2009-07-06

a sense of belonging

I just finished the book "Flight to Arras" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and one of the final chapters was some really good, deep stuff. I thought I would try to summarize the main points of the chapter here and then give some of my own thoughts about it. If you'd like to read the chapter (and I hope you will, my post will probably seem more coherent if you do), you can see it here: http://docs.google.com/View?id=dfs668dz_50fzkh8hdk.

So first, a rather long summary of the chapter (up until the dotted line) -

He makes the point that we as humans are part of something that is greater than each of us individually - we are part of Man (meaning all of mankind), and this being true, we each make up a piece of a whole. There is in Man more than simply the sum of its parts. We make up more than just a group of individuals. Like a cathedral is more than simply a pile of stones, or a beautiful face more than just a nose, lips, eyes, ears, etc - we as humans make up more than just a group of individual humans.

The individuals are given meaning by this higher thing of which they are a part - not the other way around. The individual stones of a cathedral are simply stones without the art and architecture that goes into making them a part of something greater - they lose much of their meaning or significance without that which binds them together.

Each individual who makes up a part of the whole is diverse and varied, yet each is vital to the whole, just as the stones of a cathedral have different shapes, different sizes, different colors, different geological makeup - and yet they all fit together to form the cathedral. The differences are not threatening, they are enriching.

To him, the idea of setting a man free is to give him a goal and purpose, and then show him how to find his way there. To make a man thirsty, and teach him to chart a path to a well. He states that we ought to aim to set men free in order that their attitudes towards themselves and others would not be in blind conformity to the habits of their civilization, but would be free expression of love. The invisible slope of gravity liberates the stone, the invisible slope of love liberates man.

For centuries, men contemplated God in the person of man. Man was created in God's image. Men were brothers in God. Man's duty towards himself and others was evident from the fact of his relation to God.

It was because of this that men were able to be viewed as equal - they were equal in God. He states that men can only be equal in something, otherwise with no common denominator equality becomes identity, and the private refuses to salute the captain, because he is no longer doing honor to the Nation, but the individual.

He states that this is also the origin of the respect of men for one another - each man would respect each other, because what he respects in the man is not the man himself, but God. Each man was an ambassador for God, and each man therefore held an honored position as an ambassador, despite their place and role in society. Each man was given dignity and honor.

Similarly, he says that men can be brothers only in something - if there is no binding tie, men are not united, but merely grouped together.

Charity was a free gift to God through the individual. Charity never involved humiliation of the recipient, nor did it leave the recipient bound in any way, since the gift was not made to them, but to God. Meanwhile, the giver was never giving to support insignificance, brutishness or ignorance. The physician could help the thief with no moral qualms, as his gift was to something greater.

Humility, considered in light of being a part of something greater did not cast down the individual, but raised him up - it forced him to consider his proper place in relation to God and other men.

The being of which we are a part must be created within ourselves, not by words, but by acts. The essential act is sacrifice. Sacrifice is the gift of oneself to the being of which one is a part. A person will only understand what a farm is, if he has given part of himself to the farm, fought to save it and to make it beautiful.

He observes that, instead of affirming the rights of Mankind in each man, we started dealing with the rights of the collective - that is, viewing humanity as strictly a collection of humans. When this happens, he states, it makes sense that one man would sacrifice himself for the community, but it would be ridiculous for the community to sacrifice itself for one man, because preservation of the collective is of prime importance, and losing one individual makes no difference to the simple collection of individuals. This to him is a result of the loss of the idea that we are a part of something greater than ourselves.

As a part of something greater than himself, each man was responsible for all men, and all men responsible for each man. A man ought risk his life for the good of the whole, but at the same time, the whole ought risk themselves for the life of one. Liberty is the ability to grow into what you are meant to be, not simply individual license to behave as you wish, as long as you don't harm anyone else.

In his view, we as humans often now view equality simply in material terms, rather than as the result of being parts of something greater than ourselves. There is no material equality between a doctor and a flunky, an imbecile and a genius. What gave them equality has been forgotten.

