Today at breakfast, a friend and I were talking about "big" optimism and pessimism -- about humanity's prospects.
We were discussing our multiple simultaneous emergencies (overpopulation, climate change, culture wars, and the new emerging design vulnerabilities of a single globalized human life-support system).
We considered how attitudes tend to polarize. Many extreme postmodernists feel very pessimistic. Their words are haunted by a quality of dread, a sense of impending calamity. They seem depressed, or even possessed by an overwrought sense of guilt, shame, and foreboding.
And we considered how some of our Integral friends, reacting to the self-fulfilling prophetic defeatism of postmodern anxiety and doubt, have attempted to opt radically for optimism. Since history and evolution are always developmentally progressing forward towards greater depth, complexity, and consciousness, they have installed optimism as an article of faith, perhaps even at the cost of going into denial of the likelihood of the global human economy being tested by some "500-year flood" type events--disastrous systemic shocks and large-scale socioeconomic dislocations.
The Core Existential Question
I told Bert that what I think haunts this discussion is a core existential question: Are we inspired or discouraged by an uncertain, treacherous human future? Can we use our fear productively? The prospect of a new dark age, of a "Mad Max" descent into warrior consciousness, or of human extinction is so terrifying as to be mind-altering. We don't want this for our grandchildren. Can we tolerate that possibility, and even be drawn to heroism by its potential eventuality? Is it worth working for evolution even if there's a significant likelihood of evolutionary regression?
For me, this all goes back to a stark confrontation I engaged in 2002-2003. For years I've pondered the koan of how to respond to this amazingly "interesting time" on planet Earth. During those years, I researched and wrote a (to be published) book, The Terrible Truth and the Wonderful Secret: Answering the Call of Our Evolutionary Emergency. I looked closely at all the futuristic projections, whether they were inspiring, alarming, or depressing. I made it a practice to transcend my tendency to go into denial about what upset me. I felt like I was "putting my eyeballs in a vice" and forcing myself to look at all the potentials I found most upsetting.
And at the end of the process, I realized that human knowledge was too incomplete, and my expertise was insufficient. The bottom line was that even though the world is out of balance, we just didn't know--and couldn't know--how bad (or good) things really are. We don't know how severe or sudden climate change will be. We don't know how much sea levels will rise. We don't know how disruptive the transition will be from our unsustainable global financial, food, and transportation systems to sustainable ones. We cannot and will not be able to know how much disruption, pain, loss, and degradation are in store for us--or not.
An Unconditional Commitment
We don't have to be caught in the dilemma of having to figure all this out, though. We don't have to handicap this unknowable high-stakes evolutionary horse-race. We can cut through all the mind chatter by asking a deeper and more essential question:
Can I find in myself a no-matter-what commitment? Under the worst-case scenario, can I nevertheless find inspiration to meet each new day with passion, resourcefulness, and self-transcending integrity? If, in my lifetime, beyond my control, no matter what I do, evolutionary history is doomed to pass some awful point of no return resulting in grim outcomes, will I still have a basis for going on? Can I, no matter what, find the spring in my step and the twinkle in my eye to come alive fully, to do whatever I can? And can I do it nobly, in service of something far greater than myself?
Can I make my evolutionary contribution, even if it seems tiny by comparison with the scale of deep time and a global 6 billion? Can I do whatever I can to further the emergence of a new humanity that could have turned the corner? Can I be inspired to do what little I can to bring forward the gestation of that embryonic next, even more sapient, homo sapien?
Can I bring care, compassion, and consciousness into life just for the sake of doing so? Am I willing to invest my heart in evolutionary creativity without a guaranteed return? Can I find it exciting to help the human flower come an iota more fully into bloom even if it might be destined to wilt?
Finding a "Yes"
I struggled with these issues for a couple of years, working to grapple them to the mat. And, pinned, I found my answer. It was, and is--yes.
And that yes makes all the difference.
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