I am on the planning committee of the International Political Camp at Agape Centro Ecumenico in the Italian Alps. Because I am always at a loss to describe exactly what Agape is to the uninitiated—and there is no way to truly grasp this ecumenical collective until one has visited—I will reference Agape’s description of itself from their website:
Agape international ecumenical centre is a place of encounter where one lives an intense experience of community in beautiful natural surroundings. Agape was and is an important point of reference in Italian Protestantism, for 50 years a place of education and development, theological exploration, political engagement, of acceptance and validation of differences. Every year many people, diverse in their religion, culture, ages, political thinking, come to Agape for one week to discuss and to be challenged, to get to know themselves and each other and to exchange experiences around a particular theme.
Agape describes itself as an “Ecumenical centre”, where ecumenism is understood in broad terms. An encounter among believers of different faiths and denominational backgrounds certainly, but also secular in character so that those who are not believers can also feel at home. In an open dialogue among atheists, agnostics and believers, each participant comes to lose his or her presumptions in claiming to know and possess the truth.
This year the theme of the International Political Camp was Violence, and camp attendees had a chance to consider many different specific scenarios of violence, resistance efforts and regenerative communities in order to grasp the deep interconnections of every level of violence—from globalization, to ethnic marginalization to domestic brutality.
In the middle of the week we planned a role-play game in which the camp was to enact a global summit considering a potable water shortage. The game presented a scenario wherein the world is running out of fresh water, so the United Countries of the Almost Arid Planet were to gather for an extraordinary General Assembly to address the situation. In attendance were corporate interests, highly paid water experts, emerging world superpowers, impoverished counties, civil society organizations, and radical grassroots activists.
In their presentation, the rhetorical tactic of the corporate giants and the reigning world superpowers was clear: to exploit the fear of scarcity that compels individuals and societies on the deepest level. Lack of food, lack of money, lack of love, lack of hope: what is more terrifying and galvanizing than lack?
The notion of scarcity can be successfully engaged to accrue fear among the most reasonable of communities. The superpowers of our water game concocted an argument that artfully balanced arrogance, benevolence, shaming other countries, and promises of protection, all delivered in pseudo-religious language—Hallelujah! Although the woman who creatively engendered this role is from South Africa, she clearly saw a compelling model of arrogant threat in GW Bush-era America. In classic elitist patois, she cajoled her summit members to uphold to uphold the God-given right of every citizen to a swimming pool. Hallelujah. If her decrees went unsupported, she argued, the planet would dry up like a raisin and we would have neither Evian nor parfum with which to dally through our daily lives.
The flipside of scarcity, of course, is abundance. The dark side of abundance, of course, is greed. Gandhi said, “The resources of the Earth are sufficient to satisfy the needs of all, but never to satisfy the greed of a few.” The root of the economic crisis we face today is greed. There is an imbalance between the concepts of what is necessary for life and what we desire and crave.
Human rights assert the due distribution of human needs. Nobody needs a $600,000,000 yacht; nobody even needs cable television. When 1/7th of humans on Planet Earth live in a state of absolute scarcity and deprivation, that episode of Dexter on Showtime Demand seems a little…frivolous.
But damn—it’s hard to let go of that stuff. I love my iPod. I want a MacBook Air real bad. There’s a pair of boots I feel like I can’t live without. And I consider myself a decently conscientious consumer.
Current collaborative transnational councils, aid organizations, the UN, healers and even the self-help industry indicate together that age-old systems of hierarchical resource imbalance, reinforcement of power and patriarchy through violence and inequity, and resource hegemonies are not working. These frameworks perpetuate brokenness.
The worldwide presence of healing agents is a reaction to a broken system; if it were sustainable for countries to remain individuated and solipsistic, the UN would never have developed. It may be human nature to protect one’s own interests. But the mindset of scarcity and the tendency toward greedy accumulation beyond reasonable need leads to imbalance and eventual crisis. For a body, it leads to morbid obesity. For a country, it leads to a burst bubble and depleted human capital.
How can we as modern humans evolve beyond what is “natural,” beyond what is essentially animalistic, beyond our innate animal instincts to packrat and hibernate on stockpiled goods, sharing them—if we share—only with our kin? As humans we possess self-transcending creativity that enables us with self-awareness and an imaginative vision of a better world, which in turn demands a harnessing of transcendent imaginative power and a commitment to the evolution of consciousness and behavior. If we do not break from privatized acquisitive cycles we fail to evolve our generation, our tiny and vital moment in the span of humankind. The immediate gratification of acquisitive behavior is a short-term solution.
In order to justify the sacrifices of evolving from greed to equitable resource sharing, a broader, the broadest, perspective must be adopted. Our “team,” instead of our own asset pool or immediate families or ethnic group or religious affiliates or profiteering colleagues or economic class, becomes humanity in its multi-millennial span. Defending our own becomes, paradoxically, an enterprise of sharing.
Buddhist cosmology proffers the image of the hungry ghost: the constantly feasting, never satisfied consumer. How often have I daydreamed of acquiring the newest gadget—usually a beautifully-designed multi-application Apple product—how often have I saved for it—how often have I spent inordinate amounts of money on it—how often have I become obsessively convinced that my new iPod will inspire me to exercise more, or my new MacBook will inspire my eloquence and productivity, or than an iPhone will enable me to carry less in my bag, enjoy deeper connections with loved ones, and generally be super-duper carefree?
And how often have I not used them all that much after I acquired them? How often have these items immediately been upgraded after my purchase and made the gadget seem obsolete, lackluster, and not nearly as cool as the new model that I should obviously acquire now?
