love. week eleven.
city. new york city
I went for a walk this afternoon to pick up some books from the Strand bookstore. My roommate decided to tag along, so I took advantage of the walk to discuss something that had been cropping up for me lately: the irrationality of community.
All the way back in November, I had been encouraging those around me to go vote. Democracy only functions when people vote, and it’s become clear over the last months (and years) that the functioning of democracy cannot be taken for granted. At the same time, though, I did not plan to go vote myself. After all, I live in NY, a state that hasn’t voted Republican since Reagan, and so it seemed pointless for me to spend a few hours on something that would literally have no effect on the election. My vote will not affect the election, and so why should I even bother voting?
Completely by coincidence though, I happened to be visiting my parents on the weekend before the election, and due to covid, we were allowed to vote early, so my dad and I hopped in the car and went to the nearest polling station to vote. Here comes the surprise. I really enjoyed it. For the first time in a long time, in the middle of the bustle of the polling station, surrounded by volunteers, fellow voters, poll watchers, and all the rest of the electoral chaos, I felt like I was in a sacred place conducting sacred business. I felt like I was part of a national community. Standing in what was otherwise a depressingly drab repurposed storefront, I felt a real connection to everyone else who’d come to this spot to contribute their voice to the chorus of a nation. I know I’m being dramatic, but it felt dramatic.
A few weeks later, I was deciding whether to take an Uber or the subway somewhere. The Uber was more convenient, but somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that the subway system was financially suffering due to covid. Once again, I decided (again irrationally, since my trip will definitely not be the one to save the subway system) to contribute to my community, rather than look after my personal best interests. I loved it. I love the subway. On the subway, I’m always connected to my community. In many ways, the subway constitutes its own community, one which many New Yorkers hardly ever experience. It has its own artists, musicians, security, inhabitants, commuters, criminals, government, economy, and culture. As my friend Efraim reminds me, “The subway is a national treasure.”
Fast forward to today. I wanted to buy a few books on, you guessed it, love. I checked the Strand website. And then I checked Amazon. Guess what, Amazon was cheaper. Do I save money, or do I support my community? In choosing the latter, am I being irrational? Certainly my purchase of a few books is not going to save the Strand. Am I letting my emotional desire (to feel like I’m contributing to my community) trump what’s actually in my best interest? i.e. saving time by not voting, being comfortable by taking an Uber, or saving money by ordering off Amazon.
Well, lucky for me, I had some time on my hands while I walked to the Strand to figure it out.
When I rolled molly (all the way back in week four), I experienced a feeling of interconnectedness with my surroundings. This identification with my environment included very specific things, like the air that was immediately around my body. But it was also more general, expanding to everything within sight. Finally, it extended as wide as possible, including all of life and existence. Now, this was not simply a feeling. It was also a recognition. I am, in fact, connected with everything around my body, everything within my eyesight, all of life, and, on an atomic level, everything in existence. One of the special things about rolling molly is that this feeling of interdependence is not threatening. Actually, it’s rather freeing. I am no longer in a zero-sum game of me vs the world. I actually am concerned with the well-being of my surroundings. I actually do celebrate the triumphs of of others.
Here’s an example. I realized that I love to be surrounded (while on molly) with happy people and dislike being surrounded with unhappy people. More than that, when I’m surrounded with happy people, I become happier. And so, one way of influencing my own happiness is by helping those around me to be happy. Another example was my desire to be surrounded with beautiful nature. The best way of ensuring that I (and my children) will have that opportunity is by tending to nature’s needs.
In other words, while on molly, I felt just how embedded I am in my environment.
Now, there are three ways to deal with that recognition. I can either ignore it (which is what I do most of the time). Or I can resist it (try to be as independent and self-reliant as possible. Which is what I do when I’m afraid). Or I can embrace it. I can accept that I am part of an ecosystem and a community and then think about what kind of influences I’d like to have on that ecosystem/community.
I like to take New York as an example. New York does not exist. No, that’s not it. New York does exist, but only as a collection of those who inhabit it. New York does not exist outside of its inhabitants. As its inhabitants change, so does the city. (Plato struggled with this idea. He thought that a chair must exist as an idea, outside of the pieces that compose it.) And so, as a member of this city, I get to choose what it is that I most appreciate about it and promote those things.
