A week ago, a group of women of all ages gathered here in this very room for tea and conversation.
The refreshments were exquisite: chocolate dipped strawberries and decorated eggs and cucumber sandwiches, and cookies of all types and tastes. The tables looked grand; the flower arrangements spilling out of fragile china teapots were delicate and lovely.
We were, if I do say so myself, a fine looking bunch, some of us in four dollar thrift-store cotton dresses and borrowed pearls, worthy of anyone’s social pages, if anyone was noticing.
Of course, that was not the point, the fashion statements and status. We came together to raise some money for local anti-poverty efforts to feed and clothe and give financial assistance to people right here in Lumpkin County who can’t seem to catch that golden ring of growth and development we hear so much about. Who just keep scraping by as the Appalachian foothills they call home are bulldozed and the pine forests are stripped.
And we also were there for a structured and deliberate conversation, or more accurately, a half-dozen conversations. Once the tea was drunk and the refreshments enjoyed, down to the last nibble and crumb, we formed smaller circles at our various tables.
Over the next hour, we were asked to respond to a series of questions getting at where we are right now in our individual lives, and where we get our information, inspiration, hope, and strength, especially given this time in history, with wars in Afghanistan and Israel and the ever-present threat of terrorism.
We were asked, in the spirit of Transcendentalist writer and social reformer Margaret Fuller, who invited other Unitarian women more than 150 years ago to come together for mutual support and enlightenment for two hours every week for five years, to put away our knitting, our quilting, and our mending (those of us who ever do that), in favor of our minding. Using our minds for the greater good.
Asked to use the precious time and compatible company on a particular Sunday afternoon to pursue some insights into, and solutions to the, state of the community, society, and world we live in. To commit to a time of open and heartfelt sharing, even transformation. To the process of consciousness-raising.
Which means to be fully awake. To wake up to our true selves. As the poet Rumi wrote:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the door sill. Don’t go back to sleep.
The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.
It has been written that, though not easily put into words, waking up emotionally and spiritually is recognizable. James Joyce described it as epiphany. Adolous Huxley talked about cleansing the doors of perception.
We are told that waking up can be felt as grace, or simplicity, or a brilliant clarity of intelligence. It comes when we fully recognize poverty, degradation, injustices, and immense suffering.
And can no longer deny it or turn away from it, or long for a better, distant time so as not to act now.
This waking up, this coming into full consciousness, can be an immensely lonely process.
In a world of indifference or even opposition, we can naturally feel or be made to feel that there is no one else that sees what we see in our awakened, or at least awakening, state. Or perhaps only a couple of others, a handful, at best.
Which can be frightening. Which can be paralyzing.
One of the questions that was asked at our tea, as I said earlier, was, what one word describes each one of us right now, and is it different from a year ago? I invite you to come up with your own response.
The word I chose to describe me and my state of mind was “distress,” not around anything in my personal life, rather, immense distress, anguish, pain, at the recent incident of targeted ethnic hatred here in this very community.
At the deliberate misuse of the distracted time of grief and fear in this country following September 11th to rapidly and mostly secretively undo progressive policies around natural resources — such as our national forest lands and the Alaska wilderness, and the preservation of endangered species.
At a world situation where Palestinian suicide/murder bombs have become nearly a daily occurrence in Israel, and the response to them one of mind boggling devastation and loss of life in a battle that has been raging nearly uninterrupted since the year I was born. A situation that is causing an immense amount of internalized oppression and self-loathing and rancor in my own extended family.
In the growing number of daily e-mails between me and one of my brothers, who is convinced he is the only one who can really see and understand what is happening, but who, since he is also convinced he is alone in his perceptions, is not compelled, is not propelled to do anything more than send me attachments of articles he has read that contain the real truth, if anyone else would bother to inform themselves. Whose world has shrunk down to the safe sanctuary of his house and the communication and human interaction he can control from his home computer.
Another question asked at the tea and conversation was, what is our individual guiding question? For me, again, it was, how do I stay mindful? which means paying attention in an open and non-judgmental way.
