The only thing that might still save us is rapid transition to a culture so different that we can’t even imagine it.
“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”
So begins Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The transformation facing us is as strange, but it could be as beautiful as Kafka’s is horrid.
Information is growing, magnifying the good and ill in this world and the distance between them, so any possibility of compromise is ending. We’re headed toward paradise if we find wisdom, or extinction if we don’t.
If wisdom is growing within us, for the moment it is still hidden. For now, all we can see are disastrous consequences of “business as usual.” Separate property creates separate lives with separate interests, so wars and other killings grow common. The market concentrates wealth into ever fewer hands, creating poverty and plutocracy. Externalized costs are killing the ecosystem. Stopping or even slowing this apocalypse would require global policy changes, which can’t happen while we’re ruled by private profit.
The alternative, the road to paradise, requires caring and sharing, changes hard for most people even to imagine. Parables might help. The most appropriate story may be that of the Rapture, where many of us together are suddenly transported to a vastly different and better world. But that tale needs some corrections: “Many of us” won’t be enough; we’re all needed to end what seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the “war of all against all.” And that different and better world won’t be elsewhere; we must remake planet Earth.
We need a change of religion, but I don’t mean something minor like the difference between Christianity and Islam, the difference between Patriots and Steelers, the difference between Coke and Pepsi. Most people here in the USA call themselves “Christians,” but that’s just what they do on Sunday mornings; they have no idea how to base their modern urban lives on the stories of an ancient orator who lived in a primitive desert village. What they actually believe in is the Disney Channel, or maybe the mid twentieth century television program “Leave It To Beaver.” In most episodes, at some point Theodore (“Beaver”) would ask his father why people behaved in a certain way. And his father would reply, “Well, son, I guess it’s because …” and would launch into some platitude about human nature, in a warm and reassuring tone.The unstated subtext was that this is how the world is, and there are natural reasons for it, and it’s okay. The further subtext, not stated and not even thought, was that this way of life is the only one possible; no substantial change is even imaginable. But now we do need big changes.
John Lennon said, “life is what happens while we’re making other plans.” Most people are reluctant to give up those other plans, because they’ve invested so much effort and emotion in them. Imagine that you’ve been building and furnishing a house for many years, and then one day you receive an entirely unexpected message that a spaceship has arrived, and we all must leave in it immediately, and you can bring with you nothing but the clothes you’re wearing. You must leave behind your lovely home, the repository of all your hopes and dreams and efforts.
And the world to which the spaceship will take us is utterly alien, incomprehensibly different. The world is called “love,” and we’ve always been taught that “love” is a good thing, and in fact it is a good thing — but it turns out to be a good thing entirely different from the good thing we thought it would be.
Like any metaphor, this spaceship story falls short of the truth. If we were merely traveling to another planet, your conversations and relations with other travelers would be much like conversations and relations you’ve had on Earth. But they won’t be, where we’re going.
It’s not just dying and being resurrected. No, it’s more like dying and being reincarnated as something very different — like caterpillar becoming butterfly, or Neo awakening from The Matrix.
It’s not just physical. It’s psychological, spiritual, a transformation of your very soul. It’s a total change in how we behave, how we feel about ourselves and each other, how we see the world. It’s an ending of separateness and selfishness, but it’s not the death of individuality, nor is it a loss of anything. In fact, it’s a tremendous gain: It’s a removal of the wall, so that we finally see one another, and strangers become lovers. It’s seeing how our family of seven billion brothers and sisters doesn’t need to be dysfunctional.
Most people don’t want to board the spaceship, don’t even want to acknowledge that it has arrived. They don’t want to change that much, not even to something beautiful, if the beauty is so unfamiliar. They were hoping for a leisurely stroll along a well-lit path, so they could always see and understand the next step before they take it. But instead the world ahead of us appears mad, because — as Nietzsche said — its people are dancing to music we can’t hear yet. The crossing is a leap into the dark, a leap of faith, a leap of desperation from a burning building.
Things are getting really bad. What can still save us? The immense and rapid cultural change that we need would be a miracle. It will take great effort, which people won’t make for what they see as impossible. But human nature is what we choose, not some constant imposed upon us. Evidently, much of our effort must be devoted to spreading the idea that the change is possible, and first of all spreading the idea that spreading ideas is possible.
The change could be really wonderful, if only we could get more people to want it, but that won’t be easy. People won’t be impressed by more facts — we already have plenty of those — and water-into-wine parlor tricks can’t top our high-tech toys. Only something very different can inspire us. It’s something we’ve longed for all our lives, mostly without realizing it, mostly pursuing other things that we thought could substitute for it. We’ll have to find it inside ourselves and each other.
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2016 December 16, version 2.34.