The Better Rebels of Our Nature: Friends Can Help Us Remember to “Be the Change We Want in the World”

Three close friends and I recently had a reunion. We visited Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we went to school in the 1960s and rented a house together for a long weekend. When we are together anything can come up for conversation and does. At dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant, we discussed everything from free will to selling out, from politics to Ancient Sumeria, to the music of Dylan, Cohen, and Ramstein, and Michigan football.

 

My friends were not shy about bringing others, who happened to wander by or be standing around us, into our conversation. We were debating if we had free will or if it mattered if we believed that we did, and soon our waiter was involved in the conversation. He and I basically agreed. One of my friends said since our actions were purposeful and the motivation for those purposes were largely unconscious and thus beyond our control, how can we claim to be free? We are more like machines than we like to think.

 

I disagreed. Yes, our actions derive from many unconscious determining factors.  But included in those determining factors is the whole universe, in which we are a part. I brought up the Chinese Taoist concept of Wu Wei, which can be defined as “effortless action” or “acting without acting.” Our actions arise as part of the whole universe moving interdependently together. We can never step out of the universe to view all the consequences of, or influences on, our actions. However, we, meaning our body, memory, intention, and way of thinking participate in determining what we do, along with everyone and everything else in and around us. We all act together.

 

One of my friends asked the waiter about his own life. It turns out he had been a doctoral candidate in ancient middle eastern religions and was studying Akkadian, Sumerian, and other languages as a required part of his study. Then he got bored with learning these dead languages, quit the program, and got a job as a waiter. We wound up discussing Gilgamesh, the first written extended story or epic poem and one of the earliest takes on male friendship.

 

One of my friends then asked, Did I sell out? Have I given up the ideals I fought for in my youth and has my life become merely the pursuit of money and power? Is what I am doing worthwhile and should I continue doing it?

 

We discussed the important successes he had achieved in his life. The question arose how did the world, or the state of U. S. politics, get so bad ⎼ and were we responsible for T?

 

This turn in the conversation reminded me of one I had had in the gym earlier in the week. After greeting me, a man who was more than an acquaintance but not yet a friend asked what I was doing with my life. I mentioned house repairs, teaching martial arts twice a week, and writing. I asked him the same question. He replied by switching topics and stating that all the people from the 1960s who dropped out of society to “go back to the land” (implying that I was one of those people) were responsible for the awful state of our nation today. We should have stayed in society, he said, become CEOs and reformed the corporate world.

 

Although I could understand his argument, I was incredulous. He seemed to be following a meme inspired by conservatives of blaming the 60’s for almost anything. I agreed that if conscientious people do nothing, they therefore leave the world in the hands of those who think only of their own power and money. But making people aware of this was what the 1960s rebellions were about.

 

I don’t think anybody who knows me would say I had dropped out or given up. In the early 70s I did move to a rural location to build a house with my then girlfriend and now wife. We moved with a group of people involved in creating a free school, not-for-profit businesses, and a community development fund. We were intent on changing the economy and the values that drove this society.

 

Going back to the land was not a running away from responsibility but a refusal to live by materialistic values. It was a way to educate ourselves in how to live in a more sustainable and less destructive way. If we had joined the corporate world and tried to change it from within, how long would we have been able to sustain that motivation if we hadn’t, first, learned how to live without all the material rewards of corporate wealth?

 

The 1960s rebellions warned us about the dangers we face today, of narcissistic leaders, of politicians lying to the people, and of alienated men and women who refused to look at the state of our world and the dark side of technological advances. The 1960s, or people like Martin Luther King, Jr., the Berrigan brothers, so many writers, artists, musicians, and activists, taught us that poverty, racism, sexism and the lust for power do not just hurt the people immediately affected by these blights on humanity, but undermine the whole society.

 

There were also people like G. Gordon Liddy, one of President Nixon’s “plumbers” who organized the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and illustrated just how far alienated men could go. His autobiography, Will, described a man whose hero was Adolf Hitler and whose primary motivation was to become as powerful as possible. Besides admiring Hitler, he envied and tried to create in himself the power and emotionlessness of machines. Here was a man who had not just accepted the simplified metaphor that humans were machines, but glorified the possibility.

 

The argument by the man in the gym was akin to blaming the victim. The people responsible for putting profit before people ⎼ and personal power before the health of our world ⎼ were primarily responsible for making working for the common good and democracy impossible.

 

But, since we are all interdependent, every one of us is part of us, part of all that is happening. Because we can be affected, we can affect others. Our true power and freedom lie not in escaping emotion and our responsibility for what happens in the world, but in becoming more aware of it. Only by increasing our mindful awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that affect our behavior can we have any conscious power to direct that behavior.

 

For example, our theories and beliefs about reality tell us how much power and choice we have in affecting that reality. If we think we are machines with no free will, then we are more likely to abdicate responsibility for our actions and allow ourselves to act mechanically.

 

Our fault in the 1960s was not in our building communal groups and rebelling against jobs and politics as we knew them.  It was in not understanding how complex the struggle would be. It was in focusing so much on our own righteous need to achieve our goals that we couldn’t compromise or adapt and believed we could and had to change the world in a few months or years. The result was that when the revolution didn’t happen, many gave up the struggle.

 

Even though we children of the 60s embraced a sentiment later attributed to Gandhi about being the change we wanted to see in the world, or about living the revolution, we didn’t know how to do it. And we are still learning this. Learning how to be the change is what life is about. And our deepest friendships can help remind us of this, and how to be the better rebels of our nature.

