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In the beloved movie The Wizard of Oz there is a powerful, dramatic scene where a hungry Dorothy starts to pick apples, when suddenly the apple tree slaps her hand and scolds her for stealing. The scene surprises us by shifting our perspective away from ordinary reality, because in real life apple trees don’t care who eats their fruit.
Even so, we don’t dare pick an apple from a neighbor’s tree just because we’d like to eat one. What stops us isn’t the tree; it’s our fear we’ll get into trouble because we’ve been taught to believe that taking fruit we don’t own is wrong.
We observed similar self-limiting behavior in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. While some people swiftly released their beliefs about stealing and scavenged items they thought they needed from local shops, most struggled to survive with whatever goods they had on hand.
An Examination of Human Beliefs
What is it about our beliefs, we therefore need to ask, that makes them so powerful some of us are willing to suffer or die before we’ll ignore what we’ve been taught to believe is right? At what point do we allow society’s fabric to flex enough to honor the need of people to survive?
As we observe in Les Miserables, the tale of Jean Valjean who stole a loaf of bread to save his family, when we place group beliefs about right and wrong above an individual’s need to survive, we’ve elevated our love of abstract ideals above the very essence of life itself. Yet without life to enable them to flower, our abstract moral concepts can’t survive. The trick, then, is for us to learn to balance our ideals with the needs of reality: actual people who need apples.
Beliefs Are Behavioral Motivators
Each of us has been raised to embrace a distinct set of beliefs that pertain to our cultures, nationalities, faiths and genders. The worldview of a Muslim boy raised in a village in Indonesia will likely be very different from the beliefs held by a Christian woman in Madison, Wisconsin.
Can we determine that one of their belief systems is absolutely more “right” or “wrong” than the other, or does the “rightness” of a belief system depend on the location and culture that produces it? This isn’t an easy question to answer.
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Some beliefs feel absolute, like “thou shalt not kill.” Others, like “don’t work on Sunday” may have pertinence to one culture but not another. Deciding which beliefs are absolute and which are dogmas born of local customs is crucial to our ability to connect with each other across the divides of our various social cultures.
Many historical documents, including the Bible, the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution, are byproducts of thousands of years of shifting beliefs that eventually coalesced into a new way of thinking about the world. These great documents were drawn up to promote the continuation of their radically new beliefs. As any culture advances, then, one of its greatest challenges is to periodically examine and update its teaching materials so beliefs shift in alignment with the leaps the culture has made in its world understanding.
Redesigning Our Belief Systems
To redesign our belief systems without collapsing our society may seem like an insurmountable task, but it isn’t impossible. A number of modern societies have survived for centuries despite having experienced hugely disruptive economic, political, social and religious upheavals due to changing beliefs. When a society does collapse, as evidenced by ancient Egypt, Rome and the Mayan civilization of Central America, the culprit is often the society’s inability to change its beliefs—hence adapt its behavior—to meet its rapidly changing reality.
Beliefs have power over us because of the way they’re structured. They tend to come in an “if/then” format, such as: “If I pick this apple, then I could be arrested and sent to jail.” Our fear of the negative consequences thus lends many beliefs an emotional charge that makes it harder for us to test them.
Sometimes the warnings are valid, as in, “If you eat cyanide you’ll die.” To discover whether it’s true all we have to do is research the history of cyanide poisonings. We don’t need to try the cyanide ourselves.
Other times we have no way of knowing whether the consequences we’ve attached to a belief are valid until we challenge it, as in, “We can’t afford to make products without polluting the environment, because the added costs will put us out of business.” To test that belief we’ll need to act as guinea pigs and perhaps use our own company as an experimental laboratory, which is scary due to the consequences associated with failure.
That’s the way civilizations have always advanced, but when people grow comfortable with the way things are—even when things aren’t going terribly well—they become fearful of testing changes that might make life worse instead of better. We think, “Bad as reality is, it can always get worse.”
Most of us tend to avoid scary choices by refusing to admit our beliefs might not be true. In the above example, the belief that not polluting is more expensive than continuing to pollute isn’t usually true, especially if we attach the cost of environmental destruction to the cost of doing business. Discovering the truth means we need to be willing to explore our options without fear overpowering our ability to reason.
To reduce our fear of the consequences we must therefore first determine how accurately they’ve been linked to our beliefs. That requires good information, critical thinking, and—when necessary— real world testing.
Opinions, Not Facts
All beliefs are opinions, not facts. That cyanide can kill us is a fact—tested, proven and known beyond any reasonable doubt. That people won’t work unless we force them to do so, through the application of an external reward and punishment system, is opinion. It hasn’t been scientifically tested or proved, and is only grounded in social bias and current mental conditioning.
Facts represent data we can perceive with our senses and can test and experience; therefore, we can know them to be true. Beliefs, on the other hand, are ideas we’re trained to accept. Indeed, beliefs must be entrained, because no real data exists to prove them factual. That’s because beliefs don’t always reflect reality. We don’t need to “believe in” giraffes or cotton candy for them to exist, but we do need to “believe in” Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy as aspects of our cultural customs.
