As the world faces a crisis so large that some economists predict it may eclipse the Great Depression and cause a financial collapse that makes 1929 look like a mild downturn, I have mostly avoided letting my mind wander into “what ifs” and have instead asked myself “why?” Is this current situation to be expected – even anticipated – in a global system that demands ever-increasing GDPs, despite the finite resources we have to produce commercial activity in a wickedly upward spiral?
I certainly don’t count myself as a historian, but it seems as though mankind has always lived in societies where status is afforded to those with means, often at the expense of those without. While the system, which I am left to conclude is almost as basic a part of our human nature as is our most fundamental forms of attachment, may have worked 50 or 100 years ago, we are now simply running out of planet and can no longer afford to collectively treat each other as a means to an end.
Throughout time, there have been incredibly wise people who have recognized that the solution to our problems lie in a mutual recognition of the interconnectedness that, for better or for worse, binds us together. It is only through actions that are informed by this view (referred to as “taking whole” in the writings attributed to the Chinese military strategist Sūn Zǐ) that we can begin to bridge the gaps spanning humanity and cooperatively work to solve our shared problems.
Among those wise men and women were Martin Luther King, Jr., who I am gradually becoming to view as a Buddhist thinker. In this month’s Shambhala Sun, Diana Calthorpe Rose of the Garrison Institute recalled MLK’s visionary, almost prophetic words from his final sermon:
Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood… We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.
The “whys” of the current economic situation ran through my mind today as some 20,000 people literally showed up on my work’s doorstep for a citywide job fair. For hours, lines snaked through and around the building as people from all walks of life waited for the opportunity to fill out a basic job application. Some of the people in the crowds seemed utterly defeated, others anxious or optimistic.
It occurred to me that, as Rev. King put it, our success as a society is as much on the shoulders of the wealthy lobbyists and lawyers on K Street – and paper pushers like me – as it is on the poorest and most destitute among us. What has yet to happen, I think, is a wholesale recognition of this fact in the large parts of our society where ambition is driven by raw greed.
When the wealthy Wall Street CEO crashes his mega-billion-dollar company into the ground, does he ever stop to reflect on what that severance check for $135 million would mean to the people whose money he lost? Better yet, what would it mean to those who have never had a chance to save money because they live hand-to-mouth, week after week?
I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. Powerful words that may yet start a global revolution in the distant future.