Indira’s Web of Friends

Dear New School Friends:

I hope the new year finds you as well as you can be. As many of you know, I had a lifesaving five-hour surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm at University of California San Francisco Medical Center at the end of August.

The surgery and the recovery literally catapulted me into a new stage of life. I have worked with people with cancer and other life-threatening conditions for more than 35 years. It is quite another thing to experience a life-threatening condition and a major surgery oneself.

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I am beyond grateful for this new lease on life and for this new stage of life. I have turned over the active management of Commonweal to Oren Slozberg and our gifted leadership team. I meet with them weekly to provide my counsel. And I continue to focus on the projects I am most involved with—the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, our new online Cancer Help Program named Sanctuary, Healing Circles Global our recent website Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies, The Resilience Project and its philanthropic partner the Omega Resilience Funders Network, and, of course, The New School at Commonweal.

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If the last six months has catapulted me into a new stage of life, the past four years has certainly catapulted our country into a new stage in our evolution. So much has been written about this that I hesitate to add much of substance. But we know that we cannot go back. And we know that the path ahead is fraught with both dangers and opportunities. We have often taken democracy for granted over the course of my lifetime. We clearly do not have that luxury anymore.

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What is the best role for The New School in this new era that we have entered? First, I would remember our tagline: “Nature, Culture and Inner life.” The New School often provides much-needed respite from the terrible images and headlines that confront us every day. The New School reminds us that we still have nature, we still have culture, and we still have our inner lives. With skill and commitment, we can nourish all three. The New School, at its best, helps us do that.

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The New School has another function. In conjunction with the Commonweal Resilience Project and the Omega Resilience Funders Network, we have been offering a series of podcasts and videos exploring the global polycrisis. We all yearn for quieter and simpler times ahead. But the hard truth is that we live in a world where several dozen global stressors are interacting unpredictably and with increasing velocity. The result is that the future shocks keep coming harder and faster. We have no true choice but to learn to live with this reality. We face a rough road ahead. And the best preparation for the rough road ahead is to explore what we and our communities need for resilience.

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The New School has a third function. It is to deepen our connection between our values and our lives. Parker Palmer describes this as learning to “live in the tragic gap” between how the world actually is and how we would wish it to be. If you live with pure idealism, it is very difficult to make a difference. If you live with cynicism and resignation, you will surely not contribute anything of value. But if you discover and nourish your inner light, and ask how we can each let our little lights shine, then we can each separately and altogether find the best path available to us.

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Some of you know that, for me, the Society of Friends, best known as the Quakers, provides the best example of a community of like-minded people who have changed the world. The Quakers were founded by George Fox who saw that there was “that of God in every person.” The Quakers practice a life of simplicity, frugality, gender equality, and deep commitment to racial equality and justice. They played a central role in ending slavery, in the peace movement, in prison reform, in the environmental movement, the justice movement, and much more.

The way they meet in spirit is very similar to our own healing circles methodology. They sit in silence together. They speak their truth into the center of the room. They listen generously to each other. They practice astonishment at the wide range of ways that the divine expresses itself in different people. And above all they believe that their lives must be a witness. It is not just about talk. It is about living your light as best you can.

The Quakers have always been few in number. There are no more than 210,000 adult Quakers in the world today. Half of them, interestingly, are in Africa. The rest are distributed between the United Kingdom, the United States, and a few other countries. And yet with these very small numbers, the Quakers have functioned like yeast in the rising of some of the great movements for health, environment, and justice over the past 400 years.

Among key Quaker beliefs are:

  • God is love
  • The light of God is in every single person
  • A person who lets their life be guided by that light will achieve a full relationship with God
  • Everyone can have a direct, personal relationship with God without involving a priest or minister
  • Redemption and the Kingdom of Heaven are to be experienced now, in this world.

These are some of the ways Quakers work to make a better world. They are particularly concerned with:

  • Human rights, based on their belief in equality of all human beings
  • Social justice
  • Peace
  • Freedom of conscience
  • Environmental issues – Quakers seek to live simply so as to reduce the burden on the world
  • Community
  • Life.

I am not a Quaker. I sometimes lightheartedly describe myself as a Jewish Christian Buddhist yogic Sufi with Taoist influences. I believe that all religions and spiritual paths have their light as well as their darkness. I choose to focus on the light in all of them. But among all the paths that I have studied, the Society of Friends comes closest to being a model of what I believe Commonweal has to offer in the world and how I believe The New School, specifically, is able to contribute.

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In my 78th year, with this new miraculous time that I have been given, I hope especially to contribute to a vision of Commonweal as more than an organization. Rather, to see Commonweal as a single point in Indira’s web, connected to all the other points on this earth (and beyond) and in every human heart. The point within where we aspire to live with the understanding that every human heart has something of the divine within it.

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I like to see Commonweal, The New School, Healing Circles, and many of our other programs as points of light in this Indira’s web of friends known and unknown around the world. Call it an old man’s fantasy if you will. But in the course of the past 44 years I have had other visions that turned out to manifest in reality. I am hoping this one make some small contribution as well.

The example of the Quakers makes clear that it is not about numbers. We all know Margaret Meade’s famous quotation: “Never doubt that a small group of committed thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

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We know from the past 44 years that this small community of committed thoughtful people has indeed helped change the world. We also know now that Commonweal will continue for decades to come and perhaps far longer than that. So it does not hurt to dream. It does not hurt to dream pragmatic dreams that are well within our reach. It does not hurt to see all of you that participate in The New School as part of our community of friends. That is how I see you, anyway. And if you join me, we will begin to build a deeper and wider community of friends together.

With love and gratitude,
Michael