What I Learned From "I Am"
By: Kristen Gantley-Chavez, Syracuse Liaison
Throughout my adult life I have been drawn to life-changing readings and documentaries, especially about causes that I am passionate about. But few compare to the 2011 documentary called “I Am” by filmmaker Tom Shadyac. It has the potential to completely change the way we think about humans and life in general. Thus I feel compelled to share what I have learned.
The program begins by asking: “What is wrong with the world?” And, in addition: “What can we do about it?” It strives to get at the root cause of all the world’s problems, an overwhelming task it would seem, but perhaps not.
The first revolutionary idea proposed was that we, and all life, are deeply connected. We humans tend to think of ourselves as separate beings that affect each other only by physically doing something to each other, and that we need to compete against others to get ahead. This idea has been taught to us from birth: the need to be significant at someone else’s expense; compete for trophies, in races, on Wall Street, the dean’s list, winners vs. losers, independence and self- interest. We also disconnect humankind from other forms of life so they are then subject to our use or disposal. This makes it easier for humans to endanger forests, animals and even other groups of human beings who are vulnerable in some way (the pre-born, the elderly, the sick or dying, women, etc.)
Disconnection stems from two pervasive stories we tell ourselves. The first is Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory (competition) and the second is the scientific story (separateness). Most of us are familiar with the survival of the fittest concept. The scientific story goes that humans work by following predictable rules like individual machines. This notion leads us to think that if you can’t touch it or manipulate it in some way then it must not be real. The story of separateness has consequences, causing people to become passive, apathetic, and lonely amidst crowds of people.
The next idea presented is that there is a big truth and a big lie. The truth: You are not happy when you do not have enough to meet basic needs like food, shelter, etc. Once you have enough, you become happy. The lie: You can become twice as happy with twice as much, and ten times as happy with ten times as much, and a thousand times as happy with a thousand times as much… Two million dollars does not make you happier than one million. In nature nothing takes more than it needs. The lie has created a mental illness.
Based upon this lie is the modern economy, treated as an entity or force unto itself. Humans created it for the sake of people, but more and more only the rich benefit from it. The greed economy mindset has become global, as the illness has spread out of control. Another word for this kind of illness is called cancer. When a species becomes cancerous it either has to reinvent itself or it dies off. Okay, many of these thoughts have occurred to me before.
But the film then moves on to the next logical questions: “What is humankind’s basic nature?” and, “Is it our nature to cooperate or to dominate?” In most indigenous human cultures the highest social value is cooperation while competition is the lowest. In animal populations it is the same. In herds of animals, schools of fish and flocks of birds, even in animals where a hierarchy exists, consensus still rules. The alpha does not make group decisions. These decisions are made by multiple signals by members of a group until a majority is achieved and the group acts. So cooperation is more dominant in nature. Humans are not strong or fast. We have survived due to cooperation. Even Darwin knew this and extensively discussed it in his writings although this is not the part of his work that was publicized.
In fact, sympathy is our strongest instinct. Humans, as all primates, elephants and dolphins all have what are called mirrored neurons, which means that our neurons do not distinguish between self and others. When we see someone suffer or experience joy, we too feel it and react as if it is happening to us. Therefore movies, stories of how someone helped another during a crisis and any emotional situation evoke hard wired compassion in us, bringing us to tears or making us smile in contentment. When we feel positive emotions such as empathy, cooperation and love, our body actually functions better and we think and perform more efficiently. The reverse is also true: Negative emotions such as anger, fear, and desperation inhibit our brains and we act stupidly. This is when violence often begins.
Here’s the exciting part. Physics backs this up and even goes farther. There is a concept called quantum entanglement. Einstein struggled to explain the phenomena. He found that when two electrons were together they affected each other and spun simultaneously in the same way. However, when they were separated by a great distance they still affected each other spinning in the same way instantaneously. There was no time delay to send a message from one to the other. It is scientifically accepted that connections exist that we cannot detect. It is further backed up by evidence from random number generators, 65 of which are located around the world. During events that evoke high emotions such as 9/11 and natural disasters, these generators no longer behave randomly. Our emotions actually cause physical changes in the environment. We physically change the world through each interaction. Our strong beliefs physically affect others as theirs affect us –hate and anger, love and joy.
This effect should make us more inclined, even compelled to help others. Every day small positive acts and attitudes build love over time that causes us to move toward a common good as a group. There are numerous examples of this in history: from slavery to an African American president, the suffragists protesting for women’s rights, the end of segregation in South Africa just to name a few.
The truth is that war does not come from nature. Nonviolence accomplishes more. We have choices when confronted with injustice and violence: we either allow it, run from it, fight back or we help to heal those who are damaged. If we choose the last option we follow in the steps of many revered heroes… Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and many unnamed.
We all have the power of one, but when added to the many we can change the world. None of us is neutral. We need to use our talents and passions to help the world one act at a time. If we treat each other as unconnected, the problems will go on. There are bound to be set-backs, but it gives hope and reason not to give up on peaceful solutions to social injustices, even those involving violence like human trafficking, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and war. The program started out asking, “What is wrong with the world?” The answer: “I am.” It ended asking, “What is right with the world?” The answer: “I am.” I, in turn, found myself asking, “Isn’t this what being pro-life is all about?”