How often is this promise of happier exercise, easier writing, and an unburdened shoulder just out of reach? How much more do I enjoy my life when I turn off my electronics or leave them at home and engage my organic resources—brain, heart, body—in order to connect with the person, book, tree in front of me? Strangely enough, a new Apple product, for as long as it lasts or stays current, has only upgraded my life by negligible degrees. Far more revolutionary are moments in my life when I engage my natural resources: I make a new friend and we laugh together. I walk down a trail without headphones and I hear birds, insects, and my own footsteps. I fall in love. I leave a dubious romance for the void of uncertainty. I carefully taste apples, soup, chocolate and tea. I smell fresh air. I am kissed.
Why is acquisition so very compelling? What is this fundamental sense of deprivation? Why am I still convicted that something I can buy or take away from someone else is going to lighten my step, heighten my energy, brighten my outlook? It’s a habit. It’s my big inner empty that can sometimes feel like peace, but usually it feels like hollowness. It’s a love-shaped hole inside of me that I want to fill and fill with things that feel-good-right-now because I can’t seem to find love. But my big empty is a hungry ghost. The only thing that ever fills it is when I’m not trying to fill it: when I’m engaged with something much bigger than my big empty, bigger than my short-term desires, bigger than my…me.
The impulse to protect a child is natural and imminently justifiable. Children have fewer resources, of wealth and self-protective strength, than do adults. They need to be protected and provided with carefully-chosen food and companions and education. They lack discipline, they singularly focus on the demands of pleasure and pain, and they are totally preoccupied with emotions. How aptly does this also describe the rawer moments of any adult? How can the imperative to care for a child, to raise and rear a child, be applied to the more adolescent aspects of our grown selves?
When my childish big empty throws a temper tantrum for that pair of boots I can’t live without, how does my internal maternal bring a reassuring message of broad perspective and the annoying but dependable truth that the joy that those boots will bring me will last for a fraction of my existence? How can I maintain resource equity vigilance when I really want those boots?
Most will agree on the importance of caring for children; the commitment to care for the adolescents among nations, the least developed and the most subject to exploitation among us, is not so readily agreed or acted upon. How can we raise resource-weaker nations into a family of nations, a unit strong as its weakest link, a network of relationships and complementary resources? We begin by unplugging; by making a friend from another country. By smelling fresh late-summer breezes. By choosing, for today or longer, to forego the new boots and acquire something that is actually sustainable. I don’t know what that is for you. I don’t always know what that is for me. But it’s probably not a new pair of boots.
In the long run, greed-driven resource imbalance fails again and again and again. In an individual life, often only catastrophe can induce commitment to turn away from selfishness and turn toward the common good. Prior to such catastrophic deliverance it is possible to skim along in misery indefinitely. And even after crisis, when things return to normal, without repeated intentional commitment to change, the clarity and fruits of catastrophe can slide back into the status quo.
Our world generally skims along in such a disassociated state of miserable inequity. Occasionally a macrocrisis will arise: September 11, a world war, the present international economy—and catastrophic deliverance is engaged. Giant corporations fail. Countries go bankrupt. The erratic climate freezes or burns an entire year’s harvest. CEOs cannot hide their amassing, never-satisfied greed, and their corruption is publicly exposed. Hallelujah.
Then the clarity of deliverance emerges: the UN is founded. Climate resolutions are engaged. Corporate watchdogs demand fiscal transparency. For a while, of course. Some paradigms concretely change, and some fade and skim flatly into misery again.
Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it.” Thus paradigm shifts of the highest order are called for, phoenixes rising out of catastrophe, vigilant commitments to evolving consciousness and interdependence.
How can you do your part? How can I do mine? I can engage all of my musing on higher consciousness and experiment with pausing my acquisitions. Maybe the things that seem like they’ll make my life happier or easier…maybe they won’t. Maybe I won’t buy them. Maybe I’ll wait until “want” strengthens and lightens into “need.” Then my acquisitions would be nourishing and not just junk food. Maybe then I could acquire something worth keeping, something that can last. But what is that?
I’m asking lots of huge questions. I’m not providing many answers. This is what happens at Agape: you learn to ask questions that you never thought of before and you ache for answers. You are stimulated by the absence of answers and you learn to rest in that uncertain, groping, questioning, hoping place. Barbara Colorose said, “If you can’t solve it, it’s not a problem. It’s reality.”
I’ve learned from Paul Tillich that there are no answers to such questions, and anything that stands as answer cannot be canonized into rigid dogma, because then it just becomes another problem, another idol, another temporal acquisition. All we can do is keep asking, and venture dynamic answers for our own hearts and lives. This is a spiritual practice in itself.
One of the speakers at Agape Centro Ecumenico this summer delivered a lecture on American Indian spirituality. Robert Hayward, Ho-Chunk, Winnebago, Bear Clan visited Agape from Southern California to teach us about the indigenous American’s approach to ownership. He instructed each of us to find a rock in the Alpen wilderness that felt like Our Rock; a rock that spoke to us; a rock we thought was beautiful or striking. A rock we wanted to keep. We all held and admired our special rocks and stood in a circle. Then we passed them around the circle and put our goodwill into each other’s rocks. By the time our rocks journeyed around the circle and back to our hands, they were warm from our neighbor’s grasp, glowing with the coziness of our little earnest group. Then Robert asked us to give our rock away.
We had to give it away because it wasn’t really ours. Because nothing that lasts can really be owned, possessed, or acquired. The earth is not ours. Our clothes, our houses, our laptops, our Facebook accounts—all these things pass away in time or come into new hands that assume ownership. The body is not ours, other people are not ours, time is not ours. All we can truly collect and give away is love. That is the only thing that is ours to give, and the more we give away the more we have to give away. Love is the only infinitely renewable free resource. Hallelujah.