To stay focused on and in the moment, instead of numbing out, or what often happens for me — using up my energy and losing my perspective in a kind of ineffectual thrashing around, railing at all the wrong that I see, with no focus and no real action.
Because I don’t see a way out. Because I, too, can feel isolated and beleaguered, and besieged.
If I were truly mindful, awake, fully conscious, then I would see that there are, as Rumi wrote, other people going back and forth across the door sill. That it might well be that there is more than just me, more than just me and my brother, more than just me and my brother and a few others, more than, perhaps, just those of us in this small mountain UU group or even the whole membership of our tiny religious association and a few others who share common principles, concerns, and convictions.
Out of which we could do something, anything, in the face of all that is happening. To this broken and precious ecology, the human and non-human interdependent web of all existence.
Which leads us to the notion of Cultural Creatives.
Who are the Cultural Creatives? And why should we care as individuals and as Unitarian Universalists about this huge but previously unnamed American subculture?
Of which we may very well be a part. No longer lone beacons, but connected to a much larger and more powerful and more successful movement than we have let ourselves believe.
Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, respectively a market research and academic psychologist, authors of the study on this group; Cultural Creatives ask us first off to imagine a distinct country the size of France suddenly sprouting up in the United States. It is immensely rich in culture, with new ways of life, values, and worldviews. With its own heroes and its own visions for the future.
Politicians, they assure us, would be discussing it and what it means to their future and the future of our nation. Businesses would immediately be planning strategies to market to this population, and the media would be devoting more coverage to this new population than the usual Beltway happenings.
Now, they invite us to imagine something different. Imagine that there is a new country, just as big and just as rich in culture, but no one sees it. It takes shape, they tell us, silently and almost invisibly, as if flown in under the radar in the dark of night.
It shows up wherever you’d least expect it — in your brother’s living room and your sister’s backyard, in women’s circles and demonstrations to protect old-growth forests, in offices, online communities, coffee shops, bookstores, hiking trails, and churches.
This new country and its people can be characterized as having a serious concern about the ecology of this planet and the global community, emphasis on relationships and women’s progress and perspective, a commitment to spirituality and psychological development, disaffection with the large institutions of modern life, including both corporations and government, and rejection of materialism and status display. They also reject the intolerance and narrowness of social conservatives and the Religious Right.
This is not just imaginary, the authors ask us to believe. Based on 13 years of research on more than 100,000 Americans, they have uncovered just that — an entire subculture of Americans, 26 percent of all the adults in the United States, 50 million people, who, through their own individual change in consciousness, have made a comprehensive shift in their way of life, their culture, in short. One of three dominant American cultures — along with the Traditionalists, the culture of memory, those who lean backward, around a quarter, also, of the adult American population — who tend to be religious conservatives and want traditional relationships — and then the Moderns, around 38 percent of Americans, who stand pat, who value individualism and acquisition, and doing the best they can with a new, mostly-secular reality. Cultural Creatives, on the other hand, tend to lean forward, going beyond the system and, at least inwardly, departing from the Modern materials worldview.
This large mass of people, these creative optimistic millions, are at the leading edge of several kinds of cultural change. They are called Cultural Creatives, therefore, because innovation by innovation, they are shaping a new kind of American culture for the 21st century.
And mostly, they have NO IDEA that they are part of this large a population. In fact, usually thinking that they are either alone in their work or a part of a very small and marginal group.
They tend to view themselves more like Emily Dickenson viewed herself and her imagined partner in consciousness — “I’m a nobody, Who are you? Are you a nobody too?” — either by believing that they are inconsequential or deliberately shunning what they view as the dreariness of being in the public spotlight, and the wearying power politics that comes with numbers and mainstream status.
In our need to have visible “famous” figures, the ranks of the Cultural Creatives, according to the authors, include political and religious figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Dalai Lama, literary figures including Gary Snyder, Annie Dillard, and Adrienne Rich, academics like Abraham Maslow and Ken Wilbur, and artists and performers like Robert Redford, Georgia O’Keefe, George Lucas, and, as heard from earlier, Yo Yo Ma.
