I Am

March 11, 2013

Sometime in the beginning decades of the 20th century, The Times invited several esteemed authors and writers to write essays on the theme What is wrong with the world today? An influential author of the time, G.K. Chesterton, quite simply responded:

Dear Sirs,
I am.

I learned this in this documentary that Husband and I watched. Directed by Tom Shadyac, director of comedic movies like Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty, he uses occasional humor to deliver an age old message:

We are all connected 


..and if we don’t learn to cooperate together, we will all die alone.

We are programmed to think that human nature is competitive; weeding out the weak so that “only the strong survive.” It is true in nature. It is true in humans. But what I found surprising last night is that while there will always be some form of competition, this concept of competition and “get what’s yours” at any expense isn’t all that’s true of nature, but actually, in many cultures, considered a form of mental illness. No, competition – or the idea of being the strongest – is only part of nature and what they found was that cooperation and being connected to one another was just a big a part, if not bigger, to the circle of life.

Husband, years ago, pointed out an example I have loved and noticed ever since. Have you ever seen the little white bird that stands alongside a cow grazing in a field? Find one and the other is nearby. They seem like the unlikeliest of friends: nothing to talk about, no alma mater they share or political view they are debating, they are simply cooperating and coexisting with one another; helping each other get what they need whatever that may be.

In the film there is a scene that I found especially powerful. A stampede of ram are running from an attack from an oncoming lioness who catches one and claws it down to the ground. The ram has no chance… except … a fellow ram – big and strong – steps in and fights the lioness, literally head on. The rest of the thousands of ram run by, making you very aware that this ram doesn’t have to stop and take care of another, but it does and it makes all the difference. His injured friend lives to fight another day.

The scene asks my heart this question: For what other purpose are we here than to take care of one another?

The documentary refers to Ishmael, a book by Daniel Quinn that opens your eyes in ways you may not want them opened. The film discusses a time when tribes lived together in cooperation. The hunters went out day after day and brought back what was needed for everyone in their tribe – the young, the old, the weak, the injured –  to survive and live happily. In other words, they brought back just enough. No one went hungry and those who couldn’t hunt for themselves were fed and taken care of because everyone had exactly what they needed – no more, no less. But one day, the best hunter came home and said:

I am the best hunter. Why do I need to do all of this work for everyone else? 

Listen carefully… this is where the shift in society starts to really change.

So the hunter took his hunt and set up shop at the top of a mountain, away from the tribe, protecting his hunt. Nevermind that what he had was entirely too much for one person. Some of the other hunters saw this and slowly followed his lead, setting up their own space to protect what was “theirs.” The problem with this was that now the young, the old, the weak, the injured went hungry. Without the hunters to provide, they were unable to survive. This started the story that in order to survive you must take what you can get, when you can get it and protect it with your life by any means possible. (Nowadays, I believe this is called War.)

This “story,” according to the documentary and Ishmael, is that we tell ourselves that in order for us to be happy, we have to not only have what we have but have more; have what you have too. What we have is not enough – we must take and take more. And in order to have more we need more space, so we take your space and then protect that space with weapons and violence instead of sharing that space. (Again, nevermind that what we have is too much, that we can never possibly need it all.)

taker and givers

When I read Quinn’s book and his telling of the takers and the givers I pushed against it. People are inherently good, I thought. He explains that what is so dangerous about the story is that we don’t even know we are a part of it, that the story is so ingrained in us that we don’t even know it to be a story because we know it to be truth. Then I thought of themes like only the strong survive and ideas that we have to be the best, the strongest, the bravest, the smartest, the richest, and realized that we wouldn’t need to be those things if we weren’t competing against each other. Sadly, I had to admit that there might be some truth in Ishmael, more than I was willing or wanted to see.

But what if we could rewrite a different story…

I thought back to some of the most primal moments of my life, moments where what you have fall away into the Not Important file, the most dominaant of memories being the attack on the World Trade Centers on 9/11. At a time, when people are hurt, scared, and vulnerable – running like a stampede of rams – it would have been easy to take advantage; to run for you, to compete for space on a ferry, to trample anyone who couldn’t keep up – leave behind the slow, the old, the weak, the injured – but that’s not what happened. Instead there were stories of people who stayed behind to help an elderly woman out of a collapsing building, citizens who ran back into buildings and risked their lives to save the lives of strangers.

