Wednesday, April 27, 2011


About 100 years ago, when The Times asked several writers to comment on what is wrong with the world, one of them offered a very simple answer,

Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely Yours,
G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton converted to Catholicism later in life, he wrote poetry, plays and Christian apologetics as well as fantasy. He often employed paradoxes.

In its simplest form, his answer can be seen as a restating of the status of humans as “fallen”. God gave us a perfect world, but because we want to know more and we want to control that world, as represented by Adam eating from the tree of knowledge, we have demonstrated that we can’t just accept the paradise that we are given, so we have to suffer.

In a more reasoned view, one that includes a knowledge of billions of years of suffering by billions of species that never had a sense of where they came from or why they were there, it has a sense of a statement of responsibility. In either view, it is a universal statement. He is not indicating that he actually did something that trumps every other action by every other creature in the world causing the world to be wrong. By stating his willingness to be individually responsible, he invites you to write the same letter, sign your name and publish it.

What makes this difficult is that you have no guarantee that anyone else will follow suit. If you publish your letter and the only response you get is laughter, you will feel pretty silly and vulnerable. We know that there are many people looking to blame someone else for what is wrong with the world, so the person who says they are the problem is an easy target. If you publish your letter only because you want others to do the same, then you really aren’t being as sincere as your letter says it is. If you wait until many others have published their letter before you publish yours, then those who blame and criticize will say you are doing it only because everyone else is. You really can’t win.

Really, we live in a world of competition, survival of the fittest, right? There has always been war and nature is full of creatures eating other creatures to survive. It IS our nature. We all knew it and Darwin proved it. We don’t need people taking responsibility, we just need the right people dominating those who are wrong.

Unfortunately the American education system provides a truncated view of Darwin, and it only seems to be getting worse. Our understanding of Darwin was altered in his lifetime by his contemporary, Thomas Henry Huxley and since then by distortions like the idea of an Aryan race. Like any idea, either science or Holy Scripture, it has been misused.

Darwin spoke extensively of cooperation and love in the animal kingdom. Its importance to the survival of species is just as obvious. Humans cooperate in ways unprecedented in the rest of the animal kingdom, but the roots of it can be seen when a school of fish all turn at the same instant, a herd of antelope go to the water hole together or a bees make honey. You might say that democracy is in our DNA.

As yet, I have not seen bees building voting booths to select the queen. Their form of cooperation involves far less choices than we have and their limited communication prevents something like confusion over a book written 150 years ago ever being an issue. If democracy were as simple as checking a box every two years, we would be as blissfully happy as a bee knee deep in pistil. I’m all for writing your congressman and contributing to campaigns, but there is more to it than that. Any truly democratic action begins with a handful of people.

And that leads to the movie that was named after G.K.’s letter. Most of us only have the resources to write little letters, but this film maker is making the statement in a much bigger way. He follows up the “what is wrong with the world” question with “and what can we do about it?” When he discovers in the course of making the movie that over-consuming, hoarding of wealth, and accumulating more than you need is a big part of what is wrong, he sells his mansion and moves into a trailer park.

It makes for a good story, but still he is just one person. The impact of his choices remains to be seen. We can wait to see how that turns out, or we can vote with him and make some of our own choices to contribute to the movement.

Before you get the idea that I am presenting this as something else to believe in, some new dogma, I want to offer one bit of critique about the movie. There is a section about 1/3 of the way through the movie that I wish he had left out. It has to do with “Noetic Science.”

In February 1971, Edgar Mitchell walked on the moon, took out a golf club, and hit the longest drive in history. During his return flight he was overwhelmed with a profound sense of connectedness with the world. He has spent much of his life trying to understand what that was and how to tap into it as a resource to make the world better. This type of study, combining the experiential, individual senses that can’t be validated and quantified, with the data that can be, is called by some Noetic science. Others call it pseudo-science.

It has the appearance of science, but does not have the same rigor and has not stood up to the same type of peer review that non-pseudo-science has. Both of those types of science share the same sense of wonder. Both begin with a suspicion, a feeling, something unexplained that asks to be explained. Both end up leading to more questions as more knowledge leads to more wonder. Both need to be treated carefully, so that their answers are not considered the only right answers. If we aren’t careful, we’re just back to criticizing and competing.

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