daughter was about eight months old, I had my first
true experience of solo parenting. Her mother had
left on a road trip to help her sister move house,
and I was alone with Anne-Marie in her absence. Now
I was a good 90's dad - I shared some of the chores
and shared the baby-care duties much of the time.
But now, mom was not around to back me up in my
efforts, and I had to manage on my own. It was a
Sunday night, and I was putting her down to sleep.
We did the customary holding and singing, and when
she fell asleep I set her into her crib and tiptoed
off to bed. She woke up. We tried again. She woke
up again. With each iteration, it just got worse.
She got less and less inclined to sleep, and
I got less and less patient. That this would
happen this way is exceedingly obvious to me now,
as I am sure it is to parents reading this, but at
the time I was completely at a loss.
became clear that my approach wasn't getting us
anywhere, and we needed to do something different.
So I put her in bed with me and we played. You
know, baby games. Before long, I was having fun
myself, and my mind was cleared of thoughts about
getting to sleep or how to be a good parent. We
were just together, sharing the moment. And of
course, it didn't take much play before she fell
experience was a revelation to me. I realized I had
been caught in a very mechanical way of thinking. I
hadn't been treating her as a person at all, I'd
just been seeing her as a problem to solve: go
through these motions, get these results (or not,
in this case). It never occurred to me to be aware
of how she might be feeling with her mother
gone, or what sort of experience she and I were
sharing that night. I was receiving a lesson
in empathy and relationship. It was a lesson that
ended up changing my life. It made me see a blind
spot in my own world, and filling in that blind
spot became a calling, a calling that eventually
drew me into spiritual search and
culture has often been strongly atomistic,
reductionistic, and mechanical in its way of
thinking. We've come to view the world as a machine
made up of separate parts. Those parts act on each
other and produce certain effects. But no one
questions the intrinsic separateness of each part.
For example, our political systems tend to rely on
voting; we see each voter as an isolated
decision-maker, a switch that can flip one way or
the other. Add up all the votes and get the answer.
The voting booth is conspicuously isolating; each
voter is an atom operating in a world sealed off
from each other. Compare this with a system where
collective decisions are made by conversation, for
Or think of
how transient many of our most important
interactions with others have become. People are
expected to change jobs, change homes, change
lovers, and change friends, all in the service of
pursuing our individual goals.
Our way of
thinking about ethics is dominated by rules and
principles, as though we are seeking to answer once
and for all what is good and what is bad by
abstracting some essential list of truths from the
complex realities of interpersonal
How much of
our cultural mythology spins around the rugged
individualist, the lonely hero, the rebel, the
person with a mission?
All of these
things feed into a vision of what it means to be a
person: that we somehow carry our identity with us,
regardless of who we are with, what larger picture
we are part of, or how we are supported and
sustained by our communities.
Eastern and indigenous cultures, the assumptions
are very different. It is the relationships that
create the individual, not the other way around.
Personal success at the expense of others is
anathema. Rather, it is the health and success of
the community that is paramount. A person's sense
of identity comes from what they are a part of,
rather than what sets them apart.
Now, I am
certainly a product of Western culture, and it's
not my intention to suggest that individualism is
wrong. I'm grateful to live in a society that
supports creative self-expression (like my web
site!). It would feel limiting to me to believe I
was nothing more than the relationships
I participate in. It just seems to me that we
can go too far in that direction, and fail to see
the life-sustaining nature of our relationships and
connections. Extreme individualism has led to a
reckless disregard for our connections with each
other and with the natural world. We evaluate
everything on the basis of its impact on our
personal plans, rather than its impact on the
larger fabric of life.
Two: Stepping through the Door