wholepeace

The Treadmill and the Highway: Liberal, Progressive and the Relativity of Movement.

In No Particular Path on October 23, 2016 at 12:13 pm

All motion is relative.

And our experience of it is personal and related to how we perceive the fixed points against which it is measured.

A few years ago, as I was driving cross-country, I entered Utah on I-70, where a sign at the Colorado/Utah line warns that there will be no services for the next 106 miles. That is a truly frightening thought for a New Englander, but it was not the distance that I noticed while I was driving across Utah, but the lack of a sense of movement through it. The mountains that rise above the high plains are well in the distance, so they seem to move along with you as you go, like the moon. And the landscape up close is unchanging to the unfamiliar eye, which does not see that this bit of desert is subtly different from the one just passed ten minutes ago. The untrained eye sees the whole without being able to distinguish the parts; as the untrained ear hears all the beauty of a symphony without being able to distinguish the violins from the violas. I had no reference points for sensing movement. I had no idea how far I had gone because the environmental cues I rely on for determining progress were missing; there was too much sameness, it was all too vast, I was in the middle of the ocean trying to navigate by individual drops of water.

On the other hand, I have occasionally joked to friends who were working out on a treadmill that they were literally “going nowhere fast.” But here the problem isn’t vastness, but intimacy. On a treadmill, you are, of course, moving. It wouldn’t do you much good if you weren’t. But the reference points for that movement are almost all your own body. Your movement isn’t so much through space as within it. You’re not trying to get anywhere. In fact, the point is to create movement exactly where you are. Progress is measured internally, not externally. Heart rate, blood pressure, breath and the burning of calories are all kinds of movement. We have decided not to listen to the whole orchestra, but to pay specific attention to the oboes, the percussion, and the movement of the director’s baton.

Now, I am, obviously, I hope, building a metaphor here. Or at least an analogy.

I think of myself as a progressive. I prefer the term to the much-maligned “liberal” label. It seems to me that one can be a liberal as a kind of treadmill. It’s internal. I can believe things. I can be philosophical about it all. The movement is all my own. There is nothing inherently wrong about that, of course. As a liberal, I have to look at the world and process what I see in ways that will energize and strengthen parts of my perspective, such as my moral and ethical codes, my knowledge and understanding of ideas and events, my empathy for the experiences and perspectives of others, and my sense of place in the world. Unless I exercise these internal aspects of myself they may become unhealthy, calcified. I am a white sixty-nine-year-old, middle-class, American male, influenced by my culture and my environment. So if I do my best to understand and empathize with the experiences of women and people of color; other cultures and beliefs; and those caught in whirlpools of poverty, mal-education, and cultural oppression; and if I make the effort to see the special privilege of my color, my class, and my sex; then I can count that as progress, even if I cannot do more right now to change those things.

If I am a progressive, on the other hand, then I need to get off the treadmill occasionally and go run outside. I need to do things, not just think about them. But to do that I need broader points of reference against which to measure my progress. In a world where there is so much that might be changed; where there is poverty, hunger, oppression, and bigotry of all kinds; where there is rape and murder and abuse of all kinds; it can be hard not to feel as though we are getting nowhere fast. The mountains we are aching to reach always seem to move with us and ahead of us, and it’s hard to tell one tumbleweed from the next or the last. I can “adopt” a child in need or a whole village, but I cannot adopt the whole world without a sense of futility. I can send money to a GoFundMe effort that will buy one beautiful child a life-saving operation, but I can’t save them all. I can move from understanding and empathy to learning how to be an ally to women and people of color and all who have been “other-ed”, and to finding ways to use my privilege to eliminate that privilege, but bigotry and oppression and privilege will still be there.

The trick is to find a place between the highway and the treadmill. We each need to understand our own path, with its unique landmarks and signposts, with its own hills and valleys, so that we know how to measure our progress by where we are and what kind of movement we are trying for. We need to seek ways to strengthen our inner selves without losing sight of the need to actually get somewhere.

And we need to stop judging our progress by the standards of people on different paths than ours or by comparing one measure of progress to another. If life is ecological, then every action, however small, makes a difference. We can say to ourselves, “Today I will help this veteran in this way, and I can do this other thing to help this immigrant.” I can say that I understand that all lives matter, but today these particular lives need special attention. I can send five dollars to GoFundMe and five more to a large political movement. I can applaud the work of people who stand with the Lakotas against the pipeline, but know that my personal movement needs to be measure by dropping off a box of food to the local food pantry. I don’t need to choose between their importance, I only need to understand where I am on my path, what kind of distance I need to travel, and how I will know that I am moving.

There is a short video circulating on Facebook right now that illustrates the theory that the solar system is moving through the universe. The result is an image of the planets moving not in simple elliptical orbits, but in vast spirals through the cosmos. It’s a beautiful thing to contemplate, but it is impossible for most of us to observe or sense. If our solar system is going somewhere and carrying us with it, then where is it going except some relative next point, and where is it leaving from except wherever it is right now? And in the vastness of the universe, where everything is so distant that it seems to move with us or away from us, how do we measure our progress?

All that most of us can do is move through the smallness of the space we occupy physically, spiritually and cognitively. We must each strive to understand and diligently observe the measure of our own progress. And we must refrain from using our reference points to judge the progress of others. The snail’s pace is as admirable as the cheetah’s, as long as we understand that it isn’t a competition.

All movement is relative.

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