Monday, February 28, 2011

February 2011: The Whether of our Lives

Pictured here is Vandana Shiva, ecofeminist author and activist, sharing with a large audience last week at Portland Community College (PCC). It is rare that we have a speaker who challenges us to reflect on the whether of our lives: choices confronting humanity (and each of us) at this time in our evolution. She does so by her words and also by her personal example.

Whether or not she would be able to share with my students and others at PCC would be at the whim of the weather! Several days before a severe winter storm was forecast to include up to 4 inches of snow (10 centimeters) with temperatures down to 19 degrees Fahrenheit (-3 C.). The day she spoke the temperatures were down and snow had fallen – and most schools were closed. PCC opened two hours late at 10am (precisely the time she was scheduled to begin)! A second talk later in the day was set for 3-4pm (and yes, more snow closed down facilities by 4pm)! It seems that providence does provide us with learning opportunities. Whether or not we take advantage of them will always remain our choice.

Vandana Shiva`s message can be summarized as follows: Globalization today is a new form of colonialism in which multinational corporations (like Monsanto) seek to control our lives through redefining the Commons as private property from which profits should be enjoyed by the few even at the expense of the many. The Commons includes forests, plants, animals, and water that is produced by nature and now is being patented for production in the name of progress. Without our consent we become test subjects in experiments ranging from genetically modified foods to consumers (of fossil fuels, cosmetics, faster cars, and all manner of unnecessary things) which adversely impact everything from traditional weather patterns, to the increasing gap between rich and poor, to our personal health.

Due to conversations we had had prior to her speaking (as I was moderator for the morning event), Vandana Shiva thoughtfully linked her message to the teachings of Gandhi. Just as Gandhi, in his time, had proposed the spinning wheel in response to global textile production that was disempowering the rural poor of India, now she seeks to develop seed banks in response to the corporate patenting of life which seeks to disempower us all today even as it threatens the precious biodiversity of the planet. It is in this context that she renews Gandhi`s call for Swaraj (self-rule) and Swadeshi (local self-sufficiency) by means of Satyagraha (holding firm to the truth as we see it) and Sarvodaya (constructive programs with the good of all in mind).

As I listened to her, I was reminded of similar talks I was giving throughout the six months of my Fulbright grant in India last year. I was also reminded of how easy it has been to fall back into the comfortable lifestyle patterns my family and I had prior to that experience. Of course there are always degrees of hypocrisy. No one, even Gandhi, has ever remained perfectly in tune with their values. That said, whether or not we seek to reduce the gap between what we believe and how we live (and so reduce the degree of our hypocracies) is left to each of us to decide. Certainly it is easier to point out the shortcomings of others, as well as of entire societies – but our criticisms carry little weight if we exclude ourselves from them. I thank Vandana Shiva for sparking in me a renewed desire to commit to more radical lifestyle changes. Through my communications here, perhaps others may consider whether to make new choices for themselves…

The fires of change continue to burn off past fears throughout much of the Arab world, with the winds of freedom having blown out the autocratic rule of Mubarak in Egypt on February 11th. Now people are demanding change in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere – with the cost in lives seeming to increase with each falling dictatorship. How far the dominos will fall, we shall see. The current wave of freedom (self-rule, swaraj) may soon seem to recede, but it does wear away at the rocks in our lives in ways that are hard to foresee. Let us proceed forth in the faith that no effort is wasted, no sacrifice is without worth. If we can be true to ourselves as individuals and hold firm to the truth that is ours, over time, others will be impacted and progress will be made towards realizing what Gandhi described as Ram Rajya (the Kingdom of God). Small steps in our lives can cascade into positive global consequences!

On the Sonnleitner home front, changes have also been happening. In a definitely significant first step towards greater self-rule, our youngest daughter Mira has settled into her first living situation free of her parents! Our son Shaman has overcome significant obstacles to personal empowerment by completing his high school diploma! Our nephew, Stephan, departs after over a year of living with us tomorrow when he catches an airplane to Thailand where he will begin several months of solo travel abroad! Our (foster/adopted) daughter Margarita is learning how to cook many traditional Mexican dishes for the first time and even treated us all to a fine meal last night (with an added bonus to me when her one-year old daughter Hanilyn allowed me to pick her up and hold her for the first time)! Last, but not least, the Maldonado Family (close friends to Kristine and I) are all set for improved financial independence as they embark on putting their Mexican cooking skills to work in their own mobile restaurant!

The whether of our lives is clearly affected by weather, socio-political, economic, and other realities that often seem to dictate our choices. Gandhi once said that we may only have as much free will as the deck passenger on an ocean liner. Still, that free will can be used to liberate ourselves and greater empowerment may be achieved. Vandana Shiva`s seed banks help. Overcoming our fears of what others tell us is acceptable can help a lot. Whether our freedom is constrained by the dictators, multinational corporations, social customs that limit our expressions of compassion, or personal fears that may be our most severe barriers – change is possible. We can move about the ocean liner, and even have some say as to the direction it takes. Through the pain that may be inevitable in our lives, at least, let us thoroughly enjoy the opportunities we have to share with one another.

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