Friday, September 19, 2014

Independence rejected . . . .

      This morning, as I was riding into work, I was listening to an interview with two scholars of the Muslim world (Reza Aslan and Graham Wood); the topic:  ISIS/ISIL and it's declaration of a "caliphate".  In the course of the interview, the question was raised as to whether some central learned "authority", such as the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, could have any influence over ISIS.  The answer was basically "No, ISIS is anti-clerical, anti-scholarly.  They are firm believers in an individual's ability to read and interpret the Quran for one's self."   In short, they act independent of any authority but their own; they want no connections they can't control.
      Earlier in the morning, I had learned that Scottish voters had voted not to separate from the United Kingdom; they rejected independence.  The reasons for a "no" vote were certainly varied.  Some folks thought that severing 
political ties would mean financial difficulties (e.g., what would happen to Scottish universities' research funding from London?).  Others saw potential European and/or global consequences if the United Kingdom dissolved.  And certainly others simply felt that emotional ties that bound Scotland and England were tight enough that severing them was undesirable (voting data showed, for example, that older voters opposed independence more than younger ones).  In short, they valued connections, even those over which they had only a little control.
      Questions of dependence, independence and inter-dependence have swirled around us for centuries -- probably from the dawn of any sort of human society.   There clearly is a tension there.  On the one hand, we celebrate the increasing "independence" of children as they grow older.  And we celebrate the independence of countries (such as our own) from tyrannical overlords.  On the other hand, we can hardly survive as entirely "independent" entities.  Humans depend on others for many necessities; countries depend on international trade.  As much as we might like to hold up autonomy or independence as an ideal, it is more of a useful fiction than reflective of reality.
       Interdependence is a constant theme in the writings of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.  I particularly love his "Tangerine Meditation" in which we are invited to hold a tangerine, and meditate on its origins, on everything that it took to bring the fruit from the earth to our hand.  Sunlight, rain, nutrients in the soil, insects to pollinate, human hands to pick the fruit, package it.  Trucks, trains, planes to deliver it -- as well as people to pilot and maintain that machinery.  Civil engineers and construction workers to build the road-beds.  Shop-keepers to sell the fruit.  The list goes on.  As Nhat Hahn writes:  "You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine."*
       Interdependence is also a theme of some of John Donne's most famous lines:

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."**

Donne's words have, for many years, had an impact on me.  And while he was writing from a 17th-century Christian perspective, it is easy to hear the resonance in the 20th-century Buddhist ideas of Nhat Hanh.  It is not difficult to find similar perspectives throughout the world's religious traditions.  We are connected--interdependent--in so many ways . . . and those connections can serve to temper our beliefs and actions, as well as increase our compassion . . . . even when we are dealing with those with whom we disagree.
       Amid strident calls for "independent action" -- personal or international, may we take a moment to peel a tangerine, or recall the tolling of a bell.

Chaplain Gary

Peace is Every Step:  The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Bantam, 1991), 22.
** Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, "Meditation XVII" (1624).


  1. Hi Gary,

    A nice diversion/perspective compared to my "work world". I will have to visit more often!