In my mind, the issue of education is the most important because until we screw our heads on straight, we will be taking our age-old biases and assumptions to the table when addressing the other three challenges, thus manifesting again the same challenges.
By education I do not mean material knowledge or technical information. I don't mean we need to take an extra moment to crunch the numbers and figure out the best way out of the colossal mess we're in.
I mean we need to realize that we're technically not in a mess so much as we are the mess.
We need to start by questioning our most basic assumptions, and our most fundamental ignorance. We need to start by asking after who we are, why we are here, and what kind of selves we want to manifest and express personally, socially, and evolutionarily.
It's not that there are solid answers to these questions, and if there were they'd probably be useless platitudinous reductionisms if they were articulated. But starting by asking these questions will provide a better framework for the kinds of questions we routinely ask concerning our habits, ambitions, values and priorities, and relationship to the world.
In other words, we need -- for absolute want of a better term -- massive spiritual education. All of our challenges, while they may seem external and threatening, actually originate inside ourselves and have their roots in menacingly narrow ideas of self.
To borrow from Heidegger, "the dreadful has already happened" -- long ago before even our grandfathers were born -- to the human sense of self. We are the products of hoary conditions that have repeatedly produced and bequeathed, century upon century, extremely narrow, exclusive, petty, superficial, and divisive ideas of self. The result is a mangled, deformed, and subverted self that is, for the vast majority of humans, incapable of asking the fundamental questions concerning reality or imagining different worlds. It is thus incapable of sacrificing for any world other than the one that it remembers, which is also the one it fears to lose.
The sense of self informs the standards of good that we adopt, the conceptions of god or higher meaning that we embrace, and even our sense of time and space. It informs our capacity to interpret not only empirical data but also the very artifacts of memories we use to construct stable conceptions of personhood and history.
On the subject of time, it is easy to ridicule end-time beliefs on rational grounds. Truly, they are ridiculous, but they are not just that. Neither are they merely escapes or comfort zones for monotheists. They are, for believers, their building blocks for constructing the world of tomorrow.
As the sense of self becomes narrow, so do the senses of time, ethics, and perspective. The particular "end-time" expression of narrowness has been passed down as sanctified truth for nearly two thousand years. The general narrowness of self and time, however, is not limited to end-time believers.
Millions believe in an end of times, but millions that don't still suffer from the same delusive narrow self, such as the kind that seeks short-term gain at any expense. That is to say, secular consumers and capitalists that ignore long-term consequences to material actions are no less end-timers than many Christian fundamentalists. Both believers and disbelievers, acting from a narrow sense of self and time, permeate their activities with a self-fulfilling prophecy that is, block by clock, constructing a premature end to human civilization.
The self-fulfilling prophecy to trump all prophesies is easy to articulate: The self will manifest after itself. Intentions, acumen, and reputation count for nothing in this prophecy. It matters little that the narrow selves of end-time nonbelievers technically reject a prophesied end of times -- which is just an early Christian expression of the narrow self, distorted and carried forward into the present -- when their modern version of the narrow self and time can't see past the fiscal quarter.
This is not a question of selfishness, either. The overly romanticized Native Americans who supposedly considered their actions to the seventh generation were no less selfish than we are. They simply included several generations of time in their ideas of self, and hence selfishness.
The sense of time and the sense of self are one and the same thing. Selfishness is not something anyone can or need escape, but the self can and must escape the narrow selfishness that considers only the short-term and short-range consequences of actions, embracing the expansive selfishness that includes within itself all peoples and future generations -- which is near to saying all space and time.
Narrow body, narrow family, narrow nation, narrow religions and gods, and narrow traditions and cultural eras will no longer do in the atomic age. Pollution, war, waste and want, environmental catastrophe, and human suffering are no longer out of range and reach, keeping quiet and elusive behind distant borders and within contained consequences. As Martin Luther King so eloquently put it, "The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men."
King's equation is simple: we must hold our expansive spiritual self-knowledge as sacred, and hold material knowledge as a utility used in reflection of and in keeping with it. The expanse of our sense of self must include in itself all space and peoples, reaching farther than the range of our modern weaponry.
We face -- and, if the truth be told, have only ever faced -- this spiritual challenge. The challenge is to rise above our petty selves, break the shackles of centuries of narrowing conditions that chained our forebears, and face the world made in our image, taking responsibility for it while holding nothing as sacred truth but the process of self-expansion.
And if the liberation from the narrow self, as Einstein put it, is held as our highest good, and we use that standard of good to measure all of our actions and inspire us to question all of our assumptions, beliefs, and comfort zones, then our guided missiles will be guided, if not dismantled, by larger selves.
To acquire that self-knowledge, it's a strange thing that we all must do, and it is something that we are not generally taught how to do. It is, in fact, the epitome of what we are ever taught, in a million ways, to never do. We must sacrifice our narrow selves, and to do that, we must stop.
We must stop everything. We must cease and desist. We must fast. We must be still. We must have quiet. We must listen. We must have a real Sabbath, not one with company and songs, but one with introspection and concentration. We must stop working, stop writing, and stop speaking. We must conserve our energies, center them within, and damn whatever system we've created that comes crashing down for want of our energies, attention, and unquestioned and undeserved devotion, subservience, and worship.
It is not a revolution by guns, but a revolution by the evolution of the sense of self, sacrificing the narrow self and all of its limiting associations, beliefs, comforts, fears, and desires in the ultimate bonfire of vanities. The skeletons of the past will burn to ashes.
And we must do so not by the tens or hundreds or thousands or even millions. We must do this by the hundreds of millions, and eventually billions. And we must do this in unison. We must sit and wonder, together. Just watch, as the time passes, how it will fly by for us as our self expands in the awe of our shared moments.
But for those who believe they are in power and who do not take this time out, time will crawl.
Imagine the power we could together harness in the direction of expansion. Even if it were never repeated, no war between humans would be possible, even to imagine, for years to come.
If we don't do this, consciously and proactively, then it will be done for us. No matter what, our collective self will out. If it does not do so peacefully in silence and stillness, then it will do so otherwise.
Once the self expands, we will be equipped to route all the apocalyptic horsemen we set in motion through past narrowness and ignorance. Without that self-expansion, we will simply be continuing the same saga, only this time perhaps with solar panels instead of coal plants.