Peer into this child’s eyes at your own risk. They have haunted me for 18 months. Every few weeks I look at this poignant image and try to decipher the message that those enormous brown eyes are sending to me - and to you - and to the world.
I found this photo at Google Images and used it to accompany my final essay of 2013. It is of a little gypsy girl in Romania who has just received a Christmas present from an aid worker. It leapt out at me even though there were hundreds of other pictures. Why did this particular one tunnel into my heart of hearts and speak to me so powerfully?
I have pondered this at least 20 times during the ensuing months. But before sharing my conclusions with you, I would like you to pause for a few minutes and study this young girl. I’d even suggest that you left click on the photo to enlarge it. Now, what is she saying to you personally with those focused eyes and that enigmatic smile?
Look carefully at this pale, brown Madonna as she clutches her Christmas present. Do you see the gratitude, the sadness, the muffled joy, the wisdom beyond her years, the hope, the resignation, the innocence, the wonder, and the precocious awareness of just how strange and unjust human life is?
I do. It is all there - and more.
Imagine what she has already experienced in her 5 or 6 years in a gypsy family, banished to the margins of society. She probably lives in a 30 year old motor home or just a large, battered van. She already knows how much more difficult her wandering life is – especially when compared to other little girls her age who live in the normal world. She survives on hand-me-downs and hand-outs. But the charity that her family receives is tiny when measured against the animosity that they endure.
Hopefully, her parents lessen these hardships by emphasizing to her that they lead a life that is far freer than those who scorn them. They probably remind her that their vagabond path keeps them closer to Nature and the authentic rhythms of life - rather than ensnared by the human-built, artificial ones. And they encourage her with the knowledge that as a member of the Romani, she is part of a tradition that extends back thousands of years.
Now burrow deeper into those yearning eyes and you might recognize that they are pleading – that they are silently screaming a message to the grown-ups of the world. And what they are saying is:
“HOW CAN YOU ADULTS NOT DO BETTER THAN THIS?”
How can you allow so much suffering and injustice and violence to continue on a planet that is so lush, so beautiful, and so abundant? How can you be so selfish and greedy that you will tolerate obscene opulence for the few, while billions endure hunger, disease and hopelessness? How can you worship your possessions so reverently in a world where so many are dispossessed?
How do most adults brush aside such incriminating questions? They just shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s just the way that it has always been.” But they are wrong – profoundly wrong! The injustice and degradation and oppression that dominate our modern world are actually a tiny aberration from the last 10,000 years. For about 500,000 years prior to the Agricultural Revolution, when humans lived tribally, most of the ills that infect today’s society, did not exist
The change began when humanity veered away from tribal and nomadic living to civilized and settled living. The turning point was the shift from hunting/foraging to agriculture – or as Daniel Quinn more accurately defines it – to Totalitarian Agriculture. When the Paleolithic people rejected their Neolithic heritage, they did not realize that as they domesticated their animals and crops, they also domesticated themselves.
Even as I write these words, I can already hear the cries of protest as people attempt to defend the worldview that has been so relentlessly and effectively drummed into them. Their typical response is usually worded like this:
“So, Ray, do you expect all of us to go back to living in caves and eating grubs and spiders and wooly mammoths?”
No, I do not. But I do expect us to be mature enough as a species to examine what those who came before us did better than us. If those tens of thousands of generations made it through to pass along their genetic line even in a natural world that was far more hostile, then we should learn what they can teach us. Here are some of the foundational principles of their social blueprint that we could adapt for modern usage.
· Horizontal is better than hierarchal – Equality was a hallmark of hunter/gatherer societies. It was essentially “all for one and one for all.” There was no rigid social stratification. It wasn’t long after the arrival of Agriculture, that hierarchy reared its bejeweled but ugly head. Suddenly there were a few rulers and a great mass of people who were ruled.
As social awareness advanced through the centuries, the domination by elites lessened. God-Kings were deposed by regular old Kings who were displaced by elected rulers such as Presidents, Premiers and Prime Ministers. This is certainly progress in the right direction, but it has proven erratic and often regressive. For a few decades the regular people will seem to rise up and achieve genuine improvement in their working and living conditions, only to have a new tyrant arrive and halt the progression towards a more equal and just society. So, it is ironic that a worthy goal is to aspire to the level of egalitarian living that the so-called primitive tribal people enjoyed over 10,000 years ago.
· Possessions were not revered – they were resisted – For nomadic peoples, who needed to be highly mobile for their very survival, unnecessary stuff was excess baggage. This remains the situation amongst the few dozen indigenous tribes who still survive. Some are hunter/foragers and some are small-scale agriculturists. But none of them are weighed down by superfluous possessions.
The hollowness of the modern Cult of Consumerism has led to enormous societal dysfunction. People work meaningless, unsatisfying jobs just so they can support their addiction to THINGS. Survey after survey indicates that almost nobody who has bought into the worship of gadgets actually finds fulfillment in them. What they provide instead is a temporary distraction from a tragically empty life. How sad is an existence where one’s only friends are iFriends? In a world where pets have jewelry and innocent children starve, would it not be wise to learn from the tribal model of voluntary simplicity?
· Co-operation trumped competition – In tribal bands almost everything was shared equally, so there was no incentive to “get ahead.” Everyone flourished together or failed together. The competition that did exist was playful – such as games or dancing.
But competition has become the foundation of modern, industrial-techno society. This is not accidental, it is deliberate. It allows those at the top – who I like to refer to as The Malignant Overlords – to justify their ascendancy. They claim that their success is strictly a result of the fact that they are better competitors. Thus, they can ignore the other factors such as an accident of birth or powerful connections or pathological ruthlessness. So, as they trample the poor and disadvantaged on their way to the top, they can do so with less guilt. Therefore, the primitive embrace of co-operation over competition is another lesson that the civilized world should heed.
One last time, I implore you to look into the eyes of that beautiful little girl. Can you not see how innocent but troubled they are? Can you not discern her desire to joyously embrace all of the magic of human life without being fearful? Can you not understand that even at such a young age, those eyes tell us that she already knows?
She realizes that we adults could do so much better – and yet we rarely do. We could sculpt a world of happiness and health and harmony. We could solve the big problems of war and income inequality and hunger and clean drinking water and disease and resource depletion and prejudice. We could be so much better. We could do so much more.
We could even cleanse all of the sadness from those tender brown eyes - and replace it with Joy and Hope.