Effectiveness is the Measure of Truth
I recently attended a gathering in Arizona about Water, Earth, Air and Fire. Several Navajo wisdom-keepers and non-Native professionals shared their knowledge. William Greyeyes reminded us, The clans, like the Elements, are all inter-related. If, in extraction of coal or oil or water, you move a single grain of sand, when you’re done you have to put it back in its rightful place. If we took this to heart, human activity would look very different for the foreseeable future. Navajo storyteller Sunny Dooley reminded us that in Diné teachings, No individual medicine person can hold or understand everything. A colleague summarized: Complexity can only be held in community.
Most relationships are, by their nature, complex. The Natural World depends on this complexity, as do we (try as we may to isolate ourselves or sidestep the consequence). Form and Function are symbionts. The assumptions and agreements upon which relationships are organized are of limitless consequence. Similarly, the way things are structured, and the way space is arranged communicates what is valued there. This is as true for a preschool classroom as it is for an airport, for a neighborhood as for a country, for a marriage as for a society. In the US, the wealthiest people are white and male. Race is the single biggest predictor of exposure to toxic waste and lack of clean water, sanitation and other necessities. And, as we’ve seen lately, being female means increased likelihood of abuse, including abuse of the Natural World, since the way a society treats women and girls mirrors its treatment of the Earth.
Among humans, immature Yang (male) energy is often threatened rather than awed by Yin (female) generativity and ability to receive. For this reason, it seeks to either horde or squander both money and power in order to reassure itself of its potency. And, because immature Yang is, by definition, childish, it is self-focused, with little concern for the effect of its behavior on others. We are seeing this play out across the political spectrum in the context of sexual harassment.
Part of the problem is the short timeframe within which we humans tend to see ourselves. At best, it’s naïve in its selectivity, at worst naively short-sighted in its human-centric bias: For example, how can the annual GDP of the US be accurately calculated without factoring in the millennia it took for Earth’s careful layering of the finite oil, coal, and minerals - here and abroad, upon which we depend; or the true costs of pollution, illness and war, especially in places far away? This year’s monstrous spewings cannot be extracted from Earth’s continuum of reckoning. The traditional Hawaiian principle of Pono is useful here: Effectiveness Is the Measure of Truth, meaning that there are many ways to reach a goal, and, though results are the litmus test of success, the end does not justify the means. Heedlessness begets suffering. What we do today matters seven generations into the future and beyond. I sometimes try to imagine what Western society would be like if this understanding were at the center of our culture.
Context matters in shaping behavior. I often experience this most dramatically when traveling. Stripped of familiar surroundings, customs, language, food and weather, one is left with the essential self, as reflected in our interactions with others. Regardless of the mode of transportation or what’s packed in the suitcase, all we really have is who we are in a given place at a given moment. At home, familiarity lulls us into forgetting these things. I find it easier while traveling to reflect on the nature of survival, pleasure, and intimate connection. Our assumptions, expectations and fears, the relationships we tend and the ways we tend them, shape our responses to strangers, to animals, to adversity, and to the unknown. Life is a continuous pop quiz asking us to consider the same question, moment to moment: What, exactly, are we doing here?