Held in Common
Connecting the dots in our lives.
Years ago I helped design and teach an ambitious two-semester course called “How We Think About Space” (first semester) and “How We Think About Time” (second semester). Each week featured a lecture from a different discipline. A math professor spoke about how geometry developed in the Nile valley to solve practical problems of land measurement. A biologist spoke about what defines an “eco-niche.” A physics professor gave a lively talk on the space-time continuum that involved running across the stage with a flashlight. A music professor spoke about spatial form in Bach’s compositions. A film studies professor showed clips that illustrated the very different ways “reel time” represents “real time”—a session that left me thinking ruefully about how I have become, over years of film viewing, impatient with transition time habituated as I am to quick cuts from one scene to the next. Life, I realized once again, imitates art. My own lectures were about representations of time and space in narrative and lyric forms. It was great fun. The lectures and subsequent conversations left us all more aware of how we inhabit and imagine where we are in the world and in history, and of how we think about who we are.
In the course of those invigorating semesters I had occasion to speak about maps and mapping. I studied up on cartography in preparation for a rather elementary lecture on the subject, searching out maps made by seventeenth-century explorers, by medieval city dwellers, and by contemporary textbook companies. As I prepared, one fact became more sharply apparent: all maps distort. I showed an image of a fifteenth-century map of the world that located Jerusalem at the centre with four rivers flowing outward from it to the edges of a circle, forming a great cross, around which were arranged the place names of known principalities.
We are connected by the needs that tie us to growing seasons and to other species. We are connected by the deep structures of language and, beneath and beyond words, by the musical rhythms that find their common source in heartbeats that became drumbeats around ancient fires.
The first question asked when everyone had had a moment to contemplate this wildly inaccurate “map” of the known world was “Why?” “Why, if they had, as they did, more accurate information, would a cartographer represent the world in this way?” It was, of course, a question I anticipated and welcomed. It offered occasion to imagine a mindset in which factual accuracy mattered less than a different kind of information—the sort one gets, for instance, from myths and teaching tales. It offered a chance to reflect on how every map is, in a sense, a “mattering map.” Topographical maps, political maps, maps of trade routes, navigational charts, maps of fault lines or paths of hurricanes serve specific purposes. They trace connections that matter, sometimes vitally, to hikers or sailors, surveyors or county assessors, emergency personnel or candidates for public office. (With respect to the last, I recently found a map of gerrymandered voting districts shockingly informative.) The highly stylized and (not irrelevantly) beautiful map that placed Jerusalem at the centre of the world reinforced a particular story about what lay at the heart of life on earth, and what had “gone forth” from that centre into all the world. It was wrong in so many ways. But it was elegant and right in what it was trying to represent with clarity and integrity.
Maps, like stories, buildings, horticultural designs, medical charts, institutional charters, and algorithms, are ways of affirming how things are connected. We are connected by waterways and roads, boundaries, winds, viruses, and vibrations as slight as the fluttering of a butterfly wing. We are connected by genes, 99.9 percent of which humans carry in common. We are connected by the needs that tie us to growing seasons and to other species. We are connected by the deep structures of language and, beneath and beyond words, by the musical rhythms that find their common source in heartbeats that became drumbeats around ancient fires. We are, many of us believe, connected by the love of God, knit together in one body, born of one Spirit, bound by ties more intimate than blood.
In light of all we have in common, the disconnection, fragmentation, insularity, xenophobia, chauvinism, and violence we witness on the nightly news and in city streets and even in churches and quiet-looking neighbourhoods are dismaying and puzzling. We might diagnose these social pathologies in terms of sin, or of rampant capitalism and a culture of competition, or of top-heavy technologies deracinated from the purposes they were designed to serve. We might see in them a reflection of an apocalyptic fear deaf to the angel’s voice that urges us to “be not afraid.”
But that angelic command, I believe, is more than a word of encouragement and comfort for anxious individuals; it is a word that summons us into a deeper understanding of common life, common purpose, and a common investment in stewardship of the planet—of the time and the place—we were given. It gives us a very specific instruction about how to live with integrity on this “darkling plain . . . Where ignorant armies clash by night,” to quote Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” The courage it takes to “be not afraid,” especially in what has become a culture of chronic fear, is a prerequisite to pursuing understanding and living with integrity: It takes courage to be curious enough to ask questions and hear answers that challenge the easy, “safe” assumptions we live by—that our way of life is normal, normative, and good; that our political processes function for everyone’s benefit; that we have a God-given right to what we own; that our national interests coincide with our spiritual welfare; that the information we receive from our five senses is accurate; that words mean what Merriam-Webster says they mean. Questions that challenge those convictions are hard to ask—and scary. The fear they evoke is divisive.
