Interdependence and Self-Interest

I wrote this in 2008 for the Center for Community Change (now Community Change) Convening on Community Values in Washington, D.C. but it felt like a good time to bring this out to a wider audience.


On the day after September 11th, 2001 a bulldozer drove up Chicago’s Argyle Street and proceeded to demolish the late summer vegetables and flowers blooming in a simple garden next to a nondescript home. With a nation in mourning, a housing developer’s plans for new condominiums crashed through the Cambodian Buddhist Temple’s grounds and propelled them into public life.


The story of how the garden was purchased through a tax sale and then resold to the developer who owned the garden’s half-sister of a lot was well chronicled in Chicago’s local papers. Suffice to say that an injustice was perpetuated and the monks, nuns and members of the Cambodian Buddhist Association were moved to take action and set things right. They paid a visit to Kompha Seth, Executive Director of the Cambodian Association of Illinois, and a leader in the Organization of the NorthEast (now renamed ONE Northside), and he asked them, “Are you serious? Can you move the mountain? Then each of you must move a stone.”


Fast forward three months to a Sunday afternoon in early December 2001 as more than three hundred and fifty people filed into Wat Phrasiratanamahadhatu, a Thai Buddhist temple a few blocks south of the Cambodian temple. The people are Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian and Thai. But there are also a fair number of Ethiopians and Nigerians, Bosnians and Herzergovinians, Mexicans and Middle Easterners. The program begins with the story of how the Cambodian community scrimped and saved to buy the house and garden as poor immigrants in the early 1980s and how the monks and nuns watched their garden torn asunder two decades later.


Following the Cambodian speakers was a parade of ethnic community leaders, each pledging the support of their mutual aid associations in the struggle to win back the land. Then a representative of the Islamic Council of Greater Chicago rose to speak. He talked about the persecution of his members that also began on September 11th, and the gangs of white people who marched to a mosque in the days after 9/11 on the south side of Chicago with the intent to light it on fire. Clearly, he had other things to be doing that day than speaking at a Buddhist Temple about an issue that had no discernable impact on Muslims. Yet, he looked into the eyes of the crowd and pledged solidarity with the Cambodian people. He committed his organization to stand together with the Cambodians in their fight.


Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other Buddhist religious leaders repeated this pledge. They said that they were all in this together. What led them to the conclusion that their fates were linked with that of the Cambodian Buddhists? Simply put, it was in their self-interest to realize their interdependence.


Self-interest is the most misunderstood concept in the practice of organizing for social justice. Self-interest is neither selfishness or selflessness; it is the foundation of the self-in-relationship to others. It is often narrowly and mistakenly defined closer to selfishness on a continuum with self-sacrifice on the other end. Self-interest is the organic totality of a person — their responsibilities, activities, talents, ambitions, dreams, and memories. In order to understand why hundreds of quite diverse people showed up at a Buddhist temple on a Sunday afternoon we will explore a deeper understanding of self-interest.


Imagine a very simple stick figure of a person drawn with extra arms and legs so that there are branches that can be numbered from one through ten. The first branch is a person’s top priority, in terms of how they spend their time, energy and money, on down the list. Doing this exercise and naming one’s self-interest is not easy. As it turns out, most people are not very clear about their priorities, nor are they always honest at first about their ranking. A close look at how people spend their time, energy and money reveals which family and friends someone actually spends time with, the often dominant role that work and school play in people’s lives, the decline in recreation and leisure activities, and the inordinate time that people spend being entertained by television and the Internet. Interestingly though, most peoples’ priorities relate to others. Usually only one or two solitary hobbies, spiritual practices, or time spent thinking are done alone. For the most part we define our self-interest by our relationships with others; the self is relationships.


But we know that this is not all there is to people; we are not simply the sum of our parts. Self-interest is powered by the impetus to become wholly and fully human. Human beings are compelled to manifest universal human qualities such as love, community, creativity, power, meaning, purpose, and faith in our lives. These qualities are the engine of evolution without which we would have extinguished as a species long ago. Love is what is left when we remove the barriers between people. The fusion of two or more people coming together creates the energy to propel humanity forward. We grew and flourished as a species when we learned to work together in communities that unleashed the creativity that comes from interaction with others. Being human also means feeling a sense of power where we have a say in our fate. We create meaning in debate and dialogue with people, and we find purpose in making a difference in the lives of others. We are sustained by faith that allows us to take extraordinary risks in the pursuit of becoming fully human.


Values are what we call these universals in our daily lives. The more we understand the relationship between our priorities and these universals, the more we can define and qualify our values. For instance, if we have a deep appreciation of both community and love, then we will experience compassion when others suffer and we will name the value of compassion as important to us.


Values shape our aspirational self, the projection of our self-interest into the not-so-distant future. The aspirational self represents a reordering of priorities based on the dictates of our values. We may wish to manifest more power and purpose in our lives and therefore we aspire to volunteer for a community organization. Or we may desire meaning and therefore we imagine ourselves going to church, temple or mosque more often. The aspirational self is a beacon, but it is also real in that people make decisions about their priorities in life based on how it moves them toward this projected self. When we say that people make decisions based on their self-interest, we are talking about the combination of their current priorities and aspirational self, powered by universals that are named as important values.


Lack of clarity about self-interest leads to ill-defined values and ambiguous aspirations. Conversely, gaining clarity about self-interest illuminates how our values align with these universals. There are two ways to clarify self-interest: from within, and from outside.


