Lighthearted Sobriety in Our Interesting Times
It’s worth contemplating the paradox of our immense good fortune—to have been born, in the words of the Chinese curse, “in interesting times”.
On one hand, we are the luckiest and wealthiest people who have ever lived—enjoying unprecedented wealth and ease, with plentiful delicious food, amazing art and technology, and choices—including almost unlimited information and personal mobility. What’s more, we’re awakening together into the radiant joy of free awareness, in the midst of an unprecedented spiritual renaissance!
On the other hand, in the face of this bounty, most of us tend to feel the limitations on our personal options (comparing ourselves with even luckier people). Worse, we, and humanity, really do face unprecedented stresses and threats—we’re in a world crisis, with environmental degradation, global warming, mass species extinctions, extreme weather, and simultaneous real crises in all our institutions and infrastructure—financial, agricultural, educational, healthcare, political and more.
The bottom line: we face ample reasons to relax and rejoice in gratitude, and to get very serious about multiple “terrifying” challenges. I don’t think we do either fully enough; these times ask to go way further—in both directions, simultaneously. This is not merely a “deep paradox”, it’s a deep existential invitation to evolve our consciousness and culture.
In his bestselling book, You Must Change Your Life, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk penned one of the most searing and prophetic paragraphs I’ve ever read. Please read it carefully:
“The….global crisis….as everyone has been noticing for some time, has begun to send out its apostles. Its authority is real because it is based on something unimaginable of which it is the harbinger: the global catastrophe. One need not be religiously musical to understand why the Great Catastrophe had to become the goddess of the century. As it possesses the aura of the monstrous, it bears the primary traits that were previously ascribed to the transcendent powers: it remains concealed, but makes itself known in signs; it is on the way, yet already authentically present in its portents; it reveals itself to individual intelligences in penetrating visions, yet also surpasses human understanding; it takes certain individuals into its service and makes prophets of them; its delegates turn to the people around them in its name, but are fended off as nuisances by most. On the whole, its fate is much like that of the God of monotheism when He entered the stage scarcely three thousand years ago: His mere message was already too great for the world, and only the few were prepared to begin a different life for His sake. In both cases, however, the refusal of the many increases the tension affecting the human collective. Since the global catastrophe began its partial unveiling, a new manifestation of the absolute imperative has come into the world, one that directs itself at everyone and nobody in the form of a sharp admonition: ‘Change your life! Otherwise its complete disclosure will demonstrate to you, sooner or later, what you failed to do during the time of portents!’
— (p. 444, You Must Change Your Life by Peter Sloterdijk, tr. Wieland Hoban, 2013, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.)
On the surface, this might sound like a call for fear and grim austerity. And, appropriately, we don’t want to go there. Intuitively, we know terror isn’t healthy. Besides, apocalyptic hallucinations have been disproven again and again through history.
Worry is folly; lightheartedness and humor are the soul of true effectiveness. We need to regard this as is a developmental crisis, as humanity’s growth from adolescence to adulthood, or as a bloody “birthing” process, rather than a “dying” process. Biological and cultural evolution have always proceeded under life-and-death challenges, and again and again, amazing creative novelty has burst forth.
However, in the face of Sloterdijk’s searing prophetic words, we are called to examine our tendency toward “denial”. Is our optimism a way to push away anxiety? The human psyche has automatic mechanisms directed at restoring enough equanimity to allow us to function normally. To what degree is our hopeful attitude a reflexive defense?
Human beings’ propensity for apocalyptic delusion is exceeded only by our magnetic pull toward numbness and self-consolation. Jews in 1930s Germany kept telling each other the madness would soon pass. The case for rational optimism relies on many of us taking the crisis seriously enough to manifest remarkable resolve. Denial (that is, deciding to be optimistic without reckoning seriously with the challenges) is morally indefensible—in just the terms Sloterdijk so eloquently articulated above.
But because despair is a self-fulfilling prophesy, optimism is an even more essential moral imperative. To manifest the creativity, courage and cooperation the crisis asks of us we need fierce good humor and even a quality of ease and lightheartedness. More deeply, we need enlightenment—intuitive freedom from the implications of experience.
Notice: as the consideration deepens, the pendulum swings back and forth, taking us further and further into both ligththearted freedom and clear-eyed seriousness, finding a deep existential “yes” to life even while facing, with ever-clearer eyes, the danger signals that flash at us from every direction.
I’m an optimist, but it’s not based on a rational assessment and a prediction. I am pretty sure that no expert decisively knows our odds of finessing this crisis or being visited by various nightmare scenarios. This makes me very confident that those who think they know we’re doomed are wrong.
What to do? Many things, of course. But above all, we’re called to do them from a deeper and deeper existential ground. This means constantly awakening from “the consensus trance” into a more and more profoundly awake and joyful seriousness.
This is one of the bottom lines of the Integral Spiritual Practice I teach.
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