This is an extremely difficult time to write about the reality and history of the world and of our various nested cultures, from a standpoint of firm and ever expanding compassion.
I have said it before, but I have to repeat – I outright love a lot of people who could not be left in the same room together without fighting. Because I truly do love them, I am of course always trying to better understand them, more clearly hear what their hearts are all about, and cut past the surface chatter which so many of us now use as an excuse to greatly enjoy misunderstanding each other.
I have some very big themes I’ve been working on for decades: extending genuine compassion and rights to children, understanding of structural poverty and the psychological effects of being pushed into an out-group for any reason. The way in which silencing predictably leads to fury, and also the extraordinary potential we all always have, to become better people. Right now, it feels very near to useless to have ever worked on these themes, and almost masochistic to continue so determinedly in their pursuit. There is simply no ‘market’ at the moment for broad understanding and compassion.
So, since I really do care about love and aspire to ever increasing understanding and awareness of truth (and never was chasing a market), I’ve ended up spending a lot of time thinking about what is going wrong. What is interfering with our hearts’ ability to make connection, to build instead of tear-down society, and make better lives for each other and our children with our most resilient, positive and helpful spirit.
I have a few big themes which are part of how we got here, for which I’m working on big pieces, so I can address them in a helpfully rich way. But there’s actually one incredibly specific mistake which applies to left, right, hyper political, apolitical, and every tribal variation I can think of.
For some reason, pretty much everyone now talks and acts as if their own personal indignation is an important force in the world. They think they can be a politically sophisticated person, just by hating the right list of idealogical opponents, or be a patriot, just by hating the right list of national enemies. The old requirements: care, respect, humility, sacrifice and service to others, are all entirely absent!
First of all, what we feel inside our heads is always strictly subjective and emotional. We feel what we feel because of very specific ongoing biological and experiential processes – and the picture of the world we create in our heads has about as much to do with the true full objective reality of the world as a fairy tale. Absolutely everyone is like this. Our human mindset is FUNCTIONAL. We like to pretend it is rational, because we still foolishly and pridefully deny the obvious centrality of our emotions. But almost every opinion you hear now, actually takes the form – Because I am angry, here is today’s list of things I have decided to blame. We don’t ‘become’ angry for a reason, we use our reason to explain the fact that we have already decided we love our anger, and consider stoking it up daily a personal duty (of fealty?) to it.
I apologize if that sounds offensive to some – and believe me, I am quite angry about a number of ongoing tragedies around the world myself. Heartbreakingly, if I say Tigray, most people won’t even know what I’m talking about – even the ones who swear they care about black lives, and if I say Afghanistan, from which the United States recently outright stole hundreds of millions of desperately needed dollars, many will sneer and think ‘They are mean to women” and thus ignore the staggering scale of famine predicted, or even, with obviously racist and genocidal brutality, consider it somehow deserved.
If we actually cared about black lives, we’d insist that the Congo must be stabilized and epic scale reparations begun at once. We all paid for the weapons and ammunition which caused at least five million deaths and brought ruin to a region the size of Europe, not simply so we could enjoy our lovely cellphone economy, but so that we could make cellphones cheap enough to replace them at our whim. Disposable pocket computers made millions of black lives disposable to us. We haven’t even apologized yet, we just keep destroying whatever stands in the way of whatever we want. This is what a great many others hear, whenever we use the word “Freedom”.
If we actually cared about the women of Afghanistan, instead of just really enjoying our hatred of sexists, we would be incredibly determined that they must not be left to starve to death. Are we?
What we really care about now isn’t the issue we claim, but our own precious anger – the causes we so often take up – even the absolutely righteous and incredibly important ones – are almost inevitably steered in a destructive direction, not by the nature of the cause itself, but by our collectivized hatred. We bring the poison into the mix ourselves.
Just imagine if everyone who said “I love Greta” actually STOPPED DRIVING AND FLYING. That would really help, might even buy us years. But we all know we won’t do it – nor even try. We show up for the exciting emotional part that happens inside our own heads – or sometimes get out to celebrate a big jamboree of fury with others – but when it comes to making a simple serious long-term sacrifice for our principles – even a sacrifice of convenience, or fashion – we won’t do it. Push this point too insistently, and you will be accused of advocating oppression – limitation of the individual.
But of course – oppression and destruction of our precious free-spirited individuals (and our fun) is what happens when society gets past the safe middle zone of balance, and freaks out. Personal restraint, responsibility, respect and consideration for one another, even when our views vary greatly, are all forces which help contain our always present and always dangerous primitive yearning for the comfort of oppression. (Damn I wish people would read more post war psychology – Jung especially – there is nothing trivial about the evil unleashed by mass-denial).
The force of all this gathered and excited hatred is really vast at this genuinely depressing point in history – it is also now regularly turbo-boosted by a whole range of new fears (got to renew that product life-cycle). The sad thing is that it doesn’t even matter what tribe you’re talking about, in every form “Big Hate” is always anti intellectual, anti humanist, anti kindness, anti faith and proudly culturally destructive – its goal isn’t to create a lasting improvement, but to cause pain to opponents.