I’ve seen that fear take many forms in my decades as an educator. It’s easy to underestimate what we’re asking of people in the classroom. Before students can learn something new, something old has to be disturbed or dismantled. Something safe and apparently reliable has to be relinquished—the simple formula for the five-paragraph essay (which, as you see, I relinquished some time ago) or the notion that what is legal is moral, or the idea that God wrote the Bible in King James’s English. Sacrificing the simple teachings of the tribe that protected us as children is no small matter: if what your parents or Sunday school teacher or high school history teacher taught you isn’t sufficient, how do you know whom to trust? And by what do you reset your moral and intellectual compass?
Two classroom moments come back to me vividly as I think about fear of actually changing one’s mind, relinquishing one’s comfortable convictions, and widening one’s conversation with the world. One was in a comparative literature course where we read the Synoptic Gospels—three variant accounts of Jesus’s life and ministry. I taught this course at a secular institution where only about 10 percent of the students in the classroom claimed even general familiarity with the Gospel stories or Christian faith. We talked about the writers’ different audiences and purposes, about problems of interpretation, about translation, about the open-endedness of metaphor and meaning, about why Jesus might have taught in parables more than precepts. It was not a religion class, but a literature course that focused on what all agreed were still foundational texts for the culture we live in. At the end of the unit I asked how their notions about Jesus, the Bible, or Christian faith might have shifted in the course of our reflections. One young student, much troubled by the demon-possessed swine and the withered fig tree, complained, “It seems as though Jesus wasn’t very nice. I’d rather believe in the Jesus I learned about in Sunday School.” I had to admire her honesty, if not her preference for the simplistic. I think of her when I hear people say of some disturbing public disclosure, “I just don’t want to think that’s true. It/we/they can’t be that bad.” Desire for simplicity and closure runs strong in all of us when the spirit is weary and the messy world too much with us.
But some manage to overcome that desire with a greater desire to learn and understand, integrate, remap, and rearrange so as more truly to take account of more, and more complexly related, data and of what (like imaginary numbers) is barely imaginable. An encounter with another student, who had that greater desire, sharpened my respect for how challenging it is to integrate what we learn into ever more complicated structures of understanding. She was taking an American literature course where some of the darker dimensions of our troubling national history were made explicit. We read The Scarlet Letter and talked about how often imprisonment has localized blame in unjust ways that damage the whole community. We read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and talked about conditions in meat-packing plants then and now. We read Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of a Slave as well as Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and talked about how the effects of generations of violence and injustice continue.
The young woman in question approached me after one of our class sessions in tears. “I know it’s important to see these things,” she said, “but it’s so painful. It’s hard to give up the pride in my country my parents always taught me. It’s so much harder now to think about what it means to be a white American Christian.” I admired her honesty too, as well as the courage it took for her to be willing to know that what connects us is not only a story of discovery, invention, progress, and salvation, but a story of sin and suffering, injustice and oppression in which we are all complicit.
That complicity is articulated memorably in the final scenes of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where the process by which Dmitri is convicted of his father’s murder is complicated by conflicting evidence, overt prejudices, and explicit vested interests that make readers acutely aware of the ways in which the whole community is implicated in the sordid event. We, too, are implicated in the sordid events and structural injustices that surround us: in the ways migrant farmworkers are subjected to punishing labour and fear of deportation so we can eat blueberries on our oatmeal; in the long hours children are kept at work in offshore sweatshops to make our fashionable running shoes; in the ways disproportionate numbers of African American men are funnelled through the “classroom-to-prison pipeline” that begins in poverty and ends in wasted lives; in the ways white-collar crime is exonerated and usury normalized and greed valorized. We are connected by shared guilt. We stand together “in the need of prayer.”
In prayer we can integrate the extremes of guilt and gratitude. The world, to quote Arnold again, is not only a darkling plain, but still, for all its damage, “so various, so beautiful, so new.” Grace abounds. So in liturgies we kneel in confession and also lift up our hearts to God and stretch our hands toward each other in celebration and solidarity. Neither dimension of connectedness can rightly be left aside. Liturgy schools us in integrity by its wide embrace, its nuanced language, the balance it holds between reassurance and challenge. It guides and helps me hold my focus, neither paralyzed by guilt nor lulled to complacency by assurances of comfort as I seek to live and teach with integrity.
