Friday, June 2, 2023

Watching a Ballet

 There is a notorious intersection on the island.  All one has to do is mention the traffic at the corner of State Road and the Edgartown Road and islanders knowingly shake their heads.  State Road is the main thoroughfare connecting the "down island" towns with "up island."  The Edgartown Road carries heavy traffic between the main port town and Edgartown at the other end.  There is a stop sign at the end of the Edgartown Road where it "Ts" into State Road. There is no traffic light (due to longtime resistance to any such thing on the island). Traffic congestion is a topic of daily conversation.  The onset of the influx of literally thousands of off-island  summer drivers exacerbates the situation.

The intersection occasionally lends itself to theological reflection.

A few weeks ago, in synagogue services, someone presented a reflection on "Obligation and Autonomy."  The thought was that human beings may operate out of a sense of "obligation" - a sense of accountability and responsibility to and for others and for the well being of the collective or they may operate out of a sense of "autonomy" (perhaps informed by individualism), that prioritizes the well being and satisfaction of the individual.  This is an oversimplification of a very nuanced and layered discussion, but the very basic sense of it has stayed with me and I watched it play out this morning as I waited in traffic at aformentioned notorious intersection.

It is probably a  given that there will not ever be a traffic light at the intersection - - at least not in my lifetime.  This leaves us with the reality that we have to learn how to best navigate the intersection safely and gracefully.  Obligation and Autonomy meet there.

The synagogue speaker reminded us that Judaism ( and I would add Christianity, Islam and Zen Buddhism) offers a theology of "Obligation."  Throughout the sacred texts the notion of welcoming the stranger, attending to the needs of the most vulnerable, seeking justice for those on the margins cultivates a sense of obligation.  Human beings are accountable before God to and for one another.  When this "theology" is internalized, it fosters compassion, lovingkindness, generosity, justice seeking, and a certain willingness to set one's own needs aside in the service of another.

The internalized "Theology of Autonomy" on the other hand puts the needs and desires of the individual in the center.  I'm thinking this arises out of the sacred texts of Nationalism and Individualism.  What is good for me and mine is the determinant.  

 The theologies play out at the intersection of State and Edgartown Roads.  "Autonomy" appears as drivers keep barreling through on State Road without regard for the traffic that is backed up behind the stop sign on the Edgartown Road.    "Obligation" appears  when a driver stops on State Road to permit the traffic from Edgartown Road to flow.  The appearance of "Obligation" in one driver signals the same to another driver and the intersection becomes the scene of a ballet of sorts as drivers pause and weave in a way that keeps it all moving.  "Autonomy" is brought into balance.

On a larger scale  these last couple of weeks we have witnessed the dynamics between "Obligation" and "Autonomy" as we have anxiously waited for Congress to act to keep the country functioning financially.  Thousands of people have wondered "will I receive my Social Security benefits?"  Vulnerable families wonder how they will feed their families if SNAP benefits are reduced or eliminated.

The news this morning is that an agreement has been reached and will go to the president's desk for his signature.  It is really hard to tell whether either "Obligation" or "Autonomy"  swayed the outcome.

Without a traffic light, perhaps the best we can hope for is the tenuous drama of a ballet.  

Vicky Hanjian

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