I choose to promote art in NY. I choose to promote bookstores in NY. I choose to promote creativity and health in NY. I choose to promote love in NY. Now, NY has more love, creativity, art, and literariness. Immediately. And now I, almost accidentally, get to live in a city which is that much more loving, creative, artistic, and literary.
And here’s where the molly experience becomes even more relevant. The things which I put out in the world, always have a way of coming back to me. Moreover, the things we collectively put out in the world, always have a way of coming back to us. One of the best surprises of my love project so far has been the amount of love which was almost immediately reflected back to me from others, once I began to be more openly loving on my own.
(But this is really three ideas. 1: I contribute to my environment. If I add more love into my environment, I then get to take advantage of that more loving environment. And 2: The specific things that I contribute to my environment will become highlighted for me in return. If I focus on love, I will notice the love that’s always already present. If I focus on greed, I will face all the greed that this city has to offer. 3: If I feel hatred or fear toward someone, my own experience becomes laced with fear and hatred. If I feel love and compassion for someone, my own experience is coated in love and compassion. In other words, whether they are justified or not, all of our emotions and thoughts directly color our experience.)
But I’m afraid I’ve gotten sidetracked. I began with a question, is it rational to contribute to your community without any tangible benefits (as in the case of voting, riding the metro, or shopping locally)?
I’ve pointed out how there may be more benefits than I first noticed. But the critical question remains. What if there are no benefits? What if my vote really doesn’t matter? Why should I then go vote?
I don’t think I have a definitive answer to that yet. (I’m open to suggestions.) But here’s a start.
In choosing to contribute to my community, I shift from an individualistic perspective to a collective perspective. That is, I shift from being concerned with myself, to being concerned with ourselves.
A person who lives in NY can give and take from the community without actually being part of it. Only the person who places the concerns of the community over (or alongside) their private concerns is actually part of the community.
This becomes obvious in the case of the smallest community possible: the friendship.
When I treat another person as a means of satisfying my own needs, I do not have a friend. It’s only once I begin to grow concerned for the other person for their own sake can I say that I am their friend. This is not a matter of right and wrong. It’s a matter of fact. The moment I stop caring about someone, I cease to be their friend.
Let’s go one step higher. I can use my siblings to my own benefit. I can spend time with them when I’m lonely. I can celebrate with them when I’m happy. And I can mourn with then when I’m sad. But so far, I do not have a family (in anything other than a biological sense). I only enter into a family once I am concerned for my siblings’ well-being for their own sake. Once my care for them cannot be reduced to my care for myself.
Now, why would I want friends if not for my own benefit? Why would I want family if it not for my own benefit? Am I being irrational when I contribute to my friends and family even at my own cost?
This is where it gets tricky for me. Because (a) I would say that I don’t choose to have friends any more than I choose to have family. I only recognize that I already do care about my friends, as I already do care about my family. And then I just try to live up to that recognition. However, (b) my life is incredibly improved when it’s filled with friendship and family. And so, I do in fact benefit, if only accidentally. More than that, I consider my friends and family to be the most valuable things in my life, the things that I benefit most from.
And so here’s the essential paradox: the things that I do least for myself, come back to benefit me the greatest.
If we then turn to the community, the same thing seems to be taking place. I can live in NY for my own benefit. (I suppose this is quite common.) In that case, I’d be an individual person who is taking advantage of an existing community as well as other individuals. Nothing wrong with that. But, if for some reason, on some day, I begin to feel concern not only for myself but also for my neighbors, I will suddenly find that I am a member of a vast and wonderful community.
If I want to have a friendship, I first have to be a friend. If I want to have a family, I first have to be a brother. If I want to have a community, I first have to be a neighbor.
[n.b. Sam Harris once said that although it’s true that meditation brings with it many therapeutic benefits, that’s hardly the right reason to meditate. He compared it to someone saying how great it is that we have books, because isn’t it relaxing to read? Just as our capability to read opens us up to a whole new world of language and discovery, meditation can open one up to a whole new world of consciousness. The purely therapeutic benefits which come from meditating or reading pale in comparison to those discoveries. Similarly, I’d add that although being a neighbor does come with some personal benefits, its true value lies in that it opens one up to a whole new world. The world of community.]