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A guide for how to change the world for good

Dano Jukanovich

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When my daughter brings me an attitude from the gutter, I want to care so much for her, to empathize, to be in awe of her, like the newborn in the presence of its mother, that what I want and how I feel is whitewashed by the breadth of my embrace of who she is. That doesn’t mean I won’t honor my own feelings and express my needs in a healthy way. It doesn’t mean I won’t still try to lead and influence her. But my wants will no longer be paramount, nor overwhelm me at her expense. When my wife fails to connect with me again on something I feel is vital, I hope to remember how much I love all of who she is. I want to be in awe of her – to remember that to me she is a priceless painting, a co-laborer in life, the lover of my soul. That doesn’t mean I won’t acknowledge and express my sadness at our brokenness, but that feeling will pale in comparison to my appreciation of her. 

This is what it means to be in awe. Whether beautiful or horrible, it is as if the thing becomes so big, so overshadowing that we can no longer see what’s around us, not even ourselves. There are few things or people or causes worthy of such awe.

Clouds in the Sky

In the womb, the unborn child is physically a part of his mother in obvious ways. In the first months after birth, the baby learns through sensory and neurological cues to engage the world as his mom does. When certain interactions – pictures, voices, temperatures, touches – cause mom heightened stress or bring a sense of calm and joy, the child’s neurological pathways develop accordingly, taking on his mom’s reactions as his own. These early days are the most in synch we will ever be with another human being. We spend our entire lives striving to rediscover this sense of awe in someone or something beyond ourselves into which we can become grafted.

This is opposite of the commonly excepted adolescent maturation process described as individuation. Individuation implies progression toward a state of independence, certainly a state more independent than a baby of his mother. But there is no such thing. Who a person is can only be understood relative to someone or something else. Brown is only brown vis-à-vis yellow. Strong is only strong vis-à-vis weak. As we grow apart from our parents, we aren’t individuating; we are simply replacing the reference point against which we define ourselves. Where our identities were a function of our parents, they become a function of our friends, our society, a hero figure, the natural environment, our work, or whatever combination. It’s completely nonsensical to think we define ourselves relative to ourselves.

More than most, religious people have this figured out. It is inherent in the paramount obligation to love and honor their God. The Biblical idea that “He must become greater; I must become less” describes a relationship between God and man evolving to a level of intimacy like that of the mother and newborn where the personhood of the child is subsumed in the mother’s. We immediately question whether this is a good thing. We’re bothered by the idea of losing our identity within someone or something else’s. It’s good that we’re bothered. It’s wise because there are few if any people or causes into which it is worthy of being assimilated. 

Our theory of changing the world doesn’t work if it’s built on self-sacrifice. Every religion has its forms of penance and for millennium, none of them have worked. By definition, sacrifice hurts. We all have a pain threshold. Once we reach the threshold, we will stop sacrificing. But to the extent something or someone has become greater than us, there is no limit to what we would endure for what is so highly esteemed.

Valuing others means their progress is our progress, their success, our success, their power, our power. Succeeding in this depends on defining ourselves relative to someone or something greater than ourselves.

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