How Vulnerability Weaves Natural and Human Communities

By Madronna Holden

“There’s a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in.”
– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Shortly after World War II, as the Japanese economy surged ahead, a survey set out to discover why the Japanese management style was so successful. One finding was surprising to those with a Western worldview:  successful Japanese CEOs characteristically revealed their personal vulnerability to others, including their subordinates. Once such vulnerabilities were revealed, the organization could work as a team to address them.

In his little gem of a book, Leadership is an Art, Max DePree observes that managers that cannot weep are not intimate with their work: “these people must not be trying to live up to their potential. They must think they cannot fail.” DePree is not speaking of tears of “chagrin or frustration”, which he finds particularly useless.  But tears resulting from care, from responsibility, from involvement—from understanding that the best “leaders don’t inflict pain, they bear pain”.

Indigenous peoples knew the value of such leadership as well.  Among some Plains peoples, there are joking stories of how one could barely find anyone to be “chief”– since one who assumed that status also assumed such vulnerability.  If there were hungry, they would find refuge in the leader’s tent, where the chief’s family went hungry until all others were fed.  And if there were disagreements, those involved would find both refuge and arbiter in that same tent.

This ancient idea of leadership not as dominance but service is something we could use more of in today’s world.  Under DePree’s leadership, Fortune 500 Company Herman Miller, a family business begun in 1923, excels in craftsmanship, personal care for its workers, creative physical design—and economic success.  DePree knows what he is talking about when he describes successful management.

His approach, however, is different from most CEOs in the US.  In the survey above, US CEOs felt that revealing their vulnerability would negate their power to lead. They worked to present themselves as strong – which they understood as invulnerable.  The repercussions of this included the inability to learn from their mistakes, substantial energy siphoned off in hiding what was really happening in an organization, and undermining the ability of an organization to work as a team.

These corporate executives were enacting a key component of the Western worldview: the idea that vulnerability is dangerous and must be guarded against at all costs. This is what the athletic competitions that  hold the attention of millions of us on television annually tell us:   one should never expose a vulnerability.  Instead, one should exploit the vulnerability of others.

One problem with this approach, as indicated in the recent prevalence of head injuries in professional football, is its lead up to violence. Another, as analyzed in Michael Messner’s, Power at Play, is that young men who often go into athletics to honor their bodies are tragically taught to dishonor them instead:  to use their bodies as instruments as they learn to ignore their vulnerability– as they “play through the pain”.

It is not just athletics that teaches us this, but the mechanized environment of modern industry.   As psychologist James Hillman puts it, an environment composed of “plastic, Styrofoam, cold metal” creates a “slow anesthetizing”, such that we “become brutal”. There is, after all, nothing vulnerable about plastic, Styrofoam or “cold metal”—no need to exercise our moral concern in such an arena.

The effects of our actions on others is ignored as their vulnerability becomes irrelevant, as in the case of the chemical company CEOs who viewed x-rays showing the bones of their workers dissolving from exposure to toxic chemicals— and saw this only as a problem to be hidden lest it detract from  their bottom line.

This is the same kind of  “psychic numbing” Robert Jay Lifton found in Nazi doctors who numbed their physical sensations lest they feel empathy for the pain they inflicted on others. Lifton gives examples in which professionals in the contemporary US today also exhibit “psychic numbing” as they carry out experiments on other lives.   Lifton suggests two remedies for the moral danger involved here:  that we become fully present in our bodies and that we focus our actions on empathy for other lives.

As eloquent Central American poet Daisy Zamora puts it, to be truly present in our bodies—to love our bodies for their uniqueness and their vulnerability– is to assume our place in the “unending chain of other bodies”.   It is to experience empathy for all the lives that inhabit a body as do we ourselves.

Vulnerability itself shapes human culture.  It is the reason why the developing brains of human children do not settle into their final physical configurations until a child reaches the age of ten or eleven.  Up until that, the child is dependent on adults to care for him or her.  And in those years of dependency the communication of culture takes place.

At the other end of life, the physical vulnerability of the elderly closes the circle of culture. As their community cares for the elderly who become physically dependent, elders give back the experience of their lifetimes, cached in stories,  to their community.  Vulnerability, at the beginning and end of life, creates the condition for the passing on of culture that makes humans unique among species.

