New Awareness: A New (and Ancient) Understanding of Who We Are

My mother-in-law was gently patting the gray cat who was her most constant companion in the last months of her life. Suddenly she paused, looked at me intently, and asked “Do you think cats can think? ”Outwardly, I answered “Yes, I'm sure they can.” But inwardly, I wondered why anyone would imagine that cats could not think. The question called across a chasm of time and culture. It reminded me of how arduously we humans, particularly but not exclusively those of European descent, have worked to disconnect ourselves from the natural world in our quest to feel worthy.

Over the centuries, we have claimed to be the only species that has language, that uses tools, that can reason, and that experiences emotion. Having set ourselves apart from other species, we've gone onto set ourselves apart from other humans—asserting that some who are different from us are primitive, savage, and even without souls.

But now decades of rigorous observation have proven that many species have elaborate means of communication, experience a range of emotions, and carry out complicated reasoning. There are primates that use tools, birds that create up to 2,000 songs, dolphins that engage in altruistic behavior. We humans are not so distinct as we once thought. As for our connection to other humans, we–and I speak as a person of European heritage–are discovering that peoples we once dismissed as savage have wise traditions with much to teach us.

I rejoice in feeling deeply connected to, not set apart from, the world I inhabit.

These shifts in understanding force a change in perspective as great as that of the Copernican revolution, when the Western world had to adjust—with kicking and screaming and beheading along the way—to the reality that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Now we are on our way—again with plenty of kicking and screaming—to accepting that we humans are not the central inhabitants of the Earth. And as we come to know each other better across the globe, we realize that no one culture is the center of all the cultures. There is no commanding planet, species, or culture; there is instead a web of distinct, yet interrelated and mutually dependent parts. Denying that we are but a part of that web of being does not change the fact. It only leads to dangerously wrong assessments of how we must live.

We can view this truth as humbling or liberating or both. Personally, I am awestruck at the size of the cosmos of which my planet is but a tiny part. I am moved by the revelations that cats, and bonobos, and even slime mold can think and communicate. I love living in a world of diverse cultures and people from whom I can learn. I rejoice in feeling deeply connected to, not set apart from, the world I inhabit.

The trends the editors of YES! have featured as the most hopeful of the last decade are manifestations of this shift from setting ourselves apart to finding our connections. We are grappling with a new understanding of ancient wisdom about our place in the world.

The adjustment can be painful if we think that to be of worth we must be at the center, dominating other people, animals, the Earth, and the heavens. But if we embrace the new (and ancient) understandings, we can discover a richer life—a life based on finding our place in the diverse, evolving, interdependent web of being. As we rediscover the connections our culture has broken, we accelerate the trends that will transform our world.

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