Homeland Security and Safety
The idea of exploring the tension between security and privacy came up one day in our Sharing Circle in reference to the modern-day intrusions of our lives: Homeland Security’s searches, lists of suspected terrorists, and registrations for this, that, and the other thing. Some of this has been around a long time. The FBI has always watched certain people, for instance. In the past, however, they had to dig a little bit to learn what we were doing. Now our information is freely available, including what we buy at grocery stores and what we like on Facebook.
White, middle class, straight individuals who hold traditional values, work hard, believe what they watch on television, and clean their gutters regularly, can easily dismiss concerns about enhanced security. For them, only people who “have something to hide” need worry. For people of color, immigrants, those who identify with atypical genders, or those whose politics and personality tend toward chaos and revolution, however, intrusions can be scary, even if they never even advocate doing anything illegal.
Clearly, while some people feel safer with all these security measures in place, others feel afraid. Although some of us are making a trade-off of less privacy for more safety, others are losing out entirely.
Privacy, Security, and Loneliness
But what is security? Does security mean no one’s going to shoot us when we go for a run, or that our computers and diamond jewelry are safe from burglars, or that when we take public transportation home from our swing-shift jobs we don’t have to worry about being mugged or raped? For some people, security means they won’t get evicted from their apartments, won’t get fired if they’re sick, and that their medical bills won’t drive them to bankruptcy. The more money we have, the more safety features we can afford. For the rich, security means not only locks on doors and windows, but also gates around their community and servants to screen visitors.
In this way, when we have money enough, security enhances our privacy. There’s no trade off. We can around some of the registration requirements. If we have private jets, we don’t have to worry about being frisked at the airport. With our expansive homes on large pieces of land, we can be alone whenever we want to be, and neighbors won’t hear our arguments. Our gates, and locks, and servants help protect us from thieves, cheats, murderers, as well as from noises, smells, and salesmen. Yet with such complete and inviolable privacy, we sometimes feel abandoned and alone.
I grew up in a large house. Each of us in my family had our own bedroom. At times, the quiet, cavernous spaces felt lonely. The positive side was that our privacy was respected. My parents knocked before entering our rooms, and I knew no one would search through my stuff.
When my youngest child started getting into trouble, one of his counselors suggested I go through his things, take his paraphernalia or weapons, if he had them, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It felt like a betrayal. I thought it was more important for my son to trust me than for me to catch him doing something bad. Perhaps I would have caught him doing something good, I suppose, but I could do that without snooping through his things.
I was raised to value privacy. Not every individual is, and not every culture respects privacy.
In The Ethical Brain, Michael Gazzaniga reviewed a number of studies that looked at our moral decision making and the ethical firing of our brains. He concluded that, regardless of our culture and regardless of our upbringing, if we have a normal human capacity to mirror the emotions of another, we share basic moral sensibilities. All around the world, for instance, people believe that murder, incest, and stealing are wrong. This is because, Gazzaniga states, when we come face-to-face with people who are hurting, the mirror neurons in our brains make us want to help them. When we think of hurting others, those same neurons give us pause.
On how important privacy is to us, however, we differ.
There’s something to be said for small towns where everyone knows your business and your neighbors get involved in your fights. In such settings, there may be less abuse. The fear of shame or embarrassment may make us behave.
On the other hand, when we’re separated from our neighbors, hidden behind gates and walls, we can do horrible things to one another and never be held accountable. This privacy can also make us callous. If we never see the hungry, homeless, or battered, we find it hard to care.
While tiny living spaces can seem stifling, and though we may experience stress if we never have time to contemplate or dream, big houses can feel empty. Anxiety, depression, and addiction are common in the rich and middle class.
False and True Selves
In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton talks about a false self and a true self. The false self is also a “private self,” a self so contained and hidden that not even God sees it. He adds that “to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.”
That’s because the false self clings to the fiction that the self not only can be, but also should be, independent. Our false self resists admitting pain or need or insecurity. It identifies with our body, our thoughts, our possessions. Thinking this material world is the entirety of existence, it suspects that any spiritual connections we may have experienced are delusions wrought by the stimulation of our temporal lobes.
Trapped inside a shell of a body, the false self cannot let go, cannot fall, cannot experience grace. The false self, therefore, cannot feel the oneness of union with anything larger than itself, whether a god, or a tree, or a star.
