The process of coming to know who we are and coordinate

Lincoln Memorial

This image brings to mind History, not as a subject to be studied but as a lived experience of past performance. The posture of the woman above seems to say she is exhilarated, feeling the power of the place in that moment. As well, her juxtaposition between columns and the statue of Lincoln provides a symbol of humanity standing on the threshold, looking to the future from a background of struggle and achievement—triumph over adversity and a shift in social policy toward freedom for all.

The way I was taught early on, History amounted to a series of wars and power struggles, accounts of powerful individuals who led notorious lives in the context of creating or engaging in violence and abuses, always from the perspective of Western civilization. Nothing seemed to happen before then. I don’t remember any mention of other cultures in Africa, Polynesia, Australia, New Zealand, Central and South America (including the indigenous populations throughout the Americas) China and the rest of Asia. Japan was an exception because of World War II.   

Much later, graduate courses in anthropology introduced me to the history of diverse cultures. Wars and conflicts were included, but the emphasis was on values and customs, subsistence, architecture, creativity and belief systems. It opened my eyes to the validity of and underlying reasons for differences in perceived realities and how people responded to them. Whereas the study of history was about power struggles within and between whole systems, the focus of anthropology was on people and how they managed those systems. 

I learned that globally, irrespective of time, environment, religious beliefs or social conditions, even genetics, people’s commonalities are far greater than their differences. And the idea of race, a social construct  born of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances, had no inherent physical or biological meaning. From the early 30’s anthropology textbooks cited studies showing that there were no “pure-blooded” people on the planet.

Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters. Instead, the Western concept of race must be understood as a classification system that emerged from, and in support of, European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination.

American Association of Physical Anthropologists

We also learned that across cultures and at great time-depths, humans were motivated by the same quests—survival, affection, affiliation, trade, comfort,  technological development, creative expression and the making of meaning.

From the perspective of human evolution, a much broader category than History, the shape of a culture or civilization and how events unfold with them is largely determined by the perception of whom their component individuals see themselves to be—as a people, their identity as whole system. And significantly tied to it, a functioning sociopolitical structure that’s resilient and sustainable in the face of change.

After studying twenty-two collapsed civilizations, historian Arnold Toynbee found that what they had in common was inflexibility under stress and the concentration of wealth into a few hands. Another contributing factor “a loss of social unity in the society as a whole.” He said, “The West will terminally decline unless a new spiritually motivated minority emerges offering new creative leadership, bringing the society to a new level of consciousness and development.”

Systems scientists refer to this developing group as “Emergents.” (The topic of next week’s post). Basically, these are diverse people of faith guided by love, goodwill, planetary sustainability and justice for all. 

The fate of a civilization depends not only on its political system, its economic structure, or its military might. Perhaps, indeed, all of these ultimately depend in turn upon the faith of the people, upon what we believe and feel about man; about the possibilities of human nature; about our relation or lack of it to such intangibles as the meaning of morality or the true nature of value.”

Ashley Montague

In his day, Abraham Lincoln was such a person. Beyond but including his many accomplishments, his vision and integrity, I appreciate with gratitude the shift that he affected in the way we perceived ourselves—a nation united, a people undivided, “With liberty and justice for all.” From the perspective of human evolution—and American history—his creative leadership brought us to a new level of awareness and overall social advancement. 

For me, the Lincoln Memorial is not just a reminder of the man and his legacy. It’s one among many monuments around the world that celebrate the struggle and quest to discover what it means to be more fully human. On the surface, it may appear that History is about war and struggle. But those are actually the consequences of self-centered, separatist thinking. The greater story is the process of learning our true (spiritual) identity, including the potential we have when we unite to create a world that works for everyone.

In our time, what is at issue is the very nature of humankind, the image we have of our limits and possibilities. History is not yet done with its exploration… of what it means to be human. 

C.Wright Mills, American sociologist



Photography Monographs (Select book and click on pages to turn them)


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