Why do so many kinds of barriers keep people apart? Take your pick; it might be race, class, faith, profession, or educational pedigree, to name but a few. I learned nearly 50 years ago, in grade school, that these barriers—many of which we, or our ancestors, have created— foster a feeling of disconnection that all too easily fuels fear, anxiety, and toxic behaviors. Growing up in the deep South, skin color was the easiest barrier to identify. I remember the atmosphere was strangely angst-filled the evening a throng of people quietly walked up our street to burn a cross in the lawn of a neighbor who had evidently crossed a perceived line and shown too much generosity of spirit—at least for this crowd’s liking—to black members of our community. I sensed this anxiety again when my fifth-grade teacher couldn’t fathom why I had chosen George Washington Carver as the subject of my very first research paper, an essay to be written about our heroes. My paper ultimately led to an interrogation by the assistant principal, which was intended to explain to the grown-ups charged with my education why a “good” boy like me would have chosen a former slave as his hero. Fear and separation were clearly linked together by the race barrier as a part of daily life when I was growing up.
I’ve become more acutely aware of such intangible barriers over the years, and believe that there is a functionally similar barrier that privilege brings. We don’t have to dwell in a gated community, or own an island getaway to feel the presence of this barrier. Even without physical isolation we know that having something others don’t can often bring with it a sense of anxiety that those who are “without” might somehow engineer radical changes that can cause us to lose what we’ve got. The more privileged one is, the more susceptible to this anxiety one might be—and yet it’s so often a taboo that we don’t talk about. We protect ourselves by restricting most of our regular contact to those who are relatively like us—a behavior that in developing nations is sometimes referred to as a “compound mentality.”
Recently a friend encountered this behavior when she cast aside the career she developed for decades to follow a dream and moved to a new home in a new community. This community happens to be filled with extremely privileged people who have gathered there and effectively sealed themselves off from the wider world. She moved to her current hamlet for its physical beauty—as, no doubt, did many other residents—but has found it a rather strange place. It sometimes seems as if the residents feel under siege, and when they see each other in town at its one fully-stocked grocery, conversations are often brief and guarded; as if people are already looking ahead and anticipating their safe return to their large, isolated estate homes. There is very little common space to connect people to one another, apart from the artifice of the hunt—fox hunting, that is—and all its requirements.
Centuries ago, the person now known to the world as the Buddha, started life as an extremely privileged person. He was kept from the world outside the family compound, and led a life of ease. But one day, he happened to see a corpse that couldn’t be hidden from his sight quickly enough and his eyes were opened to a whole realm of experience he had otherwise been separated from. Inspired, he began to probe for answers to his questions about what this meant—the reality of suffering, pain and death. His investigation and meditation ultimately led to what he called his “awakening” and subsequently to life as one of the world’s seminal spiritual leaders. It was unsettling change that catalyzed him forward; a window from his world of privilege to the wider world of suffering and deprivation—of those who were decidedly not privileged—that launched his journey, one which has affected countless lives since.
A similar dynamic is being played out in the lives of an increasing number of privileged people today. Perhaps it is, in part, the sustained anxiety catalyzed by events on September 11, 2001— a shocking reminder that any of us is susceptible to loss, suffering, and possibly death that can come in unseen ways, completely beyond our control. But it is also brought about by an increasing awareness that world conditions won’t sustain the inherited sharpness of barriers between those who have and those who don’t for much longer. The world is sufficiently interconnected that even if we try to protect ourselves, and our assets, from diminishment or loss, it is done at a profound cost to ourselves as well as to others. We used to be able to rationalize it when our privilege came at someone else’s expense, but now that the traditionally voiceless have begun to speak and act—sometimes violently—and we don’t find those gated communities as safe as they once seemed. This causes more and more people of privilege to rethink who they are and what privilege is all about. And this reevaluation can be a deeply spiritual process.
