Single-Eyed Vision

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

By Robert C. Koehler

“What is seen with one eye has no depth.”

I’m thinking, as I ponder the wisdom of Ursula LeGuin, that American culture is at the end of what it can accomplish with its single-eyed vision. For all our material progress, for all our ability to dominate just about anything or anyone we encounter — this is our history, our manifest destiny — things are falling apart in every sector of society.

What’s left of the media can’t stop selling us our own desperation and anxiety. We keep piling on more of the same — more troops in Afghanistan, more surveillance cameras in our neighborhoods — but it isn’t working. Could it be that we’re not seeing the world the way we need to see it?

The promise the United States once represented to the world has spent itself, and what we have to offer in terms of opportunity, or at least hope, is overshadowed by the spreading shadow of our hubris. And it’s all coming home to roost.

What commands my attention these days is not the major policy change that could alter the national direction but just the opposite, the almost infinitesimal shift in psycho-social consciousness that suddenly transforms the way we see the world: that gives the world depth. How do we make the world, once again, sacred?

Several weeks ago, I wrote a column about the psychology of power, and the difference between looking at others in terms of “power over” them and “power with” them. A “power over” or domination mentality is what we know and how we see pretty much everything, and it’s an existential cul-de-sac. A “power with” or partnership mentality is nothing new, but unexplored in our present circumstances and definitely not our default setting at either the institutional or personal level.

Making the shift to a profound “power with” mind-set is the beginning of peace: a peace that isn’t mere passivity or the coerced restraint of our natural impulses, but a way of being in — being with — the world that is powerful beyond our wildest dreams. The time has come to make this shift in thinking, but we have to learn what this means.

I think it encompasses our relationship not only with each other but with the rest of the planet. John Buell, writing recently in the Bangor Daily News, gets at this when he suggests that our national parks may not be, as Ken Burns says in his PBS documentary, “America’s best idea,” but a sign of our society’s alienation from nature, which we spent most of our history subduing, along with the land’s original inhabitants.

“The annihilation of a people was accompanied by a war on worldviews,” Buell writes. “We suffer from the consequences of that war. (Scott) Klinger and (Rebecca) Adamson (of the First People’s Alliance) contrast ‘a worldview that holds People as intricately within and part of nature versus a worldview that holds nature as a place to visit separate from People. . . . Belief that there is some land that we exploit and other land which we insist remain pristine, is rapidly extinguishing the beliefs of the land’s previous caretakers, who saw all land as sacred and thereby worthy of protection.’”

The mentality that we’re tourists in the natural world is, I believe, a facet of the massive, unexamined alienation of our consumer and spectator culture. We hunger for participation. We hunger for sacredness. We hunger for a more profound communing with the world and with each other; and, ironically, the ones we “conquered” — the continent’s First People — are the ones who are giving us the means of doing so. They’re opening our other eye.

When I read Buell’s essay, I thought instantly about a story I saw last week in the Chicago Tribune that had no seeming connection to it whatsoever. It was a routine piece of reportage about neighbors trying to “take back” the streets from local teenagers. They called it “positive loitering” — hanging out at the corner of Leland Avenue and Sheridan Road, physically occupying a piece of turf so others wouldn’t.

After noting that the corner had been the scene of a recent brawl, the reporter went into war-correspondent mode: “It’s at least the second time in two months that warring thugs occupied the corner, and the people of Uptown are sick of it.”

Instead of a problem, the neighbors, “the people,” had an enemy: “the thugs.” This is, of course, default urban reporting, once again marshalling readers’ fear and anger, setting up the same win-lose scenario that’s been playing out in our media since the days of the penny broadsheet.

But today we have nowhere left to run. Schools and juvenile justice systems around the country, desperate to break the cycle of violence, have begun to experiment with healing rather than punishing as a response to trouble.

Peace circles — listening to one another in a setting of equality — a concept modeled on ancient tribal circles and first used in a modern judicial setting in the early ’90s by indigenous inhabitants of Canada’s Yukon Territory, are now global in their reach. An enormous experiment in trust is under way, based on the radical idea that, to paraphrase the First People Alliance, “all people are sacred and thereby worthy of protection.”