Sometimes I feel intense nostalgia for the cultural mythology of my youth, a world in which there was nothing wrong with soda pop, in which the Super Bowl was important, in which the world's greatest democracy was bringing democracy to the world, in which science was going to make life better and better.
If you followed the latest medical advice, kept informed by reading the New York Times, and stayed away from bad things like drugs.Sure there were problems, but the scientists and experts were working hard to fix them. Soon a new medical advance, a new law, a new educational technique, would propel the onward improvement of life.
My childhood perceptions were part of this Story of the People, in which humanity was destined to create a perfect world through science, reason, and technology, to conquer nature, transcend our animal origins, and engineer a rational society.
Looking back, I realize that this was a bubble world built atop massive human suffering and environmental degradation, but at the time one could live within that bubble without need of much self-deception.
The story that surrounded us was robust. It easily kept anomalous data points on the margins.
We no longer believe our storytellers, our elites.
We don't believe the politicians, we don't believe the doctors, we don't believe the professors, we don't believe the bankers, we don't believe the technologists. All of them imply that everything is under control, and we know that it is not. We have lost the vision of the future we once had; most people have no vision of the future at all.
This is new for our society.
Fifty or a hundred years ago, most people agreed on the general outlines of the future. We thought we knew where society was going. Even the Marxists and the capitalists agreed on its basic outlines:
a paradise of mechanized leisure and scientifically engineered social harmony, with spirituality either abolished entirely or relegated to a materially inconsequential corner of life that happened mostly on Sundays.Of course there were dissenters from this vision, but this was the general consensus. When a story nears its end it goes through death throes, an exaggerated semblance of life.
So today we see domination, conquest, violence, and separation take on absurd extremes that hold a mirror up to what was once hidden and diffuse. The year 2012 ended with just such a potent story-disrupting event: the Sandy Hook massacre.
At the base of our Story of the People is separation, of humanity from nature, of me from you, of each from all, and this event united everyone, of whatever culture, nationality, or political persuasion. For a moment, we all felt the exact same thing. For at least a moment, I am sure, most people were in touch with the simplicity of what is important; I am sure many people had that fleeting feeling, "It doesn't have to be that difficult, if only we could remember what is so obvious now, that love is all there is." We humans have made such a mess of things, forgetting love. It is the same realization we have when a loved one is going through the dying process, and we think,
"Ah, how precious this person is – why couldn't I see that? Why couldn't I appreciate all those moments we had together? All the arguments and grudges seem so tiny now."
The world was supposed to be getting better.
We were supposed to be becoming wealthier, more enlightened. Society was supposed to be advancing. Here I am in America, the most "advanced" nation on Earth, yet even as our financial wealth has doubled and doubled again in fifty years, we have lost wealth of a more basic form; for example, the social capital of feeling safe, feeling at home where we live.
Is more security the best we can aspire to?We need a Story of the People that includes all of those things –and that doesn't feel like a fantasy.
What about a society where safety does not equal security?
What about a world where no human being wields an assault rifle?
What about a world where we mostly know the faces and stories of the people around us?
What about a world where we know that our daily activities contribute to the healing of the biosphere and the well-being of other people?
In the turbulent times ahead our familiar ways of acting, thinking, and being will no longer make sense. We won't know what is happening, what it all means, and, sometimes, even what is real.
Some people have entered that time already.
I am sure many people reading this have gone through such a time, when the cloaking illusions fell away: all the old justifications, rationalizations, all the old stories. Events like Sandy Hook help to initiate the very same process on a collective level. So also the superstorms, the economic crisis, political meltdowns... in one way or another, the obsolescence of our old mythos is laid bare.
Each of us is aware of some of its threads, for example in most of the things we call alternative, holistic, or ecological today. Here and there we see patterns, designs, emerging parts of the fabric. But the new mythos has not yet emerged. We will abide for a time in the space between stories. Those of you who have been through it on a personal level know that it is a very precious –some might say sacred time. Then we are in touch with the real. Each disaster lays bare the real underneath our stories. The terror of a child, the grief of a mother, the honesty of not knowing why. In such moments we discover our humanity. We come to each other's aid, human to human.
We take care of each other.