Buddhists speak of the interconnectedness of all things—what Thich Nhat Hahn calls “interbeing.” People who have only a passing acquaintance with this idea think it refers to something in the future. Thus, most of us have heard comments not unlike the joke about the Zen monk who approached a hot dog vendor and said, “Please, make me one with everything.”
The idea of interconnectedness being some future concept could not be more wrong, for in a literal sense it is our present condition. I cannot exist, for example, without food. Since I get it from the market, I depend on the person who puts it on display and, before that, the driver of the delivery truck, the oil field and refinery workers who provide fuel for the truck, the wholesaler, the wholesaler’s buyer, the farmer whose land and labor produced it. If any of these fail in their jobs, I will not have the potato that I plan to eat this evening, nor the butter and salt to put on it. We can argue about whether or not this degree of dependency is wise, or even sustainable. Nonetheless, it is. So, when it comes to the rest of the world, I am not at all separate.
A worker on a plantation in Southeast Asia provided the raw latex that allowed the sole of my sneaker to be fabricated, along with the rest of the shoe, by workers in a Vietnamese factory. Their livelihood, in turn, depends upon my need for the occasional new pair of shoes. The so-called “slave wages” paid the workers by their employer, although much decried by 21st Century Americans who don’t understand the issues, nevertheless are sufficient to provide rice and fish for my Vietnamese brother and his family, and sustain for them a standard of living to which they could never have aspired before they became exploited.
Further, my potato and Tranh’s rice depend on the minerals and other nutrients in the soil, and energy expended by the farmers who cultivated them. Those farmers received their sustenance and stock for propagation from other sources, and someone taught them the skills of farming. If any of those sources had failed, Tranh’s family and I would go hungry tonight.
Even the sunlight and minerals came from elsewhere. Our Earth, its sister planets and the smaller bodies in our Solar system—even Sol, the star that gives us light and warmth—formed out of the remains of a previous star, and so on, and on to the beginnings of the universe, where everything that we are able to perceive originated. (Beyond that, speculation is the province of metaphysicians, not scientists–or at least, not yet.)
Our present political situation, while precarious in its own way, is nothing like that of—say—September 26, 1983, when Red Army Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov had to decide in seconds, all by himself, whether a Soviet satellite report of a 5-missile launch by the US was an error, or if he should give the order that would begin an unstoppable sequence of events leading to a worldwide nuclear holocaust. Petrov’s correct evaluation came between what and who we are now and the problematic end of the human race. He is a part of every human being on Earth, and every one yet to be born. And consider this: at some point prior to that, other people chose Stanislav Petrov to be the man who later staved off disaster. They are part of us, as well.
My life as an armchair philosopher has evolved directly from decisions made by men in the Soviet Union of the 1980’s and before, from Lenin, Marx, their teachers, and theirs. Whatever we may think of communism and Communists, they also made decisions that allowed our existence to continue.
Things are much the same today. People of whom we have never thought nor heard are living their day-to-day lives and carrying out the day-to-day decisions that will shape the remainder of human history. At each decision, a fork in the road. Along each fork, a new history for us all.
No human or other living thing would be here were it not for a chain of events involving myriad other beings, things and circumstances stretching back across billions of years. Every one of those things is a part of us, for we would not exist otherwise. How much difference, then, can there really be among you, Tranh, Col. Petrov and me? I am not my brother’s keeper. In a very real sense, I am my brother.