But they are, by and large, ordinary people. They have a wide range of incomes, from lower-middle-class to the rich, but few very poor and few very rich. Their age profile is that of the whole country, with two exceptions. In any given year of the study, there were slightly fewer Cultural Creatives ages 18-24, because younger adults are still exploring what their principles and lifestyle preferences are, and there are fewer of them over 70, apparently because, the authors believe, that populations’ values were more firmly fixed before the beginnings of this general trend in the 1960s.
Religiously, the large majority of Cultural Creatives identify with the mainstream, while, in general, their beliefs do not correspond strongly to their nominal religious affiliations.
They are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, and Christian Scientists. Only a few, interestingly, describe themselves as New Age, even while their spiritual tendencies and dabbling might be otherwise.
We, of course, would like to claim them as natural Unitarian Universalists.
Only one demographic statistic does stand out about the Cultural Creatives — 60 percent are women, and in the core group, the more active half of the sub-culture, 67 percent are female.
What else characterizes them?
As individuals, they have changed their values over time, and in many cases, their lifestyles as well. Living — often uncomfortably for a period of years — in between one way of being and a new way of being, leaving behind old stories for the unknown and untold.
Cultural Creatives are the ones who invented the current interest in personal authenticity in America. Authenticity meaning that your actions are consistent with what you believe and say. So they want their information in the form of first-hand accounts, not bullet points. But, in two seemingly contradictory ways of perceiving, they not only like and need to hear individual stories, they also want to learn about, and draw their own conclusions about, the big picture, fitting the pieces into something that gives them a whole worldview.
This need to understand and relate to the big picture extends to their preference, in terms of giving time and money to causes, to be part of creating something from the beginning, middle, end, and through to a new beginning.
Many are convinced if they are not engaged in some sort of direct action or activity around what they believe in, their convictions are just talk. They express more idealism and altruism and less cynicism than other Americans.
An example of this sensibility in terms of ecological activism would be the direct purchase of The Sacred Grove, an old-growth redwood forest in Humbolt, California, which came about through the quarterly donations of $10 to $50 by some six hundred women over a five year period. As Catherine Alpert, one of the project’s founders said. “It’s small, but there is something about knowing we have done this that is very powerful. And our vision is to be able to do this one, and another one, and do one somewhere else, and keep this growing.”
Cultural Creatives have taken this desire to be authentic, committed, directly involved, holistic, and global in their worldview into a number of interwoven and converging movements over the past 40 years: civil rights, anti-nuclear, ethnic advocacy, movements against violence and oppression, such as Amnesty International, the women’s movement, gay and lesbian liberation movements, the human potential movement, the alternative health care movement, and New religions, including Eastern spirituality.
Some Cultural Creatives, a smaller number to be sure, have found themselves in the center, others, in the rings of involvement and awareness that surround them, which has led to the dramatic undercounting of numbers who so identify and devaluing of the depth of change they have produced.Perhaps most dramatically, despite recent reversals, in the environmental consciousness of this country.
In opinion polls worldwide, 70 to 90 percent of the people in most countries are now deeply concerned that our planet is in ill health, with the level of concern in this country, on average, about 85 percent. 96 percent of all Cultural Creatives. The numbers are with those of us who want to protect and enhance the global environment, to honor the sacredness of nature. We are only losing now because the absolute wealth and absolute power lies with the corporations, governments, and smaller numbers of the wealthy elite that benefit from things the way they are.
We now have the power, backed by huge percentages of fellow Americans who agree that economic growth and protecting the environment are fully compatible, that the environmental crisis justifies a change in our way of life, and that concern for the interdependent web includes concern for social and economic justice for the poor, especially children. That’s how they see our need to make things better for people who have less. It is because of our interconnectedness.
We don’t have to be lone and lonely individuals in this struggle, or any other movement for peace and justice, or think of ourselves as merely beacons in a mostly hostile world.*
*Quote “THE LOW ROAD” by Marge Piercy not included.