We’ve got so weird that one can now very easily stir up a lot of anger just for defending principle itself. (A widely valued good, so short a time ago as to be dizzying)
On the other hand (and this is the ‘Big Hug’ bit for today) each piece of that vast force of hatred – which is always passionately convinced it takes different sides, but actually feeds itself, its opponent, and every sort of con-man, huckster, imbecile, tinpot and warmonger alive, equally and endlessly – lives inside one individual human(e?) being.
Each one of us can surrender to the lustful savour of hatred, the thrill of a pitchfork mob, or else grapple with and overcome that ancient foe inside ourselves, and try to help our friends grow past it also, to find their higher capabilities for growth, cooperation, responsibility and advanced work.
This is not, as some fools suggest, abandoning the search for justice or the rebuilding of community. This is about taking these aspirations to a more serious, disciplined and productive level, where our helpful efforts can gain allies from all sides, instead of our cathartic dramas inevitably energizing the very worst of our enemies (and thus helping to silence all of our potential allies among them). *
Which brings me to an odd question. Doris Lessing, who was driven out of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) after the second world war for being a communist organizer (which, in those colonial days, still seemed to many Africans like hope for liberation) and went on to write some truly significant literature advancing feminism, humanism, and the most sophisticated political understanding since Orwell – an atheist with impeccable credentials, no one can argue – nevertheless observed somewhat mournfully that (I paraphrase) “At least when everyone went to church, we all had respect for the way language could move and inspire people. The power of words chosen carefully and spoken well, and the great value of scholarship, which could so brilliantly inform those words.”
When we think about our leaders nowadays – outstandingly incompetent, left, middle and right, really, even after we factor-in the highly corrosive effects of the internet on structures of authority in general – we almost always frame it as if we citizens aren’t getting what we ought to be getting. As if people deserve more from our representatives. But are we really so sure they don’t represent us truly, but seem unrecognizable because they are us, shorn of all our favourite denials?
Of course – history shows that there have always been some incompetents with power – it is the fact that this now seems the dominant mode which concerns people in so many places around the world that used to seem stable and mellow. Modern people have also come much closer to consensus on a lot of basic societal matters than we sometimes realize, which means it is legitimately difficult for politicians to do good things for us that seem substantial, especially within the time-frame of an election cycle. But reading history also shows us that humans are capable of changing the world in gigantic ways quite rapidly when we decide in overwhelming numbers that we really want to.
I can remember many moments in my life when leaders here and elsewhere appealed past our anger or fear as individuals, to our calmer and more compassionate selves. I can remember leaders who said hard true things to their people, even though they knew it would cost them popularity, because they also felt confident that out there in the general public, that appeal to universal compassion and respect would resonate with enough, to really matter in the long run. We were sometimes smart enough to support leaders who would sacrifice themselves, just to smarten us up. Weird, right? But not a myth, I swear, even though we’ve seen almost none of it so far, in this sad and war-full century.
I say we ought to take a moment and seriously ask ourselves –
Are we still the kind of people who could be effectively moved by such appeals?
Are our better natures still profoundly important to us?
Does it take a crude cattle-prod of emotional overexcitement, just to get us off the sofa?
Do we require a speech with a sneer, to really cheer?
Do we always need to put a foot on a fallen foe, to feel good? Is that what we now are?
(And if it is, aren’t we actually being represented rather brilliantly, in all our amoral idiot-splendour?)
Finally, am I a complete idiot for even trying to talk about this stuff, when I am bombarded by clear evidence from all sides that so many love their anger incomparably more than they love human dignity, humility, striving, satisfying contribution, culture, art, or even the other struggling people around them? (Not even rhetorical, I’m honestly and for-real wondering).
Thankfully, I find evidence for love also, and kindness, and spontaneous new forms of humility and learning. I see great hearts old and young, holding out bright beacons to guide others in to safe waters, even as they draw fire with their unashamed brilliance. And so I am able to suspend all of my cynical conclusions, embraced as I am by these clear proofs of bright enduring spirit in dark heartless times.
Will we think of our families, dear ones, the world of our children’s children, overcome the worst within our own hearts and feed the light? Or will we be overcome by our fears and lusts and lend all of our emotional weight to the side of hate?
I dare not begin to calculate, nor even guess the answer by means of my customary whimsy. Upon this question hangs far more than any of us seem willing to recognize, or speak aloud if we do.
But in an age like this, it is perhaps enough just to do one faithful watch, keep one small flame of hope from guttering out, so it is still there to light another candle from, come morning.
*Which has not ever in history been shown to lead to positive long term change. Seriously. Malcolm X was a revolutionary force and speaker for years, but he did not become an existential threat to the power of those governmental racists (J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, in particular) until he returned from the Haj, having left his racism behind for good on the pilgrimage. Just as the Black Panthers shocked people with their guns and rights protests, but it was their community social programs which scared the crap out of the powerful racists in government at the time, and provoked them to outright state political murder (Fred Hampton most clearly and incontrovertibly). READ HISTORY