Having reached a late stage in my career as educator, I have found myself, of late, making more “summary statements” about the work of teaching and learning. One of them is this: that if a liberal arts education is to be fruitful it must teach us (1) to see everything in terms of process and (2) to assume that everything is connected. I believe those two habits of mind can help us live and work with humility, life-giving curiosity, and openness to learning from one another that seems to me a measure of the health and integrity of community life.
To see everything in terms of process is to see every thing as a verb, in a sense—all things in the process of change, connected by forces, currents, rhythms, cycles. Nouns allow us the luxury of imagining that what is solid and stable will remain that way. But everything we see—everything we eat, wear, buy, attend, or consume—is a function of some long process, an ongoing story that moves from plowing and planting to harvesting and shipping and marketing and consuming. Or from imagining to writing to rehearsing to producing. Or from mining to smithing to crafting of, say, plumbing or jewellery or door handles. Things degrade over time with weather and wear. They are inherited or repurposed or recycled or lost at sea. When we see them, we see them at a particular stage in their stories.
We can only understand things rightly, Thoreau taught, if we see them in terms of time, remembering that what we are witnessing is a moment in a much longer trajectory of development and decline: trees budding and leafing, beans sprouting, streams meandering, governments rising and falling, railroads reconfiguring a national economy. Everything is happening before our eyes, and we see what we see at a moment in its ongoing story.
Annie Dillard, one of Thoreau’s more delightful literary heirs, wrote from a similar habit of mind, asking, in effect, as she scanned the local watershed, “What’s up here? What’s happening?” and finding verb forms that might get at what she saw. In one of her more sprightly passages, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she models how to see whatever lies in our line of vision in terms of both divine and natural process:
Anything can happen; any pattern of speckles may appear in a world ceaselessly bawling with newness. I see red blood stream in shimmering dots inside a goldfish’s tail; I see the stout, extensible lip of a dragonfly nymph that can pierce and clasp a goldfish; and I see the clotted snarls of bright algae that snare and starve the nymph. I see engorged, motionless ants regurgitate pap to a colony of pawing workers, and I see sharks limned in light twist in a raised and emerald wave.
. . . Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance that grew such a tangle, and the grotesques and horrors bloom from that same free growth, that intricate scramble and twine up and down the conditions of time.
When we manage to see this way, when we remember the spin of atoms and electrons and the long trajectory of light shooting from stars to earth and roses that “have the look of flowers that are looked at,” we reconnect ourselves with a truth that is obscured by our tendency to fix, label, and categorize: it’s all happening before our eyes, all linked in ecstatic perichoresis. To think this way we have to move, as it were, to the music of the spheres. We don’t get to stay in place. What we see shifts: we can’t nail it in place; we have to follow it.
Though I have my qualms about current uses of electronic mass communication, I recognize that the internet may help us maintain awareness of flux as a fundamental feature of fact. Electronic connection is pretty close to instantaneous and constantly subject to interception, rerouting, reconfiguration, response. It’s exhilarating and unsettling. Wikipedia is subject to change. Knowledge shifts shape and is contaminated by the multiple perspectives of a vast community of individuals. Certainty is hard to come by. Which means we become increasingly aware of our own limited angles of vision and instabilities, but also, perhaps, more capable and agile, more alert to and reliant on each other’s perceptions and corrections. My best hope for this amazing tool is that it make us more humbly aware of our interdependence, our differences and complementarities, and how important it is to learn to swim in the current until we reach the only solid ground there is—well beyond all earthly horizons.
Meanwhile, we live on a “watery world,” as Melville put it. Navigating it requires both accurate instruments and the educated instincts of an old seafarer as well as readiness to encounter the unexpected, because not all processes are subject to human control.
But all processes originate in what Dylan Thomas beautifully called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” That force informs all that has life and breath. The Spirit that breathed over the waters is the same that gives us the breath that fills our lungs and shapes the words we speak. The light that God “let be” in Genesis still finds its way onto goldfish scales and into the eye of the beholder.
Liturgy schools us in integrity by its wide embrace, its nuanced language, the balance it holds between reassurance and challenge.
