Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Playgrounds, Gaza, and a Forest: How Competition Impedes Prosperity

One damp autumn day, I crossed the dirt and wood-chip playground to the swings, where I saw a girl a couple of years younger than I was, and also the bottom of her grade's social heap, swinging on the best swing. You know the best swing? It's the one that is for some reason not spun up out of reach by the older kids, and the most visible to the playground supervisor, so other kids don't bother trying to haul you out of it. During those years, I spent all recesses and lunch hours either hiding on the bluffs, up in a tree, or firmly glued to that swing and swinging fiercely back-and-forth, back-and-forth, daring people to come near me with a glare they never noticed. But this day, this younger girl's thick brown hair flew back-and-forth, back-and-forth over her raincoated shoulders. I stood at the pole of the swing-set and ground my boots into the dirt. When nobody was looking, I told her passing face that I was magic and would turn her into a rock if she didn't get off and give me the swing.

When I was a kid I was near the bottom of the social heap. The kids who hurt me the most were also hurt the most by their parents, or by other kids at the school. It's normalized, in our culture, to turn and dish out to someone else a cruelty that was served to us. School, career-building, politics, capitalism--they're all just games of getting ahead of others, and put us in a position where we feel that "getting ahead" is the same as "prosperity". It's an illusion, but our longstanding capitalist social structure leads us to believe in it at the cost of vision and community. 

Israel is flexing its playground seniority in Gaza. It feels heartless to compare genocide to playground bullying, but I want to point out that in accepting what we see as insignificant cruelty in our privileged day-to-day as a necessary cost of getting ahead, we also pave the way to accept greater and greater atrocities. I understand from my playground experience how easy it feels to commit some lesser act of cruelty against another person when I've been hurt. So by extrapolation, I get that maybe if your people has been persecuted for thousands of years, and even in living memory was the pointed victim of horrific acts of genocide, it might seem less than horrible for (some members) of that people to commit genocide against the next victim down the chain. I mean, aren't we all just making gains by stepping up upon the backs of those just below us in rank, privilege, or esteem?

Well no--not everybody is doing that. Some of us from every race, religion, and social ranking in the world are in fact trying very hard not to be that kind of monster. Some of those in my circles who are most vocally supporting freedom for Palestinians are my Jewish friends. Because fighting to get or stay on top of a social pyramid does not equal prosperity! Because some of us learned this important lesson in childhood.  

Back in my elementary school playground... I have never forgotten the look of horror on that girl's face, and my triumph at seeing her run away, so I could get to safety on that swing. My triumph was the worst. I remember the sick feeling in my stomach, after she left. I didn't know where she had run to, or who might be kicking her, feeding her dirt, or holding her down and whispering the most vile threats in her ears. I remember thinking we looked rather similar and maybe she could have been my friend if I hadn't been so desperate to get that swing. I felt that getting the swing gave me safety, but it also took away hers. I remember that my triumph came with a horrible cost to my feeling of righteousness, and that year I became one of those people who knows better than to pass the bullying on to the next rung down the ladder. Sometime after that I bravely spoke a few words to my bullied-mate in the classroom. We had a breath-holding competition. So for a couple of minutes we found common ground in an environment of terror and ladder-climbing, and I think in some small way we both learned to transcend the hierarchy of our class.

We can ALL learn from our mistakes. We can all look at our leaders and our cultural and personal privileges and refuse to make progress at the cost of others. Sure, we're trying to survive in what is, at its root, a culture of competition, and to some degree we have to participate in the status quo to survive. But we can also work to change it. Those of us with more privilege have more ability to effect change. We can change the ways we look at others; we can choose to befriend the people who make less money than we do, the people whose lashes lower when we speak to them; the people who seem least likely to improve our social status. We can look critically at our privilege and resources and belongings and ask ourselves what we actually need, and how we can change our lives and share the excess to achieve a social balance in our community. We can remind ourselves that a balanced community means prosperity for all. 

Does prosperity mean a lack of suffering? Of course not. We're all going to die. We're all going to hurt. We're all going to lose loved ones, and health, and hope. But a balanced community is exactly the only thing that will sustain us through these challenges. And we can look to the ecology just outside our city limits for inspiration in achieving prosperity through social balance. 

A tree in a forest. If a maple drops ten thousand seeds on the forest floor, all but a few hundred of those are likely to be eaten by insects, rodents and birds before they ever sprout, and of those that do sprout, most will be eaten as spring greens by the likes of deer, and others. And maybe five will grow to be saplings, and maybe zero will live to become trees, most years. Until one day the mother tree has crumbled under the weight of some winter snow and in the mess of her fallen limbs, one of last year's saplings will grow sheltered and become a tree, itself. But you know what? In all those years where not a single one of those seeds grew to maturity, that original tree fed the ecosystem around her, and reached her roots through the landscape to share nutrients with the neighbouring trees. All the other plants and animals' droppings and dead bodies fed the soil, and now that soil is rich with microbial life and nutrients, and that new maple tree will grow strong--not on the backs of all those it conquered, but in an ecology of giving and dying and growing. The maple tree has no fear of falling behind. She is a sanctuary for mosses, ferns and all kinds of insect, microbial and animal life--she is part of that life. She's just growing and giving and crumbling and feeding her ecology. And that is why she prospers. I want to learn some of that wisdom.

What if there was no fear of falling behind in human society? Would we carry, feed, and connect with each other; with our ecology? Would we relish those connections instead of conquering others? I feel like I've experienced this when I sing in community. When my own voice drowns away among the voices of others, but together we're a beautiful sound. I experience it when I play with children in the wilderness. We're each so insignificant in the big forest, but our play changes the landscape and we see the impact of our being there; we learn to play carefully. We learn that if we destroy the stream-bank, then the water downstream will be muddy, and then we'll have no clean water for drinking, anywhere. We learn that affecting anything (anybody) will have impacts on ourselves.

If my life depends on privilege gained through competition, and supported by people who aren't being supported by me, then when those people's lives falter, so do I. We can't build a pyramid to stand on, then rip out the stability of the base, and expect to keep standing on the top.

And from another perspective, when we've prospered exponentially at the cost of the ecosystem that supports us without honouring it, giving back to it, and living in harmony with it, the ecology we depend on is faltering underneath our ridiculous pyramid, and we're all beginning to discover what happens, then.

Our system of pyramid-climbing is not a strong one. A strong system is lateral. Like a forest, or a group of people singing. A strong system loses a limb and regrows to heal the wound. A strong system has no leaders, but many trusted and equal members, all giving instead of taking. Giving is not sacrifice, it's prosperity.

It's scary to think of not having enough (food, money, land, power, achievement, influence, etc.) In a hierarchical culture, "not enough" equals failure, threat; fear. For those near the bottom of the cultural pyramid in my community it means no shelter; no food. For those on the bottom in Gaza it means abject trauma every day. It means death. Is this an acceptable cost for my "getting ahead"? I don't want this kind of unstable throne. I don't want to support a global society that prospers on hierarchical oppression, because in that kind of culture, everybody is a potential pawn, or enemy. Everybody is unstable. 

I want to transcend capitalism and find joy in uplifting others instead of uplifting myself at a cost to others. I want to stop prospering as an individual, and when I fall, I want to fall down in community, knowing that others will grow into my wounds. I want to be worth more than what I own or who bends under my feet. In a lateral community I will be worth the whole of us. I want the mirage of hierarchy to disappear and I want us all to be free.

Free Palestine.

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