Our Addiction to Our False Self
Because of this utter self-dependence, the false and private part of us is never satisfied. When we think we are the end all, that we must depend on ourselves for everything, and that we must cling to what we’ve managed to collect and grasp pleasures before they disappear, we end up trapped in a spiral of anxiety, depression, loneliness, emptiness, and bitterness. No matter much we have, we are never satisfied.
It doesn’t help that we know so much about how our brains work. With this knowledge, advertisements appeal to our limbic processes before our frontal cortex realizes what’s happening. Whether the goal is for us to buy something or believe something, media of all kinds takes advantage of our longing for comfort, status, and security. Besides, in this technological era, addiction has become so rampant, you could say our entire society is addicted to stimulation, distraction, and pleasure.
Our Brave New World
Neil Postman laid out this argument in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. A number of writers, including Richard Rohr, have quoted Postman’s comparison of George Orwell’s book, 1984 and Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Orwell, Postman explains, warned us of a Big Brother who would control us through pain and oppression. Certainly we see this happening throughout the world, as well as in our own country. Depending on how things play out with our new president, force and the fear of that force may be used to control and manipulate us. Orwell’s warning is well taken.
As Postman points out, however, Huxley was a better prophet. In Brave New World, the citizens “come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their very capacity to think.” While in Orwell’s book, the people are deprived of information and literature, in Huxley’s they are inundated by it, until the truth is “drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” Although in Orwell’s novel, the people are controlled by pain, in Huxley’s, they are controlled by pleasure. “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us,” Postman wrote. “Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
Trapped by Our False Self
Alistair Roberts, who in “Brave New World, 85 Years Later” also analyzes Huxley’s prophetic vision, points to the computer games, social media, chemical-laden foods that excite our taste buds, pornography, designer drugs, and manicured homes and bodies we’ve created to please and anesthetize us. “All these things are calculated to excite our hunger, overcome our resistance, and drive us to indulge. Capitalism’s wave of intoxicating pleasures overwhelms all obstacles before it—censorship, legal restriction, cultural taboo, social norm, religious virtue, self-control.”
Our lusts and longings, our desires for status, power, trophies, beautiful clothes, expensive homes, watches and phones and sleek automobiles, trap us because of the addictive nature of our false self. When we identify with that self, we can never get enough. Never quite secure in our own skins, we become susceptible to the promises of advertisers, the hypnotic lure of pleasure, and the lies of tyrants.
A Self that Is True
Richard Rohr has written a number of books and reflections that examine the idea of the “false” and “true” selves. First used by the Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, the terms point to the distinction between these two selves.
First we have the false self, the one we imagine ourselves to be. This self lives in a body, has certain thoughts, and experiences urges. Though it is an illusion, this self longs for security.
Our true self, on the other hand, is the “no self” of Buddhist understanding, or the Christ self in Christianity. In “A Point of Nothingness,” Rohr writes that the true self “is who you are before having done anything right or anything wrong, who you are before having thought about who you are.”
This true self is not our thoughts, our name, our accomplishments, our career, our body, and it certainly is not anything we own. It is not even our moral values or our desire for community or oneness. Our true self existed before our birth and will continue after our death. It is the wave, subsumed into the ocean. Beyond our intellectual understandings, beyond right and wrong, beyond pain and pleasure, beyond even hope and gentleness, lies a self that knows no fear, has no needs, and experiences no problems of any kind.
As Rumi writes:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
There, in that field, lies our true self.
Security and Privacy in the True Self
The wonder of this self is that if we can find it and live in its vastness, neither security, nor privacy, will matter anymore.
This does not mean we will take to a cave and meditate on our navel. Our true self knows how to live in a world, and our true self will do so with the love and kindness that comes to us and through us from the Source of All. When we find our true self and live from that place, we will stand up to and speak out against hatred, vengeance, and tyranny. And we will do so with love, and with kindness.
After all, the security of locks and guns isn’t real. Our true self finds security in that field Rumi writes about, in our experience of “no self,” in our oneness with the all that is. For our true self, privacy is that place where we connect with God. Wherever wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we can have that.
When we live in that place, then not even the life of this body matters any longer. Advertisers and tyrants no longer influence us. We are free.
In faith and fondness,