There was a time when I believed that righteous superiority was a valid position to hold. Now, I realize that it is nothing more than a symptom of the same disease that forms every other type of elitism that has plagued our world for millennia. Life is full of complexity. It does not exist in a binary. No one is all good or all bad. There are nuances in everything and everyone. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems to be solved, or problematic behaviors and beliefs to be addressed. There are many beliefs and associated behaviors that are deeply problematic for humanity at this time. Yet, I realize that those problems will not be solved with the same mindset that created them, which is the mindset that supports all forms of superiority and otherness.
The way to address the complex issues of our day is with an equally complex understanding of all the nuances that exist within the current paradigm. We have to be willing to recognize that people have differing views, differing ideologies, differing sets of priorities, and differing religious and/or spiritual beliefs, then realize that those beliefs inform and guide their actions as surely as our own beliefs and ideologies inform ours. We have to make space for compassionate awareness of the human condition, realizing that individuals and groups are programmed toward the beliefs that they hold – EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM – and that there is a need for a conscious unraveling of the false narratives and rote patterns that are associated with those beliefs. We need to be willing to recognize that the majority of the choices that people make are a direct result of the values that they have been conditioned to uphold, and that those values may be very different than our own. Human beings are communal beings by nature. As a result, we form family and community groups that are aligned with ideologies, affirmations, and acceptance. If our ideology is affirmed and accepted by others we say that we’ve found our family or “tribe” (a topic for another day). We do this because we all have an innate need for belonging, acceptance, and affirmation, and because we feel a sense of safety in numbers whether that safety is real or imagined.
The values that many people currently hold are associated with the entrenched capitalist mindset that has ruled this world for the last few millennia (pro and con). The capitalist patriarchy has influenced the development of family and community values by applying unending pressure on the huddled masses to shape them to its will. Generations of families and communities have been molded under this pressure, and the values that they have created and passed on are tied to this oppressive system. Family and community values that were once connected to our diverse cultural teachings were replaced with a homogenized set of values that supported the continuation of capitalism and the maintenance of patriarchal oppression. Our morals and life instructions were once found in the lore, mythology, and practices of our cultural groups. Through these teachings, we learned how to live in harmony with those around us and with the natural world that we inhabited. Under the patriarchy, those cultural traditions were destabilized and destroyed in exchange for inclusion in the capitalist scheme. Over time, the traditions of old were replaced by new traditions that were formed around an ever-shifting model of economic survival that held little or no regard for long-term human survival on the planet.
For instance, a young man who grows up in a mining family and is taught the family values of hard work, self-sacrifice, and adult responsibility in relation to that industry may not see his entry or participation in that industry as negative or destructive, especially if his position is an elevated one that has resulted from generations of his predecessors working their way up through the ranks in true “American Dream” form. For him, it is a family legacy that is as solidly tied to his identity as my own Penobscot tribal and cultural traditions are tied to mine. His participation in this family tradition becomes his measure of value within this reality. He will grow up with a distinct set of values that are based on the experiences, influences, and cultural practices and norms of those around him, and he will have a view of reality that is based on those values. Over several generations, his family’s entry into that industry out of dire necessity shifts to a sense of pride for having not only survived but also risen under the oppressive pressure of the system. Then, if this 3rd or 4th generation miner is confronted by someone with a differing view about his industry, he will defend it from all those who viciously malign or attack it, because he will see it as an attack not only on that industry, but also on his family’s legacy of survival and his own identity. We could exchange his experience and corresponding history with those of countless others, military families, logging families, paper mill families, deeply religious families, racist families, conservationist families, ethnic and cultural families, peace activist families, and on and on. The circumstances and ideologies formed out of those circumstances will change, but the underlying structure remains the same. So, how do we effectively deal with the problems in our societies when all of this complexity exists? By bringing a compassionate awareness of its existence to bear on all of our attempts to solve the multitude of problems that we are facing.
Then, using that compassionate awareness to seek a common ground or sense of respectful understanding of those with opposing views. The starting point is being willing and able to say: “I see your perspective, but mine is shaped by different experiences” or “I respect the view that you have developed, but my experiences and point of view give me a different understanding; let's talk about our different understandings and influences.” From there, a dialogue can begin that is capable of diffusing the tension between opposing views, while also opening a space that is capable of shifting the realities that they form. This is rarely an easy task. It requires the very best in us to rise up to meet the moment that we are facing. Yet, it provides us with the best chance of finding a new path forward, one that does not involve the need to conquer the other. In my book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, I discuss the shared history that has formed our individual ways of being in the world and our collective reality, and I offer suggestions to help us begin the complicated process of unwinding our conditioned beliefs and dissolving the illusion of separation that has maligned us against one another. The path toward human survival and all forms of equitable justice begins with our willingness to collaboratively and compassionately create a new way of being in relationship with one another and with the rest of creation. We will only find that new way if we are willing to step outside of the current divisive paradigm and forge a new path that is based on heart-based wisdom and compassionate understanding. It is my belief that those who are courageous enough to invest in this work are the ones who have the greatest capacity for saving us all.
SHERRI MITCHELL (Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset)
is a Native American attorney, teacher, and award-winning activist who grew up on the Penobscot Indian Reservation (Indian Island), Maine, and is the author of Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change. She is an Indigenous Rights attorney and the executive director of the Land Peace Foundation, an organization dedicated to the protection of Indigenous land and water rights and the Indigenous way of life. Mitchell is the organizer behind “Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island”, a global healing ceremony that rises out of the Wabanaki Prophecy of the Reopening of the Eastern Gate. Her work is featured in the documentary film “Dancing with the Cannibal Giant”.