When I finally made my journey across the Brooklyn Bridge from what would later be called Ground Zero, in my post tower collapsing blurry state, I felt lost; like a scene in a movie where a character is looking around frantically in some post traumatic, apocalyptic haze for something to make sense, trying to comprehend what was happening and what had just happened; my eyes moving faster than my mind. And everywhere I looked what I saw was the same. Right in front of the entrance of the world famous Brooklyn Bridge were hundreds of people who had set up camp for no other reason than to catch others as they fell to their knees and help them to nearby ambulances and triages, feeding each other water, asking everyone that crossed over if they were ok, if they were hurt, if they needed anything, offering themselves and their willingness to be connected and to cooperate.

As the days moved forward, the news showed video of firefighters and civilians alike who rushed to the site to help or, if nothing else, applaud and support the the bravery of (wo)men that left their families and homes to search and rescue, many never having been in NYC until now.

This wasn’t the face of a people who thought only of how they could survive. These weren’t hunters that imprisoned themselves on the top of their mountain protecting their own.

This was a face of people that believed – that knew – that we are all connected and that to help you is to help me.

“You are your brother’s keeper,” says Desmond Tutu in the documentary, a man whose wisdom and bright, optimistic eyes, reminds me of Rafiki from the Lion King.

In other words, we are here to take care of each other. We aren’t here to go at it alone, we weren’t even created to go at it alone. We are made to be connected to each other and to all living things.

take care of one another

The documentary goes on to present a study where Tom Shadyac visits Heartmath, an institute that researches the heart’s intelligence. On his visit, he is involved in The Yogurt Experiment, an experiment showing how we are all connected to all living things… even yougrt.

Watch as he explains:

In the film, when Shadyac would talk about his lawyer or his agent, the meter showing the reaction of the yogurt would jump off the scale. Seriously… the mood of yogurt was altered based on Shadyac’s emotion about the topic. It reminded me of the scene from  Ghostbusters 2 when Egon poured slime into the toaster and then over the Statue of Liberty and she began walking through the streets of New York City. Shadyac, like the Ghostbusters, discovered that our emotions aren’t just our own but can effect the moods of all living things around us.

So just think…

If Tom Shadyac could affect the mood of yogurt and Egon can affect the mood of slime, if they are “connected” to living thing like yogurt and slime, then imagine what we could each individually do if we realized that we are all connected. If we realized that everyone was our family and no one was our enemy. If we hunted for everyone and not just ourselves. If we saw that what I do effects you and what you do – no matter how big or how small – effects everything around you. If we stopped listening to the takers and followed the givers:

‘…and only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!” — “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops.”
(Cloud Atlas)



The world is so big and we are fighting wars on and off the battlefield, that the problems we face often seem too big to fight. It’s easier to buy stuff and forget that there are people who don’t have clean water to drink or a home to shelter them. And because we don’t want to see it, we stand on the outside and say this isn’t my fight or it won’t make a difference. The trick, I’m learning, is to see that not every battle you fight has to be big or make the news.

When we think of how we are all connected and how to be an instrument of change we often think of great people like Tutu, King, Mother Teresa, Mandela, Gandhi, and believe that we aren’t big enough to make things different; that we are, as said in Cloud Atlas, “…no more than one drop in a limitless ocean.” But the truth is that those humanitarians were only a mirror of what we could each be… a drop. And “what is any ocean but a multitude of drops.” They show us that one person is capable of inspiring change and that change starts from love.

“You do what you can from where you are,” reminds Husband, an idea that was hammered into him by his parents at a very young age.

Spare a quarter, hug someone, make dinner for a friend that needs it, pick up trash that someone else tossed on the street, smile, compliment instead of judge, offer to help and mean it, share your umbrella, love thy neighbor…

Love. Cooperate. Do small. Think big. Be Connected.

And then, as Shadyac says, when someone asks what is right with the world YOU could say

I am.

“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

(Cloud Atlas)

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