Community in Diversity -- Practical Brotherhood

By Nancy Coker
Adapted from a presentation given at the Parliament of the World's Religions, Chicago, August 31, 1993.

In the midst of riot-torn Los Angeles Rodney King pleaded, "Can't we all just get along please?" To be honest we have to answer, "Not yet." -- But what is in our way?

The world is full of basically nice people. Wouldn't you say that most of the people you have met in your life have been nice? Unhappily, nice people are just as intolerant as not-nice people. We are quick to group ourselves based on shared outer similarities -- color, religion, disease, and so on. We might hope to find "grouping" expressing itself in a unifying rather than a separating way, but communities are often quite exclusive in their assumptions, goals, processes, and languages; they seem to feel themselves independent of the whole instead of understanding their interdependence on the whole.

Can we discover a new way to think about community? Theosophy and many other traditions teach that we are one in essence (sharing the same source, and coming from the same substance), which is why universal brotherhood is said to be a fact in nature. We are all interdependent, related, one in essence -- part of the community of the spirit. But on the physical plane this oneness expresses itself in infinite diversity. How do we learn to express our need for outer community as well as speak with integrity the truth of our diversity?

There is a story about a seeker who finds, to his great consternation, that his guru has fallen asleep with his bare feet propped on a beautiful and holy statue. Says the guru upon waking, "Well, then, put my feet some place that is not holy." Like the seeker, one thing that may be in our way is the assumption that only some things are divine, only certain people or objects are worthy of reverence. Theosophy teaches that everything and everyone is holy and divine, which is why The Theosophical Society seeks to disseminate the knowledge of the essential unity of all that is, to demonstrate that this unity is fundamental in nature, and to form an active brotherhood among men. Its challenge is not to become an exclusive brotherhood/community, accepting only one interpretation of unity (we know what that leads to), but rather one recognizing our inherent kinship and fostering real love and understanding.

We know what disharmony and disunity look like, but how do we recognize unity? If you asked my daughter, a cheerleader, she would describe it as unison -- everyone dressing the same, doing the same routine, all cheering for one team against another. Most of the ways we have of describing unity or community really describe a division, a unity for one thing against something else. The word community usually describes disunity because it carves out a certain group of people who acknowledge they have something in common -- heritage, money, skills -- then uses these common attributes as an excuse to build walls, separating the community off from the whole.

Can we imagine a more inclusive unity, a universal unity? Not community where everyone dresses alike; says the same prayers or even thinks the same; but a community where we can express that we are united and connected in a deeper way -- not only acknowledging what we already know we have in common, but actively seeking to learn what else we have in common.

Approaching the issue in a different way, we can begin by saying that everything is a metaphor -- everything that is said, every action, every idea, is what it is, but also points to another level of meaning. Every thing, every form, every community, not only has its own meaning, but it has a different meaning for each of the elements that help make it up. Metaphors help explain the metaphysical idea that the world is an illusion, a maya, not in the sense that it does not exist, but in the sense that it does not exist the way we think it does. In an infinite universe whatever we see, whatever we understand, can only be partial, or metaphorical.

We tend to get stuck looking at only one level of meaning, considering only the maya or metaphor we like. Theosophy is a metaphor for how the universe works, so by studying theosophy we won't know exactly how the universe works, but we will have a model or metaphor for it which we can understand by analogy and comparison. If we do not comprehend the model, the big picture, we can never make intelligent decisions -- all we can do is make guesses.

Every religion or philosophy uses metaphors and symbols. But one difficulty with the notion that everything is symbolic is that we live with infinite variety and we need to come to terms with an infinite number of possible choices and progressions. So we need a bottom line. For theosophy it is the idea that everything is divine, alive, and evolving. But though everything is divine and connected in its essence, we each have our distinct natures and separate tasks to do. We must come to terms with our duties as well as our connections to the whole. Just as our hands don't keep food for themselves, but give it up to nourish the body, we must take care to perform our duty for the benefit of the whole -- because the whole depends on us.

Ecologists teach this fact on the physical level, but there are more levels to consider -- emotional, mental, psychological, intuitive, spiritual. Before Freud, before all the talk therapies, there was a metaphysics of psychology which distinguished the intellectual nature from the passional, and recognized an inner diversity; the mind's processes were understood as rational and the passions as nonrational (which sets up the apparent conflict of mind vs feelings). Further, mind and feelings were subservient to spirit. Maybe one thing standing in our way is thinking we have to choose between various aspects of ourselves being logical or being emotional or being spiritual -- as if the wholeness that is us -- could leave anything out and still be whole.

