Super chill book review: Sand Talk (Tyson Yunkaporta)

I read Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World (HarperOne, 2020) a couple months ago in the midst of a several-days-long cat crisis. (Kitty is doing well now, thank you). So I may have been a bit distracted. So maybe take everything I say with an extra large grain of salt. (Maybe a teaspoon?) 

That said, I found the book fascinating and very much worth reading, although I’m sure large important parts of it probably went right over my (very distracted) head. I appreciated Yunkaporta’s Aboriginal Australian perspectives on the world—some of which I recognized from reading other indigenous writers, and others of which were newer to me. 

Here are some quotes that stood out and some things Yunkaporta helped me think about:

1) On Schrodinger’s cat (speaking of cat issues…yikes):

“In this famous thought experiment, you imagine putting a cat in a box with some poison. You don’t know if it has died yet because you can’t see it, so in that moment the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead…

From an Aboriginal cosmological point of view, the uncertainty problem is resolved when you admit you are part of the field and accept your subjectivity. If you want to know what’s in the box so bad, drink the poison yourself and climb in…I begin to see the uncertainty principle not as a law but as an expression of frustration about the impossibility of achieving godlike scientific objectivity” (p. 42)

I like this idea of admitting we are part of the field. That feels right to me. We are, by nature, subjective. And Schrodinger’s cat always struck me as kind of ridiculous, even though I know it’s a little more complicated than just putting a cat in a box with poison—and that it was meant to expose the absurdity of a particular view of quantum mechanics in the first place. (Because really. Poor sweet Whiskers is either alive or dead. You just don’t know which one yet.)

So I appreciated the point about the “impossibility of achieving godlike scientific objectivity.” Why would we think that this is possible? And why would it be the goal in the first place? 

As Yunkaporta goes on to say, “Scientists currently have to remove all traces of themselves from experiments, otherwise their data is considered to be contaminated. Contaminated with what? With the filthy reality of belongingness? The toxic realization that if we can’t stand outside of a field we can’t own it?” (p. 42)

Dude’s got some sarcasm. And he’s also got some points. There’s a conflict between wanting to own things and recognizing that we are part of them. There’s a tension between experiencing belonging and obtaining (a toxic sort of) power. There’s a connection between wanting to achieve objectivity and wanting to stand outside a system; between wanting to stand outside a system and wanting control over that system, or at least the illusion of control.

Colonizing powers and the white dudes in charge of them have made one set of choices when faced with these tensions. Ownership, objectivity, outside-ness, control, power. Yunkaporta invites us to consider a different set of choices, and I’m all for it.

2) On how non-indigenous folks often view indigenous folks, and what we’re looking for when we look to them:

“I don’t think most people have the same definition of sustainability that I do. I hear them talking about sustainable exponential growth while ignoring the fact that most of the world’s topsoil is now at the bottom of the sea. It is difficult to talk to people about the impossible physics of civilization, especially if you are Aboriginal: you perform and display the paint and feathers, the pretty bits of your culture, and talk about your unique connection to the land while people look through glass boxes at you, but you are not supposed to look back or describe what you see” (p. 51).

As a white U.S. American trying to listen to and learn from Indigenous folks, I need this perspective. Am I just interested in looking at “the pretty bits of culture,” or am I interested in hearing people describe what they see when they look back at me and my world? 

As Yunkaporta writes later, “‘Strong indigenous voices’ need to be doing more than recounting our subjective experiences; we also need to be examining the narratives of the occupying culture and challenging them with counter-narratives” (p. 116). 

I think that’s what I really like about this book in general. It’s all about looking back. It’s about challenging occupying narratives. This is a gift—and one that those of us from occupying cultures who realize things aren’t working desperately need.

3) I appreciate Yunkaporta’s language around being “a custodian rather than an owner of lands, communities, or knowledge” (p. 82). Maybe it’s just another way to speak of what many Christians might call stewardship. God invites us not to dominate and subdue the earth (as Genesis 1:28 has too often been understood) but to steward the earth. To care for it well.

Yunkaporta refers to humans as a “custodial species,” which, to me, goes even beyond the idea of stewardship. (Or at least is a refreshingly different way to talk about it.) I wonder if, in our imagination, a steward still stands apart from the land (or communities, or knowledge) she is stewarding, but a custodial species is part of this land (or these communities, or this knowledge). 

As custodians rather than owners, Yunkaporta writes, we erase hierarchies and find a new sort of mutuality and belonging. The custodial role “demands the relinquishing of artificial power and control, immersion in the astounding patterns of creation that only emerge through the free movement of all agents and elements within a system” (p. 82). Which can be hella chaotic. But also good. We were not meant to control, but to care. We were not meant to limit creation but to allow its beauty and goodness to emerge freely. 

