The Fabric of Society


This cloth is fraying in places. What can I do about it? Some threads are broken and holes are appearing. Is it beyond repair? One of the lessons I learned from reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was that when a system is breaking down, whether a flag, motorcycle or government, what’s needed is attention to the places where the breakages are occurring—attention and analysis, not knee-jerk reactions or simplistic, short-term solutions. I found so many gems of wisdom in this book, that I can imagine a conversation between Mr. Pirsig and myself.

DS: So Robert—this cloth, this whole system I’m concerned about, it’s large and complex. In addition to a hole, there are many rips and tears in it—and they are getting worse. I’m not sure it can even be repaired.

RP: Remember the systems principle, David. Attend to the parts and the whole will take care of itself. Think of yourself as a thread in this system. If you really care about the whole, you’ll do what you can to repair it.

DS: But I’m just one “thread,” barely visible on the surface. Where should I begin?

RP: “The place to improve the world (system) is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” Wherever you are and with whatever gifts you have been given, act with love in your heart, positive thoughts and creative hands. Be the best thread that you can be, a quality thread. And do what you can to empower and aid the threads closest to you so they can be the best that they can be. That is what makes you and your community of threads strong.

DS: But my “community,” my domain, is very modest. Neither I nor those close to me have the power or influence that the larger strands have.

RP: Nonetheless, work to insure that you and your community of threads are as strong as they can be. Ultimately, the strength of a cloth depends upon the strength of its threads.

DS: When I look closely I can see that this cloth was originally constituted by an interweaving of different colored threads, all aligned toward a common image. Now, to the detriment of the whole, the “strands” are competing for prominence. It’s getting worse, to the extent that the future appears to be in jeopardy. If nothing is done the cloth will deteriorate even more.

RP: “You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

DS: The original pattern? Order and chaos have both been and continue to be part of this fabric, but relatively new to the system is a pattern of rigidity coupled with righteousness. The result is incivility, and like a virus it seems to be accelerating.

From the perspective of my being a thread, one among many, coarser threads have been overpowering the smooth ones as they attempt to build more powerful strands. Some of them are bound so tightly—perhaps for fear of unraveling?—the boundedness itself is causing stresses that are resulting in more and bigger breaks. The coarse strands are so “convinced” that their views are the only correct ones, they are unwilling to “talk” much less collaborate. With so much “shouting,” repair seems impossible.

RP: “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

DS: I see what you mean. And isn’t it ironic that the strands who shout and defend their convictions the loudest are those who have the least confidence in them. Somewhere deep within, their goals are in doubt. I can see how that would create stress and friction, even constriction, a holding on to the way things were when the cloth was new rather than adapt to the changes that have occurred. It would also contribute to a fear of the future, like they might never get to the mountain top.

RP: “To arrive in the Rocky Mountains by plane would be to see them in one kind of context, as pretty scenery. But to arrive after days of hard travel across the prairies would be to see them in another way, as a goal, a promised land… To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.”

DS: So ultimately the integrity and viability of a system depends upon the integrity and strength of its parts—and how they come together.

RP: “Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all.”

 DS: Right action produces serenity. Peace. I like that. It reminds me of a TED talk given by peace activist Jamila Raquib. She told how a group of twelve regular citizens in Guatemala brought down their corrupt president and his regime. They put out a call on Facebook, asking their friends to meet in the plaza carrying signs that read: Renuncia Ya, “Resign Already!” To their surprise, 30,000 people showed up. After protesting for a week and getting no results, they organized a strike. “In Guatemala City alone,” she said, “over 400 businesses shut their doors. Farmers throughout the country blocked the roads. Within five days the president and dozens of corrupt officials resigned and were indicted on charges of corruption. The former president and the others are currently in prison.” The story demonstrated her thesis, that “Non-violent action works by destroying an opponent—not physically, but by identifying the institutions the opponent needs in order to survive and then denying them those sources of power.” Right action—as opposed to ranting, raving and violence. It’s Mahatma Gandhi’s admonition to be the change we want to see in the world. So to repair this fabric you’re saying I should, first and foremost, attend to the fiber that I am; maintain its strength and integrity in the context of my place in the fabric. And at the same time withhold the sources of power from those who are abusing it. Self work. That can be hard.

RP: “It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.”

DS: Right thinking and acting, you said. How will I know when this self-referential and non-violent approach is working?

RP: “The test of the machine (system) is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed… The real cycle (system) you’re working in is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward quality or fall away from quality together… The social values are right only if the individual values are right.”

DS: Obviously, you’re not just speaking of motorcycles. I get it. The system is me. I am the motorcycle, the fabric of society and the government. One way or another, right where I am, how I am and what I say and do contributes to—or reduces—the quality of the system’s functioning. Also, by keeping myself and my community of threads intact locally, we provide a model for others—of what works, creates tranquility.

RP: Good David. You not only read my book, you understood what I was trying to say.


Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.

Robert M. Pirsig


First Image: Tattered Flag

Last Image: Waving Flag

The two closeups are magnified sections of the first image, taken at an antique fair. The last image was created in the studio by photographing another of my images on a computer screen. The motion effect was accomplished by zooming out during a two-second exposure.

[I invite you to visit my portfolio site]


2 thoughts on “The Fabric of Society

  1. Great analogy! Makes me realize I have to look up and down my thread and pull the broken parts together.

    One other analogy is that we (the U.S.) aren’t all flying the same flag. USA! Mexico! Colorado! California! Ohio! LGBT! Republican! Democrat! Christian! Islam! Atheist! Agnostic! Capitalist! Socialist!…Like the Phoenix maybe we are a state of combustion and will arise as one from the ashes.

    Thanks for another needle in my backside to figure out how to help stop the deterioration of our nation…or should I help it along so we can be reborn?



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