Or at least it is that way in societies that keep their vital cultural heritage alive. If we see time as an arrow in which the past drops away from us—and the knowledge of our elders as useless, this link between physical vulnerability and intimacy is broken—and we come to the end of our lives as an abrupt wall, with no circle of legacy to re-enter. In this context, Madison Avenue has a heyday hawking youth culture.

But on a global scale, the youth culture is not always faring so well either. If we send children to work in factories at an early age–a capitalist tradition still followed in African chocolate plantations run by multi-nationals—or we allow them to go hungry (the greatest proportion of the hungry in the US today are children) — we also break the cycle that honors the children who depend on us as the carriers of our future.

I worry about a nation who can only see vulnerability (the hunger of children, the woundedness of returning soldiers) as a bit of red ink on a ledger somewhere.  We have nothing to hold us together as a nation if our impulse to care for one another is labeled as “socialism” (as various FOX news pundits characteristically label it) and thereby dismissed. If we cannot design ways to listen to one another, to learn from one another, to meet one another’s needs together– by what right do we call ourselves a nation?

To an isolated individual, a disabled veteran or hungry child on the streets, vulnerability is no asset.  In the context of “every man for himself”, one can understand why  some might wish to dump the “useless eaters” from the rolls of community support.  But I hope that their memory is not so short that they forget the origin of this term.  “Useless eaters” was the phrase used by Hitler to decide whom to send to the gas chambers.

By contrast, the society that understands and cares for the needs of its most vulnerable is also resilient.  When an individual  fell ill, mentally or physically, among many long enduring societies, that illness was a barometer of the health of the tribe. Among many such societies, an individual illness signed a way in which a family or whole community needed to change its behavior.

Such a culture would not have to wait to hear that their pregnant women carried toxins in their umbilical cords to do something about the toxins that currently pervade our environment.  One individual who came down with the cancer absent in ancient cultures would be enough for society to read oncoming disaster and change its ways.

We would need neither the demise of the renowned canary in a coal mine– or the pollinators of our crops– to expose the parallel vulnerability between humans and other natural lives. Just as the fabled canary was once used as a barometer of the health of mine air, colony collapse disorder among honeybees and other pollinators shows us what we are doing wrong–and what we need to change quickly.

The honeybee–and native pollinators like the bumblebee– illustrate stunningly the ways in which the lives of natural systems are interwoven as vulnerable to one another. These insects are covered with fine hairs that trap pollen as they visit the flowers from which they gather nectar as they fertilize them.  However, those same hairs now trap chemical pollutants.  Penn State researchers found that samples of bees from 23 states carried remnants of 98 different pesticides in their bodies.

The sticky hairs with which the bees clung to their diversity of pollen was such an asset in natural systems that the honeybees evidently did not have to worry much about toxins as they went.  A recent analysis of their genes indicates they have very few enzymes allowing them to detoxify pesticides.

In this sense, the little creatures whose brains perform complex locational and social functions we cannot mimic on any computer as they pollinate billions of dollars worth of crops annually are our new canary in a coal mine.

The fate of such creatures shows us– as our vulnerability has always done– how we are all in this together. That is the thing about vulnerability:  it does not privatize well—it alerts us instead to responsibility we share and must shoulder together.

The vulnerability we entrust to one another as we express our highest purposes:   the vulnerability that arises from a vision yet to be made real, a mistake for which we take responsibility, a need to lean on another for a time, from being present to the wondrous gift of a body that also ages and gets ill—points the way to creating stronger community.

As Thomas Berry has observed, not a one of  us nourishes ourselves.  Just as we depend on other lives for our own survival, our vulnerability to one another teaches us to treat with tenderness the vulnerable natural systems that provide us with clean air, fertile growing land, drinkable water and climate control.

These are things we can only protect together.   Just as we must protect together the social commons that provides us with learning from the past– with family, community and legacy—the commons that is as fragile as it is precious.


