We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Like Beavers, We Build

Yesterday, I attended a meeting of over 100 individuals focused on the subject of homelessness in Lewis County, New York.  The great majority of those attending work either in government agencies or in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and as I listened to speaker after speaker rattle off an array of acronyms and refer to arcane corners of federal and state legal codes, I realized that what I was participating in was not just a meeting.  Laid out before me was a culture—for me, a foreign culture that has invented its own language.  At points, I required a translator!  The keynote speaker drew an unusually large audience not because of his eloquence but because of his knowledge of this culture.  Over lunch members of this housing and homelessness culture exchanged business cards and engaged in some important discussions that strengthened the networks of the culture of those involved in housing and homelessness in the North country of New York.

Walk into a school, any school, and we walk into a culture.  The First Presbyterian Church of Lowville, New York, is most definitely a culture of its own.  Businesses are cultures.  Industries.  Branches of government.  Crime syndicates.  Prisons.  You name it.  It is a culture.

Beavers can't help themselves.  They build damns and lodges.  We build cultures—or, better, we create cultures.  And this drive to create them is built deeply within us.  We need and use culture to protect ourselves, put food on the table, obtain shelter and clothing, and fulfill our most basic human drives.  The so-called "tribal instinct" is an instinct to live together in communities that can exist only as integrated cultures that share a language, values, behaviors, skills, religion, and habits.  We don't just eat.  We create cuisines.  We go to Italian or Thai restaurants, savor particular Chinese or French dishes.

Sociologist speak of the "social construction of reality," a sociological doctrine that holds that we humans construct our own realities at every level.  I saw and participated in one such social construction of reality yesterday.  Central to it was the social construction of a culture to mediate its reality (the "reality" being all of the laws, agencies, and institutions dedicated to addressing issues of housing and homelessness).  Building cultures is what we do.  We can't help ourselves anymore than the beavers out on Beaver Lake can't help but build damns and lodges.  It's what we do.