Institutions arise out of mutual acts of coordination among individuals who have as their goal a shared beneficence. For example, my neighbor and I have an agreement – I mow his lawn in spring, summer and Fall and he plows my driveway in winter.
The institution is neighborhood, the coordinating mechanism is barter, and the mutually beneficial outcome is obvious.
I consider this a kind of love. My neighbor and I perceive needs, enter a dialogue, and meet those needs in a way that works for us both. This is possible because of the attention we gave both to our own living and to each other’s living.
The principles that underlie this successful endeavor can be summed up as follows:
1. The question “what do I need” is yoked to “what can I give?”; and
2. The other person is a fellow human observer who could be our own self.
Approaching conflict and problems in this light – with these questions as guides – has helped me to better practically embody these two tenets of Heinz von Foerster:
1. A is better off when B is better off; and
2. Always act so as to increase the number of choices.
The effectiveness of this model is mostly local. My driveway is here; bartering with folks who are one hundred or one thousand miles away is far less likely to be fruitful.
All living is local. We live where our bodies are (but not only where our bodies are) and so love, as an embodied call-and-response in a community, broadly defined, is also local.
But clearly the effects of our living have ramifications beyond what is local. Even if those effects are so subtle as to all-but-unnoticed, they still exist. Von Foerster’s tenets still apply.
Take, for example, the decision to eat almonds. It takes approximately 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond. And the vast majority of almonds are grown in California, a state suffering a long-standing water crisis.
Eating a single almond is not going to make impact that crisis in a substantive way, but cumulative acts of eating – or declining to eat – almonds will.
Our living is not separate from the living of others – humans, animals, plants, et cetera. This is not a mystical observation but rather the recognition that through economic, ecological, political and other networks, we cannot act without effecting, however subtly, the rest of the world.
Thus, Alexandr Kropotkin could say of human solidarity in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution:
It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid: the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.
The suggestion Kropotkin makes – and I make, too – is that this sense of mutuality is natural and inherent. We don’t have to invent it or teach it so much as encounter it and then allow it its full expression. What stands in the way of being kind? What obstructs our awareness of love?
How do we do this? By giving attention to our experience both as individuals and as members of a vast interwoven living collective.
When we perceive a need, be it hunger, safety, comfort, thirst, entertainment, or something else altogether, it’s okay to seek to assuage that need. But in doing so, can we also give attention to what we have to give? Can we ask how the way we meet this need increases the number of choices? Can we ask how meeting it makes others better off as well?
In our current cultural climate, when meeting needs related to the body, we tend to buy stuff – food, drink, clothing, entertainment. Comfort is for sale. But there are other ways: we can make things ourselves, re-purpose something already on hand, trade, barter or potlach or go deeply into the question of whether the need must be met at all.
I am not suggesting that money is evil and fiscal exchanges are evil. Money is just symbolic of rates of exchange, and the exchanges executed are in some sense neutral. However, I do notice that there is something in money – its ease-of-use perhaps, and its symbolic nature – that tends to stymie creativity and generosity that are inherent features of our being.
In part, this is because money quantifies value, and we aren’t good at discerning when this quantification is helpful and when it’s not. It’s fine to say a cup of coffee is worth a buck, and to set that as a rate of exchange. It’s harder to say that I love you X many dollars worth. In fact, it makes no sense at all. Love doesn’t work that way. But we can think it does. We can behave as if it does. And plenty of us do.
So money – indeed, any symbol which we substitute for value in our living – makes it harder to notice the other as a human observer who could be our own self. The focus shifts from the human meeting other human in living relationship in favor of the symbolic exchange. We confuse the two exchanges. We end up craving the symbol – idolizing the symbol – rather than bringing forth the mutual happiness the symbol can deliver.
When we see the other merely as a node in an exchange, readily interchangeable with someone else, the injury is not just to the other but to our selves as well. That is because I am better off when you are better off. Fear of scarcity lessens; envy lessens. When we are happy in a natural serious way we do not perceive one another as competitors but neighbors – as brothers and sisters in an extended family. Our natural empathic abilities are brought forth and what they bring forth in turn is love.
If you are a student of A Course in Miracles you might remember Ken Wapnick’s insistence that the course says nothing about behavior. This is mostly true. But even Ken – especially near the end of his life as his learning clarified – understood the course in terms of relationship. He urged students that whatever they were doing, to make it about the other person. Going out to dinner? Make it about the waitress, the cook, the other patrons. Driving to work? Make the drive about the other drivers. This is entirely consistent with von Foerster’s suggestions. And it is a healthy and helpful way to be an ACIM student, if that is one’s interest.
The metaphysics actually take care of themselves. Either we find satisfactory answers to the questions raised or the questions just stop figuring so intensely in our thinking. What matters is our happiness, at which you are an expert, albeit possibly one who is in denial about her skillfulness. The fruits of happiness are peace and its roots are love. Service – which is simply devoted attention given to the other, who is our self seen another way – is a helpful way to nurture joy.
Thus, we give attention to the other, and to the opportunity the other presents to bring forth in our shared living, relationships of mutual beneficence. You might think of these institutions – these formal notices of love – as “creations.” Trading recipes, watching the neighbor’s dog, listening when you’re tired, sharing the harvest . . . in this way we are being human, which is a way of bringing forth love.