Thanks to dear friend Leia Hart for reminding me of the great line by Leonard Cohen that begins this essay.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Money Doesn’t Need a Bill of Rights–but our Children Do

By Madronna Holden

This year’s Supreme Court decision allowing corporations unlimited campaign spending is as unconscionable as it is frightening.

Money doesn’t need a Bill of Rights.  It already has rights aplenty– rights  directly linked to US economic woes.  A recent report of the Institute for Policy Studies  indicated that the differential between salaries for the the top 50 CEOs responsible for worker layoffs in the US and those same workers are 42 per cent greater than the global average.

In other words, those with more money have the right to lay off those with little money– and to gain more in the process.

Do these folks really need to saturate the airwaves with ads about problems with the national debt, scapegoating welfare programs (responsible for one per cent of our national budget), while tax loopholes for the wealthy cost US taxpayers 20 billion dollars annually in lost revenue?

In a democracy we can’t choose without information, but the Supreme Court decision has given corporations the right to manipulate that information any way they wish.

For instance, oil-linked corporations have financed billions of dollars worth of ads undermining scientific information on climate change, such as the ad that asks, “If the climate is getting warmer, why is such is and such a city getting colder?”  In fact, the cities mentioned in these ads are not getting colder, but posing the question in this way leads the viewer to assume s/he has seen proof positive against global warming.

Congress recently tried to safeguard our right to know with the The Disclose Act— which would require that campaign ads state who paid for them.  However, this bill went down to defeat in the Senate as a result of a Republican filibuster.  In a strange twist, those who killed it claimed to be supporting the Constitution.

If money did have a conscience, the Supreme Court might have been justified in giving corporations comparable rights to human beings.  But too many believe the famous statement of Milton Freidman that the ethical responsibility of corporations is to increase their profits.

And in this goal all others  get shunted aside.  A recent article in the Annuals of Internal Medicine found that research funded by the pharmaceutical industry yields results favorable to its products eighty-five per cent of the time. That is four times the rate at which positive results are produced by independently funded research.

This tabulation reaffirms the importance of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who see getting out public information as essential to their role as scientists and Integrity in Science, who follow the money in terms of scientific research funding.

A few states do have disclosure laws for campaign ads.  This is how citizens found out that Target supported the anti-gay Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer with big bucks.

In California, oil-related industries Valero, Koch, and Flint, gave huge contributions to an initiative campaign to overthrow the state’s green energy bill.  As the Union of Concerned Scientists observed, the main focus of the ads supporting this initiative is to “muddy the waters”.   Such corporate spending sprees are off target in a democracy.  Monied interests should not have the right to protect their interests—and to do so secretly–  at the cost of the rights of our children to inherit a natural environment that sustains life.

Corporations can do the right thing when their interests are on the side of good science, as in the case of the insurance industry that has had to deal with claims resulting from increased tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes, and fire in the past few decades.  The Hartford Insurance Company’s “Statement on Climate Change” is illustrative.

In fact, as the folks at Ethical Markets and CSWire illustrate, corporations can do the right thing because they are smart enough to see that their success is linked to social justice and environmental sustainability. But we are not encouraging that trend by allowing corporations to twist the Bill of Rights to protect their profits.

In a democracy, a Bill of Rights should protect the most vulnerable rather than the most powerful.  Protecting the rights of all humans with whom we share our earth was the goal of the International Declaration of Human Rights passed by the UN in the wake of World War II, when the nations of the world saw just how far things could get out of hand if such rights were not protected.

Rather than to corporations, we need to apply such rights today to the millions of girls who are kidnapped and forced to serve in brothels.  In their book, Half the Sky, Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Pulitzer Prize winning reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn report  from the field on both the horrors of ruined and lost lives for such girls—and the models some of them provide for courageous resistance.

The current UN report on violence toward women underscores the tragic fact cited in this book that it is statistically more dangerous to be born a woman than it is serve as a soldier on the front lines of battle.

These are the heroes among the most abused of women who have started schools or networks providing legal protection for other women.  Wu Dunn and Kristof not only share their stories but indicate the importance of the international community’s shining the spotlight on the situation of such women, as Amnesty International has done. Heroic as well as inspiring are women like Sunitha Krishman of India, legendary for her fight against local slavery at substantial personal danger to herself. Her work is also supported by the Ashoka foundation who support such “social entrepreneurs” worldwide.

