We will never achieve complete and lasting mental health in isolation. We might attain greater acceptance and spiritual grounding, but in a global human family true wellbeing depends on more than our own individual minds. It is also supported, or undermined, by the state of humanity and life on earth. As long as the world is torn by chaos and injustice, our mental states will remain uneasy no matter how comfortable our immediate circumstances. As an old bumper sticker of mine said: “No one is free when others are oppressed.”
Walking down Market Street in San Francisco recently, I witnessed a touching and distressing situation. Lying atop grimy pavement beside a low wall, enfolded in blankets and sleeping bags, surrounded by a few sacks of belongings, a middle-aged couple napped in the midst of Saturday’s chaos of tourists and hawkers and vehicles.
What struck me more than anything was the tender way they casually remained in contact with each other: his hand on her forearm, her head touching his shoulder. They looked like any longterm pair of humans, with history and affection, sleeping together in the comfort of a shared bed. Only it couldn’t have been very comfortable or relaxing to recline there, destitute and exposed. Danger and humiliation stalk all who live on the streets, and they looked neither hardened nor cynical enough to brush off discouragement and fear. They appeared to be an ordinary but unfortunate couple who lost whatever home they might once have enjoyed.
My wife recently went on an outing to visit a mansion that wealthy heirs donated for use as a tourist attraction. The building’s footprint covers an entire acre of land. I don’t know much about the family that lived there back in the day, but I’m guessing the husband and wife would have slept together in just such an intimate way, assuming they avoided marriage’s many pitfalls of alienation. If you stripped away their feather bed with its gilded frame, and placed them in dirty blankets on a busy street, and left them unwashed for a time, they might have looked exactly the same.
Internally, the experience of sleeping with your partner is the same for us all. We have sensations of comfort, familiarity, and maybe a few resentments and regrets. We know the person beside us, and share memories of life-building. We know the weaknesses and strengths of our mate. We forgive and admire as we are able. We accept the declining physical form that supports the timeless soul with whom we negotiate the ups or downs of experience as they occur. It doesn’t matter our skin color, our surroundings, our wealth, or our misfortune, we share a common human experience when we sleep together.
So how did we end up with a society that permits such disparity? How come some couples snuggle in mansions, while others sleep fitfully next to newspaper racks and subway stairs? Can we honestly imagine that there is any significant difference in the worth of these people to account for such unfairness? And this is just one example of the maldistribution of wealth. I saw it with my own eyes, so it had a stronger impact, but we commonly observe similar or worse poverty through the media. In Africa, South America, India, and many other places, shanty towns spread for miles. Billions live in squalid conditions, often without sufficient food or safe water.
While all the time and everywhere, the internal experience of being alive remains similar. The eyes work the same, the brain works the same, the heart works the same. Consciousness is a shared tableau that connects us all. So how can we permit others who are just like us to suffer as they do?
Yes, it seems overwhelming to imagine changing this culture to eliminate such unfairness. But change will come. It may not be the positive shift that would solve this travesty, but the world is poised to transform in a major way. The global economic machine is faltering, the climate is shifting, the biosphere is stressed, and the populace is agitated. Unless we learn to live in a fashion healthy for all humans and all life, and soon, we will be living in new ways not of our choosing. More and more of us may be suffering before long if we don’t make some major course adjustments.
Perhaps the ruling elites will cling to their riches in air-conditioned palaces on high ground, surrounded by security fences, and stay comfortable. But my guess is they’d be happier if they committed their wealth and power to creating a better world order, where they owned less but enjoyed more connection with the rest of humanity. In fact, most of us could find contentment by giving more and consuming less.
We all share the same human consciousness. Let us share our earth’s resources, too. Fairness is as vital to mental health as cognitive restructuring, mindfulness training, and introspection.