What To Do? (Part 1)

Suicide2I have not made any entries for a while (aside from the anger emails); overall, I have been busy reading about the complexity of global warming and the insanity of our culture, and reflecting on the issues of what to do. I’m prompted to write now because of two emails from a friend who works for a university health service. In each, he provided an interesting reference, and also asks questions about what to do. I’m writing this post as a response to his questions, because I believe the questions (and my responses) need to be distributed to a larger forum.

In the first, He Quit His Corporate Job To Help His City’s Needy, my friend asks how do we get the message of community service across to our sleepy culture, mainly to the student population who will have to carry the work forward. Especially he is concerned with the increasing incidence of suicide within the student population. In the second, Love Your Enemies. What Does It Mean? Can It Be Done?, he reflects on the need to leave bitterness and hatred behind, wherein the author (Brother David Steindl-Rast) suggests a number of practical steps to circumvent entrapment in pain. In particular, the author notes that the opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference (acedia in my language).

From my perspective, both enquiries are major comments on the immense immaturity of our species. Together we have created a civilization of vast technological brilliance, and one that is also intensely dehumanizing. As I have said on a number of occasions, “as individuals we are capable of immense greatness, but as a species we are psychotic.”

Two maxims stand out for me as to their importance.

  1. The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable (James A. Garfield), and then it will trap you our tendency to self-righteousness).
  2. We have found the enemy, and he is us. (Pogo, Walt Kelly).

I also fall back on a set of premises I learned when first at univerity:

  • If your conclusions are wrong, examine your premises.
  • If your conclusions are right, don’t trust your premises. They can still be inaccurate.

One of my truths is that we are a contentious species — we love to argue! (Frequently we call it discussion.) Sometimes, if we listen to each other, it leads to major advances. But most of the time it leads nowhere.

So a second truth for me is that we must learn to listen to each other. We all have a small part of the truth. And especially if we do not listen to each other, we often end up miserable. So my first response to my friend’s questions is that we need to develop systems of authentic listening — likely small groups meeting frequently where we learn to trust each other (Kumar notes that it was “not uncommon for him and his team to bond with those they rescue”). This requires some skill, offering a combination of listening and short-term resolution that satisfies the need for purpose — not an easy combination to develop in our fractured litiginous world. We must develop mechanisms for providing authentic hope.

As I have noted in previous posts, we have made power as the basis of civilization (two posts), not human needs. This has culminated in a society currently based on consumerism and neoliberal politics. Our paradigm of Scientific Materialism (SM) has identified a universe of incomparable beauty, but labelled it meaningless. From my perspective, it is no wonder that those who become lost between the cracks then commit suicide as an escape.

We have also created a world currently on the brink of disaster, including the possible extinction of the human species. We are engaged in a super-wicked problem of global warming and over-population, and as such, our engagement will often seem like two steps forward, and three steps back. We need to support each other in moving forward, not argue about moving back.

Can we recognize that paradigms are belief systems that coalesce to provide a vantage point for understanding reality? (Note: belief systems are not provable — they can be proven false, but never proven correct.) SM is not the only possible paradigm. It arose largely because the scientific method, principally initiated in the 13th century, proved more effective in explaining the mechanics of the universe than did the Ptolemaic methods of earlier days. More importantly, scientific materialism likely developed from the work of Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), who dreamt of the “scientific conquest of nature for man’s welfare.”[1] (Note the theme of power!) But neither science nor scientific materialism disproved older belief systems; it merely provided better explanations, and unfortunately paved the way for the ill features of our modern civilization.

I am a strong advocate of the scientific method; I also strongly disagree with the assumptions of scientific materialism. In order to function well, human beings need to have a sense of meaning that gives them purpose. I have previously noted that my preferred paradigm is Panpsychism, but I cannot prove that it is a better paradigm — however, it does give me a vastly more comprehensive understanding of the nature of the universe. I have also noted that panpsychism suggests that:

God exists (as the totality of sentient beings), and that (as a component of this totality) each individual sentient being possesses free will. We each makes choices about how we live. In addition, God provides the opportunity (e.g., possibilities) for us to live well. Even if God does not exist or even if the universe is eventually found to be meaningless, each individual still has the option to act as if it is meaningful, and to create a myth that will allow him or her to live within what life offers—in a stance of love, in contrast to acedia.

So my second suggestion for my friend is that these small groups must also tell the truth — not that God exists, not that SM is wrong, but that SM is only a belief system, one that is currently trapping us on a path to extinction. That we must find ways to support people as they struggle to develop their own belief systems, ways that validate their ability to support themselves and each other while challenging the powerful forces that sustain SM and its consequences (and meanwhile stepping out of bitterness and anger at how our civilization has developed). Again, not an easy task.

To be continued.

[1] Tarnas, R. (1991, p. 275). The passion of the Western mind: Understanding the ideas that have  shaped our world view. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

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