There are philosophies in every corner of the world that tell us that we are part of a greater collective. They tell us that we are unique individuals who make up a whole, and that we are all connected by whatever mechanism they choose. This universal truth crops up in every society, and is accepted or rejected based on the culture of that society.
There are those who hold to the theory that the universe created life in order to experience itself subjectively, meaning that we are walking individual paths, but are in fact part of a greater collective consciousness that binds us together as celestial siblings.
Alan Watts put it this way; “We must see that consciousness is neither an isolated soul nor the mere function of a single nervous system, but of that totality of interrelated stars and galaxies which makes a nervous system possible.”
I’ve written about the elemental factors that bind us together, but what about the more tangible things that make up the human experience? Running home from school to play with friends, your first kiss, your first great loss, goofy facial expressions you just can’t hide, laughing until you can’t breathe…beyond language and culture we can cite so many innate things that connect us on a level we can’t explain.
Without diving too deep into the “We are all stardust” rabbit-hole, I’d like to address the most important element in cooperation and pluralism. Service. Real service. Not a social media photo-op in a third world country, not self-gratification, but service. It doesn’t have to be on a grand and global scale, I’m not asking everyone to open an orphanage or a hospital. We just have to understand that working together towards a goal that is greater than ourselves is the best possible way to get to know each other.
It’s no secret that I’m a veteran. I’m proud of my service to my country, and I’m a better man not only because of my experiences, but because of the people I met and learned from along the way. Straight, gay, bi, trans, black, white, Latino, Asian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist, even the occasional Steelers fan. You name it. I met and befriended folks from all over the world and all walks of life, and there was a simple understanding. Our differences were never as important as the mission. The job came first. A big reason there are fewer bigots in the military than in the civilian world is that prejudice does not stand well under contact. It’s hard to hate or stereotype a people if you are constantly confronted with their reality. When you eat together, laugh together, work together, and yes, sometimes suffer together, it becomes near impossible to create a false or hateful image of them.
We are one people. Not just here in America but all across the world. The sooner we understand that the sooner we can stop hurting ourselves for shortsighted gain. A feeling of superiority is not going to solve the many problems that we face in this generation. Standing on the sidelines brings us no closer to progress or the Next Frontier. We have to quell this wild and unbridled tribalism that seeks to divide us by race, gender, orientation, geography, politics and class. We are wasting our potential. Together we posses the ability for unbelievable achievement and innovation, but we can only get there together.
Conquering our perpetual damage to the environment.
Expanding on our technological achievements while improving our quality of life.
Exploring the vast unknown of our planet.
Stretching out into the far reaches of space.
Curing diseases that plague our families and ravage entire swaths of the species.
How can we possibly accomplish these goals if we can’t even stop fighting over skin color or sexuality?
A threat to one of us is a threat to all of us, so just because you’re not currently in the crosshairs of hate, doesn’t mean you don’t have to care. The time has passed for us to say, “that’s not my problem”. It’s our problem, and it always has been. We have to defend those who can’t sufficiently defend themselves and give them the means to level the playing field. This isn’t some Red White and Blue lecture about “American Freedom” these are basic human values. People have the right to life and health. They deserve equality of opportunity, not result. They deserve to be free to live their life free from harm without bringing harm to others. It is not too much to ask to vigorously defend these values. We cannot let our most precious values come under attack because of someone’s “opinion”. An opinion is “The Fresh Prince is a better show than Friends”, or “Jay Z is better than Nas”, or “Stones over Beatles”, not “Those people shouldn’t have basic human rights because they’re different than me”. This is very simple. We have to defend against this cancer of extremism before it totally poisons our society. We have this chance within our grasp.
It’s not just an American thing, but we can practice it right here in the States and be an example to the world. Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said, “A country, after all, is not something you build as the pharaohs build the pyramids, and then leave standing there to defy eternity. A country is something that is built every day out of certain basic shared values.”
Every. Day. We have to be committed to our ideals if we’re going to tout them or brag about our liberty. We have to make sure it’s accessible to every one of us. I genuinely believe that if each of us embarked on a journey of service where we can work together towards a goal that is greater than ourselves, we could learn so much more about each other and grow as individuals.
If I were king for a day, if I could make one change in this country that I believed would make a lasting and positive impact, I would ensure that every capable American did at least two years of national or international service at age 18. I don’t just mean the military, though you could go there if you chose. Not everything is about war or preparation for war. It could be the Peace Corps, it could be Americorps, you could go deliver medicine to impoverished areas in the States or around the globe, or you could rebuild houses in devastated areas. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re helping people. It also gets you out of your bubble. It gets you away from your social media echo chamber, away from your homogenous hometown, it thrusts you into the world with all its complexities and challenges and wonders. To work shoulder to shoulder with people you would have otherwise never met, and learn from them, understand them, and teach them a thing or two as well.
Experiencing the world is vital to understanding the world, and understanding the world is vital to improving the world. We cannot get any further if we treat each other like distant islands in a vast ocean, detached, unrelated, and isolated. Our connectivity is what gives us strength, and the opportunity to meet our greatest challenges with fresh ideas and multiple perspectives.
Even the folks who we disagree with most can often have something to teach us. It’s important to be able to hear different perspectives that aren’t hate-filled or destructive. William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes Trial infamy, has my favorite quotation about service.
“Service is the measure of greatness; it always has been true; it is true today, and it always will be true, that he is greatest who does the most of good. Nearly all of our controversies and combats grow out of the fact that we are trying to get something from each other—there will be peace when our aim is to do something for each other. The human measure of a human life is its income; the divine measure of a life is its outgo, its overflow—its contribution to the welfare of all.”
You have this opportunity today. You can go global, you can serve your community, or you could serve the people in your day-to-day life with your time, talent and resources. As long as you understand that the culture of connectivity is the only thing that can propel us into the future. We have greatness within our grasp, but we can only reach it together.
Willis Gordon is a musician, stand up comedian, actor, author, essayist, activist, and veteran of the War on Terror. Gordon is committed to quality entertainment and the improvement of our communities through art, action, and inclusion. He organized the “Rock the Block” voter registration concert in 2016, and continues to register voters and fight for civil rights across Stark County. He is the author of The Long Road Home and The Empty Boulevards. His live album, Willis Gordon: Live! is available anywhere you stream music. He wrote the monthly column "The Road Forward: Practical Discussions on Seeking a Better World" for Unlikely Stories Mark V.