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Stepping Back, Gaining Perspective

Mark A. Goldman                            Dated: 7/1/2011


We are at a point where almost every developed economy in the world is now in decline due to greed, ignorance, fraud, corruption, and the gross mismanagement and/or misallocation of raw materials, capital, and people. 

So far, those who hold positions of power and could work for peace and economic justice do not have the wisdom or the desire to do so, while those who might have the wisdom and the desire, do not have the power.  Change is inevitable nonetheless.  Unfortunately, the trajectory we’re on now points to change that will not come peacefully or end equitably… and so political and economic security for the world’s extended human family is probably a pipe dream without an unprecedented transformation of citizens and their institutions.   

A peaceful resolution to the world’s shrinking economies would require that honorable and competent citizens at all levels of society be active, intelligent, conscious participants in reinventing education, government, commerce, and other aspects of a decaying culture.  What is required is a return to the basics, which is to say, the establishment of a vision that lays out a revised set of common goals for humanity, and the bringing of all aspects of our culture into alignment with that vision and those goals.  We have extensive experience now with much of what works and what doesn’t work.  The question is, do we have the wisdom and can we muster the courage to tell the truth about it? 

One reason the challenge is so daunting is that most of us have been from birth compromised, born into a society of individuals and institutions, most of which are now consciously or unconsciously dedicated to deadening our God given faculties of perception and reason.  These institutions now operate to perpetuate the myths and traditions that society lives by and which are intended to keep us uninformed, misinformed and vulnerable.  Even those who love us and intend for us to succeed often unwittingly propagate false information, having themselves been successfully indoctrinated with illusion after illusion, unconscious and unaware of their own vulnerabilities. 

Could what I’ve just said possibly be true?

Let me share with you the results of an experiment I once read about, the original details and source of which I am unable to cite.  But here, I think, are the essential facts, which illustrate how vulnerable we all are to unconsciously acquiring learned responses that are inimical to our own well-being:

A number of chimpanzees were placed in a room, the ceiling of which was fitted out with a sprinkler system.  On one wall was a one-way mirror through which the psychologists who ran the experiment could observe the chimps and activate the sprinkler system at will.

In one corner of the room, a bunch of bananas were hung from the ceiling which the chimps could not reach on their own.  A ladder was conveniently positioned below the bananas so any one of them could climb the ladder and get a banana any time he or she wanted one.   For several weeks the chimps were allowed to climb the ladder and retrieve a banana at will, the supply of which was regularly replenished and always available. 

In the fourth week things changed.  Now every time a chimp climbed the ladder and grabbed a banana the researchers immediately turned on the sprinkler system and drenched all the chimps in the room with cold water, an experience they all vehemently hated.  During that week every time a chimp would climb the ladder and grab a banana, the group would get drenched.  After awhile, whenever a chimp started to climb the ladder the others would drag him or her down and punish them for even thinking about climbing the ladder.  By the end of the week, no chimp in the room was willing to risk retrieving a banana for fear of being attacked. 

The next week, one of the chimps was removed and a new chimp was introduced to the group in his place.  The new chimp, a total stranger to the group, had never been in this room before.  It didn’t take long for the new guy to notice the bananas and the ladder and figure he’d go get himself a treat.  Of course, as soon as he set foot on the ladder, all the other chimps attacked him viciously.  Several times the new chimp tried again and each time he was dragged down and pummeled.  It didn’t take long before he realized that trying to climb the ladder was not something he was willing to attempt anymore. 

The week after that, another member of the original group was replaced by someone new.  When that chimp predictably went for a banana, she was also pulled down and attacked by the others. Joining in the attack was the most recent member of the group who joined the week before.  In subsequent weeks, one by one, a chimp from the original group was replaced with a new chimp until none of the original chimps remained in the room.  Each subsequent week the staff continued to replace a member of the group with someone new, and still any chimp who ever attempted to retrieve a banana would be viciously attacked by all the others. 

As the psychologists continued to replace older members of the group with new members they came to realize that they would never have to use the sprinkler system again.  No chimp in this particular society of chimps now would ever be allowed to grab a readily available banana even if they tried.  This was true even though none of the chimps in their society had ever experienced being drenched by the sprinkler system for trying to get one, and none of them would ever have any clue as to why they got beat up for trying to retrieve a banana, or why they were readily willing to beat anyone else up who tried.

