Thus, when enemies or friends
Are seen to act improperly,
Be calm and call to mind
That everything arises from conditions.
The early Indian teacher, Shantideva, calls humanity to a deeper exploration of the people and situations we encounter. While it may sound simple, his invitation can be very difficult for American mentalities. He is asking us to look at something more complicated than the individual who acts; he is pointing us toward the causes and conditions that give rise to every person, to every situation, to every moment.
This invitation to a more complicated space for understanding people and situations can be so awkward for American ways of thinking that our systems tend to label this approach as hostile to such core values as individual accountability, freedom, and liberty.
It is difficult in a culture defined by individualism to encounter this precept of conditionality without so much suspicion. How can we give space to the causes and conditions that give rise to situations and not let people off the hook for things at the same time? How can we look at the bigger picture and not lose the importance of the rights and responsibilities of the individual in the process?
The principle of conditionality extends our gaze beyond the individual into the things that give rise to all things. Realizing that nothing happens in a vacuum is not about letting people or ourselves off the hook for the things we do (especially things that cause harm), but it’s about stretching and expanding the way we approach life in the first place.
Far from violating the sanctity of the individual, such an expanded line of vision might actually end up enhancing how we make space for the uniqueness and worth of each person. That yearning for freedom from the yolk of enforced conformity and domination from an oppressive power were some of the motivating aspirations that gave birth to individualism in the first place.
Part of why this stretched and expanded sensitivity is so hard for Americans to practice is because we’ve been trained to see this world in terms of discrete entities, binaries, and static principles. These lenses that tell us to look at people as separate and distinct from each other, actions as either right or wrong, and individuals as the inviolable loci of rights and responsibilities, have formed the most basic building blocks of Western thinking. Seeing and understanding ourselves as enmeshed in cultures and communities, in systems and situations, and in ambiguities can feel awkward and unwieldy to these individualized habits of mind.
Lenses that increase our depth perception or that see the subtleties of color, of perspective, of unique experiences can feel threatening to some, like a dizzying array of things that erode a more discernible world. And these lenses that see more than meets the eye are often feared and attacked as repugnant to American values. People fear that the light these lenses cast is too morally soft. People may feel repulsed by the way these lenses can see in the dark. These subtleties and ambiguities are too dangerous, too difficult to navigate. It can feel much cleaner, much more manageable to see people as separate beings in the glaring, clear light of static principles that assure who can be held accountable, whether it be for merit or for punishment. And the strict categories and boundaries of individualism also protect those who have the most power in drawing the lines and meting out the consequences.
There is evidence all around us of that being fixated on individualism helps to create the causes and conditions that give rise to separation, to hatred, to avoidance, to injustice, to diminishing returns.
Sometimes, our virtues can also be our most veiled and dangerous vices.
What are the causes and conditions that gave rise to the American psychic need to unencumber ourselves from our human family, from our complicated world? This dismembering of the human family has a genealogy that could tell us a lot about what got us here and how we can chart a path back home to ourselves and to each other. After all, the world needs a human family that is not at war with itself.
Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian, consultant, and minister who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is the author of Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade Books, 2014) and Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010). Her newest book, co-authored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson is entitled A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, is set to be released this fall (2015) from Cascade Books. At www.marciamountshoop.com Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football.