May 9th, 2010

Know Thyself: Where the road to sustainability education begins

By Esmeralda Guevara


In her vision for sustainability education, Esmeralda Guevara analyzes how Western culture seeks happiness to the exclusion of living a full life, which inevitably involves knowing pain. Material wealth can buy that happiness, but perhaps at the cost of spiritual fulfillment. By returning to the age-old creed “Know thyself,” argues Guevara, we begin down a road to sustainability that recognizes the importance of ecology as well as economics, and spiritual richness as well as material wealth.

As a mother, as a teacher, and as a student, I am daily made aware that we all must know pain and suffering.  Think through a world without those noble elements—logic it or intuit it—and you quickly come to a world equally void of joy and fulfillment.  In fact, you come to a world that ceases to exist, at least in any meaningful way.

Let’s consider pain and suffering for a moment.  The Prophet (Gibran, 1923) said, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”   What moment more exquisitely replete with a climax of pain leading to a peak of joy than the birth of a child—those who have been completely present for that moment will always remember it as one of life’s crowning events.  And talk about breaking the shell—isn’t this the moment when we first really understood (or will understand, for those who have not yet been there).

So, pain and joy…can’t have one without the other.  Western culture, unfortunately, has a very difficult time holding on to opposites.  Sure, the great Eastern symbol of entwined contraries has been adopted by the West.  But while the Yin-Yang’s natural aesthetic appeal gains it a slot on the Wal-Mart key-chain rack, I question how often its deeply profound philosophical…and psychological…implications are appreciated.

Ironically, Western and U.S. culture, with its daily personal, societal, and political emphasis on the pursuit of happiness, inflicts great pain and suffering.  In part on those very same individuals whom the world’s self-proclaimed philanthropists wish to pull out of their poverty (always defined economically) and bring into the fold of the democratic, just, resource-rich, and always-happy Western way of life.  Though inevitably, as any physician can contest, it is often hard to help without inflicting pain.

But the even deeper irony is in the pain and suffering that happy-crazy Western culture inflicts upon itself.  And this is a deeply rooted and profoundly twisted psychological pain, embedded in the very fabric of each individual’s psyche and inextricable from the collective will.  A pain from which only the Prophet’s breaking of the shell might bring deliverance.  James Baldwin (1962) said,

“How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatsoever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should?  I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization.  I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now—in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life—expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist.  It is a bargain I refuse.”

Yes, we can attempt to avail ourselves of pain.  We can use our economic wealth to inoculate ourselves, and our children, and sit with a virtual guarantee against exposure to true famine and the ravages of war, but at what cost?  And how then do we react to those who do get exposed?  We treat them as if recovering from an illness—“shell-shock,” or “PSTD,” or whatever the mode of the day is for isolating those who have known the depths of human suffering.  Not to mention the quotidian attempt to use psychological methodologies for avoiding the ups and downs of a fully lived life.

And so, no matter your color on the political spectrum, it is the hidden psychological pain—hidden behind the collective will’s unstated goal of imposing a happy, just, democratic…fill-in-the-blank…world—that must be relieved before we can even think about sustainability.   Because, as is so often the case:  to reach the goal, we must first let go of it.  Which is, of course, one of the great lessons of the Yin-Yang.   Let go of the goal!  If sustainability is what we seek, then the path must be virtuous and full of pain, so that we can all know moments replete with joy and fulfillment.

To let go of the goal and to be in the moment, means to know ourselves, and this is not easy.  But it is the unavoidable and necessary Step One on the road to sustainability.  And it is, of course, the age-old (but recently-forgotten) pre-requisite for learning something new.  Once we take that step, or at least strive to take that step—once we begin to strip off the many layers of the culturally-steeped, propaganda-driven, advertising-enriched, consumerist-based race to happiness—and we begin to know our full selves in all their pain and glory, then some simple steps down the road to teaching sustainability, emerge:


  1. Know thyself. (Westerners…please take note…and start here, as your culture was founded with these famous words, inscribed at the Temple of the Oracle in Delphi, and adopted by Socrates, the original teacher, for his credo.)
  2. Economics is only real when it is attached to ecology.
  3. Which is why economic wealth tends to diminish spiritual richness:  spirituality, and even its religious derivatives, always take their roots from the human experience and its ecological underpinnings.
  4. Which, in turn, is why those with economic wealth should always refer to Step 1 above before they even begin to think about how to help someone else.  It is just too easy for economic wealth to gain advantage and power over spiritual richness.
  5. Once we master Steps 1-4, then we can begin to think, with a clear mind, about how to educate sustainability and all its long-term spiritual and economic fulfillment.


Baldwin, J. (1962).  The Fire Next Time.  New York:  Dell Publishing.

Gibran, K. (1923).  The Prophet.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf (1997 pocket edition)

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