Friday, May 30, 2008

Kielburger, Marc and Craig: Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World


Authors: Craig and Marc Kielburger. Includes contributions from Richard Gere, Dr. Jane Goodall, Kim Phuc, Her Majesty Queen Noor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oprah Winfrey.
Title: Me to We: Finding Meaning in a Material World.
Publication: Toronto: Fireside, 2004. 308 pages, paper, ISBN 0-7432-9831-4.

I jump back a few decades. I remember, while driving from New Jersey to Indianapolis back in 1970, about the time of Kent State, to take a corporate assignment on a new job, repeatedly hearing the popular song “Everybody’s beautiful in his own way.”

Lay that aside, and note that the younger of the two brothers (from Ontario) who author this book appeared on Oprah to help her lauch “O Amabassadors” in the developing world. The Kielburger brothers also helped found “Free the Children,” which in turn links to the "O Ambassadors Program".

The message of the book sounds like an inter-faith or even secular complement to Rick Warren’s “Purpose-Driven Life.” It’s not about you, it’s about your community and other people – the secular analog to saying it’s about God. It may sound like a call to “get involved”, sometimes gratuitously, with meeting the real needs of others regardless of one’s own circumstances. It seems to ask for a more communal kind of self-awareness, as a part of a layering of communities (“We”) than as an expressive individual (“Me”)/

This does seem to contradict the modern idea of “individual sovereignty”. Having one’s own knitting in order before reaching out to form relationships with others is seen as a virtue, as a way to avoid clinging to people or avoid unwelcome intimacy. And, it seems, self-worth inevitably must bear a relation to competitive personal performance. When, what about the others who can’t, either because of inheritance, environmental poverty, or some combination of both?

The main bridge between the individual and others in our society is supposed to be the nuclear family, and until more modern times this was tied to regulation of sexual interests by marriage and the needs of the family. Most of the time, the book presumes that the individual already has a family and that the main issue will be reaching beyond the family to understanding the problems of the larger world and getting involved, sometimes in very personal ways, in solving them. But the issue is also important for younger individuals.

Furthermore, religion deals with the practical reality that most people cannot completely control what happens to them, whatever their attempt at “personal responsibility”. People are often shaped by unchosen family responsibility for others besides children of their own. The early Christians lived communally and practiced a kind of socialism that we sometimes call “kingdom economics.” Compare that to the market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and hyperindividualism of much of modern society. Nevertheless, individualism is an appealing belief system particularly to ward off abuses by government.

So, now, I have to deal more with my own personal reaction. I grew up as a “sissy boy” in a world that seemed use male competitiveness as a way to justify the idea that some people or families have more than others (particularly during the consumerism and McCarthyism of the 50s, in an era that accepted conscripting young men and exposing them to the ultimate sacrifice for others, women and children). In grade and middle school came to believe, partly as a result of social rejection and teasing, that I was “unworthy” of continuing the family biologically and developed the “logical” teen-brain reaction of upward affiliation. I could redeem myself by excelling as an individual, in academics, or as a musician or artists -- and skipping some of the usual emotional "socialization". But that would often be a solitary pursuit, requiring a lot of private space, and extremely selectivity in social, personal and especially romantic contacts as a (gay) adult. I lived this way much of my adult life, in a kind of “urban exile” that seemed to work for the last third of the 20th Century. Introversion came naturally to me, but these days it seems to surface as a "moral" failing to respond to others.

Imagine my reaction, then, to the increased call for personal involvement and openness. As a substitute teacher for a couple years, I found that some kids would demand a kind of attention that normally only a parent gives. I hear the calls for adoptive parents, and for all kinds of personal involvement in addressing various world crises, from Katrina to Oprah’s Ambassadors. I've even gotten at least on unsolicited job call regarding supervising others as a "role model" in raising money for "charity." But to behave with any integrity, I have to choose what I become involved in very carefully, given my past, and especially given a political climate that did not welcome me in certain kinds of situations. I need to have a legitimate connection to the cause I go to bat for. And I may question some calls (should homes really be rebuilt below sea level in New Orleans, given the uncertain future anyway?) I wonder if the authors would understand that.

I am “jealous” of my private space, to a point that some people see as too “selfish” or inviting “bad karma.” I do need my space, I do need my “sovereignty”, and sometimes people want to help themselves to it. Some facilities – my web activities, my music, and the like, I do manage carefully myself, so as not to put what I have at too much risk. Financially, I behave conservatively. I’m not a materialist in the sense that possessions (like a big house) are themselves important. But, frankly, it’s easier to be generous if you are doing well in life yourself. Speaking for myself, I would want to be. The book also suggests some "Lenten" sacrifices of convenience and efficiency, perhaps to go green, but to accept more interdependence on others. I walk and use public transit when possible, but often I cannot afford to waste time to prove I can "do without."

Given my background, yes, I sometimes harbor a critical attitude toward some people. You hear a lot about single mothers needing help, and politicians go to bat for them. I can snigger and say, well, why did you have kids if you weren’t ready. I didn’t. I know, this seems negative, but you can understand the resistance to this in someone with the kind of background I have.

The book sometimes places an emphasis on personal “openness” to others in public spaces. Again, I’m not one who likes to approach people in public to sell them on causes, and often I don’t like to be approached. I don’t like to manipulate people, even to get them to do good things. The authors develop there own lingo with respect to service: "hedonic" and "eudaemonic happiness," as well as gratitude and empathy. Their notion of empathy seems to relate more to the level of the group (perceiving how someone who lives in a different culture feels) than to others of different levels of ability or resources close-by. This reminds me of the "everybody's beautiful" song and sermons often preached on "the gifts of the spirit" and even the "Parable of the Talents."

However, in light of all of this, I must have my own idea of giving. For one thing, I believe that the Internet can be engineered to enable people to understand what is going on without having to depend on authoritative (whether familial, religious, business or political) to spoon feed them (to “sell” things, a lot of the time). That is already happening, and in “retirement” that has become my first personal priority. What is harder to bring this to the level of interpersonal interactions with people who need it. Tutoring? Chess clubs in urban areas? I can imagine some opportunities.

The book suggests “We” as a way of living. This notion harkens back to the way many people live in the third world, close to the cycles of reproduction and nature, with little or no opportunity for individual excellence apart from social or political position within a tribe, often associated with family. I see charity more in terms of karma, even in a moral philosophy one could call “pay your dues.” Barack Obama (whom Oprah supports very visibly) has hinted at this in some recent speeches.

See also my tv reviews blog (May 26 2008) for report on Oprah show.

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