21 Questions for 2020: #4

4. Is there any silver lining to the dismal political and planetary events of our time? 

A dilemma I wrestle with daily is how to stay politically engaged and attuned to the troubles of our time, while not being so dragged down by all the negativity that I become paralyzed by fear and despair. 

I believe that each of us contributes to the general mental, emotional climate of our society, and ultimately our planet. 

If, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggested, there is a planetary “noosphere” or collectively created “sphere of the mind,” it is now being augmented by our incredible World Wide Web, which spreads the news of the day wider and faster than ever before. And it is sadly true that “if it bleeds it leads”: bad news always seems to be amplified, while good news lost in the furor of the day’s disasters. 

Thus, in our age of “hive mind,” the planetary climate is being flooded with negativity. Each bad news headline assaults our psyches, snowballing and compounding the negative drag on our collective spirits, ultimately affecting the health and vitality of the planet overall.

We can get lost in this waking nightmare of negativity.

Given this scenario, my question is: How can we engage with the day’s disasters without being dragged down by them? If we don’t want to tune out entirely, escaping to la-la land (a choice only available to the most privileged), what is the best approach? 

One thing I know is that we humans are herd animals—intensely social—and each of us acts as a beacon for others. If you see me despairing and fearful, your own light is likely to dim as well. So the importance of keeping our spirits up goes beyond the well-being of the individual. 

One way we can do this is by acting with positive intention in everything we do. Putting our values and ideals into practice as best we can, in our own little lives, has larger ripple effects than we can know. 

I am also trying to understand our current political and planetary challenges as necessary transformations that will lead to better days.

On the political level, our old systems have become too rigid and need a serious re-invention. In the past, such political overhauls have only come about through violence, as happened when the French and American Revolutions successfully threw off the tyranny of the monarchy. 

Theoretically, humans are capable of transforming our social systems through mutual accord and agreement. That is a slower process, more akin to the natural rhythms of biological change. 

But in 2020, we are in a period of great acceleration. Climate disruption is happening faster and faster as the biofeedback loops are set into motion: witness the Australian fires and the rapid melting of the polar ice caps. Political disruption is also happening in sudden leaps and bounds: Trump losing the public vote but gaining the Oval Office anyway; Britain, in one vote, set on a course to leave the European Union. 

In each case, what happens in one part of the planet reverberates all over the world, through our individual and collective responses, and picks up steam.

When we respond with fear and anger, the collective fog of fear and anger builds, creating storms of negativity in our social climate that may indeed lead to violence and the sudden collapse of our current social systems.

The dark vision of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” seems aptly matched to our time, though it was published 100 years ago in 1920.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But I disagree with the “blank and pitiless” vision of the second half of the poem. 

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

In contrast to Yeats’ nightmarish vision, I propose that the “Spiritus Mundi” coming towards us now is not a “rough, slouching beast,” but a radiant new incarnation, a Second Coming bringing light and freedom to a world that has become dark and stagnant, and is desperately in need of transformative change.

We can look to Nature for inspiration here. When a natural system collapses—say, a million acres of forest go up in smoke—Nature doesn’t sit around bemoaning her fate. She simply gets busy and starts creating again, anew, from the ground up—a cooperative activity involving every living particle she can muster. 

The opening provided by the absence of trees is an opportunity for new, different life forms to develop: instead of trees, grasses can grow. Flowers and shrubs will follow.

We may not be able to head off the violence and turmoil that are coming at us with the speed and force of a psychic tsunami these days. But we can change how we view it. 

We can see the silver lining in this time of “things falling apart,” knowing that out of the ashes of the old, new life is always born. We can focus on the opportunities and blessings that will come with the transformation of old, outdated systems. 

By keeping our spirits high enough to counter the prevailing drag of the deluge of bad news, we can imagine ourselves as free, light-hearted creatures, full of positive potential, dancing toward Bethlehem to be reborn. 

Change starts from the creative spark of the imagination. If we can dream it, we can make it so. 

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