On today’s walk with puppy Shadow, we passed by the newly installed Elinor Ostrom statue in front of Woodburn Hall on the Indiana University. campus.
Ostrom was a hero to many people, including myself. I met her once, in 2005, not long after I had completed a full year of conscious grieving in solitude upon the sudden death of my husband. Jeff and I had moved to Bloomington, Indiana, because he wanted to attend law school. But then, soon after, he died.
My introduction to her came during coffee hour following a Sunday service at the U.U. Church. This was before I knew of her great fame — which a few years later, would spread world-wide with the Nobel Prize in Economics. On that morning, she was standing as the center of attention with others who obviously looked to her with great respect, but I had no idea why. Physically, she appeared as short, somewhat stout, energetic, and dressed very plainly. More like a babushka than a personage. Very approachable, curious, and, I’d say, utterly without the trappings of ego that usually drape us lesser folks who are attempting to appear more than we actually are to others! She didn’t care. She was obviously living and moving from the inside out —which has always been my favorite definition of “crone.”
Later, when I discovered what she was famous for — well, it blew my mind. She was NOT caught in the capitalism vs. socialism dichotomy that captures most people on this planet at this time. Instead, her focus was on solving common problems, many of them inherently messy, “from the ground up,” locally, cooperatively, successfully. And, what’s more, with examples she gathered from all over the world, she demonstrated that this way of approaching common problems actually works.
Her rock-bottom assumption about human nature was that, left to our own devices, we tend to cooperate rather than to compete; that we really do have each others’ interests at heart when facing a common local need. This feels very different than the prevailing Hobbesian view of human nature, where every man is only out for himself, if left to his own inclinations.
But, as Elinor points out: scale is important. Keep things local, and her way of viewing human beings could prevail. In other words, de-centralize!
But I wonder: how about now, when everybody has masks on in public, so that we cannot see each other’s faces? Especially if we have not met before we see the other’s masked face? What kind of local cooperation is possible then? Surely, we rely in part on the infinite complexity of facial expressions to help us understand and recognize the intent of the other. This business of masking and social distancing — is it not in part designed to prevent us from the kind of cooperative living that Elinor speaks of?
What would Elinor have said about culture’s current fearful obsession? Would she view masks like we are supposedly being conditioned to view them, as empathic for others, that not wearing a mask is therefore selfish? I have a feeling she would have viewed that shibboleth as utter hogwash.
So did thoughts go through my mind as I stood there, viewing the weirdly still sculpture of her highly energetic self, wishing she would come back to life and get all the obedient, compliant, virtue-signaling students, staff, and professors walking through campus with masks obscuring their faces to just rip ’em off, let go of FEAR (False Evidence Appearing Real), and get back to the very human business of expressing as unique individuals on this good Earth while learning how to observe and enact our innately common life.
But then, am I just projecting onto Elinor my own feelings? So that I don’t have to feel so alone in this politically correct academic town?
The other day, coming out of my local credit union and ripping off the durn mask as usual, I just about ran into a masked man about to enter through the same door. His eyes were very clearly grinning, sparkly: YES! — to my hasty, disgusted rip off. So I blurted out, “We’re just going to have to learn to communicate using our eyes!” Yes! He laughed, and agreed. He had just done that, with me. Thank you.