one apologize? The milk is spilled, centuries of it.


  2. There are so many more avenues to explore when considering collective guilt than I can possibly address in a few paragraphs; the risk is always that some huge omission will be apparent and gaping in my response; it’s probably best to begin with an apology for remarks that are cursory…

    For me, these are questions that ask, “How do we heal?”

    I think that when books like 1491 and Savages and Scoundrels are written and published, they need to be read and used as school texts; I’m grateful I live in a “country” where that can happen and where myths about humans like “our forefathers” can be revised; that is one way to correct/re-vision the story, and can contribute to atonement and reconciliation between a people victimized and a people who benefitted from (and continue to benefit from) the betrayal of others.

    Other acts that are necessary for mending, healing, and restoring justice include rituals, both secular and religious, that involve confession and forgiveness. Open dialogues; honored anniversaries; compensation of rights, land, money…there’s no end to the ways some sense of justice can be reinstated, but I think there is an end to the length of time some of these types of choices remain effective and the emphasis has to become more focused upon here/now, an awareness of our present-day complicity in injustice, and actions undertaken to transform and assist the healing of all.

    I can’t locate within my heart a great feeling of guilt for being a “white person” (whose known ancestors were not slaveholders), but I can certainly see the lasting effects slavery has bequeathed our country and work to change and heal these. I can see how prejudice continues to divide my society and how I and generations of my “family” have benefitted from it. But I also believe we can’t continue to hold the victim or victimizer labels too tightly; they become roles we can unconsciously incorporate into our present choices. And how far back in time do I go? Am I genetically part Vandal, or Visigoth? How do I make amends for benefitting distantly, but cellularly, from my Viking invader ancestors? Guilt is important to notice, feel, and address; I don’t know that it’s valuable to cling to and cherish, or use for eternal self-condemnation.

    To keep dividing ourselves into victims and victimizers also keeps us divided into us/them camps; but we’re all both of these, pretty much always. For example, global markets may have moral benefits, but they also allow us to be slaveholders in that we buy products created by underpaid, overworked, physically and morally abused workers…who are human beings. Because it’s taking place in a geographically distant location, we don’t think about it.

    We have to think about it, and to care; we need a “readiness” for awareness, which can be taught. It’s never “done.” Perhaps we use our current awareness and make the choice to buy locally as much as possible. But maybe a local manufacturer benefits from corporate tax exemptions when such funds would truly help counter the pollution it causes, or the company hires people at just enough hours to deny benefits, or lays off workers close to retirement and the benefits they’ve worked years to earn…as customers, we’re still participating in injustice. Locally, of course, we have more efficient use of our power to effect change…

    We can reach a point where we’re overwhelmed by guilt, choices, the need to be forgiven and to forgive. We can’t make “everyone in the whole world” just, aware, compassionate, and healed, but we can start with ourselves and then work to help our own “little corner” of the world heal and be healed. This is what I’m after when I promote “living from the spirit level: Continual pondering, reassessing, reflecting, and openness to the transformation of my own garden, which I can hope will contribute to the health of gardens others are creating. It’s important to say that I have no right or power to command others to “forgive, now!” And I would never invite any of us to forget acts of injustice. There are necessary choices that can only be made by each of us, the individuals who make up the various “collectives” of victims and victimizers, who have suffered individual atrocities, losses, and negations of sacredness…collective guilt always requires individual responsibilities and choices, and none of us can judge another’s willingness or readiness regarding embracing forgiveness.

    For me, what has helped are commitments to daily meditation, nightly examen or reviews of my choices, working/making efforts to become more aware and conscious regarding the web(s) I’m part of, listening, listening, listening…and laughing at myself. I think of Sholem Aleichem’s beloved character Tevye (adapted for Fiddler on the Roof), and how he continually ponders, reconsiders, assesses his readiness to change his views and enlarge his spirituality…or not. Tevye is exactly what I mean by living from the spirit level.

    I also have been challenged by loving-kindness meditations that begin with self-compassion and extend outward to holding those I somehow define as “enemy” in the same circle of love and light I have granted myself and those I love. I feel resistance every time I do this and do it anyway, because I know we’re all connected to the same Source and to hate any part of it is to hate myself and our Source.

    When we know the triggers we can choose to pull them less and work towards setting the guns down, once, and hope the “once” may become forever.

    I think making apologies—sooner than later, but only when and if we resonate with readiness; confronting injustice/speaking our truth in love; letting go of the need for “revenge;” and, especially, befriending our own shadows, are some of the most valuable choices we can make to heal injustice and collective guilt, and these are behaviors that can also be taught. I question our need to compete and win and vanquish, and the vocabulary and activities that promote this. We’re never “there,” but we can consciously challenge ourselves to keep pursuing clarity and greater depths of understanding, and seek/revisit teachers who help us do so.

    I continue to be inspired by acts of “revolutionary forgiveness,” as I call it.

    Two relatively recent examples that come to mind: In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom shared the amazing transformation of her life (after age 50) that included harboring Jewish neighbors as part of the Dutch Resistance, imprisonment in Ravensbruck, the loss of her father, her sister, other beloved family and friends, her “narrow escape” from death and her profound struggle with her faith and the need to forgive. This led her to open a home that offered healing to those who had victimized their fellow humans so horrifically (largely through reconnecting them with the infinite mercy and renewal of the earth by gardening). I’m always stunned by this choice, because I “naturally” want to heal the victims and “punish” the perpetrators, but everyone needs healing, or the legacies of suffering, shame, denial, and etc. continue to haunt, color, and be projected upon the human landscape.

    The other example is more recent: The 2006 massacre of school girls in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, PA, by a non-Amish member of the community, who then committed suicide. Parents of the slain children went to the murderer’s parents that same night to reach out and re-connect, and several attended the murderer’s funeral, which they later said was a hugely important part of their own healing.

    Such choices leave me on my knees and reaching, both of which are good positions for spiritual growth and transformation, and—ultimately–healing.


  3. Catherine, your posts always speak so deeply to me.

    Something to keep in mind. . . Susan Cain, in “Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” referenced the work of Gregory Berns at Emory University
    on brain activity and social conformity. (here’s a link to the study paper: http://www.ccnl.emory.edu/greg/Berns%20Conformity%20final%20printed.pdf} It seems that when humans are challenged as not being in sync with social norms, their perceptions actually change in response to what he calls “the pain of independence”

    It goes a long way to explaining the “mob rule” phenomenon and how important it is to retain our own sense of clear seeing and independent thinking. For me, it removed my own judgemental attitude towards those who are stuck in this kind of thinking and encouraged me to add to the “tipping point” in the opposite direction!

    Such a thoughtful and thought filled post; thank you.


  4. Thanks so much for your engagement and this resource; I’ll look forward to reviewing it! I’ve been enjoying the challenges and reviews offered by Michael Singer’s “The Untethered Soul;” Berns’ work sounds like a good companion.


  5. Thank you for the thoughtful consideration of my question, your multifaceted approach is helpful, and problems of this complexity can only be “leaned on”, of course, not solved.

    In deep appreciation! ! !


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