How do we preserve and create more good in the world, and how do we mitigate evil?

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At the advent of the Center’s series on “What are the connections between culture and conscience?”, I was reading poet Li-Young Lee’s conversations, collected from over seventeen years of his work, in the volume Breaking the Alabaster Jar. Those dialogues, in which Lee probes questions pertaining to humanity, art, consciousness, identity, belief, and belonging, all through the practice of poetry, nourished my work on the Center’s Questions for a Resilient Future. Inspired by Lee’s thoughts and moved by his voice, I asked if he would respond to one of our Questions. To my great delight, he replied with enthusiasm and when, a month later, he sent me this letter, I realized that this correspondence spoke more powerfully than any single response from him I could have imagined.

What follows is an unfurling of thought, distinguished by humility, honesty, and love, born of a poet’s practice and vision. This letter is addressed to all whose dreams of a better world have animated a life of questions.

–Katherine Cummings, Editor, Questions for a Resilient Future 

Dear Kate,

Well, I leveled my mind at each of the ten questions posed in Questions for a Resilient Future and I found myself more responsive to some questions than to others. A few of them elicited quite immediate and simple reactions in me. Perhaps, too simple, I can’t tell. For instance:

Can democracy in crisis deal with the climate crisis?

I’d guess no, since democracy, by definition and nature, is crisis, though a necessary and unavoidable step toward a new form of society and government better and finer than democracy. After all, allowing all desires to be heard and all opinions equal weight, regardless of qualifications or worth or value, is nothing if not inviting crisis. But it’s a necessary step, I feel, and maybe even the penultimate step, toward defining what is “good” for the world and acting for what is “best” for the world. Of course, the Greek word for “the best” or “excellent” is “aristo.” A government by “the best” sounds good, but too often, we pervert “the best” to mean whatever we want it to mean at the moment: “the richest,” “the most established,” “the prettiest,” “the strongest,” etc. As soon as we can agree upon what “the best” truly means, what “excellence” truly means, maybe we can evolve toward something like an aristo-democracy, where every citizen’s concern is weighed, but decisions are made by “the best” people who have in mind “the best” for the world. Maybe I’m dreaming. And maybe the practice of poetry, centered upon “the best words in the best order,” might be of use in understanding this issue.

How is nature critical to a 21st century urban ethic?

Given our current knowledge, it seems that only ecologically sound cities will survive, thrive, and enhance human life. Furthermore, I would guess that understanding wilderness and its healing effects on human beings is crucial to an urban ethic. Designing cities that incorporate and embrace wilderness would have profound consequences on the long-term psychological health and happiness of city dwellers.

What does it mean to be human?

Taking into account the evidence, to be human is to make art, since no other animal, as far as I can tell, has so littered the planet, for good and for ill, with artifacts, objects of our arts and crafts. Besides that, to be human is to ask, over and over again, generation after generation,“What does it mean to be?”

Does hunting make us human?

No. Creatures of all kinds hunt, everyone  from insects to humans practice hunting. I’d say, making art makes us human. And asking, “What makes us human?” makes us human.

How can we create a successful economy without continuous economic growth?

Maybe we need a new paradigm for economics. I’m guessing that unlimited economic growth can’t possibly be any healthier than the unlimited growth of a human body or any other organism. Maybe economies and organisms have a lot more in common than we ever supposed. Maybe economies need to be viewed as biological organisms, and the health of those organisms needs to be measured differently than it is now. Maybe growth is not a “good’ in and of itself. Since movement, stability, and renewal are some of the signs of biological health, maybe those signs need to be looked for when dealing with capital. Maybe new paradigms could be found in biology, nature, and the health sciences—paradigms that might allow us to see the nature of goods and capital differently.

There you have it. To be honest, Kate, I was disappointed to discover that for each of those questions I had nothing more in-depth to say. And yet, trying my hand at another question, attempting a fuller response, what I arrived at was this:

What are the connections between conscience and culture?

Conscience is knowledge of good and evil. Culture is practice. Culture can be good or evil. National culture. Corporate culture. Academic culture. Religious culture. Even every family has a culture. Culture is practice. Culture is a social inheritance we receive and transmit. The practice of culture can be life-enhancing, creating meaning, refuge, freedom, beauty, and harmony for the members of that culture. Or not. Culture is practice.

But there’s the culture we profess, and there’s the culture we actually practice. For instance, take sports culture, which touts a whole host of virtues ranging from health to character building. And yet, anyone who has witnessed it from the inside might attest that good health and virtuous character are very far from the actual goals of any sports culture. As another for instance, consider that members of a country might profess a Christian conscience and a catholic culture of universal, all-embracing love for humanity, meanwhile practicing and propagating a culture of unconscious, unexamined, automatic hatred of strangers. Which culture are we talking about at any moment? The culture that a society professes? The culture that a society practices?

