Tell me why it’s so much easier for modern men and women to delineate – to draw big black lines around our thoughts and our hearts, to categorize, to isolate, to separate – than not. Oddly, this ability has come to pass for intelligent, educated discourse, for a level of sophistication. I suggest that it is none of the above. Now tell me why aboriginal men and women (the ones whom we tend to dismiss as primitive) saw only unity, only the connections, the relationships, the whole. They could not, in fact, see other than that.
Even as recently as the early 20th century, European higher education was structured and taught in terms of natural relationships. Those formal liberal academies are what we awkwardly cram now into something called interdisciplinary studies.
In England, in the 18th century: Darwin (a doctor), Boulton (a manufacturer), Wedgwood (a potter), Watt (the inventor of a steam engine), and Priestly (a preacher) gathered monthly under the full moon to imagine innovation that defied the categories of their expertise. Together they invented; together they transformed England.
Try publishing a book in our current climate. Publishers will scurry to discover the niche – the select group of potential readers who might read this book – and sell to them alone. So Grandmothers Whisper becomes only spiritual and New Age bookstores are assigned the task of selling it. In that way it is reduced by modern thought to its narrowest denominator, confined to a word that eliminates rather than includes.
My insightful, witty, animated Egyptian friend just published a book. He aims through humor to tear down the walls that separate Arabs and Jews. Moustafa Soliman has encountered this mindset. Ironically, though his work is specifically aimed at bridging differences and making connections, bookstores and potential readers look to impose categories that help them get their heads around his book.
Yet the book business is the smallest part of our national compulsion to show our smarts by how effectively we limit. In college, we sign up for sociology, for physics, for art history – and seldom is the student exposed to the relations between those parts. In the workplace, we are hierarchical; we do not value the unique contributions of the parts. In towns and cities, we divide our social lives by economics, by race, and by education. We do not focus our attention on our concentric circles of dependence on one another. We live as though that dependence does not exist.
We live in a world that is so huge, anonymous, and unrelated that we, quite naturally, search for a niche, a neighborhood, a church, a political party that feels safe – and then we draw big black lines around those folks whom we define as like us, and ignore the rest. This may just be the way that humans deal with massive anonymity, and the fear that accompanies it.
But as a result, we have become very near-sighted. We miss the overlapping circles of dependence on our gardener no less than our dentist, on our electrician no more than our lawyer. We need one another. This is not a pep talk. This is not pie-in-the-sky. This is in no way idealistic.
This is open your eyes; take off your blinders; see the world for what it is. It just may be that those big black lines around our minds and our hearts – those boxes – are our self-imposed jail.