 

This post was syndicated by The Good Men Project.

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Important Lesson I Learned In College Was The Value of Friendship

After 49 years, I returned this past weekend to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I went to college. For years after graduating, I dreamed about the place. I dreamed about the people and places I loved, tests I didn’t like, professors that inspired me, and weird twists on all of these people and places. But slowly, the dreams eventually ended. New people and places began to dominate my mind.

 

Like many people of my generation, college changed me. It was a rite of passage, or the closest to such a formal initiation that we had then in our culture. It didn’t lead immediately to a job. But it did nurture my life-long interest in philosophy, psychology and history. It was where I first learned to meditate, acted in my first play, had my first poem and story published, and participated in my first (20) political demonstrations.

 

It was on a school-arranged trip that I first flew to Europe, or first flew on any airplane anywhere.

 

It was also where I met 2 life-long friends, Al and Mark. For the last 41 years we have celebrated Thanksgiving together despite living in different cities. This year will be the 42nd.

 

And this year we decided to do it differently. We would first fly to Ann Arbor the weekend before Thanksgiving, meet with some old friends, see our old haunts, and even go to a football game. I hadn’t been to a football game since 1967. Then we would fly home, and a few days later drive with our families to one of our homes to celebrate our traditional Thanksgiving.

 

One of our old college friends, Steve, came to visit us at the house the 3 of us had rented. I had seen Steve only once since graduation, maybe 15 years ago. So when he came to the door, I was surprised by the joy I felt in seeing him. We hugged with sincere affection.

 

We sat in the living room and talked for hours. Steve led it off, talking about his life, his triumphs and frights. Words had been our door to the depths of our souls and we entered through that door once again. Then I told my stories, then Al, and Mark. Even though I had heard Al and Mark’s stories before, I didn’t feel “I heard all this already.” I felt I was hearing the stories for the first time, with a new twist, or as if their stories were my own.

 

We shared not only memories, but also a way of viewing the world. And a sound track, of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, the Stones, Beetles, and Leonard Cohen. A few words from a line of this sound track would come to one of us, to explain a feeling or event, and the others would complete it…

To read the whole post, please click on this link to the Good Men Project, which published it.

The Mystery You Solve As You Live

When I was in college, before going on a date, especially in my freshman and sophomore years, I remember I would first read a philosophy book or play music I loved, like that by Bob Dylan. I’d play “All You Masters of War” or “Maggie’s Farm” and feel filled with energy, with something to say, with character, and a self.

 

I’d become a persona built from my understanding of Dylan and what he meant to me. I’d become a rebellious philosopher, a person with a meaningful life who had meaningful things to say. I’d become, or tried to become, this mask that I wore for my date. I’d become, for a moment, someone worthy of loving.

 

But to focus on being this persona had side effects. I was looking for my self, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” The persona was a mask I wore not only for others but for my self. It hid me from myself. I expected it to be the real me, not whoever it was who wore the mask. So the reality of the wearer of the mask was hidden. And this led to a subtle sense that something was wrong with me. I felt anxiety because I could never feel real as a mask. A mask, no matter how well crafted, never feels like a face. Who wants to kiss a mask?

 

Only later on did I begin to realize that it wasn’t the music that “filled me up.” It was my love of the music that filled me. When the quality of mind is loving, whatever or whomever you meet is greeted with this emotion, including yourself.

 

Understanding the self is such a mysterious and complex endeavor. The more you look for the self, the more difficult it can be to find it. As Dogen Zenji, a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist teacher put it, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things….” You might think you are this image or memory you cherish, some demands or expectations you cling to for yourself, some hope that your parents or others hold out before you. But who you are can never be summed up by an abstraction, or a label you put on your character.

 

You don’t automatically develop this self-understanding. It is something you must work to discover, so persist at it with some gentleness. It’s not something you learn once and forever. It is a curriculum made by nature for your whole life, a class in which we are all both students and teachers. You have to learn that to live well, and to live fully, is what life is about. When you think of life as perpetual learning, or as a mystery you are solving as you live it, then you don’t spend too much time regretting or attacking yourself. You are more mindful; you notice, learn, and change. And to be open to learning, to learn well, it is helpful to be kind, or you won’t take in what is offered to you, and what is there in front of you. You need to appreciate, even love your life, in order to fully live it.

 

So, when you’re feeling lost or anxious or lonely, close your eyes and notice whatever arises. Feel the fact that you can feel and know. Simply breathe in the moment and let it go. If you normally hold up a mask of being unloved, you could instead hold up an image of someone who feels loved. If you normally hold up a mask of being powerless, imagine the face of someone who feels internally powerful. It might not be easy, but you can get better at doing it. You can even ask for help if you get stuck, find a teacher or therapist who you think knows his or her own mind. And study yourself: who is it that controls the whole play, who sees whatever is seen, who provides whatever reality is experienced?

 

The Lehman Alternative Community School, where I used to teach, has a Community Service graduation requirement. Service was such a meaningful experience for students that, at one of our weekly all school meetings several years ago, they voted to increase the requirement from 30 to 60 hours. Giving to others, and recognizing the reality of others and the suffering they face, and working to diminish that suffering, is helpful to everyone. It is especially helpful when you feel anxious or confused about who you really are. By giving, you feel you have more to give. You feel your inner world exceeds even your understanding of it, and in that excess you find yourself.