I want to say that the practice of conscience is the beginning of a truly civilized culture. But what if our sense of good and evil is founded upon our account of the world, and our account of the world is not comprehensive enough to accommodate a global community and its complex issues? If our views of the world must change to account for reality, mustn’t our consciences be examined and re-examined? Maybe conscience is a constant and living creation, as culture is. It’s likely that the practice of an evolving conscience must be taught by an enlightened society in order to create and maintain an enlightened citizenry, in order to create a life-enhancing culture.

But other questions occur.

Conscience has to do with fidelities. What we feel faithful and loyal to, we deem good. Whatever threatens that to which we feel loyal, we deem evil.

But what if, under examination, we find that what we feel loyal to is not intrinsically “good” at all? What if I feel loyal to a particular gender, race, class, culture, or species for no other reason than the fact that it’s my gender, my race, my class, my culture, my species? What’s the value of a conscience completely co-opted by my ego’s subjectivity? Given our global world, is a conscience that doesn’t recognize any good beyond my human ego’s precinct even worthy of the name?

And since conscience has to do with priorities, and is therefore hierarchical, can we do without a sense or an idea of a human being’s deepest and highest spiritual purpose? Can a culture thrive without a vision of humanity’s embeddedness in planetary and cosmic significance? Can we really understand the nature of good and evil without some vision of the highest possible mission, purpose, and destiny of humankind? Can we consciously participate in our own evolution without a vision of humanity’s highest end? Is sacred conscience different than secular conscience? Can a culture without a religious vision grant its members value other than their roles as either consumers, cogs in a profit economy, or minions of a faceless state?

You see, Kate, how quickly my response devolves into a spiral of other questions. And that’s when I realized: The ten questions posed are not ten questions. These ten questions are hundreds, even thousands of questions, rendered down to ten. And that’s why, like an apple tree in blossom-time harassed by bees, I’m besieged by more questions than ever. But in my confusion, I had yet a further realization: The ten questions posed are not ten questions. They are one ineffable question posed ten different ways. That one question is the enduring problem of humankind, and anyone might pose it better than I could, but for now, let me pose it this way, in two parts:

How do we preserve and create more good in the world, and how do we mitigate evil? Of course, that two-part question spawns many other questions: What do we mean by “good?” “Good” for whom? “Good” for a particular class? A particular country? Nationality? Gender? “Good” for a particular species? Good for the profit economy? Good for the soul? Good for the consumer in us? Good for the creator in us? Who or what is the beneficiary of whatever good we try to create? Are all populations represented when we think, “Good for the world”? And what is the source of “evil”? Is representational deficit a major source of evil? Are all living beings of all species and all races well-represented in our accounts of the world? Is the representational deficit we see enacted in the world a projection of a representational deficit going on in our inner worlds? Does fear, loathing, and denial of parts of ourselves get acted out as fear and violence toward an enemy “out there,” whether a different race or gender, or even “wilderness” and anything “wild.”

Finding myself bewildered, I finally have to wonder if any meaningful answer can be arrived at without a comprehensive and essential definition of The Self, which definition seems to me to be the deepest mission of poetry, or any other representational art form, for that matter. I mean, in regards to the world’s ills, is it possible to find solutions that aren’t temporary, at best, or well-meaning and misguided, at worst, without comprehensive knowledge of the structure and dynamics, the nature and tendencies, of the very Self who lives and acts in the world to bring about order and disorder, good and bad, love and terror, indeed, the very Self who poses and ponders important questions? I mean, is it really sound for us to hope to ameliorate our social, political, ecological, and even personal problems without an understanding of the psychological roots of those problems, marked as they are by fear, greed, gluttony, hatred, anger, ego, and general unconsciousness, all of it psychological? Marked as they are by the presence of a Self? Who is this actor? What is the Self? And is it possible to arrive at an understanding of the Self without some grasp of the nature of reality, which is a metaphysical issue? In other words, without a deep understanding of our metaphysical condition, our primordial condition, will we ever really understand our temporal state? And, bereft of such understanding, what kind of choices are we making?



Photo credit: Stars Above Haleakala, Haleakala National Park, Maui, HI. Courtesy of thedaintyheart/ Flickr.

  • Li-Young Lee

    Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents. He is the author of four critically acclaimed books of poetry and a memoir. He has received numerous fellowships and awards for his work. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife, Donna, and their two sons.

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