If I Can Separate My Fate From Yours, I Win
Religion, racism, and inequality all have one thing in common.
I’ve been considering the point of human struggle for a long, long time. In nearly every case of a struggle between humans that I’ve examined, it really comes down to one question: are we bound by fate?
Religious, racial and economic struggle usually results from one faction wanting their fate to be separated from that of another. The good people want the bad people to go to hell. Some light-skinned people want control of people with darker skin, and to be separate from them, too. The rich want exclusivity from the poor. In each case, the dominant group wants a status exclusive of others, and they exercise their group power to attain it.
This question of fate, of whether or not my fate is tied to yours, has been turned into the ultimate zero-sum game by humanity. The problem with this kind of thinking is that the dominant group believes that in order to have what they want, they must be separated from the “great unwashed”, in order to get it.
The great religious struggles of human history were a struggle of conformity. The Spanish Inquisition, The Great Crusades, and the Christian conquest of the Americas were all about making others conform or die. More than 100 million native American Indians died at the hands of Christians during the history of the United States. The rest were dislocated. I remember a quote from one of the stories I had read about the Indians. To paraphrase, one of the Indians said, “Somehow, we got these books, and they got our land.”
I see similar behavior in racism, and most American racism springs from a few really inaccurate interpretations of the Bible. Some white people in modern America still believe that black people should suffer just for being black. Some white people still believe that whites are superior to blacks by virtue of their skin color, and our skin color is something we can’t change. And still, the brown people must suffer for the sin of their skin color. And as long as there is suffering on the basis of skin color, our fates appear to be separated. Separate fates are an illusion.
Economic inequality raises a similar question. Why does anyone need a billion dollars? Is it even possible to earn that kind of money? Let’s put that number in terms we can understand because I’m not even sure people can imagine a billion of any one thing.
According to The Balance, in 2017, the average annual per capita income in America was $48,150. For the average person to earn a billion dollars, he’d have to work more than 20,000 years on an average income. Is it possible than one human can be 20,000 times more productive than another? How about 20,000 times smarter? How about 20,000 times more efficient? Can one human being be as productive as 20,000 people? I doubt it, but that kind of money can certainly give everyone the impression that the billionaire’s fate is not tied to the poor or even the average.
The only reason I can think of for a person to want to acquire one billion dollars is to ensure that his or her fate is not tied to his lessers. Just possessing a million dollars generates an air of exclusivity. It’s that exclusivity that people of means pursue. Having a car that few others can afford. Having a house that few others can live near. Having access to a jet, a hotel, or an office that few others can afford. Skipping the lines at Disneyland for $300 an hour.
Money is a sort of social contract. Money says I can get what I want from you without applying any apparent force to get it. I can buy your cooperation. But money is a force. In this social contract, money says that if you don’t do what I ask, I will pay someone else, and you need money to survive in this world. Money can be used for coercion.
Long ago, Alan Watts coined a phrase that I will never forget in his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity: “free agent in a bag of skin”. Some people seem to act like that. They act as if they really believe that they are a free agent in a bag of skin. They act as if their fate is not tied to that of others.
This is a very dangerous line of thinking. This kind of thinking leads to wars because we believe that we can engage in war and still survive. It’s also a very selfish way to think. When one believes that he’s a free agent in the world, it is easy to assume that his fate is separate from all others, especially if that person has accumulated a great deal of wealth.
This desire to separate one’s fate from others is what I think when I read of Nick Hanauer, an early Amazon investor who became a billionaire from his investments. In his article, “The Pitchforks Are Coming”, he recounts his conversations with other billionaires and multi-millionaires about how they’re going to hop on a jet to New Zealand if there is another revolution in America. They want to separate their fate from the rest of us. This desire to be separate is what I think of when I read stories of people who pay dearly to be frozen for a lack of a cure for a fatal disease. Or when I read of efforts to attain immortality. Or when I read of their plans to hop into space when a nuclear war starts.
When the original slave owners imposed slavery upon their victims, I see that kind of behavior as an attempt to separate one’s fate from another. When I read of the civil rights struggles, of the lynchings, the church burnings, the intimidation and discrimination that whites have imposed on blacks, again, I see an attempt at separating one’s fate from another. As if somehow, having some assurance that their fates are separated will make them feel any better. It is even more bizarre that anyone would think that hurting another human being would make their lives any better.
This idea that we can separate our fates takes a very short view of life, and even of the earth in general. It is simply not possible for me to untie my fate from yours. As long as we’re in the same city, our fates are tied. As long as we’re living in the same state, our fates are tied. As long as we reside in the same country, our fates are tied. While we live together on this planet, our fates are tied. And while we dwell in the same universe our fates inextricably intertwined.
There is no “us” and “them”. We are all one. We are all born of the same substance. We all bleed. We all hurt. We all feel. Our experience of reality is fairly consistent across humanity. Some are missing an eye, an ear, or lack the sense of smell. Some, like myself, have impaired hearing and sight. Some are color blind. Some are deaf. Some are born with impairments, some lost sensory perception due to injury later in life. Some have lost arms or hands, and still “feel” them. Some are intact, yet they still feel a sense of loss.
Regardless of our station in life, our wealth or lack thereof, our skin color, our social status, our gifts, or our losses, our fates are tied. I believe that if we truly want peace in the world, we must start there. We must start with the realization that is is not possible to hurt another without hurting oneself. It is not possible to gain an advantage over another without placing oneself at a disadvantage. And all that hurting another does is create a dependency anyway.
For in the moment we realize that there is no point in seeking an advantage over another, we also begin to see the converse of the above. We begin to see that when we help others, we help ourselves. That is by design. That we cannot help another without helping ourselves is by design.
So much of human suffering starts with the illusion of self. Suffering starts with the illusion that I am different from you, therefore, I can only succeed at your expense. Suffering starts with the belief that in order for me to succeed in life, I must acquire and maintain an advantage over you. Suffering starts with the belief that I must change you to be more to my liking before I can be happy. Those are the major tenants of the illusion of self as separate from others.
Once we realize that we’re all one and that we can succeed or fail together, then the struggle to be separate can end. And then perhaps, we might have peace.