So what are we to learn from this experiment?  What I conclude is that humans are probably as vulnerable as chimps are to corrupting influences in their environments even though humans have larger brains, language skills, education, sophisticated tools, established institutions and history books that chimps don’t have.  Maybe we humans do not usually physically attack members of our society when they stray outside accepted norms, but like chimps, we are all highly influenced by how the rest of society thinks and behaves even though we might not understand why we or they think or behave the way we do.  For example, in our culture few of us would think of eating roasted worms or grasshoppers for a snack; and yet in some cultures they do it all the time.  We are simply conditioned to think and feel a certain way about some things without necessarily being conscious of how or why we came to think or feel that way.

Sometimes group pressure “forces” us to behave in very sub-optimal ways such as when we engage in war or gang violence even though the potential loss of life and treasure would suggest to any rational observer that such behavior is almost always unnecessary and counter-productive.  We live in a world where some of us are very well off while others are barely able to survive.  Greed, envy, fear, prejudice and other negative attitudes thrive in our society even when a review of our personal experience or human history can demonstrate over and over again, that the pain and unhappiness we inflict on ourselves and one another was never desirable or necessary for our survival or well-being.   

It appears that when we don’t consciously have all the information we need—which is to say, when we can’t see the big picture or when our attention has been purposely misdirected or co-opted by lies, myths or illusions—we can end up making decisions and carrying out acts that are detrimental to ourselves and others. 

A student might go to school intending one day to become a great investigative reporter, hoping to put his or her talents, judgment and character to good use for the betterment of their fellow man.  After graduating college and being hired by a major newspaper to begin a promising career, they might soon learn that they can’t always write about everything they discover during an investigation, at least not if they want to advance or keep their job.  They might learn that there are powerful people who don’t want what they learned to become general knowledge, and those people are powerful enough to keep that information from being published even though our would-be journalist remembers what he or she learned in school about journalistic integrity, their first amendment rights, and their duty to stay true to their purpose and values. 

Many managers or politicians today find it more practical to maintain a reputation among their constituents, customers, or stockholders that they or their institutions are worthy of being well thought of, not by going through the inconvenience of actually holding fast to the ideals they claim to live by, but by manufacturing that illusion through dishonest collusions, deceit, various public relations schemes and propaganda campaigns.

But even well meaning people can propagate illusions, myths, and disinformation unwittingly.  Much of what we believe about spiritual matters, for example, might largely have been shaped by our parents and other well meaning people who taught us what to think and believe about God, even though the people who taught us, despite their good will and intelligence, only knew what they were taught by their parents and teachers, as did all those who came before them did going back generations, and maybe even thousands of years. 

We often choose to believe what we’ve been taught, which information might be confirmed by millions of other believers who will gladly testify to its truth, even though neither we nor they have any first hand evidence as to why we should believe it. 

Many believe in times past that God spoke to Noah, Moses, and Jesus and that the bible is God’s definitive word… that He helped write, edit, and/or compile that book a long time ago, and then promptly retired from literary pursuits confident that we, a few thousand years later, would understand its message and not be in need of a more modern update. 

And yet if I told you that God spoke to me, would you believe that I am both sane and truthful, that God really does exist, and that He really did speak to me personally?  Probably not.  We often hold some things to be true and not other things, without proof, based on how many other people in society hold them to be true, even though maybe not one out of a billion other people who hold a particular belief to be true, really knows any more about the topic at hand than we do.  We say we have faith, but do we know why we have faith in some things and not others?

You see, the chimps who took part in the experiment I described didn’t do anything wrong.  They weren’t stupid, bad, or foolish.  They just didn’t have all the information they needed.  Given their innate abilities or lack thereof, there was no way for them to get that information or to make sense of their artificially manipulated environment.  What the experiment demonstrates is that some human beings can steal the joy from a society of chimps (and also probably people), by putting them in a situation where their perspective is so artificially limited or skewed that they are unable to understand key aspects of their reality and as a result come to erroneous conclusions about how to respond appropriately.  This makes them vulnerable to being manipulated into thinking and behaving in ways which, through no fault of their own, causes them to lose their natural and rightful place in the world. 

After all, there was no way for the chimps to figure out why trying to obtain a readily available banana ought to be so difficult, or inspire so much violence, in themselves or others.  They had no way of knowing that they or their ancestors were manipulated by unseen forces that purposely misinformed them about how life worked, altering their perception of reality, and which probably would remain forever distorted in the absence of some outside intervening force that could expand their perspective and set the record straight.  Without new input about how things really work, and how historical events shaped their present state of consciousness, they might never come to understand why they came to believe or act the way they do; or come to understand that some of what they believe might actually not be true; or come to realize, that how things are don’t always have to be this way. 