And we are held in that light. It is, finally, what connects us. It not only comes from God, it expresses who God is: “God is light,” Chrysostom writes, “but unlike any light we know.” Ambient and absolute, it is the medium in which we live and move. God comes to us “clothed in light as in a garment.” “Light from light,” we say each week once again reciting the powerful, mysterious words of the creed that give us a dazzling way of imagining the one who holds and enfolds us.
Theological ways of understanding our connectedness provide a ground against which we can map other modes of connectedness—biological, cultural, political, institutional, legal, ideological. Faith in the God who made the firmament and created a people capable of language, story, law, and history can give deeper dimension to phrases like “of the people” or “ensure justice” or “indivisible” or “for all.”
Our nationalistic rhetoric of union and unity rings false these days. We know that not even our sturdy, much-battered Constitution can ensure justice for all or freedom that doesn’t decay into license for the privileged. We know that what connects us has to be renewed and cared for with fierce intention and political will—the delicate web of ecosystems, the soil we depend on for food, the fuel sources that carry that food to places where it can’t be grown, the willing workers who fan out across the globe to share education and health care and goodwill. Caring for it means knowing in our bones that we’re all in it together. “This small island, our earthly home,” as an Episcopal prayer puts it, is ours to share, and our survival depends on sharing it. It is the Commons.
At a recent conference a speaker raised the arresting question, “How does a thing become property?” It’s a disturbing question to the many of us who have been raised as Christians in a capitalist culture. Is a thing mine because I bought it? Because I made it? Because I grew it on my land? Because I thought of it first? Because I stuck a flag in the soil and said it was mine? Each of those claims to ownership introduces a regress of questions about the conditions and assumptions on which they are predicated. If you embark on that line of questioning (and I encourage that thought experiment), you might find it leading to the disturbing thought that perhaps “mine” is a myth.
The notion that everything is a gift is a hard one to put into practice, but may be a necessary and urgent corrective to the dangerous idea that everything can be, and therefore should be, commodified—land, water, airspace, time, organic material, gene sequences. At least, if we accept the gift-character of all that is, we might be led to imagine more life-giving ways to live together in neighbourhoods and cities and land masses. We might think more about stewardship than ownership, more about educating a generation than about finding the best schools for our own children, more about the health of the oceans than about whether the swordfish on the menu is seared properly.
Grasping the ways we are connected is very like the work medical students do in their introductory anatomy courses: they study intersecting “systems” that, they come to recognize, are only separable for the sake of conceptual convenience. In reality, skeletal, muscular, nervous, digestive, and endocrine systems are deeply, complexly interdependent, their processes dynamic, psychosomatic, physical and energetic, and even (one might humbly conclude) mysterious. Every good doctor I know will admit that even “evidence-based” medicine cannot be reduced to an exact science. The riparian edges between the body and the environment it inhabits (including subtle energy fields) are immeasurably complex and rife with possibility. The edges between medicine and anthropology or ecology or economics or spirituality blur a little in practice, because disciplines are not discrete any more than organ systems.
Because everything is connected in more ways than we generally take into account. I began this piece with a description of a course on time and space. I’ll conclude with a description of a course I’ve never had a chance to teach, but which I still imagine as a lively, eye-opening conversation for all concerned. It would be called “Connecting the Dots.” We would begin by filling a wide blackboard (or, more likely these days, whiteboard, or screen) with every current public concern we could collectively think of, large and small, from, say, cleaning up plastics in the ocean to overuse of antibiotics to rising rates of autism and diabetes to crumbling urban infrastructures to the costs of border policing to climate change to student debt (this last possibly one of the first to be named in a college classroom). Then I would ask students to choose two issues that seem to have nothing to do with each other and “connect the dots”: explore the ways in which they are actually related. I imagine the result as a map: lines crossing and recrossing, each concern a node in a great web of awareness.
The web is a handy metaphor for connectedness. So is the kaleidoscope. Or the body. Or the dance. T.S. Eliot made good use of this last in what is perhaps the best-known passage in his magisterial Four Quartets:
. . . Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance. And there is only the dance.
We learn the steps as we go, widening our circles of inclusion and synchronizing our bodies and brains. Studies have shown that fear messages from charismatic leaders produce synchronic brain patterns in wide audiences. So also do words of authentic hope. To live with integrity is to find and speak the latter, staying in conversation that preserves the power of words whose deep etymological roots connect us to the rich legacy of “the best that has been thought and said.” It is to explore, retrieve, reframe, reinterpret, and revise what we think we know, learning, as Theodore Roethke put it, “by going where we have to go.”