Today I want to talk about reference points. When we live in a country as toxically divided as our own. In a world that seems to be cracking along Samuel Huntington’s predicted civilizational fault lines, it’s easy to believe that what divides us dwarfs what brings us together. Americans for Informed Democracy is an organization that stresses global citizenship; being a globally engaged, civilly minded advocate for justice in all its incarnations. Yet, how can we be global citizens in a world that constantly asks us to take sides? How can we be interconnected in a world that is so divided?
While I would never be so presumptuous as to claim I have a solution, I do hope to offer a bit of perspective. We need to check in with our reference points. By that I mean the themes that occur across cultures that remind us of our similarities. I’ll give you an example: 108.
108 is a number that has had significance across Eastern religions for literally thousands of years. In the Vedic traditions 108 is the number meant to signify the wholeness of existence. 1 is said to reflect the unity of man and divinity, 0 represents the void or perfection, while 8 denotes infinity or eternity. Together they encompass every facet of the human experience. Divorced from culture, religion, and politics, 108 represents everything that we are; everything that brings us together.
108 is a concept that has permeated eastern thought. Yogis do 108 sun salutations on the change of the seasons to acknowledge rebirth and at times of tragedy to promote peace and reconciliation. 108 is the number of Hindu deities. 108 is the number used to describe God in Islam. Tibetan Buddhists believe there are 108 sins. Jains believe there are 108 virtues. In Japan a bell is chimed 108 times to celebrate the New Year. The list goes on and on but the value we can take from it is that one simple concept has found its way into vastly different belief systems. While all these groups may believe different things, 108 is their reference point; that which connects them.
For those not quite sold yet here are a few other examples:
Every major pre-classical civilization has a great flood story.
Abraham is the patriarch of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.
The virgin birth story shows up in monotheistic and polytheistic religions alike from Greece, to India, and the Holy Land.
For those interested I really encourage you to seek out the stories that cross cultures, but what I hope you take from these examples is that when we go back far enough, it becomes increasingly clear that we all started in the same place. Before the petty disagreements, before ego got in the way, before we were corrupted by wealth and power, we all started in the same place. I lack the necessary degrees and breadth of insight to hazard a guess as to why these particular reference points constantly emerge throughout the human story, but I’m just optimistic enough to believe they serve as a reminder that on a very fundamental level, we are all connected. It’s easy to fixate ourselves on our differences. Hate is a powerful emotion. It’s also a very limited emotion. It doesn’t require a lot of thought to hate, but it does require a lot of thought to understand. If we are going to be true global citizens, we must learn to see past difference, check in with what unites us, and start to build bridges.