My wife Alison and I are driving with our daughter and son-in-law across the bridge toward San Francisco. Ali and I are in the back seat, with our 3-month-old granddaughter, Zoe. She’s in a proper car seat, facing backward, and therefore face-to-face with us. I notice that she’s looking at me, so I look back. We lock eyes, and hold each other’s gaze steadily for several minutes. Occasionally Zoe lights up in a smile that starts with her mouth, expands to her whole face, and continues expanding to involve her entire body – arms rising, back arching, legs extending. Then relaxing again, all without ever breaking our mutual gaze.
I’m entranced. As I would be, of course, as a Grandpa. But there’s also something here that’s somehow beyond the grandfather-granddaughter relationship. I am struck, deeply, by the grace, wonder, and mystery of contact and communion. I am beholding and being beheld by another person, and because she is a baby, the beholding is innocent, unguarded, and complete. At least, there is complete innocence on her side; I, a grown-up, have long since lost my primal innocence and I carry many layers of lifebaggage. But because her innocence is so complete, my baggage, my agendas, are irrelevant in this moment, and in this moment they are suspended and I am free.
This is the innocence of pure attention, and it makes it possible to be, genuinely, in each other’s presence. At this level, the Golden Rule is not even necessary, for there is not even the remotest thought of doing harm, of exploiting or taking advantage.
What if I turn from the baby, now, and what if “I” turn to face “you”?
Immediately, the innocence of pure attention is obscured in a cloud of self-protection. Even if you are someone I love, and you love me, our mutual attention is distracted by unspoken mutual questions (which may or may not even be conscious): What is your opinion of me? What are you expecting of me? What is your agenda in this moment? What do you demand of me? And am I willing to do, to be, what you are seeking?
And so on. This puts me someplace I probably don’t even really want to be — I’m behind the boundaries I have learned to put up, looking “out” at you, but not truly in your presence.
Somewhere, behind those boundaries and deep below all those layers, the possibility of pure attention still lies ready. And sometimes it actually breaks through, sometimes by surprise, in a given moment. But it tends to be delicate, easily disrupted, and all too fleeting. It can arise spontaneously, but holding it for more than a brief moment takes a kind of intentional focus that we are, by and large, not trained or equipped to sustain. And so agendas and expectations and anxieties flow in to fill the space between us. And the Golden Rule is useful here, to help guide my behavior, if not necessarily to nourish my soul.
This is true even between persons who love, or at least know, one another.
What if I turn from a beloved “you”, now, and what if I turn to face the world at large?
One thing I notice immediately is that there is a buzzing swarm of different “you’s” in my consciousness, and they all come with agendas and they all come with demands and expectations. I am bombarded, around the clock, by messages, borne especially by the omnipresent media and social networks, telling me what is happening in my community, in other communities throughout my country, in other countries, among other peoples halfway around the world. Messages, given the nature and economics of contemporary media, that focus mainly on disasters, on emergencies, on suffering, and especially on threats. For those are the things that make “news” that sells.
The issue goes deeper than just the content of what we serve up to each other in the media. The deeper issue is this: for the first time in the history of the planet, we are all in the effective presence of one another. Not the true, mutual presence of communion, not that eyes-to-eyes presence, but presence in the sense of, “I know you’re there, and I can’t get away from you.” We encounter one another every day, without ever meeting.
Throughout previous history, we might have known, vaguely, that there were “other” kinds of people somewhere “over there”. But as long as my day-to-day experience included only my own local community, the strange people “over there” were an abstraction. I might or might not have an opinion about them and their strange ways, but as long as geographical distances separated us and they were over there, they did not affect me in my everyday decisions and my everyday going about my own business.
Today, technology has made the planet one, single place. This observation is so familiar by now as to be a cliché. But we haven’t yet even begun to understand the implications.
There is no more “over there.” Geographical distances don’t exist in a world drenched in media and telecommunication. With the erasing of geographical distance has come also an erasing of emotional distance.
Today, a new kind of “you” is very much part of my everyday life. Today I am very much affected in my everyday decisions and my everyday going about my own business, by “you” – you, the terrorist; you, the working person in India or Asia doing the job that I used to do in my country; you, whose religious or political beliefs see the world differently from the way “my” religion sees it. And we can’t simply “tolerate” each other’s beliefs, because our beliefs shape our behavior and your behavior now directly affects me.
All these You’s, and so many more, in our “behavioral presence” but not in our true presence. So many people whose lives now affect my own, people I don’t really know at all, except through mediated stereotypes.
We’re buffeted by an unending storm of psychic input, most of it emanating from far outside our personal reach. So resorting to simple solutions, and taking comfort in stereotypes, is as seductive and understandable as it is counterproductive. How else can we “keep up with things”?
We come at each other armed with categories for sorting each other out, rather than with tools for coming to know one another.
In the face of all this, the Golden Rule is a bedrock starting point: “I don’t understand you, I don’t even know you, but let’s at least agree that we won’t kill each other, while we try to work our way through this strange time.”
And yet, in a planet that’s face-to-face (but not eye-to-eye) with itself, new questions arise: If I know you only through stereotypes, can I even assume that the specific ways I want to be treated, are the same as the specific ways you want? What if the way you want to be treated doesn’t fit with the way I believe we ought to treat one another?
We will need — eventually but soon — to go beyond the Golden Rule, without forsaking it.
One of the few clear guideposts here is that for such a thing to happen, hope is a prerequisite – not a naïve hope that ignores the monumental problems in the world, but a pragmatic hope that as bad as things often look, it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s nothing inherent in the nature of the universe, or in Creation, that says we are inevitably destined to destroy ourselves. A hope, and conviction, that we are endowed with enough genius and compassion to find our way home.
The sky is full of grand schemes, and the earth is shaken with huge, competing agendas.
But here, right here at ground level, in the eyes of a child, there is a hint of the Possible.
Here, at ground level, in the eyes of a child, there is constant reminder of who we are, and how we can love.