Unfulfilled Promises

pippa passes stone

Picking up from the last post, the second question David asked a few blogs ago was to clarify my statement, "Sustainability, based on flourishing, is a vision rising from a world of unfulfilled promises." I need to lay out a few premises underlying this statement first. One clue comes from this famous verse from Robert Browning's poem "Pippa Passes" that I used to lead off the first chapter in my book.

The year's at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his Heaven -
All's right with the world!

(Incidental intelligence, I discovered a tiny town in Kentucky named Pippa Passes. Its founders believed they had discovered heaven on Earth.)

First a rather obvious, but important, observation. If all were right with the world as it is now, our attention would not fall on what is missing. If, in this wonderful romantic poem, only the flight of the lark were missing, we might focus on trying to understand why, and then act to bring it back, but would not pay attention to anything else. We would not begin to think about failures of the larger system to provide us with the rightness we were expecting from the world. An Edenic image, but one that helps to explain my statement.

If we can bracket the idyllic image for a moment, Browning is saying when we realize, that is, are conscious of the presence of everything that makes life "right," we may simply become one with the world, and let our cares go. Pippa, a worker in a silk mill, has but a single day off from her labors each year, and walks through the woods on that day singing this song. As she wanders along, she comes within earshot of several groups of unhappy or unsavory characters who, upon hearing the song, turn away from their errant ways towards the world of Pippa's song.

The rightness in “Pippa Passes” is metaphorically equivalent to my use of flourishing. Both refer to a state of being where one's cares disappear. The only consciousness present is that of Being. There is literally nothing to take care of. In Pippa's case, we may assume that this state is momentary, and will vanish when she returns to the hardship of labor in the Victorian English mill.

Although rightness is a holistic, all encompassing emergent quality, as is flourishing, it is, similarly, constituted by many elements. The first seven lines of the poem tell us what these are for Pippa. These specific worldly features did not just appear magically at the time of her walk in the woods. At earlier times, Pippa must have learned, through direct instruction or by listening to the voices of culture, what was needed for such rightness to appear. A logically equivalent way to state this is that, if these conditions were to show up, then all would be right with the world. Over time, this understanding is transformed linguistically into a set of promises. If "A" becomes present, then "B” will follow, or I promise that “D” will follow if you do “C.”

It is only a very small jump to the statement I made. The “I” in the last sentence above becomes the voice of culture, rather than any single source. From a cultural perspective, our everyday life is created by following a set of norms and beliefs. Some are idiosyncratic and singular to individuals, but others are widely shared throughout the culture. At the top of what might be deemed a cultural scale of importance are those distinctions that refer to the good life and to the rightness that would constitute it. From early age, everyone is, explicitly or not, being promised that our world will be “all right” if all would do this or that.

Leaving this poetical source, I often call upon the work of the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz to ground my theories of human action. Referring to his work, the planner, R. S. Bolan wrote, “Action, then, can be conceived of as a dialectical relationship between the present and the future. While it is grounded and to a degree constrained by experience and the past, it is still open to alternative possibilities; there are still elements of choice of actions. Perhaps there is not the complete unrestrained freedom of the existentialist, but simultaneously there is not the complete determinism suggested by ‘naturalistic’ social science. The major point is that the purpose of action is change: it is formulated to negate in some sense that which is existing.”

The last phrase is equivalent to saying the purpose of action is positive in the sense of bringing into existence something that is missing in the moment. We are always acting to correct what is wrong or to obtain what is not present (that we believe is promised to us). The conventional driver for action in our society is the satisfaction of needs. To need something is to say I have to act to make it appear in the present. The idea of “need” is tightly bound to the notion of insatiability--we will always have needs to satisfy. The trap of this vicious circle should be clear. The world can never be right for us; something will always be missing. I cannot flourish in the sense of being fulfilled or living in a moment when I am not driven to act toward to fill up an empty space in my life. The Buddha came to understand the treadmill of this existential reasoning and the suffering it causes. Eventually, the Sisyphean consequences of the treadmill will lead to some form of suffering.

Now imagine, that one becomes conscious of not just one or two but many missing pieces in the puzzle of life that brings flourishing only when it is complete; so many missing pieces that the task of completing the puzzle looks impossible. One common response is to give up the dream of completeness, stuff it, and suffer. Another, moving toward my statement at the beginning being addressed, is to ask for help. If only a few pieces are missing, the sources of help may be known, but if the puzzle is in great disarray, the only choice is to utter a cry in the wilderness and hope to be heard.

For centuries, that call was answered by the voices of various faiths promising satisfaction in the present or afterlife. The Enlightenment came along with its promise of creating the world of goodness or flourishing through reason. Then came the modern era merging these with a new promise that technology and other fruits of our newfound scientific knowledge would do the job. By widespread common agreement, “All’s not right with the world.” Some claim to know the causes and offer specific paths to fix things. For many others, the “wrongness” or the absence of rightness (flourishing) is pervasive and without known causes, or with so many interwoven causes that they are overwhelmed without a clear path to follow. They can only broadcast their concerns to whole world.

So now I can complete my explanation. Sustainability is nothing new. It pertains to a generic property of systems to produce something we want over long periods. People, like me, looking for a way to attract attention to these cries being broadcast to the world fell upon the word, sustainability, to capture the longings for what has been promised over the ages. Sustainability is not the primary goal; it is flourishing or rightness or goodness or any measure of the whole. Without these promises in the background, the recognition of the missing parts of life would never happen, and the emergence of “sustainability” on the global agenda would not have happened. Smaller parts of the puzzle do not give to concerns over “sustainability.” When the financial system collapsed, the calls from the public were mere to fix it right now. The intensity of these cries, and those heard whenever the present moment needs attention is always in proportion to the weight of the broken promises in the background.

(Thanks to Ruthette for the photo)