When Worldviews Collide

This term I am teaching Ecopsychology. Yesterday, we began to talk, in-depth, about tribal understandings of the world. The objective was simply to introduce the concept of worldview to the class. The class, which began with much laughter and happiness among the students, became very difficult as we discussed a generalized, pan-tribal, description of the world, and compared that to our familiar Western worldview.

We began class by playing with stories, exploring some of the many ways we use stories to build selves and social worlds. In the second half of our three hour class, I spent entirely too much time attempting to convince the students that peoples could hold remarkably different versions of how the world works, and that these differing versions could all be, in one way or another, empirical.

Some students balked at the notion that anyone could consider all life forms to be of equal standing. They were even more bewildered by the idea that everything in the world is aware and thoughtful. The students finally revolted at the notion the spirit world could act in the material world, and in fact, might do so on a regular basis. They were terribly uncomfortable with a world in which cause and effect were complex, and often, to the Western mind, paradoxical.

After class, as I sat in the classroom, alone, thinking about the frustration, anger, and even boredom I had seen on the faces of some students, I felt sad to have become caught up in my own dogmatic stance. I had fiercely wanted them to acknowledge the reality behind my experience as a tribal person. I realized my desire for acknowledgment had trumped my  teaching.

Just as I was about to leave, two students returned to the classroom, wishing to talk about their experiences. They had each experiences that did not fit their everyday description of the world. They too craved validation, even more than they wished explanations. I was, and remain, grateful to them for returning.

It is easy to forget we humans tell stories to create the world. Many of us believe the worlds our stories make are concrete and final. Yet to some extent, differing stories creates unique worlds, worlds that seem to have different rules.The stories we tell serve as creative filters through which we see, and make sense of the world. Through stories, selves, families, nations, and even universes are created and maintained.

This morning, as I was thinking about class, I was reminded of an event that occurred more than 30 years ago. I was training with a medicine woman who had spoken to me about feeling the Earth as my heartbeat. I found this notion difficult to accept. One afternoon I found myself lying on the floor and in our living room. As I relaxed, I became aware that the Earth had a heartbeat, which I felt through my body; Pachamama’s heart was beating me into existence. While I would like to report this was a positive experience, at the time it was quite disconcerting. The truth is I was more frightened than anything else. After all, in the Western world, human hearts are only metaphorically connected to Pachamama.

A world, in which everyone and everything is connected, and where everything is aware and engaged, is a very different world from the everyday world most of us live in. Such an aware, awake, receptive, world, invites us to be respectful, responsible, and connected. In such a world one can be solitary, but never alone. In such a world, our every action matters.

Today, as I watch the snow fall, I am aware of how deeply ingrained our worldviews can be. I also have new respect for the difficulties created when two divergent world views meet. It is easy for us human beings to conflate being a dominance culture with having an accurate worldview. This error can create much resentment and suffering.

2 thoughts on “When Worldviews Collide

  1. Hi Michael,

    I found your blog through Andrea Mathieson’s blog. You make such a valid point here. Both about the discomfort created in a collision of worldviews, and about the power we give to the stories we create. I find I spend quite a bit of time talking with people about becoming comfortable with discomfort.

    Powerful post…thank you for sharing it!

    1. Thanks, Tracie,

      I find myself struggling to make space for discomfort – especially grief and longing. Stories are the stuff of group cohesion and dissonance – complex stuff. Sacred stuff. And yes, so uncomfortable when they create dissonance.


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