Sometimes I fantasize about an America built on the principle of inter-connectedness of all things and beings. I try to imagine a place where the schism of culture that is our European mono-theistic birthright never happened. Where man against nature was never a theme in literature or science.
What might have happened if European colonists when first encountering Native American peoples in the northern and southern hemispheres tried to learn from the cultures and practices of these civilizations? I wonder about the impact that Native American cultures may have had on the development of what is now the United States of America. Would African slaves have been imported and exploited to develop an economy of export? And what might have ensued if African animist religions had been a source of inspiration to westerners? Without a deeply felt respect, compassion, and a personal connection to all that exists, it becomes easier to use and hurt all that is ‘outside’ oneself.
It is the existence of this wound that pains me deeply. Humans know how to be in nature in a multitude of manners around the world. Humans know how to create culture that allows us to live in harmony with one another and with our environment, and to resolve problems as they occur. There is no one answer for all peoples around the world, but we have the creative ability to invent ways of being that tie us to our deepest selves, to one another, to our planet and all that dwells upon it, and beyond.
If European explorers and colonists had no devouring desire for gold and glory, would great tracts of trees been demolished to plant fields of crops? Would we be shepherds, hunters and gatherers to this day, living simply with the land rather than exploiting all resources and living for a reward beyond this life rather than honoring the life we have here in our bodies and in our cities and fields? Would buffalo still roam freely on our great plains? Would we be experiencing global warming today? Would all of our food products be enveloped in plastic? What would be our relationship to nature, to one another?
I don’t know that I believe in destiny, per se, but it seems to me that the violence of western culture stems from a division between self and other, between self and nature. This desire to control and dominate overwhelmingly permeates our entire history and way of perceiving life, our economy, our spiritual life, all types of achievement, and the way we make and enjoy art of all forms.
Today, ecologists and environmentalists urge people to change their habits and make lifestyle changes more in keeping with a respectful and inter-connected relationship to one another and to our environment. Is it possible at this late date to ask that human beings consciously become aware of their own culture and the deep flaw that is the very basis for its primary religious beliefs and attitudes towards society and individuality in this country? I wonder…And yet, without this huge paradigm shift, humanity as a whole will surely perish.
Many ancient cultures, while suffering from multiple ills and flaws characteristic to human behavior, such as aggression, jealousy, or ambition, have consistently maintained a more balanced relationship to other living beings and to “inanimate” matter through belief systems requiring an innate acceptance of the inter-connection of spirit and matter. This more democratic system also allows for a more meaningful life for both individuals and groups. Ironically, these thought systems also inherently increase the freedom of the individual while guaranteeing a place for that person within the community. Traditional cultures appear to place much less emphasis on the individual and on personal achievement because of the interconnected bias.
Yet this knowledge of self being an integral part of the web of life and nature is ultimately highly liberating. The alienation of western culture, which allows for great personal “power”, “expression”, and “success” ultimately also isolates the individual and makes him or her feel fragile and vulnerable to nature, which becomes an enemy rather than an accepted part of self and being. While the individual in such systems has always been inherently subordinate to the group and to the web of life, a sense of active communication and relationship to gods and to all of creation seems to be an evident part of life in belief systems of many so-called “primitive peoples”.
Had Europeans embarked on their journeys to the Americas in a spirit of learning and receiving wisdom from others, indeed, the outcome of what has become the United States of America, and in fact, the remaining countries around the world as affected by colonization and globalization, would be a very different place today. The native peoples would have flourished, and our environment would most certainly be intact. Technology would likely not have evolved in the manner in which it has developed. Cities and settlements would be much smaller, as would the world’s population. Globalization would probably not have been developed, nor would slavery, the world wars, or the cold war have occurred. We would be speaking different languages, and our cities would look very different from the way they do now. Many species now extinct would probably still be thriving. Most of us would have better survival skills, ironically, since the environment would be much less likely to be threatened by apocalypse…at least not annihilation caused by human design or error.
Just the simple fact of arriving in a new place and meeting a new people with an open spirit would have changed the entire world as we know it. The Native Americans would still likely have perished in great numbers from infectious disease caused by unfamiliar microbes…but had the colonists been open to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, they may have tried to help and to heal those to whom they had brought disease, instead of alienating them and trying to kill or enslave them. In other words, what would our world be like today if our ancestors had approached the new world with love rather than fear, with a sense of self-awareness rather than a need to dominate and conquer?
How would this very different American dream have spread around the world? Would other countries have imitated its patterns and values?