Similarly, a lot of what we humans think we know is the result of how other persons, known or unknown, now or in the past, take or took advantage of our inexperience and ignorance, or our progenitor’s inexperience and ignorance, for their own purposes.  This surreptitious behavior, which has been used by some to the disadvantage of others, has persisted throughout history.  This is true even though we humans have at our disposal advantages and resources that chimps don’t have.    

Some people may not know why they are afraid of the truth while some people actually make it their business to keep other people ignorant and vulnerable and spend considerable energy thinking up ways to make them afraid, or conspiring with others who are similarly motivated, to keep their own elite group in the know, and everyone else ignorant. 

Some of us, through perseverance, determination, curiosity, or serendipity, have been able to look behind some of the one-way mirrors of the world and are now in a position to tell others what we’ve found to set the record straight.  Of course, if their agenda is threatened, those who work behind those mirrors will try very hard to discredit what we have to say or shut us up in order to keep their game going.

Certainly you can imagine that if the chimps in the experiment were able to mate and bring their new innocent infant chimps into the world, that the mothers of those chimps would try to teach their young not to venture up the ladder in search of bananas.  They might do this to save their offspring the trauma of being attacked by the group which might be far more dangerous or uncomfortable than learning a little self discipline. 

Perhaps you can even imagine (stretching your imagination a bit) that if the elders of the group could talk, they might invent stories about how this all came to be and how the God of chimps told the world’s original chimps not to taste the fruit of the banana if they wanted to remain in paradise.  But of course those first chimps eventually did taste the banana and were then thrown out of paradise forever and this is why things are the way they are and will always be that way… so stay off the ladder!  

If you were a chimp who somehow discovered that all this time you were being kept in a room as part of an experiment to see what you would do when you or one of your roommates went for a banana, predicting that if any of you tried to get a banana, that you would either get beat up or unpleasantly drenched, what would you do?  Wouldn’t you try to tell the others what you know about what those human beings behind the mirror are up to?  But what if the others couldn’t understand you or wouldn’t believe you… then what?  Or what if they did believe you?  What could you all do about it anyway?  What would you do with the realization that all your life you’ve been an involuntary prisoner of human beings, unable to live out your life in peace and in freedom as others do… others who are only constrained by the natural world around them rather than by some artificially created place run by human beings who don’t love you, and don’t care what happens to you or the rest of your species. 

In fact, sometimes it looks like humans don’t even care about what happens to the rest of their own species.

The truth is… most of us now live in a world of illusion.  Our institutions, our culture and we ourselves have been corrupted by a world far more complex than what the chimps experienced, run by people who don’t love us and maybe even by some who do.  We live by false gods, myths, traditions, and other cultural realities that rob us of our natural inclination to live in peace and in harmony with others.  Think how difficult it has been for some people, trying to navigate their way through complicated structures of society and the physical universe, particularly when they’ve been conditioned to not see, or even not desire to see, reality as it is.  Maybe in some ways we’ve all been conditioned not to see, or want to see, things as they are.

But why bring all this up now?  Hasn’t it always been like this?  Weren’t there always those who wanted to deceive others for their own purposes?  Maybe.  The problem is… some of us have come to believe that our inability to see and respond to things as they really are, has brought us to the brink of systemic failure—a failure that could threaten all of us personally, and maybe even life itself on our fragile planet.  In any event, wouldn’t it be better if we could break free of illusionary forces that cause us all so much distress and instead begin to live in peace and harmony with one another? 

In our culture, some humans have not only learned how to condition chimps to engage in mindless acts of violence, some have learned how to condition soldiers and police to commit mindless acts of violence too.  We have learned how to make would-be journalists into instruments of propaganda.  Others have successfully turned scientists into corporate profiteers, bankers into thieves, and politicians into prostitutes for special interest groups.  We now issue patents to corporations for identifying life forms, and we can now get plants to stop reproducing themselves so that farmers will no longer be able to use seeds from prior harvests for subsequent plantings (as they have for thousands of years), but instead will have to buy new seeds every year from some corporation perhaps forever.  We can get hourly workers to manufacture foods that risk our children’s health.  We can get teachers to condition pupils not to think, and get professors to inspire their students to make a lot of money instead of inspiring them to make a difference.  We can get lawyers to ignore or obfuscate the law and doctors to prescribe dangerous, ineffective or unnecessarily expensive drugs.  We can make the rich richer, the poor poorer, the sick sicker, award peace prizes to war mongers, celebrate stupidity, denigrate intelligence, and teach ourselves how to stay entertained while others plot to rob us and our children… of our freedoms, our financial and emotional security, and our sense of well-being. 