If diversity is flowering right in the very nature of our being, can we learn to see the apparent conflict within ourselves more compassionately, and learn to include all our processes so that each has a say, a vote? Can we use our understanding of our own inner diversity to help us understand how to live in peace within our outer diversity? The outer community-in-diversity reflects our inner community-in-diversity. So if we think the world community is a mess -- where should we look for the source?

In fact, we cannot even disagree with one another unless we have a lot in common. We can build on that which we hold in common, but it takes time and commitment. Years ago we started a business in Los Angeles and moved it to a tiny farming town in Maryland. The Fundamentalist community called us "newcomers" as this was the kind of town families never moved away from, so you were a newcomer unless you were born there. We had a home business selling all-cotton clothing, drawstring pants, homeopathic and flower remedies, and theosophic books with the word "occult" in the title. We had a real uphill march for acceptance, but we worked hard, loved our kids, were good neighbors, and got to know people; shared ourselves and our lives with them, and came to realize that farms are home businesses too. In time the old timers were confiding in us like compatriot oldtimers about the "newcomers" up the block -- new newcomers who moved in and got involved in town politics right away, without getting to know people or getting the feel of the town. They sued the town, and when they did, the old timers asked us for advice and support -- we realized we were no longer newcomers. The irony is we often had more in common with the newcomers than with the old timers.

So, despite our acceptance the ever-present conflict did not go away, it just moved up the block. We can only encourage and help community to grow, we can't force it. Many rivers flow into one sea; if they were all compelled to take the same route, it would be disastrous.

All our willingness to help can be undermined if we lack skill in facing our diversities honestly. Most of the time our reaction is to think of differences as conflicts to be avoided, and if we can't avoid them we choose one position and hold on to it for dear life. If diversity is an expression of our very nature, can we learn to allow it, accept it, even expect it? Would our lungs agree with our liver about the best purification system? Would we even expect them to agree? Still, they work together for the good of the whole. With the infinite number of perspectives that are possible it is amazing that anyone ever agrees with anyone else. We each have a unique history and vision, yet we get upset or insulted if someone does not see things the way we do. Is it even possible to have community, a coming together in unity, without accepting our differences and making space for our conflicts? Conflict is not usually about having different ideas, or a lack of ideas, but having different values. We are never angry for the reason we think anyway, and others are not angry for the reason we think they are. We can think of anger and conflict as something that points to another level of meaning (like a metaphor) and not something that points to us or them.

It is easy to celebrate unity in diversity calmly here at the Parliament, but when someone is in your face, lying, accusing, that is the time especially to acknowledge unity -- the very moment we are wanting to distance ourselves is the time to draw closer, to find the infinite spiritual spaciousness inside, space enough to contain all of us and our conflicts.

We shut down out of habit, we say "they hurt my feelings," but I don't think that is always true. We sometimes shut down to keep from feeling the suffering of others: we shrink from their pain, not their words. On the plane of feeling we notice we are more closely united -- and other people's pain makes us hurt. Even if it hurts a little, we need to open up anyway, to regard pain as information. We need to hear each other out, to learn to listen deeply. When we are feeling the most defensive, or the most offended, that is the time to remember to open up, to ask for more conversation not less -- that is how we help keep the connections of real community alive.

Occasionally I work at the Pasadena office of Dispute Resolution Services as a volunteer mediator helping people resolve their conflicts. The most valuable advice I give people locked in disagreement is to keep talking, because they don't really know why they are so mad, so stuck, but if they talk long enough, in a safe environment to someone who really cares, they will resolve it themselves. I don't need to agree with anything they say, I only need to understand. Sounds too simple to work, doesn't it? Yet, when you think of the person you confide in most, what is the most important characteristic they have? It's that they understand you, surely not that they always agree with you.

The next time someone is unkind, ask them to explain what is really bothering them. If you succeed, the understanding that flows is like a true gift. You will have helped increase the sense of connectedness and good feelings, and taken one more step in learning to contain your own conflicting emotions. Most of us feel we cannot hold or contain our own emotions when we are upset; we feel we will blow apart if they get too stirred. Learning to just be with another who disagrees with us, strengthens our ability to stay clear in the midst of upset and to really get a sense of our own inner spaciousness and spirituality. It doesn't always work -- but the goal is progress not perfection, and it's worth the effort.

How do we foster true community? Not by denying our differences, hiding behind them, ignoring them, nor respecting them from afar. Perhaps we can start by understanding them and by redefining community as the inner connections, rather than the outer ones, the community of the heart where unity is more truly perceived and no one is excluded. This is where we can begin to answer the age-old question about the responsibility we have towards our community: "Am I my brother's keeper?" -- with the response, "my brother and I are one."

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, December 1993/January 1994; © copyright Theosophical University Press)

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