He feels that we have defined liberty as a vague license given to each individual to do whatever they please so long as it doesn't harm others. But he feels that there is no isolated individual, you cannot act without involving another person. We found it impossible to define when this liberty was valid or not, and so we made a mess of society in defining it.

As for charity, he notes that when we forget we are part of something greater than ourselves, it becomes a gift to an individual, and as such establishes a hierarchy, and binds the recipient to the giver.

We ceased to give, and in doing so, we received nothing, and we built nothing of which we were a part, nothing for which one would sacrifice.

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Ok, now that I've already written a huge post summarizing the chapter, I'd like to write some of my own thoughts on some of the ideas presented here.

Much of this resonates with me in terms of why I feel so out of place in America. I feel like in American society, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, we have forgotten that there is anything greater than ourselves that we belong to, and we therefore tend to treat everyone as individuals, completely on their own in a collective of individuals. Our entire society is set up that way, from the legal system to the social values people hold to the form of government.

If a person has some misfortune or makes a mistake, they are often left alone to deal with the consequences. If a person has success in life, they are often left alone to enjoy the fruits of that success (unless they decide to give some of it to charity, after which they expect gratitude). Of course there are exceptions, but as a whole our society is set up so that every individual is absolved of responsibility for every other individual.

Many people are afraid of diversity because they have no common denominator to show them who they are in relation to other people - like you might react to an unknown creature you have never seen or heard of before - and put them in categories and label them all kinds of different things, because there isn't a unifying common denominator to bring us together - so we label in order to separate, to move aside, to dismiss, to avoid (amongst other things). When we forget that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, we start to lose the idea of equality in a true sense, where every human has equal honor and dignity as a piece of the whole, and equality begins to mean identity - we only see someone as equal to us if they are the same as us. Because of this we are able to hold ourselves above others who are not like us, and we lose respect for those who are not the same.

When we come together, it is largely in separate groups of interests, fads, cliques, fashions, etc. We can fit in to those groups based on some criteria, but there is nothing to belong to.

And that, I think, is the crux of the feeling of disconnection I feel here in America - I often feel as though there is nothing to belong to here, because you cannot belong to a mass of individuals, you can only fit in somewhere. You cannot be brothers in nothing. Many people cling to political parties because it gives them a semblance of something to belong to; to what passes as church and religion because it gives them a semblance of something to belong to; to class status, high or low, because it gives them a semblance of something to belong to. But much of that is simply more groups based on some criteria that we either do or don't fit into, and does little to nothing in the way of teaching us about what we really belong to.

I long to live in a society that expects something of me, that expects and believes in a common humanity, a common respect, a real equality, and maybe most importantly a responsibility towards each other. I long to live in a society where it is understood that the welfare of each member of society is vital to the welfare of the society. I long to live in a society where the members recognize that their actions effect other people, where they recognize they make a difference, for good or bad, and because of that, they have a responsibility for the people around them. I long to live in a society where the right to be dependent upon each other is a privilege and not a burden.

I don't know if such a place exists, but this is what I wish for, and what I don't see around me. There are a few who I see from time to time who share this view, but the sheer weight of absolute independence here is crushing.

2 comments:

  1. Your words resonate deeply with many of the old esoteric philosophies of the Old Nations: Freemasons, Templar Knights, and medieval alchemists. However, from personal experience, I can tell you that many of the ideas which the organizations once held true are no longer held by their members.

    The idea of entitlement, of the individual is entitled to their own success rather then understanding that they only became successful because of the small or significant contributions by other members of the society, has overtaken members of all nations, philosophies and organizations. The idea of individual failure or success has become so common place that we have lost the community.

    People like you and me have tried to find connections. We seek it in people we are close with, families we create, and friends we hold close. I do not know where you are, your real name, and have never met you in anyway, but your ideas - while in the minority - are not alone. Just lost at the moment.

    Read some J.S. Mill. I think you would enjoy it.

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  2. I know this was a really long time ago, and I'm not really sure why I never responded last year, but thanks for your comments. I will check out some J.S. Mill, thanks for the recommendation!

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