Reading – “Overwhelmed By Being” by Richard S. Gilbert
At Ferry Beach, staff members wear a simple uniform all summer long – khaki shorts, pants or skirts, and a bright blue polo shirt with the Ferry Beach logo on it – the intertwining circles of Unitarian Universalism with a seagull flying through them.
One day this past summer a senior staff person sat down across from me at lunch and picked at the emblem. She was not in a good mood. “This shouldn’t be a seagull,” she said. “This should be a duck!”
“Truly – Don’t you know about ducks?” I was pretty sure that was a rhetorical question at this point. “On the surface ducks are smooth and elegant on the water – calm and glossy and never a feather out of place. But you know what they’re doing just under the surface of the water? This….! Swimming furiously to stay afloat. We’re ducks.”
Most of us at camp were there to wind down from our normal pace, to relax and renew, in one manner or another, for a day, a week, or a summer. Not so for the staff and the crew.
Now, here in the frantic fall, many of us feel like ducks. We have all the most wonderful attributes: grace and courage, a desire to dive deep into life, a hope for immortality - and we live the bad and the ugly as well, swimming like hell to keep afloat – overwhelmed but looking good – the looking good forcing us apart from one another, so that the feeling of being overwhelmed becomes coupled with isolation.
Sometimes, in duck mode, our isolation is even self-imposed – I need you to stay out there, because if you get in here, you’ll see how hard I’m working at this, how afraid I am to stop, and how ugly or angry it all makes me feel – then you won’t like me. I want to be liked. How many people here want to be liked? Exactly – what do you think I’m doing this good looking solo swim for, people?! I want to be liked – we all of us want to be liked.
And we want our children to be liked
And our parents
And we want to make a difference in the world
In wanting these things there is a truth so many of us follow, and it is the truth of the American market economy. It’s an old truth. It works for a lot of people. By immersing ourselves in it, to one extent or another, we get what we need – money, food, clothes, some kinds of security, dinner invitations, theater tickets, presents at birthdays and holidays, the privilege of traveling, the privilege of healthcare, health club care, a car to drive. There’s that joke – if you’ve run and won the rat race there’s only one problem – you’re still a rat…..
But, we’re not rats. We’re ducks. We’re just dive-deep-into-life, jumping-out-of-the-tree-to-see-what’s-out-there-and-finding-out-it’s-sink-or-swim, ducks. We’re valued, and we learn to value ourselves, for what we do, for what we accomplish, for what we earn. It’s a pretty decent way to get through life if you don’t get too isolated, or too overwhelmed, or fall in love with what’s been bought instead of whom it’s been bought for.
There’s another truth we might follow. There’s the truth, a religious one, shared by many faiths, that we are of value not for doing but for being. “We can set the rhythm of our own lives…We the architects of our own fate….yearn for meaning…”
In her book The Real Wealth of Nations Riane Eisler proposes some radical ideas about that American market economy that drives so many of our lives – and promises us so much. She proposes that we’re overwhelmed as a nation, and that what has looked good on the surface for so long will not hold water much longer. Eisler calls for a Caring Economics, an economic system in which care - care for one another, ourselves, and the natural environment - is assigned economic indicators and monetary value.
In her view there are only two kinds of societies: dominator societies and partnership societies. Guess which one we live in?
In a dominator society the “main motivations for work are fear of pain and scarcity”. Didn’t some of us hear this definition in highschool and college economics courses: “Economics is the social science that studies the allocation of scarce resources to satisfy unlimited wants”? Eisler writes: “This definition is based on two assumptions: that scarcity is inevitable and that human beings are inherently greedy and hence have unlimited wants and demands. However, what this definition describes is not economics per se, but economics in a domination system”. The economics of a dominator system, presented to so many of us as science and fact, are based on religious belief and even myth that many of us reject in our lives of faith. Dominator systems of culture, and the economics they support are based on the idea that the human being is inherently sinful. That we’re selfish and will only help other people if it benefits us directly. That the earth and her creatures are beneath us and here to do our bidding, rather than to benefit from our stewardship.
Eisler gives us a new economics, based on what many of us DO believe about human beings and the world. “By the grace of evolution,” she writes, “we humans are equipped with a neuro-chemistry that gives us pleasure when we care for others.” She goes on to cite a recent study conducted by evolutionary anthropologist Felix Warneken: “[Felix] designed an experiment where eighteen-month-old babies watched him ‘struggling’ with ordinary tasks such as hanging towels with clothespins or stacking books. Over and over, as he ‘accidentally’ dropped a clothespin or knocked over books, each of the twenty-four toddlers in the experiment offered him help within seconds. But they only did this if Warneken appeared to need help. When he threw a pin on the floor or deliberately knocked over a book, the babies did not respond. On the other hand, if it looked like he needed help, the babies quickly toddled over, grabbed the object and eagerly handed it back to him”. Warneken did not thank or praise the babies in any way, and he formed no attachments or relationships with any of them – they acted out of the simple, apparently inherent, human impulse to help a stranger in need.
In this national system Eisler would have us valued for the care that is at the core of our humanity, at the core of our families, communities, nation and world, rather than for the goods or services we can produce. We would be rewarded for having greater consciousness, caring and creativity. We would be rewarded for holding a vision that ends isolation, consumption, violence and injustice instead of inducing it. We would be rewarded and able to participate in economic health largely by being who we are, rather than by doing what we do.
Religious writers from UU Wayne Arnason to Native American professor Vine Deloria will tell you that there’s an unseen order to the universe, and to life, and our highest goal is in opening ourselves to it, hearing in the music of the wind, in the whisper of the gods, in the weaving of our culture, what our “place in the family of things” is, and then, just, living it. This is a counter-cultural act. Ministers and mystics tell us that from this act good things will come to us, and those we love, but it may make us feel like we will sink instead of swim. Certainly it’s hard to think it might help up fly…..We’re so used to a certain frantic energy – nationally and personally. We’re so used to being valued for what we do rather than for who we are.
UU singer and songwriter the Rev. Meg Barnhouse mirrors Eisler’s vision in a more personal way in her essay, “The Stretcher and the Swan”. I want to share her words with you…
Is grace on water a powerful gift or an age-old duplicity? Both, perhaps, or neither. In one Native American belief the duck was not known for how it swam, nor how it dove, nor how expertly it fished, but for it’s ability to mediate between the water and the sky – it is the link between all that is, and all that can be – between what must be done day-to-day to sustain life, and what vision must be carried forth so that life may be a celebration and a joy. I wish for all of us at this frantic, hopeful, bountiful time of year, a full dose of duck medicine, and the time to dive deep, to rest on the waters, and to fly.
“Overwhelmed by Being”. Gilbert, Richard.
The Real Wealth of Nations. Eisler, Riane. ©2007. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. P. 33
Ibid, p. 33
Ibid, p. 188
Ibid, p. 189
For the text of this essay see Did I Say That Out Loud. Barnhouse, Meg. ©2006. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books. P. 1