Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Arrows and the Olive Branch

Take out a dollar. Now put it in an envelope and send it to me. (Just kidding!) Instead, look on the flip side of George Washington. Ever noticed the pyramid and the eye? This was one of the two Great Seals proposed by Charles Thompson in 1782. Annuit Coeptis roughly translates as “He (the eye of Providence) favors our undertakings.” Novus Ordo Seclorum refers to a “New Order of the Ages” (as distinct from the New World Order of the Right-wing Spinmeisters.)

Well, isn’t that interesting. We’ve handled thousands of these bills, but probably rarely stopped to notice to ponder this. But wait, there’s more. The second of the seals is an American Eagle with 13 stars above his head, a shield of 13 stripes (both representing the colonies). Note what’s in the Eagle's talons—13 arrows in the left, an olive branch in the right. Simplistically speaking, the arrows represent war, the olive branch, peace. Now note which way the eagle is looking. Optimistically toward the olive branch, but not releasing the arrows from its grip— hence, aiming for peace, but prepared to defend itself with war if necessary. (I thank Joseph Campbell for first pointing this out.)

Shouldn’t this be common knowledge amongst schoolchildren and citizens? The Seal suggests that Institutes of Peace should outnumber preparations for war. Instead of—or perhaps, in addition to—military maneuvers training young people to kill, we need Boot Camp for peace—training in non-violent conflict resolution, verbal communication, emotional intelligence, historical analysis, artistic expression. Well, that could be called school.

But this is a matter for another Blog. I’m fresh from the last day of school, where the growing tensions between the old style of egalitarian decision-making sitting around the table and the new style of hierarchical decision-making by select groups behind closed doors reached its breaking point. The school has felt like a place that the eye of Providence favored, a New Order and Vision for the Ages to come. Lately, if feels like it's trying to be like everyplace else. So the staff got together and voted on proposals  designed to restore our sense of voice and inclusion and bridge the lands of “them” and “us” until it feels like “we” again. In the course of these discussions, out came everyone’s relationship with conflict, from “let’s not talk about it” to “let’s just all get along” to “I don’t even trust my own mother” and every point in-between.

And this brings me to the arrows and the olive branch. I’m long trained to gaze toward the olive branch and it’s a good view. But more and more I appreciate those arrows in the talon. I’m feeling that so much of the conflict I’ve had these past months has not come from issues with anger management, personality disorder or clashes of temperament (though they all have their place)— I see the problem coming from systemic procedures that block communication, shut down conversation, concentrate power in the hands of the few without sufficient checks and balances and accountability. In short, failure to follow good democratic procedure.

And to analyze this requires the sharpness of arrows, a true aim that recognizes the target, that can distinguish between the bull’s eye and the outer ring, that can understand how much tension is needed in the bow to release the arrow. It requires the eye of a good scout, the ear of someone on night-watch listening to the snapping of twigs, the nose of someone who can smell when “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” It requires a community of people who are vigilant in defense of their own core values, who are watchful and alert to the small and big signs of danger. It asks for a guarded trust beyond the na├»ve faith that “we all have good intentions,” a faith based on fact, a mind that can detect the words intended to hide from those that say exactly what they mean.

Another weapon favored in this kind of metaphorical thinking is the sword. Manjusri, one of the enlightened Buddhas, is often depicted holding a flaming sword that cuts through ignorance and duality. (Note—it is the sword of discrimination that moves us from the “them/us” duality to the “we” unity.) Chinese mythology sees the sword as “penetrating insight,” in Japanese mythology, it represents courage and strength, in Arthurian legend, it is the “Sword in the Stone” that identifies the true king.

Brandishing the sword, stringing the arrows to the bow, these are sometimes necessary actions to defend territory—“This is a line you may not cross.” We all have these lines and since it is fairly certain that someone will try to cross them at some point, we would do well to be trained in sword-raising. Sometimes just showing the sword is enough to let folks know how serious you are. Sometimes bad ideas need to be escorted out the gate at sword-point. Once good faith and intelligent discrimination is restored, we can always turn those swords into ploughshares and plant those olive trees.

But as the dollar suggests, keep a few arrows or swords around. Just in case. 

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