Beliefs, unlike facts, can and should be periodically reexamined for validity over time, but too many— particularly religious beliefs—have been crafted in ways designed to discourage real world examination.
For ages now, humanity has crafted beliefs in ways that punish and frighten those who would reject them. Fear is a powerful way to enforce the unquestioned embrace of beliefs, which is necessary when we’re addicted to our beliefs and don’t want them challenged.
Absent facts, cultures have historically chosen to adopt a shared set of beliefs to give our world structure so we can comfortably carry on living by pretending we know what we don’t. For instance, before humanity understood the energy behind volcanoes, entire civilizations adopted the belief that the gods must be angry with them whenever the volcanoes rumbled, so they sacrificed their virgin daughters to the fires to appease those gods. It would have been unthinkable to most families living within those cultures to defy the dominant belief system, particularly since the sacrifice was framed as a high honor, while to shirk that duty was viewed as a grave threat to society and was punishable by death.
Challenging Society’s Cherished Beliefs
We take comfort in the stability beliefs provide, and worry that if others abandon or reject our belief system our shared reality might be destroyed. Centuries ago we went so far as to torture, crucify or burn people at the stake for daring to challenge society’s cherished beliefs.
Nowadays we fancy ourselves more civilized, so instead we label those who think outside our personal belief boxes unpatriotic, naïve, ignorant, terrorists, crazies, infidels, racists, etc. It doesn’t matter so much what we call them, so long as whatever word we use enables us to view the imagined heretics as “other.” That enables us to dismiss people who challenge our beliefs without having to pay attention to their ideas.
For eons we’ve inflicted an incalculable amount of suffering on one another doing battle over our conflicting beliefs. If we look at the hostilities the world is engaged in today, at the root of each we’ll inevitably find opposing beliefs about how the world “should be” and how “the others” ought to behave.
Were one side’s position based on fact, every conflict would end of its own accord. Falsehoods can’t survive long in the light of truth. Since beliefs, however, are based on personal (or group) opinions of how things should be, facts don’t exist in abundance to settle these quarrels. The preponderance of whatever evidence we have to support our beliefs rests almost solely on our subjective life experiences and personal biases, not facts.
For example, Americans live in an open and democratic society, with an economy based on free trade and entrepreneurial profits. Most Americans believe the system is a good one and therefore assume it should be the foundational social platform for everyone else. What we miss, though, is the way outside observers can spot the flaws and inequities in our system that we’ve either ignored or have rationalized away for the sake of its preservation—and there are many.
Seeing Beliefs From The "Other Side"
Were we to look more deeply at ourselves, we might create a better system all others would want to emulate, and democracy would spread through the world by its shining example. That’s hard work though. Instead, looking outside ourselves and judging what’s wrong with everyone else allows us to avoid the tough but necessary introspection to improve our own experience.
In a fashion comparable to Western thinking, fundamentalist Muslims believe firmly that living under Sharia law promotes an orderly and righteous society, and that the entire world would be better off if it followed Sharia law and eschewed capitalism’s immorality. As outsiders looking in we can swiftly spot flaws and injustices of Sharia law that Muslims ignore or rationalize away for the sake of preserving their system.
Since it’s always easier to label something wrong when it isn’t our own accepted way of life, we love to impose our beliefs on others whenever we engage in discussions of how the world “should be.” Conflict ensues because others hold different opinions.
What We Pay Attention To Is What We Make Real
Our minds have the power to collectively change reality. For instance, if we believe earning a profit is the most compelling reason to declare a business successful, we’ll reward companies that make a profit and punish those that don’t. When a company’s stock rises because investors are pleased by its profits, that company finds itself able to borrow more money, expand its operations and increase its future profits. Conversely, if a company’s stock declines because it failed to make a profit, it must then shrink its operations, lay off employees and perhaps even close some locations to try to restore its profitability.
That overriding need for companies to turn a profit explains why so many businesses commit moral atrocities for the sake of improving their earnings. Most of us were outraged when we learned that the CEOs of big tobacco companies had known for decades that their products were harmful, and yet hid the scientific data from the public. That they’d willingly forfeit human lives for the sake of higher profits seemed unbelievable.
But why wouldn’t we expect businesses to get away with as much as possible in search of higher profits? We’ve chartered them to believe that money means everything, and that people and nature are expendable in that quest.
Though we’re constantly writing laws to curb the worst excesses of corporate behavior, we haven’t yet drawn up a social code to inspire moral behavior in businesses. We have religious codes that instruct individuals how to behave, but as yet we’ve no secular moral code on which we all can agree.
The problem with writing laws that tell companies how not to behave is that it’s much harder to continue correcting them as we go forward than it would be to teach them how to behave in the first place. In this day and age of rapid human advancements, we can’t write laws fast enough to keep up with the creative ways employees can invent to get around them.