4) This story got me thinking, as you might imagine, about that one time Jesus told some fishermen they would become “fishers of people” (e.g. Matt 4:19):

“I once visited an Aboriginal community school in the Northern Territory that was using the metaphor of Aboriginal fishing nets as an education framework. This may have worked as an idea of school and community weaving their different threads together to make the nets, then the students using the nets to catch fish, with the fish representing knowledge and social/cultural capital. But this was not the case. The fish in the net represented the children themselves, and the river represented the community, promoting a very problematic image of the school as an entity that captures children and takes them away to be consumed.

We have to be careful of the metaphors we use to make meaning, because metaphors are the language of spirit, and that’s how we operate in our fields of existence either to increase or decrease connectedness within creation” (p. 105).

When Christians use metaphors like “fishers of people”—or, somewhat similarly, “the fields are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35) or “the harvest is plentiful” (Luke 10:20)—what are we really saying? Is there a way to use these metaphors that doesn’t imply that humans are, as Yunkaporta puts it, being captured and taken away for consumption? Do we need new metaphors that better say what we want them to say (and avoid implying what we don’t want them to imply)?

I think these things are worth thinking about. 

5) I read this part and thought of how Jesus talked about becoming like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (e.g. Matt 18:3):

“Anybody who has small children, or works with them, will be familiar with the qualities of an undomesticated mind. It is wild and unschooled, teeming with innate knowledge processes. Children perform tasks they have not encountered before and you wonder, ‘Where the hell did they learn that?’ They play with absolute dedication and fierce concentration. They learn languages perfectly, to the limits of their adult role models, without explicit instruction and at a phenomenal rate. Most of what we learn in our lifetimes today is during the first few years of childhood” (pp. 135-6).

This is a take on what it means to be like a little kid that I don’t often hear in church-y contexts. What if becoming like a child isn’t just about the things we sometimes assume—like being honest, or being humble, or being curious (although these are certainly good things too)? What if it’s also about being totally wild? 

I’m intrigued by this idea of an “undomesticated mind”—and by the possibility that this might be something God wants for us. That God wants for us that kind of freedom—that kind of Untamed-ness (to borrow Glennon Doyle’s book title), if you will. 

6) Here’s a longer quote that felt pretty clutch to me:

“We still endure longer work hours than our roles require today, for reasons of social control rather than productivity. It’s difficult to find the mental space to question systems of power when we’re working eight hours, then trying to lift heavy weights that don’t need lifting or pedaling bikes that go nowhere for an hour so we don’t die of a heart attack from being stuck for a third of our lives in a physically restrictive workspace. We sleep for another third of our lives (although not if we have small children), then the rest is divided between life-maintenance tasks, commuting, and using the few remaining minutes to connect with loved ones, if we have any. Somewhere in there we also need to find time to study and retrain, unless we want to finish up homeless when our industries inevitably collapse or change direction.

The job is the unquestioned goal for all free citizens of the world—the ultimate public good. It is the clearly stated exit goal of all education and the only sanctioned reason for acquiring knowledge. But if we think about it for a moment, jobs are not what we want. We want shelter, food, strong relationships, a livable habitat, stimulating learning activity, and time to perform valued tasks in which we excel. I don’t know of many jobs that will allow access to more than two or three of those things at a time, unless you have a particularly benevolent owner or employers.

I am often told that I should be grateful for the progress that Western civilization has brought to these shores. I am not. This life of work-or-die is not an improvement on preinvasion living, which involved only a few hours of work a day for shelter and sustenance, performing tasks that people do now for leisure activities on their yearly vacations: fishing, collecting plants, hunting, camping, and so forth. The rest of the day was for fun, strengthening relationships, ritual and ceremony, cultural expression, intellectual pursuits, and the expert crafting of exceptional objects…We have been lied to about the ‘harsh survival’ lifestyles of the past. There was nothing harsh about it. If it was so harsh—such a brutish, menial struggle for existence—then we would not have evolved to become the delicate, intelligent creatures that we are” (pp. 139-40).

Yunkaporta reflects on how “there is no word for work in my home language and none in any other Aboriginal language I have seen” (p. 141). I thought all this was fascinating. I resonate with the idea that an eight-plus hour work day is more about social control than productivity. (I remember reducing my hours at the health tech start-up I used to work for from 40 hrs/week to 30 hrs/week and feeling like I got about the same amount done. Because who can mentally focus on a particular set of tasks for 8 hrs/day?) 

I also resonate with Yunkaporta’s list of things we actually want when we say we want a job. (After all, as this viral Twitter thread from a few weeks ago made clear, no one wants to work anymore…and no one has wanted to work anymore for, like, a really long time.) 

Maybe, as Yunkaporta says, only two or three of these things that we want are available to us through most of our jobs, most of the time—but maybe by operating together as communities we can make more of these things available to more people. “Shelter, food, strong relationships, a livable habitat, stimulating learning activity, and time to perform valued tasks in which we excel.” It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

That’s all I’ve got for now. As always, holler with your thoughts if you’ve read the book, or if you haven’t read the book, or if anything here connected with you.