Please don’t get me wrong.  Of course human beings can and do a lot of great and wonderful things too.  Advances in technology and science open up our understanding of the world around us in unimaginable ways.  And yet, it just might be possible that we’re at a point where the “good” things we do are being overwhelmed by the “bad” things, to the point of threatening the society in which we live, if not the very survival of our species.  We know from history and archeology that some cultures have unwittingly destroyed themselves.  In some ways, we seem to be following in their footsteps. 

We now live in a society where a lot of us know that something fundamental is wrong.  And yet we haven’t as yet found a useful way to talk about it, or a clear path to make it right.  Many husbands and wives, family members and friends, can no longer talk to one another because one of them might be focused on what they see is an unfolding tragedy, while the other refuses to acknowledge or talk about anything that they perceive is negative or makes them feel bad. 

Some people believe they no longer can find a job that doesn’t diminish their dignity in some way.  Giant corporations behave like enemies of society.  Bankers and politicians collude in fraud.  To some, the rich seem evil and callous, to others the poor seem lazy and naive.  Our entertainment seems—more than ever—to be violent, mindless, obscene, misleading, a distraction from what’s important, underhanded propaganda, and/or a waste of time… and yet we can’t get enough of it. 

We go on about our business trying to hang onto our sanity as the mind tries to identify who or what is the source of our fears and discomfort.  We are vulnerable to propaganda designed to make us believe falsely that we know who the enemy is, and convince us that if we would or could only get rid of them, everything would return to normal.  And so we might be told that the enemy are the Muslims, Jews, rich people, poor people, capitalists, socialists, or communists, dark skinned people, white skinned people, intellectuals, rednecks, bankers, politicians, CEOs, men, Americans, Israelis, Arabs, religious fanatics, left wingers, right wingers, Republicans or Democrats, or who knows what. 

And yet the truth is, maybe we’re all our own worst enemy.  Some of us do wicked things or support others in doing wicked things to our supposed enemies in reaction to our skewed view of reality that was orchestrated by forces we don’t understand and can’t identify. 

We are all like those chimps who are now mindlessly attacking anyone who attempts to do something that we believe is “bad” and yet in some sense we too are “bad” for we will attack (in our minds or in our hearts) anyone who we think probably deserves it, without trying to understanding how they got that way or how we got the way we are, or how to stop them, or stop ourselves … because even if we stop, other people won’t, so what’s the point?

And so we give up trying to figure it all out or we become secret Avengers, which is to say, we become justified in treating some segments of humanity not as we would want to be treated but as we think they deserve to be treated… because they are in some way evil while we are not.  We discard the Golden Rule, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and any other morality from our cultured past because we now believe that we must not be swayed by some quaint philosophical abstraction that we were taught as children, (and still teach our children), even though it no longer applies to us, because now we are told and accept that basic human decency was not meant to be a suicide pact… meaning that if we hold fast to our ideals, we surely will die, be damaged or compromised, and so we decide we no longer will or should.

And if we are not doing that, then we hide our heads in the sand, unwilling or unable to see the downward spiraling tragedy unfolding all around us.  Instead, we arrange our lives so that we never have to deal with anything that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, shutting the pain of the world out of our lives and out of our consciousness.  We pretend we are unaffected by realities we refuse to acknowledge, not admitting to ourselves that one day we will release our children and grandchildren into this cauldron of deception for which they will be entirely unprepared and to which we all contributed our own version of helplessness by no longer believing that there is really anything that we can do about it.  When asked how we're doing, we pretend everything is all ok, making sure that every conversation we engage in is some form of happy talk, never really connecting in any intimate or truthful way to even those we love, let alone the rest of humanity around us. 

Some of us conclude that the only thing left to do is try to get by until we are finally saved by our own death, Armageddon, or some event over which we have no control… and anyway… its always been this way, and it always will be this way, and things will go in cycles… times will change to something better or something worse before it turns around and then goes back the other way again… so deal with it, but leave me alone… I don't want to talk about it.  No one has the answer.  And besides, I’m busy.