The first occurs in one-on-one relational meetings, which are taught as the building blocks of good community organizing. They are face-to-face meetings in neighborhoods, communities, buildings, blocks, schools, workplaces, and congregations. These meetings are about discovering self-interest by eliciting the stories that define us and the reasoning behind our priorities. They light the path between our current priorities and our aspirational self. The loving energy that is created in one-on one-meetings powers this process, calling forth the searing focus of the present moment to help people recognize the workings of universals inside themselves. This process clarifies peoples’ values and leads to a reordering of priorities to align with a sharper view of their aspirational self.


It is also possible to clarify self interest from outside, by projecting a set of values that resonate with the universals that lie deep inside people. This set of values here called a ‘banner,’ act as a tuning fork for peoples’ values. They are transmitted through a narrative about human nature and reality. The values key that comprises the banner can be arranged in different ‘notes’ for greater resonance with different constituencies and religious traditions.


Identification with a banner projected by an organization, campaign, or movement gives people a coherent set of values they can use to clarify self-interest and illuminate the path toward the aspirational self. For example, the Gamaliel Foundation’s Faith and Democracy banner used the following values key at the time of this writing in 2008: Unrelenting Hope, Sacred Community, and Shared Abundance. In essence, the Gamaliel Foundation is saying that it is possible to realize our aspirational selves (Unrelenting Hope) by aligning our self-interest with universal human qualities (Sacred Community). When we do so, we will relieve the material problems that arise from a scarcity mentality (Shared Abundance).


The Cambodian garden campaign used the Interdependence Banner that was used successfully by the Campaign for Community Values at the Center for Community Change (renamed Community Change). As members of ONE, the Cambodian Association of Illinois, the Cambodian Buddhist Temple and most of the other institutions present at the December public meeting are embedded in a relational organizing culture that uses one-on-one meetings across their diverse traditions and institutional structures. Being relational was therefore natural for them. ONE’s described the Interdependence Banner through their slogan, “We are many, we are one.” It is both a clever play on their name and the reason behind their relational organizing strategy.


The Interdependence Banner is powerful because it relates directly to the relational nature of self-interest. However, there are challenges to using the Interdependence Banner to clarify self-interest and pursue a course toward one’s aspirational self. The Interdependence Banner has the difficult job of resonating with the different explanations that people have for what is wrong with themselves and their world. It must contain a combination of value “notes” that fully describe a progressive frame for interdependence to these diverse audiences, and it must also allow for sub- combinations of value “notes” that resonate with aspirational selves aligned with particular soteriological paths.


Most people feel like something is missing inside themselves and in their lives, causing them to pursue a way out of this spiritual and emotional suffering. The explanation for this tension and the means to address it are at the heart of the three major religious traditions – theism (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), monistic non-dualism (Hinduism), and process non-dualism (Buddhism) – and within Western Liberalism. These four traditions recognize that this tension (experienced as suffering) exists, that there are causes for suffering, that suffering can be mitigated or ended, and that there is a path that a person can follow to mitigate or end suffering. Each tradition offers (as an ultimate experience) salvation or mitigation of this tension and its accompanying sense of lack. For the sake of this discussion, it is proposed that each of these soteriological paths are equally possible, using a model of religious pluralism that proposes that different humans can experience different ultimate experiences (that each believe is the only ultimate experience) without negating each other. This perspective comes from Stephen Kaplan’s Different Paths, Different Summits: A Model for Religious Pluralism (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001) where he makes the case that we are not simply walking up different paths of the same mountain but instead are capable of entirely different ultimate human experiences. 


Faith that the path toward the aspirational self is aligned with one’s chosen soteriological path is what gives people the confidence to make difficult decisions about changing themselves and reordering their priorities. This faith is sustained in religious traditions and in the faith that people in the Western Liberal tradition have in the innate goodness of people. But this change process itself is a challenge to clarifying self-interest and motivating people to change their priorities toward their aspirational selves because it can leave people feeling groundless. This change process never ends because the horizon of peoples’ aspirations advances as people move toward it. “The Lord will give you only as far as you can see,” said the Rev. Dr. Calvin S. Morris. People ground themselves in faith traditions that make the permanent tension between our current and aspirational selves bearable and the risk of change acceptable.


Kompha Seth understood self-interest and the tension that arises from change. He identified two practices in Buddhism that helped him frame this understanding to the Cambodian community fighting for the return of their land and to the diverse people who supported this campaign. “First,” he said, “you must keep talking about the good that comes from change.” He knew that people were going to have to change as a result of running this campaign and he let them know upfront that good will come of the suffering that arises from change. Second, he said, “we must provide nourishment. We must acknowledge and groom people, and create a sacred site that feeds people.”


The successful campaign to return the meditation garden shows how the Interdependence Banner can feed peoples’ hunger for change across a variety of religious and secular traditions, but root it firmly in peoples’ self-interest. This understanding of the relationship between interdependence and self-interest has deep implications for organizations working to advance state or national campaigns for progressive social change. The energy that animates powerful movements arises in interdependent face-to-face relationships that are focused through the Interdependence Banner. But there is a danger that the impetus to move progressive state and national policies will lead to mistaken expediency; we could end up coalescing solely around a banner, ungrounded in self-interest. In doing so, the progressive movement could lose its soul — just like the Right did. Rooted in self-interest, we will instead use the compassionate witness, bottom-up creativity and present-moment awareness that come from a deep recognition of our interdependence to create a more just and sustainable world.


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