Inner and Outer Cultures

No sooner do I comment that it would be nice if we could go a few months without major expenditure, to recoup the finances a bit, then the well pump quits. On a Saturday, with no possibility of knowing what is wrong or what it will cost in time and money to be repaired until Monday at the earliest. We lose electric power often enough that life without running water is familiar.  I lived two years of my early teens without running water also, and have that old knowledge to draw on. Making the transition from flowing taps to only water stored in large and heavy bottles nonetheless takes a bit of doing. Not exactly what I intended to spend my weekend energy engaged with. But then, we know what comes of intentions and plans.

Before learning of the pump failure I did enjoy a day of walking in Santa Fe, seeing creative new jewelry designs, unique treatments of photographs, and some very original free form pottery at an art fair adjacent to the Farmer’s Market where I purchased beautifully multi-colored heirloom tomatoes. In addition to completing routine errands (including refilling the aforementioned large water bottles) I savored the quiet reflection time of my hour drive each way.

Based on what thoughts, remarks, and experiences have caught my attention these past few weeks, I must conclude I am engaged in some part of the process of self-definition. Not the who I want to be if I ever grow up type of self definition, but rather the what am I and what values do I channel? What is important to share and what is best not just left unspoken but totally dismissed so that it vanishes completely from my awareness and thus from my life. My recent rant about cultural appreciation versus so-called cultural appropriation is some part of this larger question I am pondering, because as I wrote the lengthy but still far from comprehensive listing of identity elements in that rant, I was aware that I was merely listing external traits and experiences that have influenced me. That external listing may be the common means by which we share something of who we are – but even as I wrote the words I was aware I was not describing the essence of me.

During  a reported in-house meeting at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates participated in a discussion of whether the publication can achieve diversity while maintaining its long-standing tradition of political neutrality. Given the magazine’s recent difficult encounter with trying to add Kevin Williamson to its staff, a move Coates initially supported despite how different the two men’s values are, the question is particularly salient. It touches on other closely related questions such as how much of a range of opinion is acceptable under the mantle of encouraging diversity, and at what point does tolerance of diversity slip over the edge into tolerance of unacceptable extremism? Isn’t diversity as a positive value already a political statement and therefore a step away from political neutrality? Is it possible ever to legislate values and still claim to be politically neutral? Isn’t our current deeply divisive political environment largely due not to disagreements about politics, but disagreements about which values should be enshrined in legislation by our politicians?

A few days break since I wrote those last lines. Well pump has been replaced, water is flowing once more – and an analysis in The Week concluded that what used to be the political reminder “it’s the economy, stupid” has now morphed into “it’s the cultural clash, stupid.” Seeing in my own life just how challenging it can be to adapt to new and different values, blend different cultures, integrate new attitudes, I can readily understand how a nation as diverse as the U.S. can end up as fractured into tribal units as we seem to have become. Each of those external traits I listed in my last post could be considered a distinct tribal identity, to any one of which I might choose to adhere closely, abandoning the others as “not really me,” By not doing so, I place myself in the “multicultural” tribe and take on various implicit values that I admit I wish to see implemented in “my” society.

A theme running through many of the essays published on PlanetWaves, in conjunction with some very fine-tuned astrology, is the persistent narrative of our times, that “the personal is political and the political is personal.” I take that as meaning everything I do has repercussions in the wider society within which I live, and how that society is functioning affects how I think and feel. I can easily remember how affected I was by the last presidential election – the sense of very personal affront that so unqualified a male would be chosen over a perhaps tainted but still intelligent, vibrant and capable woman. My whole life of being put down, overlooked, ignored, insulted and scorned simply because I am a female more competent than many of my male coworkers felt summed up in those election results.

It is less easy to see how my actions affect society, beyond the one-on-one of my work and friendships. I suppose the fact that I post these reflections must be counted as me affecting a larger world in ways of which I am mostly unaware. I do consciously consider what I am “putting out there” and try to may it positive.

Hmmm… might some of the contentiousness of current public discourse come simply from the fact that we are all more aware of how society affects us then we are of how we affect society? Isn’t much of the frustration being expressed lately a form of attestation that too many people feel that they are not able to alter what is going on around them? No one does well when he/she feels helpless to change circumstances.

Which brings me once more back to the recognition, central to my spiritual training, that too much focus on the outer, whether for self definition or sense of achievement, leads to fading  energy, loss of joy, mistaken thinking and a degraded quality of life. Without a daily, disciplined practice of turning inwards and upwards, to the spirit/ Soul /Divine/ Master/ God-self by whatever name through contemplation/ meditation/ prayer (to each according to his/her Path) we are all less than we could/should be and the world is less in consequence.

Baraka Bashad

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