29 May 2008

Time for Change

How do you know that time is passing? Clocks don't help much, nor does the sun. Our bodies fall into rhythm with the seasons which provide tactile, visible and psychological routines that our minds register for reference. Think about your own memories. Are they connected with time, days, nights or seasons? Mine are all associated with either summer, fall, spring or to a much lesser extent winter. Although very few specific spring memories stick out, one feeling dominates them all: the renewal of all creation as life and color burst through the gray veneer of winter. This is when you know a year has passed, not at New Years which, on psychological and biological levels, indicates neither new nor year.

Thus my utter and desperate feeling of timelessness living on the Equator where spring never comes and months fade into years like the drain sucks dirty old water into some unexplored void. I started taking large quantities of pictures a few years ago when I realized that I don't remember things anymore and if I don't have at least a photographic record of my children's childhood, it too will become a confusing blur. There is nothing to stick events and feeling to here, there is no good moment to write off a bad stretch and make resolutions.

Life is totally unrecognizable without "time" and it's child: memories. On an individual level, events lose importance and efforts towards transcendence imply escaping the mundane merry-go-round of days and months. Everything can wait until tomorrow even though everything happens here and now and bears little relation to what may have already taken place. On a collective level, societies build identity around current public debates, fashion and trends. Cohesiveness and commonality depend on the constant ebb and flow of issues and often the interplay between tragedies and momentaneous victories. Struggle and hope are possibly the only constants.

Perhaps for this reason people cling so fiercely to small group identities like political parties, football teams, regionalisms, race and above all class. These provide identity, and memories on the one hand, and on the other, render the great majority incapable of the impartiality required for effective and inclusive collective decision-making processes. The "other" is practically invisible when your whole world revolves around the battle raging between your groups and the ignorant enemies lurking outside.

The only moments that I am struck by the passage of time are when I see what was once a child who has transformed into a youth. If he has changed so much, that must mean that I am that much older too. So, on the Equator because time passes by inference and not by natural psychological or biological rhythms, the material world that can be felt and seen here and now gains special importance. Any spiritually oriented meaning for life and self-identity, divorced from dogmas and blind imitations, must be forged with supreme effort by creating spiritual time, time that measures and compares one's currently manifested grades of patience, generosity and love against those demonstrated in the past. Collective spiritual identity can similarly be measured by the caliber of spiritual maturity society displays now in it's reaction to the "other" compared with how people previously struggled against exclusion and selfishness. It is precisely this spiritual time that provides clear understanding of the past and a vision for the future. Hope, optimism and even will to action depend entirely on success in this supreme effort. Only then can Spring come.

17 May 2008

Stages of Growth

A series of teaching challenges for both community leaders and university students has lead me to think deeply about how to help students discover that humanity is evolving towards spiritual maturity and how this implies that the role of the individual is to actively contribute towards building a society that reflects the next step in this evolution. Upon thinking about how to go about accomplishing this, I recalled reading a chapter from “The Post Corporate World” by David Korten in which he describes in lay terms the emotional characteristics of a person in different stages of growth. Although it sounds perfectly logical that the development field would think about our stages of growth enough to describe them in detail, this task has been delegated to psychologists while development normally concerns itself with other pressing matters.

It seems to me, however, that only by clearly visualizing both our collective history and future as a series of stages in human growth leading us towards maturity analogous to those through which an individual passes throughout his/her life, can we hope to rid anybody of the apathy that has so firmly gripped many of our fellow human beings. Concentrating on the complexity and apparent enormity of problems any one society faces is so daunting to most that will to action is easily paralyzed. Under these circumstances, development comes to mean physical infrastructure building and thus loses much of its meaning. If, however, humanity itself is understood as an organic, evolving whole, and development means building capacity and vision to activate both individual and collective transformation from one stage of growth to the next, then will to action, and passion to serve others emerge naturally from deep within human nature.

With this as a broad learning objective, I became inspired by parts of Korten’s text to create this growth chart. After having students work with the descriptions by classifying them into the correct stages, I hand out the whole sheet and the class starts thinking about where each one of us is on the continuum, where our local and national culture is and finally where the global community can be classified. Students have no difficulty agreeing that as a whole, we are in the Adolescent stage, although discussion is a little more challenging for the class to decide that humanity as a whole is moving towards maturity. Once that is accomplished, though, many important implications start seeping naturally into class discussions, and thus into consciousness, such as the true nature of leadership, characteristics of a consultative decision-making process and our responsibilities towards less fortunate people and whole segments of society. Students can then clearly envision how our current legal, economic and political systems were born during our collective childhood and how they no longer respond to the needs of a more mature humanity and how building new institutions that respond to our emotional and spiritual need for inclusion and community building is foremost among the responsibilities of each individual.

I realize now that this chart describes individual growth stages, and that it would be useful to do the same exercise with both institutions and the community, the other two main actors in society building. I also realize now that it would be useful to make a second chart focusing. spiritual stages of growth to compliment the emotional characteristics on this chart.

In any case, I can see that this instrument has guided my students and me towards achieving the ambitious learning objective that I set. Seeing students eager to start serving others and reflecting on that service in terms of the unity and justice they are contributing towards, has brought both me and many of my students great satisfaction.

15 May 2008

Children in China

Being desensitized by so many stories about natural disasters and suffering should not happen, but it does. Every once in a while, though, a story comes along that really hits home. This week I have been totally demoralized by the collapse of approximately 6,900 schools in China, and the loss of so many children. To think that the great majority of them are only children, without brothers or sisters, and that in certain villages this means the loss of an entire generation, is too much for me to grasp. My friend Lily in China has told me that many of the surviving parents will be allowed to have another child, but that won't bring back a lost generation. I am sure the government never foresaw a situation like this when it implemented such strict family planning policies, and even though I know most people favor these policies, it is times like these that they only compound misery.

Here in Ecuador children are overabundant and can be seen and felt everywhere in great moving masses. Although I often wish I could stop them from growing up so fast so that somebody could provide better care and education for so many of them, seeing their laughing faces as they move to and from school still brings a sense of security and joy. Not being able to see or feel hardly any of them while in China caused a lasting impression on me. The society felt all grown up and mature on one hand and futureless and somber on the other. This must make the current tragedy all the more unbearable.

My condolences and prayers for the departed and the survivors.