Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Foundation of Our Social Problems (Part 1)

Our world as seen by Google
Clearly the world is in a great deal of trouble. Many good people are engaged in practical action, dialogue, and the kind of realistic negotiations that are so often necessary to maintain a fragile peace or to secure fundamental human rights.

This work is necessary, and indeed heroic because it requires immense energies and creativity to find ways to patch up a crisis or bring some measure of relief or protection in situations that require continued vigilance. Social problems are never solved once and for all. They must be grappled with again and again.

The human ideal remains elusive in this world, and yet the human quest for justice and compassion must press forward here and now, placing its ultimate hope in something greater than our capacities.

It is important to reflect upon the roots of the particular social malaise of today: roots that are as old as human history and yet have a particular significance for our times because our society has obfuscated these roots in unprecedented ways. This is a challenge to us to look explicitly at what so many are trying desperately to evade, and make sure that we ourselves do not forget these roots and the urgent need to address them.

Beneath so many of the problems of our society it is possible to recognize a foundation (or, rather, the profound sense of an absence of foundation). Human beings have no sense of the ground upon which they stand. Often today this is evident in the most basic circumstances. People are disconnected from the human foundations of their own families, and they lack the experience of social stability or of any traditions or customs. They lack any strong human investment in a particular place or a community, and it is difficult to find sustaining motivation for constructive activity or commitment.

Underlying all this human instability is a more radical, existential insecurity. Our society feeds this insecurity insofar as it pretends that the human world is a self contained entity filled with inexplicable yet also autonomous human beings. Our social environment says that human persons come into existence from nowhere and live for nothing, and at the same time that they are invested with the power to act and the freedom and responsibility to define themselves.

It is a bipolar vortex between insignificance and urgency. The human person feels as if he or she is just "here" in time and space, hanging onto existence by a slender thread, and yet wanting to be here, to be and to be more, although the person does not know how or why. There is no foundation, and it is terrifying to just hang here swinging one's legs over an abyss of extinction. Not surprisingly, the person looks for something, anything, that has the appearance of security; something that feels like solid ground on which to stand.

Of course, people don't often feel consciously the naked terror of having no identity, no foundation, no reason for existing. It's an unbearable experience, and most of the time the survival instinct kicks into gear and people quickly find some reason, some seemingly solid reality in the world that will give them a purpose for existing; something they can belong to. Or else they bury themselves in external distractions. But even with the wildest distractions, the feeling lingers subconsciously and so people feel compelled to say things like "I'm trying to find myself."

The presupposition in this society is that your own bare self exists in radical solitude and lack of definition and value. You have no value unless you have found something or someone (or some cause or group) that gives value to you.

No wonder we are so desperate.

No wonder we sink ourselves so readily into factions and ideologically driven groups that wear labels. They give us a sense of belonging. They "validate" our existence.

And no wonder we are willing to wage ruthless war against any idea, group, or person who opposes our faction, or questions its adequacy. We have become convinced that it's a matter of survival, that our identity is at stake -- the very meaning of our existence.

But wait. Do I really belong to nothing in myself? In this moment, am I simply "here," scrambling to assert myself into a self-defined meaningful identity?

Let me, JJ, consider what I experience about myself right now. I would say that I'm here in this moment trying to write something coherent, trying to communicate with others, so as to serve them (and to be appreciated by them -- haha, let's be honest). I want to be "in union with other people," or rather to deepen my union with them.

I find myself "here," in this moment, in a way that can seem frightening but in reality is challenging and dramatic. I am here with a need. I need goodness, love, and not only appreciation but also self-giving. Yes, there is a profound anxiety and lack of self-confidence in me, a fear of nothingness, a sense of insignificance and an impulse toward self-assertion -- but that is not all there is to my being. There is also the fundamental desire to give myself, the intuition of a richness that wants to share itself. I know that my existence is good. No matter how obscure it may seem, I know that I am grounded in something fundamentally, radically good, and that I am responsible to that good, which is the root of me and at the same time "other" than me.

We live in such fear. But what is fear? It is the response to the possibility of losing something. This implies that something is already there, something more fundamental than our fear. It is goodness, truth, and beauty: fundamentals of existing that we do not define.

It is the fact that we are given to ourselves by Another, that our existence is rooted, firmly, in the love of Another. But this Other is beyond anything in the world. The world everywhere points to this Someone, and opens up a journey to seek His fullness, and to belong fully to Him and thus to everyone and everything else.

I exist as "gift" of this Someone, and so I am truly myself by being a gift, by giving myself, by loving.

Our society needs to grow more into an environment that affirms the value of the human person as created by God and called to give his or herself in love ever more fully to God and to others according to God's wisdom. Foundational human experience is complex and ambivalent because human persons have a brokenness; they are burdened with an affliction. They are overwhelmed by anxiety and a desperate sense of the need to create their own identity, because their connection to the transcendent Mystery, the creating, sustaining, infinitely loving Other, so often seems shrouded and obscured.

And this obscure ambivalence in our self understanding is rooted in the whole of human history and its origins, the "original sin" which is the cause of the divided heart that we all experience within ourselves. We cannot pretend that it's possible to ignore these basic truths about the human person and still find real solutions to social problems or make the world a more human place. This is the basis of the human problem, and we must not forget it. No theory or political or economic system is going to make it go away. We need to be aware of it, and as much as possible help others to be aware of it. Of course, we also want to remember and witness to others the answer that God Himself has provided, the miracle of His presence among us.

We do not need to make ourselves or find something that gives value to our being. We have been made, we have value, we are loved. We need to be healed and to grow into our true greatness, to attain the likeness in love of the One who loves us.