“Every life bears in some way on every other.”
-Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones
This line from Susan Griffin’s profound investigation into the ways our lives are interwoven through war has been echoing in my mind frequently in recent days, as we find our hearts breaking and outraged by a distant war. In the depths of our compassion, we ache with the suffering of families huddling together in bomb shelters, a birthing woman and her baby dying on a stretcher after a maternity hospital is bombed, the poignant strains of a Chopin etude played by a woman on her piano – the only thing to survive her bombed out home.
This truth of Griffin’s words echoes throughout ancient wisdom traditions — in the indigenous recognition that all our relations — animals, plants, water, earth, stone — are kin; in the African concept of Ubuntu — “I am because we are;” in the Buddhist precept of interdependent co-arising, which Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh called simply “interbeing.” As he described it:
“. . .there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. . . . ‘To be’ is to inter-be. We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing” (Peace, 95-96).
We know this in our every breath through the reciprocal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between all plant and animal life on this planet. It is in the very nature of the universe – in the immediate effect of one particle upon another; in the way that being observed changes an electron wave into a particle; and in the way the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can create a cyclone to arise on the other side of the earth.[i] It is in the symbiotic relation of trees and mycorrhizal fungi, and of trees to each other, and in how the mother tree nurtures the young saplings at her feet.[ii]
Anyone who has ever carried a child within her body knows intimately the nature of interbeing, as everything we eat and drink becomes the body and blood of our growing child. The air we breathe, the music we listen to, our anxieties and our calm all affect them – as do the decisions of governments and corporate executives that govern the quality of the air and water and the very ground beneath our feet.[iii] Would that we all acted with keen awareness that we inter-are.
For many years, I took students to our local Benedictine retreat center, where the director would engage us in the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness. Each time she introduced this practice by saying, “We are sending out energy with our thoughts all of the time, so let it be positive, loving energy.” Even our thoughts bear in some way on every other.
The pandemic has heightened our awareness of our interbeing, of how quickly the air I exhale becomes the air you inhale, perhaps carrying with it the minute organism that may steal that very breath from us. It may only take a few seconds of air exchange to change our lives forever.
Yet, the very thing that has made us so acutely aware of the intertwining of our very breath has also isolated us from each other – keeping families apart; precluding weddings, funerals, and graduation ceremonies; closing schools, churches, concert halls, theatres, restaurants, workplaces, community centers – places where we once gathered together. We are eager, longing to be together again.
What a wondrous world this is, that we dwell in everything and all things dwell in us. Our lives, our thoughts, our actions manifest in the lives of all beings. This comes with great blessings, and great responsibilities. Just as the affluence of some is made of the poverty of others, so are the power and security of First World Nations made of the death and displacement of thousands. As Thay wrote, “We are responsible for everything that happens around us” (Peace, 98). I have pondered that often in recent days. Even as I send funds to relief organizations for Ukraine, I wonder what of my actions, the privileges I enjoy, the taxes I pay, may have contributed to the imperialism that fuels this invasion and desecration of life. So many around the globe have paid the price for the peace and abundance I enjoy.
As a heart transplant recipient, I know these truths of the interrelatedness of everything on earth, in the universe, in the cosmos in a very embodied way. Living with my life so intertwined with another’s has brought an expanded awareness of how my life, my choices, my actions bear on the lives of others. I am grateful beyond measure for all the generosity of a stranger’s bereaved family has given me – the years with family and friends, the beauty of the world, and this wisdom of inter-being. Yet, we are not “strangers.” Bound together heart to heart, we are deeply kin, as we always have been, as we are with all beings. And so it is that I feel that shared heart break with the suffering half a world away.
The wisdom of interbeing is that “our being is not limited to what is inside the boundary of our skin. . . There is no phenomenon on earth that does not concern us. . .. We have to look deeply at things in order to see” (Peace, 104.)
May we learn to look deeply.
Griffin, Susan. A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. New York: Bantam, 1992.
Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. New York: Knopf, 2021.
Steingraber, Sandra. Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood. New York: Berkeley Books, 2001.
[i] Bohm’s theorem; the observer effect; chaos theory.
[ii] Botanist Suzanne Simard’s work on this, demonstrating what indigenous peoples have always known, has finally found recognition in the scientific community. See her Finding the Mother Tree.
[iii] For a detailed examination of the effects of toxins on fetal development, see Sandra Steingraber’s Having Faith.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.