Our unique genius has liberated us from having to hunt and gather. We are now free to pursue other things. The pursuit-of-other-things is both a blessing and a curse, and is part and parcel of who we are.
Recent report on Fareed Zakaria's GPS on CNN.
I remember when I first did business in Shanghai in 1997, I took all my assumptions there, my dreams, my fantasies, and a focused purpose, or so I thought.
How might we describe what kind of country China is? Especially those of us who have been there. On any given day the answer would change, like a Myers Briggs test. Each of us has our own description based on our unique perspectives, values, desires, biases, and experiences. We may find that we have much in common concerning our understanding of a dynamic and powerful nation, its people and its environment, but, at best, our most profound reckoning will only amount to a transient image, a snapshot that will have layers folded upon it and modified in many ways over time. Unless we have had a long-term relationship with a country and its people we can hardly say we know that much about it. And if we don’t have much invested in the place, no obligations, no roots, then our connection, however profoundly felt, will nevertheless be superficial.
But let’s open the question even further and ask why do we bother to explore anything? How closely can we even examine ourself? Before our experiences, before there are data, facts and lines of evidence to analyze there are stubborn assumptions, like dense jungles of thistles impossible to hack through without the right tools.
There is a subset of people in any population who are actually concerned about how things really are, they inquire vigorously with minds wide open knowing they will often stumble; they try to imagine how things ought to be in their world, and millions of people are listening them, they’re actually paying attention, but still, even though they’re listening, they may never be inspired to act upon things that truly impact their lives and their communities.
Stuck in the mire of our habits and distractions we have forgotten how to act. Why is that? Are we really so comfortable? Is this “Thing of Ours” really the best of all possible worlds? For the time being at least, is this “Thing of Ours” really even tolerable? We tolerate what we're used to. Terror often comes with wisps of sweet dreams, making us calm and acquiescent until circumstances start tearing us apart.
What a strange balance “Us” and “Them” strikes. These circles dividing us, the lines in the sand, the borders, the ideologies, the religious sects, the political factions; these three-dimensional culture spheres defined by values of various importance arrayed in comparable significance, in the complex dimensions of human culture and society; constantly intersecting each other, passing through each other, borrowing from each other, sharing, stealing, parsing, absorbing, rejecting, permeating and destroying each other.
(Relativism, Multiculturalism, Our Differences - to hell with that - it’s not that simple.)
Our parents, no matter where they came from, were no better at predicting the future than we are. If they were thoughtful, curious, well read and well fed; and if they were fortunate enough to find themselves members of a kind and considerate community allowing for clear intentions to naturally sprout from immediate challenges; and if they were motivated by familial love; and if they were healthy, happy and concerned about the future welfare of their children; and if they were full of ideas, creating opportunities, and confident in their ability to succeed — indeed, full of possibilities, informed by a profound understanding of history; and, if their understanding, having been strengthened even more by tradition, and recent experience, and fortified by suffering, failure and sacrifice; and having had this great advantage, and having worked hard as hell, doing their very best, day-by-day, to give their children the greatest opportunities they were able to give them; and tragically, suddenly, as is natural, had their lives taken from them, or even having had surrendered their lives willingly, because of any manner of circumstances; self-sacrifice; betrayal; horror; happenstance — an interruption so rude and base (as we all know death is the most sudden of all things, although suffering and anticipation focuses and intensifies to an acute state before it dissipates) and even if they died feeling resolved in a peaceful memory — having found their death-bed to be a nest of hope for the next generation — a generation of promise and passion: A generation, yet again, engaged in crossing rivers, crossing oceans, climbing mountains — of overcoming immense barriers, of enduring prejudice and hatred, of wandering in deserts, of enduring wars, of starvation, of suffering, of genocide, or even of triumph, glory, and salvation — these simple descendants of generations of myth-makers now turned market-makers swimming in an ocean of creative destruction would still remain simply human. And we might remain, forever and ever, simply out of control.