“You are a Samaritan and you have a demon” – reflections on other-ing, compassion, and discernment

The [religious leaders] answered and said to [Jesus], “Do we not speak well that you are a Samaritan and you have a demon?” -John 8:48 (my translation)

Sometimes when I’m translating New Testament passages from Greek, a phrase jumps out at me like I’ve never really seen it before, even though I’m sure I’ve read it multiple times. It might be something about the way things are put in Greek that made me see it differently, or it might just be the slower pace required to read in a language that’s foreign to me. Sometimes it’s unclear.

Either way, this verse was one of those verses for me yesterday. I’m replacing the literal Greek word “Jews” with “religious leaders” here, by the way, because the point isn’t that they’re Jewish specifically; the point is that they are claiming a special kind of relationship with God due to certain aspects of their religious and ethnic heritage and societal position. This is a mindset available to people from many faith traditions and is certainly common among Christians. I think of the white evangelical pastor who claims to know more about God and God’s will than those he (yes, usually he) has authority over, because of his job title, whiteness, maleness, seminary education, or whatever it may be.

Do we not speak well—that is, do we not speak trulythat you are a Samaritan and you have a demon? Yikes. The casual pairing of a (misplaced) ethnic identity and the accusation of demon-possession really got me here. 

These religious leaders take an ethnic/religious group different from their own—one they don’t particularly like—and say, Jesus, you’re one of them. You aren’t one of us. And that’s basically the same thing as having a demon. All this because they don’t like what he’s saying. (Which, to be fair, is kind of understandable, given that Jesus is saying that their father is the father of lies, and that sort of thing.)

I think it’s interesting that Jesus only responds to the demon part, not the Samaritan part. Perhaps he ignores the ethnic insult as not worth responding to? Perhaps he sees the two accusations as so closely linked that responding to one basically means responding to both? I’m not sure.

Regardless, the phrase you are a Samaritan and you have a demon reveals so much. It reveals exactly what these religious leaders thought of those they considered ethnic and religious outsiders. You aren’t part of our group? Then you might as well be of the devil. (Which strikes me as perhaps not all that different from the evangelical claim that everyone who is not an evangelical is going to hell. But that might be a can of worms for another time.)

I wonder what some modern-day analogies might be, at least in a U.S. context. Maybe it’s any time someone uses the name or characteristics of any sort of identity as an insult. “That’s gay,” for example, or “you throw like a girl”—or, of course, a more vulgar variant, “don’t be such a pussy.”

Maybe it’s also anytime (white evangelical, usually male) religious leaders accuse people of empathizing too much with people who have a different perspective. (Side note: I feel like anytime you’re accused of having too much compassion or too much empathy, you’re probably doing something right.)

I’m thinking of things like, you’re spending too much time reading critical race scholars and not enough time reading the Bible. Or things like, you’re empathizing too much with women in difficult situations who choose abortion; you aren’t staying true to the immovable moral principles of God.

I accidentally stumbled on a blog post recently that basically said exactly the latter. It was deeply disturbing, to say the least. I believe in a God whose empathy is much bigger than my own—and so I believe that the more compassionate I am, the closer I am to God’s will. I don’t know what moral principle would be more immovable than that.

I believe in a God whose deep compassion is best described in the New Testament by one of my favorite Greek words: σπλαγχνίζομαι. Literally, “I am moved to the bowels.” This word is often used to describe Jesus. Jesus was moved in his innermost being by people’s suffering, by people’s loneliness and longings and weaknesses and pain—that is, by the realities of human experience. He had no higher moral principle than the principle of love.

Sometimes things are confusing. It can feel like there are good arguments on both sides of a scenario, and it can feel hard to tell what’s actually good and godly. I offer what I’ll dub the “Samaritan/demon” test, which may help with discernment in some cases. If there is a side that’s saying something like “you are a Samaritan and you have a demon,” I do not want to be on that side. 

I don’t want to be on the side that uses ethnicities or races or genders or sexualites as put-downs. I don’t want to be on the side that weaponizes its own religious, racial, gender, or other sorts of privilege to try to silence others, like the religious leaders tried to silence Jesus. I don’t want to demonize people who have had experiences different from my own. I don’t want to live like the religious or ethnic “other” is the devil.

I want to live like I have nothing to fear and everything to learn from these “others.” I want to be on the side of compassion, of empathy, of being moved to the bowels by humans’ honest testimonies to their own experiences—especially those who are most vulnerable and most marginalized. I want to live by love.

What does the “you are a Samaritan and you have a demon” accusation make you think about? What other modern-day analogies would you draw? Feel free to holler in the comments or however you like.