Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Between Magnetic Poles

Today I was translating a text about a painter from Andalusia and there was a line in the original that gave me a lever, a way of understanding or cross-sectioning the world we live in.

The line was "la sensibilidad artística andaluza se sitúa entre el caos creativo y el orden constructivo" [the Andalusian artistic sensibility is situated between creative chaos and constructive order]. It was referring to how two opposing poles coexist in the same society, reaching expression in the works of a single painter -- and yet instead of becoming a source of deadlock, frustration, incoherence, or conflict, they are a source of tremendous fecundity.

This set off a spiral of thoughts:

Tensions, oppositions, differences are all a gift. They are challenging to manage, but true creativity arises from the bringing together of completely disparate and unexpected realities, approaches, ideas, avenues of thought -- so the effort to harvest all those hidden fruits is well worth it. We can always do more together if we work through the tensions between our differences and find a superior "third way" that we would never have found if it weren't for the challenge of the other who makes us go beyond our assumptions.

Yet, the ordinary temptation is to view these differences as an obstacle to happiness, prosperity, harmony, and peace. The refugee crisis in Germany: what a challenge to integrate all of those Syrians who have just barely escaped from hell and who want to start a new life. They are from a completely different culture, religion, background. Germany: so precise, punctual, ordered... and refugees from chaos. Yet, what a tremendous opportunity for Germany to defy the darkness in its past by writing a more generous and humanitarian chapter in its future. The country that once sent trains of Jewish refugees to death camps in the East is now receiving another sort of refugee, also from the East, and giving them shelter and the chance at a better life. It looks like reparation.

Angela Merkel said that the current influx could change Germany's demographics, and that the nation as Germans know it is going to change. But perhaps there is also a deeper level to that change: not only will the external demographics change, but there will be a significant shift in the German identity, so laden with guilt even generations after World War II. It's a new beginning -- if, and only if, the inevitable tensions are handled with grace, patience, ongoing dialogue, and the quest for a better way than the false alternatives presented by groups on the political extremes.

I think of that also with the rise of Paul Ryan to the position of Speaker of the House. He is also facing a "house divided" between left and right, two factious extremes that cannot seem to agree on the time of day, let alone momentous questions that shape the future of a nation and impact the entire world. I think this is the direction that US leadership should take, both at home and abroad: we are always going to face huge differences of opinion, and somehow we have to take all those opinions to the table and work through them to find a creative solution on the other side. It is difficult, delicate work, and it requires tact, diplomacy, clarity, and extraordinary communication and leadership skills.

I think of this also in regard to the election of the next US president. What scares me most about Donald Trump is his simplistic bulldozer approach to problems that are so much more complex than he seems to acknowledge. How will he deal with Putin? "We'll get along." What?? What is his foreign policy program?  "I'll make America great again. No more losing deals on trade." What does that even mean? I picture him trying to bully his way across the international arena, accentuating all the worst characteristics of America abroad, trying to solve problems by throwing money at them, alienating our allies and sparking disgust and derision among our enemies. We can't afford that in our next leader. We need a statesman, not a bombastic demagogue whose baseline assumption is that money solves every problem and overcomes every difference.

Here is another thought: Islam, the religion of submission, often touted as the religion of peace. I think the essential genius of Islam is that it seeks to obliterate diversity and difference (in this case, of belief and moral praxis) by forcing submission to a single set of ideas. (Not every branch of Islam, of course, but the radical branch that endorses sharia law and jihad.) Radical Islam fears differences, and I wonder if it is because it is predicated on an idea of purity frozen in time, like an insect encased in amber, and any processes that involve dialogue and seeking out creative solutions to bridge differences are necessarily suspect because they also entail the possibility of change. Entering into dialogue with the Other tends to change us; it provokes shifts, sometimes small and sometimes seismic, in the way we perceive reality, ourselves, and the other. This is threatening to a system of beliefs whose lodestar is an ideal of pure [understood as unchanging, without innovation] religious practice. Radical Islam cannot adapt to the Other because it knows that the Other poses a threat to its fragile, brittle, rigid identity. It cannot change itself -- it will not change itself -- so it must change the other, force the other to submit. Only when the entire world has submitted to Islam will this radical branch rest, because then the threat of change will be gone.

Why are some people, or some groups, so threatened by change? Is it psychologically so difficult to assimilate change, to evolve with time, to be challenged and to find oneself adapting in response? I guess it is difficult to the degree that we approach life with the misguided idea that we have arrived, or that our work is finished.

I appreciate the constructivist idea that we are constantly making ourselves, as Kierkegaard also argued. Of course, there is an aspect of ourselves that is given and endowed and relatively unchanging (even on the physical level, I am not going to reach 6'2" because I cannot will my body to change however I want). Yet, on the spiritual level -- on the level of ourselves that engages in relationships that are not limited only to the physical -- we can change and develop in drastic ways. We are constantly "creating" who we are through our choices, not just in the externals of where we end up or what circumstances surround us, but in the very interior dimension of identity and convictions and moral fiber and allegiances. We are a constant work in progress. This is the human condition, so we should not be threatened by change at all. We should relish it, enjoy it!

So, tensions, oppositions, differences force us to grow. They demand effort, because we have to find a way to build a bridge between two opposing poles. But I think it can be done, and it can be beautiful! So the right way forward is not to fear those differences at all, but to approach them thoughtfully, looking for a creative solution, and being willing to be changed.

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