Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Friendship without frontiers

If one takes a look at the outline of the state of New Mexico, where I grew up as a child and now inhabit again as an old man, it is pretty clear that the boundaries of the state were established by some cartographer taking out a straight edge and drawing three straight lines and one jagged line made of straight segments. In a state full of natural geographical features—mountain ranges, river valleys, basins, calderas, deserts and prairies— there is not a single natural boundary dividing New Mexico from its neighboring states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Chihuahua. Perhaps because of this, early in my childhood I developed the notion that boundaries are mostly artificial, arbitrary and dispensible.

As I made my way through adulthood, my childhood conviction was reinforced at every turn. When I lived in Canada it was obvious that the boundary between Canada and the United States was completely artificial and corresponded to nothing in the world of nature or the world of human cultural geography; and the same could be said of the boundaries between most of the provinces. The same can be said of the boundary between the United States of America and the United States of Mexico. To take any of these boundaries as grounded in anything but the arbitrary decisions of treaty-makers would be folly. An eagle flying high in the air, or a wolf chasing a bison, no doubt has a clear sense of terrain and knows very well what modifications in behavior are required by differences in landscape, but neither eagle nor wolf nor bison has the faintest sense of where one nation begins and another ends. No animal needs a nation. I am convinced that the same is true of human beings. Not only do we not need nations, but we would probably be immeasurably better off without them.

It is not only national boundaries that do more harm than good. All the many boundaries that we human beings make have more pernicious than salubrious consequences. Racial and ethnic categories with their inevitable (and inevitably arbitary) boundaries, religious boundaries, boundaries that divide one social class from another or one level of education from another—all these do little good and considerable harm. And yet human beings seem to take them seriously enough to devise all manner of ways to demonstrate just which side of a boundary they are on. People define themselves as individuals by associating themselves as members of a group by such boundary markers as style of dress and headgear, hairstyle, cosmetics and ornamentation, tattoos, dietary restrictions, sexual taboos, and marital regulations concerning the number of spouses one may have and what gender a spouse must be or what religion a spouse ought to be. The only universal human taboo is that against being oneself in a relaxed and natural way.

In December of every year, I find myself feeling especially heartsick about boundaries. Zen Buddhists separate themselves off from other Buddhists by celebrating the Buddha's enlightenment. Jews celebrate, among other things, their distinctness from other peoples through Chanukkah. Christians celebrate the birth of a man whom they claim to be the only son of God and the sole way to enter God's kingdom, thus making a boundary between themselves and those who hold other equally absurd beliefs. All these boundaries that become manifest in December remind me of the strongest conviction I have, namely, that making boundaries is no way to live on a planet with limited resources and on which success can be achieved only by harmonious cooperation among all peoples and between human beings and all the other species that live here.

If I must have a religion, it is friendship, and friendship by its very nature knows no bounds and has no limits. It is universal or it is not friendship at all. David Gwyn expressed very nicely how I have always thought about friendship:

Friendship is perhaps the most universal (yet least defined) relationship of covenant faith. Friendship disregards religious, ethnic, economic, national, and all other boundaries. It subverts idolatrous concentrations of power and authority.

December, the month of so many fractures and ruptures in the human family, is when I am most deeply aware of how much I value friendship, and of how rare friendship is in a world of sectarianism, denominationalism, factionalism and other manifestations of the will of human beings to doinate and control rather than to love and nurture.

The first day of winter (which for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere took place this year on December 21) marks the time when light begins to gain on darkness. It is in a sense the rebirth of light. Light symbolizes friendship, love, harmony and all those qualities that make life sustainable. This year Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, began on the same day. Christmas comes a few days into the season of renewed light. Being a person whose boundaries are all porous and permeable membranes, I celebrate all these holidays, and the Buddha's enlightenment, in spirit with all my friends, and I take this time of year to give thanks (to whom or what I do not know) that no one anywhere is not within my circle of friends.