The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible
Chapter 6: Force
The state of interbeing is a vulnerable state. It is the vulnerability of the naive altruist, of the trusting lover, of the unguarded sharer. To enter it, one must leave behind the seeming shelter of a control-based life, protected by walls of cynicism, judgment, and blame. What if I give and do not receive? What if I choose to believe in a greater purpose, and am deluded? What if the universe is an impersonal melee of forces after all? What if I open up, and the world violates me? These fears ensure that ordinarily, no one enters the new story until the old one falls apart. It is not something we attain; it is something we are born into.
The same interbeingness that makes us so immensely vulnerable also makes us immensely powerful. Remember this! Indeed, the vulnerability and the power go hand in hand, because only by relaxing the guard of the separate self can we tap into power beyond its ken. Only then can we accomplish things that are, to the separate self, impossible. Put another way, we become capable of things that we don’t know how to “make” happen.
To make something happen is to use some kind of force. I can ask you to give me money, but how could I make you? Well, I could, if you are frail, physically force your hand into your pocketbook. Or I could put a gun to your head—any threat to your survival is also a form of force. The threat to survival can be quite subtle. Legal force, for example, rests ultimately on physical force: if you ignore the directives of the court, sooner or later a man with handcuffs and a gun will show up at your house. Similarly, economic force rests on the association of money with comfort, security, and survival.
Then there is psychological force, a term that is more than mere metaphor. It refers to the leveraging of motivations tied to basic security, in particular the desire to be accepted by the group and by the parent. Our training in the use of psychological force begins in childhood with conditional approval and rejection by the parent, which taps into perhaps the deepest fear of any young mammal: abandonment by the mother. A baby mammal left alone too long will cry piteously for its mother, attracting every predator within earshot—a risk preferable to the certain death of separation from the nursing mother. To engage that mortal fear is tantamount to a gun to the head. Many modern parenting practices leverage that fear: the accusatory “How could you!” “What’s wrong with you?” “What were you thinking?” and, perhaps even more pernicious, the manipulative praise that says, “I accept you only if you do what I approve of.” We learn to strive to be a “good boy” or “good girl,” the word “good” here meaning that Mommy or Daddy accepts you. Eventually we internalize the rejection as self-rejection—guilt and shame—and we internalize the conditional acceptance as conditional self-acceptance. To allow oneself that acceptance feels deeply gratifying; to deny it is deeply uncomfortable. That feeling of gratification is core to what we really mean by the word “good.” It is worth exploring: repeat to yourself, “I am good. Good boy. I am a good person. Some people are bad people but not me—I am a good person.” If you think these words to yourself in earnest, you might find that there is something deeply childish about the gratification that they evoke.
Conditional self-approval and self-rejection are powerful mechanisms of self-control: the application of psychological force upon oneself. We are deeply conditioned to it; it is perhaps the most fundamental of what I will call the “habits of separation.” So conditioned, we are also vulnerable to any authority figure or government that can take over the role of parent: the arbiter of good and bad, the grantor or withholder of approval.
The same conditioning also influences our attempts to change other people and the world. We invoke guilt with slogans like “Are you part of the problem, or part of the solution?” We proclaim the complicity of each and every one of us in the imperialistic depredations of Western civilization, the ecocide, culturecide, and genocide. We try to manipulate the vanity of the people whose actions we hope to change: if you do X, you are a good person.
We habitually apply force to politicians and corporations as well. It could be the threat of public humiliation or the incentive of public praise and a positive image. It could be the threat of a lawsuit or recall campaign. It could be financial threat or incentive. “Engage in environmentally responsible practices because it will ultimately enhance your bottom line.”
What worldview, what story, are we reinforcing when we use these tactics? It is the worldview in which things happen only through the application of force. These tactics seem to say, “I know you. You are a ruthless maximizer of rational self-interest or genetic self-interest.” Assuming that, we attempt to leverage that self-interest. We do it to other people, and we do it to ourselves.
None of this is to say that we should withhold praise and disapproval, or strive to free ourselves from being influenced by the opinions of others. As interbeings, the world reflects back to us what we put into the world. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the brave choices that move us, or expressing anger or grief over harmful decisions. It is when these are used with manipulative intent that they draw from the worldview of force.
The habitual application of various kinds of force draws on deep roots. In the scientific paradigm that, though obsolete, still generates our view of practicality today, nothing in the universe ever changes unless a force is exerted upon it. Power over physical reality, then, accords to the one who is capable of mustering the most force and who has the most complete, accurate information about where to exert that force. It is for this reason that the power-hungry are often obsessed with controlling the flow of information.
In this view, things never “just happen,” they happen only if something causes them to happen, and “cause” here means force. From it we must take, within it we must control, and onto it we must project our own designs, harnessing more and more force, applying that force with greater and greater precision, to become ultimately the Cartesian lords and possessors of nature.
Can you see how the word “practical” smuggles in so much of the mentality underlying the depredations of our civilization?
Do you think that operating from within the belief systems of the Age of Separation, we will create anything but more separation?
Control breeds its own necessity. So, when we treat land with heavy pesticides, the superweeds and superbugs that emerge require new and even stronger doses of pesticides. When someone goes on a diet and attempts to control her urge to eat, at some point the pent-up desire explodes outward as a binge, prompting further attempts to control herself. And when human beings are boxed in, surveilled, scheduled, assigned, classed, and compelled, they rebel in all kinds of ways, sometimes irrational or even violent. Ah, we think, we need to control these people. As with an addiction, these escalating attempts at control eventually exhaust all available resources, whether personal, social, or planetary. The result is a crisis that the technologies of control can only postpone but never solve. And each postponement only depletes what resources are still available even further.
It is apparent that “practical” isn’t working as well as it used to. Not only because what was once practical is insufficient to our need, but also because it is increasingly impotent in its native realm: the practical is no longer practical. Like it or not, we are being born into a new world.
This book is a call to surrender control-based thinking, so that we can accomplish things far exceeding the capacity of our force. It is an invitation into a radically different understanding of cause and effect, and therefore a radically different conception of what is practical. Acting accordingly, our choices often seem, to those operating within the old paradigms, to be crazy: naive, impractical, irresponsible. Indeed, they seem that way to that part of ourselves—and I trust that it lives just as much in you as it does in me—that also inhabits the old story. You might recognize its voice, critical, disparaging, doubting, insinuating. It wants us to stay small, safe, protected in our little bubbles of control. My purpose here is not to urge you to fight that voice or purge it; simply recognizing it for what it is already begins to loosen its power.
None of this is to imply that we should never use force, or that we should abandon all forms of acculturation that depend on winning acceptance from parents, elders, and the group. These will always be important parts of the human drama. However, our deep ideologies have blinded us to other ways of initiating change. This book will explore the return of force (and reason, linear thinking, etc.) to its proper domain.