The conference concerned matters of value to my business, so I chose to attend. However the host corporation was one for which I had little respect, treating many people in a manner contrary to my personal values. It was a trade-off. I could gain valuable information, and yet I was in an ethically and philosophically alien environment.
It went well. That day I gained some valuable material, and found myself able to engage positively and freely throughout the occasion.
What was most significant for me, however, was a phrase that suddenly popped into my head full form as I left the building that afternoon for the parking lot:
"Walk into the belly of the beast, and make a few friends."
That was a number of months ago, and those words have stayed with me. There’s something there, a certain wisdom, or at least words of strategy that bears attention. Here’s a quick list of some possibilities:
1) the beast is not as terrifying as originally feared.
2) it’s part of good strategy to have allies in many places.
3) it can mean one still needs to leave after engaging.
4) it can mean that when we are less anxious in a questionable situation, we may realize more available options.
But it’s more than that. What follows are some of my reflections on its deeper meaning:
I’ve often marveled at the realization that those we choose as enemies are often very much like us. I recall, back in the Cold War days a comment that on the face of the earth, the folks most like us were the Russian people - hard working, people of the land, deeply spiritual, family loving, and terrified of the ideological battle going on over their heads. While I’m not sure this is fully accurate, it caught my attention. One anxiety strategy I use personally and professionally is to face fully that which frightens us the most. The results vary, but at least the spell of demonizing (we call it projection) is usually broken.
We live in a divided world. Ever since the Expulsion from Eden, or whatever mythic narrative we take to feed our operating cosmology, we of humankind struggle with the perpetual separation of things. To deny this can become a dangerous hallucination. And yet at the same time to just passively allow it, robs us of something basic to our humanity.
That’s what it is - the maintenance of our humanity.
Many of us have heard the story (read the poem, heard the song, or seen the movie) of that spontaneous Christmas Day truce in 1914 in the trenches of France, when the German and English troops paused, against orders, to exchange gifts, play games, pray and sing together. To the higher-ups it was consorting with the enemy (treason) but for the soldiers, it was the intrusion of some humanity into the otherwise brutal inhumanity of war.
It is frequently obvious there is a “beast” out there, an enemy constantly lurking. And if it’s not ‘obvious.’ then reality shows up with one anyway, often right at our doorstep. It’s always us and the other. The world is constantly divided. If the task is not already accomplished, that dividing other instills or mirrors a dividedness within ourselves. That’s what I’m paying attention to here - that alienation which robs us of our humanity.
The easiest ‘natural’ antidote to our dividedness, is to find something we can unite against - the ‘good versus evil’ model. In the movie “Independence Day” (1996) we were thrilled by the uniting of all the peoples of the earth, as we joined together against a true “Beast” approaching from outer space to suck us dry, then destroy us all. What a high when, as a world united, we could together defeat “it.” Political unity, human courage, technological skill and self-sacrifice, all united against… And it worked! The Beast was destroyed. Yes, ultimately by those willing to fly into its belly. But this was not an exercise of making friends in there. This was classic good versus evil. Good won and evil was destroyed. Yea! A simplicity rarely offered in our real world. But it sure was a ‘feel-good’ movie.
In its simplicity, that movie was about a definitely right thing to do, but from deep in my heart it is not right to rejoice in it. The destruction of any life form, even for good purpose, must also be a cause for grief. Every soldier, warrior, peace officer, or hunter at some deep level must know that.
Then I think of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who in 1938 signed the Munich Pact, ultimately an act of appeasement to Hitler, resulting in the near immediate sacrifice of all Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. This was not entering the belly of the beast and making a few friends. This was naively misjudging the beast itself. No, this is not what I’m talking about.
Maybe I’m talking about the fireman who enters a burning building because perhaps there’s someone in that building needing rescue. He knows how to do that, he’s been trained to do that, and he has the courage to do that - putting himself in harm’s way for another. He lives in that space between honoring the power of fire and the vulnerability of people in danger.
I’m talking about the courage, not to deny that there are divisions in this world, divisions that can hurt people, but the courage to not fall prey to their absoluteness and look for places where it’s not all black and white. Because it rarely is all black and white. It’s the courage to not fall full prey to the division. That’s where our humanity is retrieved.
It’s the courage to stand in the middle - even when there’s not much substance left there.
It’s the courage to know that people are more important than corporations, business, ideologies, wealth, politics, racial profiles - the list of diving forces goes on and on. And it’s the courage to act that truth.
What say folks, it’s national election season! It seems a few billionaires are working to buy the election, not for the sake of the republic, but for the influence they can purchase for their own ventures. And they have gathered the money and its power to succeed. The forces that were designed to prevent that have been increasingly compromised or rendered powerless. Yet it’s the courage to believe, and act, as if one person plus one person plus one person plus one person can still stand against a few with billions of self-serving dollars.
It’s the courage to, in spite of how it may appear otherwise, to trust when real people get together to care and to act.
Yes, to enter the beast and make a few friends, I’m talking about finding a few real people, and making a connection with them, validating them as real. That’s a subtle ‘anti-beast’ act. It may be to form a relationship that will carry over into the outside world. It may be just to say hello to someone with whom your eyes momentarily connect.
Yes, the word “validation” is key. I can make you real again perhaps only by a brief conversation, or even just a smile. And their response becomes a validation of my own reality - separate from just the corporate or business culture that owns the building and its program.
You see, the future of a balanced and vital democracy is that people are more important than anything else, even those with whom I disagree. The subtle workings of human nature’s penchant for division and systemic greed seem to work against that. So it’s always an uphill struggle.
Maybe it’s that I enter from the outside as a quietly focused warrior - not bent on destroying the “beast” but rather on validating under its radar the personhood of some of the real people within.
I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the sake of a broader humanity.
I have walked into a few “wrong” places in my life, and ended up meeting some fascinating people. Lots of stories there as well.