WuDunn and Kristof also indicate ways in which others have become “social entrepreneurs” who change the world for the better in remarkable ways.  Zach Hunter, raised in Atlanta, began his activism at age twelve when he heard of human slave trafficking and instantly became a self-declared “abolitionist”. After raising money to get women out of slavery with his Loose Change to Loose Chains campaign, he published a book for potential teenage activists and fostered chapters of his anti-slavery organization throughout the US.

There are other vulnerable ones who deserve the protection of a bill of rights as well—earth’s others upon whom our ecosystems—and ultimately, our own sustenance—depends.  Takelma Siletz elder “Grandma” Aggie, chair of the International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers sees her own role as a “voice for the voiceless”—speaking on behalf of those lives, human and more than human, that have relatively little power in the contemporary global society.

In the context of such generous acts, the corporate fight for their own “human rights” seems especially perverse.  Twenty years ago, Carl Meyer published an extensive article in the Hastings Law Journal detailing the ways in which corporations have garnered not only legal “personhood” but every one of the protections of the Bill of Rights for themselves through their legal maneuvers.

Our country did not set out to grant such rights to corporations. Indeed, the original framers of the Constitution were so leery of corporate power, they made corporations subject to short-term operating licenses  periodically assessed to make sure that the corporate activity was still necessary to the common good.

Our precious constitutional rights—such as the right to avoid “chemical trespass”—should belong to our children, who have a right not to be exposed to toxic chemicals so that a few can earn greater profits.  As David Korten observes in his Agenda for a New Economy, the status of our children’s well being presents an “a remarkably clear picture of society’s state of health”.  Korten also notes that Adam Smith, hailed as the “father of capitalism”, had a “substantial antipathy toward corporate monopolies and those that use their wealth and power in ways that harm others.”

It is time to assess who we should be protecting with our Bill of Rights:  the vulnerable lives that represent our social and environmental future or the corporations acting as if the only thing we need to protect is money. I know my own answer:  I have signed on to the “motion to amend” our constitution stating that corporations are not persons and should not be allotted their rights.

Money doesn’t need a bill of rights, but our children—and all the children of the world– do.

Why the death penalty is not the answer

In her eloquent response to my query, “Is there justice in such a world”, Frances McNeal wrote:

“I do not believe in the death penalty. The Prison Industrial Complex in our nation is not about justice. We see that African-Americans make up 12% of the population and 50% of the prison population. Something is wrong with that picture. We also see the over population of prison with people of color in general. I once asked my grandmother about her opinion of the death penalty and she looked at me and simply said, “Never take what you can’t give!” In essence a human life. I do believe in restorative justice. I believe that if the judicial system allowed an alternative they would be a lot better if they practiced restorative justice overall. They could learn from the indigenous people in the United States. I also wanted to say that there was an African tribe in Africa who when someone did something wrong they had to stand in the middle of the village and all day long the villagers would come up to that person and remind them of all the good things that they have done and all of their positive attributes. When I did an artistic residency in a women’s prison I did this same thing with the women. Each woman took turns standing in the circle as we reminded them as a group of their power, beauty, and positive attributes. Is it no surprise we had wonderful results? Even women looking physically different. Everything responds to love and restoration. We can come up with alternatives that can bring forth justice and healing in ways that are powerful and profound. We must go to the heart of the matter by challenging ourselves to see another way of living and being.”

I could not agree more.  Here is my list explaining why I don’t believe in the death penalty:

1. As DNA testing has proved, a substantial percentage of those on death row are innocent. It turns out that eye witness evidence is not very reliable– especially with respect to strangers seen in a traumatic situation.

2. In emotional judgments our unacknowledged prejudices come up: for instance, racism. The statistics McNeal cites above speak for themselves.

3. We don’t really honor the families of victims by putting the guilty to death. Stopping the perpetrators from hurting others in the same way, yes.  Rebalancing and healing the harm done by a crime, yes.

