I’m just reading an excellent book- David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. He claims that we live in a soul-flattening meritocracy. Hmmm! Soul-flattening. This, at a time when we are in isolation to flatten the curve of another form of toxicity and contagion.
The meritocracy defines “community ” as a mass of talented individuals competing with one another. It organizes society into an endless set of outer and inner rings, with high achievers at the Davos center and everybody else arrayed across the wider rings toward the edge. While it pretends not to, it subliminally sends the message that those who are smarter and more accomplished are actually worth more than those who are not.David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. N.Y., Random House, 2019, p.23.
Perhaps it is time to re-think much that has long been the norm. Is it possible to envision a world of co-operation instead of competition? Can we imagine a world without built-in hierarchies? A world with fewer divisions? A world where the us-them boundaries blur and largely vanish?
As I sit safely in my home in Vancouver, gratefully aware that I dwell in isolated splendour – my cupboards are full, my family and immediate circles of friendship and community are well, cherry trees are in blossom bringing the promise of renewed life after months of a dreary wintery world, I wonder about so much that has long been the norm. Do I care less about a victim of Covid-19 in China or in Italy than one in New York? Isn’t every loss a heart-break to a fellow human being? What matters the skin colour, the shape of eye, the religion or even the nationality of one who weeps for a loved one?
And yet, who am I to ponder such matters? I’d be no great loss to the world. I’m not a front-line worker in a hospital, not a scientist working on a wonder-drug or vaccine to end this scourge. I’m not a firefighter or a care-giver in a seniors’ centre. Indeed, I’m not even the one venturing into grocery stores to shop for others. I’m definitely dispensable.
And yet…. And yet, I’m deeply aware that this is wrong thinking. Didn’t the Nazi example teach us that disposing of the elderly, the mentally or physically less-abled, the members of group x,y,z, is wrong, wrong, WRONG? Judaism, the religion that I have chosen to adopt, informs me that every human has within a spark of the Divine, that each person is placed on earth for a purpose that may- or may not initially be clear. No one is dispensable; we all have a contribution that is ours alone to make.
When we put ourselves down, when we think we are “less than,” when we believe that we have nothing to offer the world, we are unlikely to act. We are also unlikely to think, fleeing instead into the world of instant escapism now available on every screen.
Despite whatever masks of competency, we wear, many of us have been raised in ways that lead us secretly, inwardly, to put ourselves down. We are taught that to think well of ourselves is proof of self-centeredness or egotism. We also taught to value material acquisition in all its forms. Some folks even think that the wealthiest are especially favoured by G-d, and receiving their “just rewards,” as of course, is also the case for sinners without two beans to rub together.
The result is that we are endlessly comparing ourselves, and whatever we have and whoever we are is not enough. “Not enoughness” transforms itself into an enormous hole within us, a hole that no quantity of possessions, no amount of food, drink, drugs, or even love seems able to fill.
When people believe that they are idiots or worthless sinners, lacking giftedness or value, then they likely to believe that they have nothing to offer to the world. When people believe that within them, there is something worth sharing, they are much more likely to reach out to one another, to lend a helping hand, to do whatever they can. Would such a world not be an improvement?
Back to David Brooks:Ibid, xvi
If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution….The second mountain is egalitarian – planting yourself among those who need, and walking arm in arm with them
It would be lovely to think that answers to all the complex issues that surround us would descend magically from on high. Many are listening or watching the news almost compulsively just now, vaguely expecting the next pronouncement from some politician will provide a solution to banish our very real anxieties.
There is much that politicians and other experts can and must do. However, I suspect that systemically transformative answers will come much more slowly, and from the bottom up. The more time, effort and consideration each of us devotes to examining the rights and wrongs of the old order, the old assumptions, the old ways of prioritizing and sharing, the sooner we will stumble upon new ways to re-build. Already, it seems extremely unlikely that we will return unchanged and unscathed to the old order.
Let’s reach out to one another and let’s go deeply within, working together to re-build our communities, our nations, our one precious world. Let’s each do our part to bring about a better future for all whose home is planet earth.