Of course there is an alternative…

In fact, I believe I have an answer to this problem… this problem being, how do we transform this reality into one where all humans have a chance to live in freedom in a large diverse community of well adjusted, well cared for individuals who have compassion for one another. 

My answer: 

Things will turn around when you finally learn how to love other people’s children at least almost as much as you love your own. 

What would that mean?  It would mean that you recognize that there is no child in this world who is not entitled to be loved.  

Naturally your emotional ties and commitment to your own children will almost always be deeper and more profound than someone else’s, particularly with respect to children you never met and who live somewhere on the other side of the planet. 

Nevertheless, there is no child in the world that is not entitled to basic human rights as enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

There is no child in this world that is not entitled to the truth… by which I mean, that no child deserves to be purposely lied to in order to deny them the full measure of their dignity or rightful place in the world, or to cheat them out of the right to experience life as it is so that you or others can take advantage of their ignorance or inexperience.  

Every child deserves a fair chance to succeed in life, to be treated with justice, to enjoy freedom of expression, economic security, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… to be treated as you would have others treat your children.  

Is there any reason why your children should enjoy these gifts of life and other children not?  To love them almost as much as you love your own is to acknowledge and to strive to live your life in such a way that other people’s children are not denied these gifts of life if you have any say in the matter.  And the truth is, you do.

Why do you have a say in the matter?  Because you’re here… you have a voice… and you have a conscience.  How can you make a difference?  You can’t not make a difference.  All any of us do is make a difference, because all we ever do in life, moment by moment, is make choices.  Perhaps we would make a different kind of difference if we made more conscious choices and better informed choices. 

So we all have a lot of thinking to do and lot of truth to acknowledge.  Those thoughts and that truth requires freedom from the false teachings, practices, traditions, myths, and belief systems that keep humanity (us) stuck, impoverished, unhappy, and vulnerable.  Once we recognize the extent of our ignorance, we’re going to have to discover what to put in its place. 

We must restructure our institutions and revise our philosophical understandings as to how people ought to behave towards one another, and then bring ourselves and our institutions into alignment with our recreated vision as we let go of those unworkable and outdated traditions, myths, and belief systems that we ourselves still live by. 

So how do we do that?

If you’ve read this far, the work has already begun… in you.  I already told you how.  You don’t need to know or understand anything else to begin. You don’t need anyone else’s permission.  You only need to want to begin by asking yourself… “What would it mean to love other people’s children at least almost as much as I love my own?”  If you are willing to take that first step honestly and with integrity, whatever else you need to know will be revealed to you.  One thing will lead to another.  If you are truly honest with yourself, the world… your world… will change.  That’s how it’s done… one person at a time, beginning with you. 

Now I am mindful that human experience is drenched in dichotomies.  You always have a choice.  You can always turn right or turn left, because there is both a left and a right.  You can always look up or look down, because there is both an up and a down.  You can always say yes or say no, because you can choose to say yes or say no.  And every time you make a choice there are always consequences and new choices to be made.  

Is it possible that all human beings could live happy, productive and satisfying lives?  I believe that that is just as possible as all human beings living unhappy, discouraging, and unsatisfying lives.  

Some of us can imagine the second possibility much easier than they can the first.  But why should we believe that one reality is more possible than the other?  Because we are quite familiar with how much suffering so much of humanity experiences and always has.  I’m telling you that that can change.  I can imagine how it can change, and I can imagine it changed.  You can choose to imagine what I can imagine or you can refuse.  I believe that if you are willing to step back in order to gain a wider perspective than what you now have, you could make a better informed choice.  It’s possible.

I will tell you this:  God is real and not a myth.  But God is not a religion and God is not the fool most people think He is.  God is not angry, jealous, vengeful, spiteful or cruel... but is kind, understanding and forgiving. God is closer to you than your own breath.  You are not forgotten.  You are, in fact, greatly loved.  And you have a choice.  You can choose to love other people’s children at least almost as much as you love your own, or you can choose not to.  You can choose to love other people’s children even if you don’t have children of your own. 

Now the only thing left for you to do is... choose.  

By the way, I don't believe you need to justify your choices to me or anyone else.  I love you just the way you are. I simply had something to say that I thought some people might find interesting or useful, and so I thought I'd say it. On the other hand, maybe you do owe us some answers...

Next:  God and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Also:  My Letter to Lawyers and Judges

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