“In business and philanthropy this re-engagement with values and the community provides a stunningly effective model to our children and their children, who can see a determination to redraw lines that have separated many of us from one another—even within our own families.“
Think, for example, about the former global telecommunications executive who made quite a successful career, in part by sponsoring popular cultural expressions in videos and music that espoused violence and hatred towards some members of the human family. When his own beloved son was murdered in a scenario that could have come from the lyrics of recordings he had marketed to the world, the wall of privilege seemed to crumble around his family. Among the realizations that cross one’s mind in a moment of searing pain like this is that there has to be a better way. More and more people are looking inward, not knowing for sure how spiritual wellsprings can be of help, but somehow instinctively aware that there is a deeply powerful resource to be tapped. They are searching for a framework of meaning and purpose from among the ranks of the privileged and are asking for help in embracing a very important but delicate set of issues about how to be in the world.
Families of privilege are beginning to feel, even if they don’t yet have language to talk easily about it, that there must be a better way for the future to be lived. Those who aren’t foolish realize that their wealth, as their lives, can be destroyed in the twinkling of an eye, and they’re being pressed to think with some care about the foundations worth basing their future upon. The waters are uncharted, and change is in the air—but the way to proceed is far from clear. Despite fear and uncertainty, a goodly number of people are ready to be marshaled into action; they just aren’t clear yet what action it is.
From Separation to Engagement
Spiritual traditions have long been tools used for purposes both noble and savage. They are not in themselves sacred, but indeed point to a bedrock of meaning and purpose that is held to be so. If you look at the many major faith traditions that govern human lives today and ask how they contribute to the transformation of the uncertainties and fears of people, privileged or not, you’ll see something remarkable going on. There is a dawning sense that we can’t move forward because our circle of acquaintance and experience has become far too limited and our horizons of meaning and value have been too narrowly understood. Yet we don’t know how best to open up to the richness of human experience from which we have been shielded. We want to try something different to connect with a bigger whole of which we’re a part, and yet we’re skittish—we don’t want to commit too quickly or deeply. This is a development worth noting; and it requires some patience, for none of us deals terribly well with profound change of this sort—a shift from separation to engagement with difference.
A growing number of organized trips to do “good work” for organizations like Habitat for Humanity, CARE, the Sisters of Mercy, and medical missions are gaining ground on more recently-emerged trends such as ecotourism. Both adults and young people are increasingly involved in service projects to work, domestically and abroad, with people, who although they are economically disadvantaged, have a deep sense of meaning and life’s possibilities—and can serve as teachers to the privileged. There is a growing, and extremely significant, movement of people of privilege who are seeking to claim—across generations—a fresh sense of meaning and fulfillment in how we spend our days. People who have family businesses —some quite large, operating globally—are striving to link their personal re-engagement with deep, spiritual values that encourage crossing barriers of privilege with the strategy of the family firm. When the trajectories of personal and professional intersect in this fashion we’re at the threshold of a truly exciting phase of discerning purpose, value, and meaning that can be applied in daily life. This can be extraordinarily satisfying to privileged adults who can find fresh ways to deploy wealth to connect, rather than disconnect, the human family. In business and philanthropy this re-engagement with values and the community provides a stunningly effective model to our children and their children, who can see a determination to redraw lines that have separated many of us from one another—even within our own families.
The practical challenge is to encourage this kind of conversation and, as it develops, to find ways as families to discover meaning, value, and purpose in our work, and to engage meaningfully with our communities. This path has not yet been followed by many, but if the societal and individual ferment and anxiety in our midst, as well as hope for a different and better future, can be taken as indicators of a will for change, we’re going to need more experienced guides to lead us through the uncharted waters we’re getting into. Discernment, grace, and hope are key characteristics to look for and nurture, along with the sense that we’re all part of a vast cosmic ecology—a pattern of deeply interdependent relationships even with complete strangers. This is one of the cardinal messages of the spiritual traditions that embrace us continually, and can be of inestimable value in guiding us through this stage of our life together on earth.