In short, I support restorative justice rather than retribution. We don’t need to give emotional power (or publicity) to the guilty by conceiving of ourselves as their “victims”. Retribution also inevitably  the cycle of violence to escalate. By legally “avenging” someone, we sanction vengeance as a model for others to follow.

Protecting ourselves or someone we love from attack is certainly justified, but if we are in no physical danger, cold blooded killing for whatever reason is something very different.  All killing, whether justified or not,  creates a kind of soul sickness in need of healing.  I once brought up this topic with an ethics class of mixed generation students and one hundred per cent had examples to share of PTSD in themselves or relatives returned from US wars, going back to World War I.  Some contemporary vets suffering PTSD have successfully participated in healing ceremonies for returning warriors in US indigenous cultures. Unfortunately, we don’t usually offer our returning vets such social and spiritual re-integration ceremonies.

4. We are not omniscient enough to plumb the heart of another–and thus we cannot declare that they are incapable of redemption. And we should consider the consequences to ourselves of declaring any other human being unworthy of compassion.

In sum, our goal should be to restore the balance of society after a murder.  A loss of life calls for healing, not more loss of life.

In his context, we  need to examine the cultural underpinnings of violent crimes.– and direct some prevention into changing those values.

Individualism: it is no coincidence that those dangerous individuals with “attachment disorder” come out of a society which proclaims the importance of individualism.  Attachment disorder is the culmination of such individualism, in which nothing and no one else counts outside of the individual. In this sense, crimes committed by those with attachment disorder are showing us the terrible shadow of extreme individualism .

It doesn’t make sense to single out an “evil” individual when we allot heroic standing to those who triumph over others in the business arena– often at substantial cost of life.  Is it not a form of serial killing when a doctor purposely falsifies the results of experiments for a drug (as one did in the case of Lupron)– causing that drug to be approved by the FDA, causing the deaths of at least 25 women and the maiming of countless others?

I cannot read the mind of the physician who committed this crime, but according to the memos of CEOs of a consortium of plastics manufacturers, they felt they had a clear right to protect their personal profit even after their own doctors told them their workers were dying as a result of the conditions of their labor.

Modern westerners watch tv episodes about finding sociopathic serial killers avidly.  But what about the person in the federal government who hid the memo giving the order to dismantle the warning device that would have alerted the 78 workers trapped and killed in the Farmington mine disaster?

Not only do we have to change the idea that we exist in isolation from others– we need to stop giving monetary rewards to those who act as if this were true.

Might makes right (or “the cream rises to the top”, or Manifest Destiny).  In our movies, Rambo violence wins, asserting the selfsame “heroism” of physical power exerted over others as does anyone on death row.

A few years back Sweden, seeking to change the cultural idea that difficulties should be solved by violence on the part of those with more physical power, embarked on a program to eradicate the spanking of children. It took a concerted national effort, educating parents as to  alternative ways to discipline children.  I would like to see us exhibit similar resolve.

The Western notion of “progress” tells us only our own isolated slice of time counts. Thus we can use up the natural resources necessary for future life–or simply leave them too polluted for others to use after we are through with them.

In this individualistic notion of time, the past is only something to leave behind–and thus we erase all the wisdom of learning from the past– even as we assert the idea that generations have nothing to share with one another.

Certainly we can well use the “male mothers” described by Malidoma Some.  In his African society these are elders who stand beside a young man coming of age and nurture him, teaching to direct his masculine energy. Michael Meade, who has worked extensively with prison populations, has a parallel idea: we need initiation ceremonies for our young men (the vast majority of violent crimes in this society are committed by men under thirty-five) to teach them how to direct their passion and energy.

This meets the need for purpose in many young lives.  There was Lily Yeh’s experience in Philadelphia, for instance, in which local drug lords became her allies in cleaning up neighborhoods (literally, with garbage clean up and creation of community parks and gardens) when they were given this alternative opportunity.

Other projects, like Daniel Coleman’s teaching of “emotional intelligence” to middle school students impart personal power along with alternatives to hair trigger violence to such students.

Changing our worldviews and values is a large job, but it is a work whose fruits would benefit all of us.  With those like Frances McNeal, whose words begin this post, working for justice– we have both hope and vision on our side.