How much simpler life would be if, rather than constantly hunting down and trying to correct bad behavior, we reached a consensus on how we might all behave more honorably toward each other and this planet, and then each of us worked toward embodying that. Genuine self-governance—which is the ultimate goal of every democracy—blossoms from the inside out, not the outside in.
Companies Are Comprised Of Living People
Most of us work in private enterprise. Our ability to survive is dependent upon the survival of the institution that issues our paycheck. Unfortunately, our entire economic belief system has unwittingly given our companies (and its employees, by proxy) permission to turn a profit at the world’s expense.
In fact, our current global financial crisis can be directly traced to the deeply entrained human belief that a person can only succeed if he or she hoards more money than anybody else, and that what we do to achieve that objective is less important than the achievement itself. If you haven’t read Matt Taibbi’s wonderful book, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids and the Long Con that is Breaking America, which breaks down how and why this is such a destructive belief system for our society, you should.
So blinded have we become by our own ambitions to accumulate ever more money, what we’ve failed to notice is the awful cost of all our paper profits. We've ignored the gobbling up of our limited planetary resources, the increases in environmental pollution, the destruction of crucial natural habitats and the extinction of other life forms, the outsourcing of middle-class jobs to cheaper labor forces, the exploitation of poorer nations, the ongoing disintegration of the family unit, the continuous engagement in war to support the military-industrial complex and the growing loss of consumer and employee trust in the overall system. Perhaps the time has come to reexamine our cultural beliefs around the importance of monetary profits—or at the very least redefine what we mean when we use the term, “for profit.”
Corporate management’s present motivation to succeed by turning a profit (accompanied by the fear of what will happen to themselves and their employees if they fail) is clearly out of step with the longer-term objectives of society, at least if we hope to survive without collapsing or going extinct. What happens when businesses' objectives are out of alignment with humanity’s objectives is predictable. People feel betrayed when they suffer the consequences of immoral corporate behavior and react defensively. Some even begin to view corporations as our enemies, when the root problem lies in the pathology of our economic system itself.
Thoughtfully Changing Directions
What needs to change, then, is our definition of what constitutes a successful corporation. We must shift our attention away from believing that economic profits are of utmost value, particularly since all recent evidence points to the contrary.
If we fail to take into account the importance of nurturing people and protecting and preserving nature when we measure our business profits, someday there won’t be any place left for people or nature in this world. And what good are businesses without customers or natural materials upon which they can rely? The plain fact is, we’re on a steady suicide course if we continue along the path of ignoring life in favor of money, so it’s time for us to thoughtfully change directions.
Rather than wasting energy trying to fix blame on somebody else for the mess we’re in, it would instead be most helpful for us to turn our attention toward consciously and methodically experimenting with other forms of economic design that embrace the values of nature and encourage the evolution of the human spirit. That’s where our true profits lie as we advance as a civilization. It’s not through more money or toys or competition that we find happiness, once our basic material needs have been satisfied, it’s from loving and giving and creating and reveling in the wonder that is our world.
We humans gravitate toward beauty, toward light. We want to create and live in a world that’s as joyful, humane and peaceful as we can make it. The difficulty lies in reaching consensus around our varied cultural ideas of what peace and happiness look like.
As our species evolves, however, our understanding of how to reach peaceful accord and live in harmony with nature has been evolving along with us. Yet our instructions to our corporations haven’t nearly kept pace with our advancements in social morality and our rising understanding of our civic duty to this planet. That must change if we hope to evolve a way of life suitably worthy of the respect and cooperation of future generations.
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Copyright 2012 by Eileen Workman. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission from
"Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life".
Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life
by Eileen Workman
“What diminishes one of us diminishes us all, while what enhances one of us enhances us all.” This philosophy for engaging with each other to create a new and higher vision for humanity’s future lays the cornerstone for Sacred Economics, which explores the history, evolution and dysfunctional state of our global economy from a new perspective. By encouraging us to stop viewing our world through a monetary framework, Sacred Economics invites us to honor reality rather than exploit it as a means for short-term financial profiteering. Sacred Economics doesn’t blame capitalism for the problems we’re facing; it explains why we’ve outgrown the aggressive growth engine that drives our global economy. As a maturing species, we’re in need of new social systems that better reflect our modern life situation. By deconstructing our shared (and often unexamined) beliefs about how our economy works, Sacred Economics creates an opening through which to reimagine and redefine human society.
About the Author
Eileen Workman graduated from Whittier College with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and minors in economics, history, and biology. She began working for Xerox Corporation, then spent 16 years in financial services for Smith Barney. After experiencing a spiritual awakening in 2007, Ms. Workman dedicated herself to writing “Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life” as a means for inviting us to question our longstanding assumptions about the nature, benefits, and genuine costs of capitalism. Her book focuses on how human society might move successfully through the more destructive aspects of late-stage corporatism. Visit her website at www.eileenworkman.com