The proud descendants of generations of people who ventured to the places they had the will to go, or where compelled to go, or had to go, and who did the best they could in their adopted regions, despite the conditions. Those modest people, far from being crusaders, not possessing the cultural audacity to assume they knew better, who only had to work for a better future, are now eclipsed by a generation of shirkers, intellectual flat liners who squander immense advantages like gamblers addicted to the rush of the fall, and after impact can only wonder how this insane tragedy could have happened — and whose sense of wonder, at that fateful moment, lasts but a picosecond.
Generation after generation, the nature of our suffering remains the same, a dull panicked pain caused by always being too late to meet the challenge — and the grief imposed by having lost our purity along with our excuses. We should know better than to let ourselves be so dulled down. Isn't that so? Is purity defined by lack of wits? With everything we have now, shouldn't our shame and suffering take on some special immediate significance that would transcend all that came before and liberate us into something new, something different from what we already know? Even if we think our lives are truly novel and unique, why can't we summon the strength to hope for something more in common with real liberation? Couldn't we at least revisit our definitions of freedom, license, liberty, democracy, and even humanity within the unique context we have now. Couldn't we embrace, once and for all, complexity, randomness, and change? Isn't self-deception and self-satisfaction nothing less than pure evil? And couldn’t we recognize that no one individual is ever truly in charge, and that from nothing something may come, and that not to build on what we have is truly sinful?
Is this well-worn path through the jungle leading somewhere better? Of course the path has its utility and meaning, but what lies in the woods away from our usual destination? Isn't it true that humans are explorers? We go out and find out: experience, test, improvise, experiment, invent, imagine, create, fail and find, adopt and abandon, persist and give up, chase and flee, while building an unconscious web of perception along the way; and then, through some amazing intermediary processes this web-of-perception turns into a model of reality. Then via chemical, kinetic, light, heat, thermal, and intrinsic energy combined with mysterious willpower, seemingly instantaneously, the miracle of conscious thought begins to create a narrative of what we experience, and as this reality evolves and changes we create from the fruit or failure of our endeavors the things that define us. Wisdom is the result of our adventures, follies and failures. Wisdom comes with the attention paid to important aspects of our existence. Wisdom is the deep understanding of our vulnerabilities and our strengths, our successes and our failures.
We don't live in small isolated bands anymore, we live in a global economy of consumers. And our current mandate is to consume more and more until we consume everything. Let's not be fooled by words like “green”, “natural”, “organic”, and “sustainable”. As our population grows the current global business paradigm stands for unchecked growth in consumption; and we all must know, at least intuitively, where that eventually leads.
In many ways we are different from our ancient ancestors, and yet, there are aspects of human nature that never seem to change. Some aspects of our nature, it seems, are too complex a puzzle for evolution to act upon. Or perhaps there simply isn’t enough time for a brilliant species to come into harmony with its genius; perhaps wise species are all destined to disappear in a flash — wiped out in the prime of their youth by reckless invention and spurious desires. We seem to be in a hurry to taste oblivion because we just can’t endure the immense weight of being conscious of our own being. We shed crocodile tears when thinking of our fate while remaining oblivious completely to the harmony and beauty of our crocodile minds. And indeed which creature has been here longer? (Two hundred million years for the crocodile vs. two hundred thousand years for modern humans — will we be able to surpass that record?)
We are not history, we are not the future, nor are we merely dreamers and hopeful actors. What we remember we should forget, and what we have forgotten is how to remember all the things that make us what we are. We cannot rely on future trends or technologies to save us because we are not yet wise enough to comprehend their profound effects. What we need to rely on is the true importance of prime values. We must put the right value on every aspect of who we are and on everything we depend on. We must learn to value the network itself and all the interdependencies that make every system work.
Merely fighting, slaving and dying for a changing set of values will not set us free, nor will we be set free by fighting, slaving and dying to conserve a set of values. To understand the complex interdependencies, the unintended consequences, the random fluctuations, the stumbling forward and falling back requires great humility and patients. To map the damage, to truly appreciate the collateral damage caused by our actions marks only the beginning of the quest to comprehend the importance of true value. The mental anguish required to do this is necessary to establish a balanced interpretation of reality, and the core values inherent in it and emerging from it that will most help our species improve its quality of life and give us the wisdom to preserve and care for our environment. We need only a slight bit more courage.
Those of us lucky enough have an internet connection, to have that amazing encyclopedia at our fingertips, find ourselves mesmerized by TED TALKS; presentations that belie complex things that we can never hope to consolidate into a well conceived and ideal culture. The current trend, “Public Meeting Lite”, requiring fewer calories and less energy to comprehend is only diverting us from even more empty distractions. Our souls are on a crash diet imposed by the invisible hand. We have become accustomed to nice little sketches that wrap our minds in insulation preventing us from embracing the challenges of true argument and debate. Counterfeit truths are the only thing on the menu that we copyright and trade on the market of the spectacle in a hall of mirrors. (We would rob our own tombs if we thought it would raise the price of our bones.) And this entertainment, remember, is reserved for those of us who can afford the price of the platform. The audience is in a silo of small-change, clapping in quicksand — shallow knowledge swallows us whole producing a dark silence, followed by a sharp ringing in our heads (as opposed to a light at the end of a tunnel) followed again by complete silence, and the humiliation of having a faint feeling that you're still confused and have nothing to give — and the utter helplessness caused by the bondage of inaction.
Perhaps, those who compose such narratives only hope to perfect the dynamics of their ideals. (Values and ideals reveal their true beauty when mutating, as new traits flower solving problems, or creating unpredictable new pathways, or producing better qualities.) The story tellers perform before captivated fans, willing dupes waiting desperately for consolation. Fans who wish to have their fears assuaged by the light of human brilliance, hoping to absorb and maintain that fading light after the performance has ended.
Being a member of an esteemed audience allows us to find comfort in the bosom of our group as we believe we can’t survive if shunned.
And the story is almost always the same: those forced to endure an epic struggle eventually become heroes and salespeople. And so, in such an enduring way, nobility is defined simply by the struggle to survive — survival being its own banal reward — along with the products that facilitate our survival.
And as we capitalize on our observations of our derived and typical opinions stolen from our peers, plagiarized from history, and gleaned (meme’d) from our culture: Those things that we have been exposed to, and those things we can claim as inspiration for our own ideas, those things that give rise to faith in our "Agency", will, at the very least, be given the mechanism for our fantasy selves to be sculpted by. The river doesn’t necessarily determine its course through attrition.
We can package these mundane ideas into well-reasoned and orchestrated presentations that make us comfortable with our pretensions. This sad nature of ours — this unforgiving nature of ours; burdened by habits, worship, our narcissism; our hubris and our slavery to fashion: Our thirst for a place in the geometry of complex social structure and expression, our addiction to each other and ourselves — a Platonic vessel that ought to transcend thought, defined only by its emptiness, emerging from the void, as temporary as our universe.
Whether we fade or blossom, we will pay for the risks we take, for our losses, and for the power we temporarily gain; like some horrific deal with the Devil where the payoffs sum up our doom. We will still celebrate our performances — for our presentations are but our way to sell the circus to the pray and the house to the predator.
Applaud for what is familiar, for the common narrative, for the lack of creativity, and the lack of understanding of who and what we are: The world of imperfect actors, who, although striving constantly themselves, have not the clarity of thought to quell the noise of the 21st Century and champion peace and vitality.
The noise, it seems, even way back when, when people could only scratch their dreams into rocks in dark caves, could not be silenced: But one has to wonder at their experiences, and the courage it took just to be human — the courage it took to simply be. Being without the anxiety of becoming may sound like heaven, but being in our world requires us to constantly strive for something better.
Links for Political Ignorance Index: