In a comment on installment # 5 – the entry in this series that presented “the parable of the tribes – I was asked to “delineate specific steps that we can now take that would lead us in a different direction,” i.e. a direction that might create a better world for our children and grandchildren.
My response indicated that I’d deliver something relevant in future installments, but also that the nature of the brokenness of the world is such that “there is no simple formula to get us from here to there. The journey will be like how to get from one mountain to another mountain: one can see the overall direction one must go, but nonetheless, figuring out where to put one’s foot next is always going to be its own challenge.”
Which means that the “specific steps” always have to deal with “the dynamics of how brokenness and wholeness are battling in the present moment.”
(At which point I cited my own record of having recommended that kind of “specific steps” in relation to the crisis in America over the past thirteen years, steps I believe would have served well to turn the battle between the forces of brokenness and those of wholeness in a better direction.)
But in addition to the always important question of where to put one’s foot next in the journey from one mountain to another, there’s another approach as well, one that involves looking at the two mountains as if from a satellite image.
Here’s what I propose with respect to that satellite-eye view.
It’s something I wrote as an op/ed piece to run in the newspapers in my congressional district. It’s a conservative district, and I had no idea how the conservative readership would take these ideas. But I wrote it also for that minority among the readers, i.e. the liberals who I know appreciate my efforts (and who tell me of their pleasure at my putting challenging thoughts in front of their Republican neighbors).
Where There is No Vision, the People Perish (Proverbs, 29:18)
With times as dire as these are — with dark turmoil in our politics threatening the survival of American democracy; with naked greed impeding our response to climate change; with brutal authoritarian regimes in Russia and Turkey and the Philippines; with tens of millions of our fellow citizens buying a world of falsehoods — with all that, it may seem odd to raise the following question:
What, ideally, would we want the human world to look like 500 years from now?
But what is most odd is that we barely ask that question at all.
Why is that so odd?
The first point to be made is that we should know that things will change—a lot. Consider how different our world is from the world of Henry the VIII, who was 500 years before us. Is there any reason to think that the transformations over the next 500 years will be any less profound?
Second, should we not assume that where humankind finds itself 500 years from now will depend a good deal on what we do in the meanwhile? (Consider, for just one example, how much better the results were from the choices made by the victors after World War II than those made after World War I.)
Some decisions made by nations – and other actors – represent important forks in the road.
Third, it is abundantly clear that some among the paths humankind might take would be disastrous. In particular, human civilization could reach a dead end unless humankind finds a way 1) to live in harmony with our planet, instead of destroying it, and 2) to eliminate the possibility of catastrophic warfare involving weapons of mass destruction.
Regarding the first of those potentially civilization-ending possibilities, the long-run survival of civilization requires that humankind learn to live in complete harmony with the earth. Otherwise, civilization will destroy the foundations of its own existence.
We cannot continue to be reckless with the earth, like early civilizations that spread deserts, and like modern civilization that has destabilized the earth’s climate system and unleashed the earth’s sixth great wave of extinctions.
Unless we become more responsible and more respectful in our relationship with the earth – on which we depend for such life-necessities as the food we eat and the air we breathe – human civilization will inevitably bring itself down.
Secondly, civilization needs to build a different kind of order, one that assures that no one has the capacity to end civilization by pulling the nuclear trigger (or otherwise wreak destruction on global civilization from war-technologies not yet invented). We survived the cold war, but it could have been otherwise.
It stands to reason that, given enough time, whatever can happen eventually will happen. Which means that the magnification of humankind’s destructive powers mandates that a global zone of peace must be created, with peace developing deep roots.
These two challenges should suffice to make it clear: a civilization different from today’s will be required if the long-term human future is to be bright.
In addition to these challenges that the civilization of the future must meet, there are also the transformations that we ideally would want for the world our descendants will inhabit: a humane world that is just, healthful, respectful of human dignity, and nurturing of people’s best potentialities.
Once we envision that optimal human future, and note what in our present world will have to change to grow into that desired future world, we can ask: how do we get from here to there?
But, unfortunately, we are not thinking that way. We do not seek to envision that desired future, and we barely consider how we get from here to there. Instead, we are just mindlessly backing into an uncertain future.
Do we assume that just dealing with the immediate, not thinking beyond the next step, represents a sufficient strategy for the human future? Do we assume that the future will take care of itself?
Surely, we shouldn’t.
The fact that civilization might have come to an end in October, 1962, proves that the present global war/peace system is fraught with peril. And the fact that we now confront the perilous challenge of climate change demonstrates that thinking about things only in terms of the next quarter, or the next election, is entirely insufficient to meet the challenge we face.
We need to visualize our desired long-term destination. And then we need to ask: given that hoped-for destination, and given what we know and don’t know, what are the next good steps to take to help us move in that direction?
Perhaps we could begin that process by working to understand – to figure out what it says about our present civilization – that we almost wholly fail to ask what an optimal future civilization would look like, and to steer our course with that in mind.
This is the way that “the parable of the tribes” leads one to think.
If we see the human story only in close-up – the daily newspapers, and even in the perspective of what is generally called “history” – we will envision our future as necessarily just “more of the same.” We know enough to know that in the past people lived without controlling electricity, let alone that they didn’t have smart phones. But before modern technology, the world was still full of wars and cruelty and people filled with a lust for power. And so we will assume that whatever “progress” we may make, the basic contamination of the human world with brokenness will be true in perpetuity.
We will assume, with the (18th century) German philosopher Immanuel Kant, that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
But if we stand back and look at the human story from a greater distance, and behold civilization as the problematic break-out from the order created by life over billions of years – and “experiment” that the system of life just blindly wandered into — a whole other set of possibilities becomes conceivable. Humankind has been navigating in this out-of-control rapids for a mere ten millennia. Gradually, in various ways, we knit together forms of order to contain the anarchy that was inevitable from that break-out and that has continually dashed humankind against the rocks.
It becomes possible to see what we have traditionally called “history” not as our irrevocable fate, but as a time of disorder that may prove but an interval of disorder sandwiched in between two eras of order: the first era of the “natural order” that created us and out of which we emerged, and the second era being of a new kind of order– one to contain the brokenness and to re-establish wholeness by the creature’s design.
A more harmonious partnership between civilization and nature (nature both around and within the human being). Like designing a garden.
It makes all the sense in the world to “prepare for the best,” because the long-view suggests that the best is not only conceivable, but it’s what we quite likely need if we are to avoid the worst, which is what “more of the same” quite plausibly could lead to.
Prepare for the Best as a Personal Ethic
The “parable of the tribes” also was the beginning of my living by an ethic of “prepare for the best.” By which I mean, in this instance, to strive to achieve the best possible scenario for how my work might impact the world. Swinging for the fences.
Earlier installments here (especially # 4) presumably conveyed some notion of how boundless my ambitions were for that work. I wasn’t sure at the outset if I had the ability to bring it off, but I strongly hoped – and as young and naïve as I was then, I expected — that if I did bring it off, it would change people’s thinking, and thereby change the course we would take as a nation and as a global civilization.
(The closest it came to realizing any such ambition is that a group at the Pentagon, in the 80s, was enthusiastic about the parable of the tribes and had me come in and talk about the ideas. These men were at the rank of colonel, and – a few years later, as the Cold War ended — I figured that if, somehow, the idea had managed to percolate up another level or two, maybe American decision-makers would see what a huge historic opportunity for humankind they’d been dealt. Maybe they’d make the most of that opportunity – the release from the global logjam imposed by forty years of intense superpower competition — to take steps toward reorganizing the world to diminish intersocietal anarchy and thus the reign of raw power.)
Of course, such high hopes were disappointed.
But nonetheless, ever since, whenever the “spirit” has called me to do something, I have continued to prepare for the best. The place of “ambition” in my own character doubtless has something to do with it. But there’s another important dimension to it: when the spirit moves me – when I’ve felt called to some endeavor through contact with the sacred — it kindles a fire that deepens the motivation. The passion that arises in me — when I see the sacred in danger – drives me to want to do everything possible to protect it.
Everything possible means as big an impact as possible. If my goals are limited, that virtually assures that my impact will be as well. (If I square around to bunt, there’s no chance of a home run.) I must at least make the attempt to achieve the best plausible scenario.
Not that it has been a rational process for me. More that it is a natural outcome of the feelings that the fire has kindled in me.
Each time such a fire has been kindled, I’ve envisioned (and then pursued) goals so ambitious that you’d think I was the lead character in some biopic. You know, one of those movies they made in the 30s and 40s where we follow our hero from his modest beginnings up through his becoming someone you’d make a movie about – because he was the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, or because he became an American institution for writing and performing songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Over There.”
My hoped-for scenarios are not less plausible than the success of these biopic heroes appear to be as we see them early in the films. (My hopes seem no less likely of fulfillment, for example, than the chance that Charles Lindbergh, the fly-boy schlepping mail-bags around the Midwest, would someday have four million people turn out on the streets of New York to honor him in a parade decorated by tons of confetti.) Many with high ambitions fail to fulfill them, but only the ambitious make the effort that gets portrayed in those biopics.
Another example of an endeavor in which my ambitions at the outset might have fit into one of those biopics – and there are at least a half dozen such swinging-for-the-fences episodes by now over the past almost half century – was my running for Congress in 2011-12. I ran against a Republican incumbent in a 2:1 Republican district. (Rural, conservative, traditional Shenandoah Valley.) This 20-year incumbent (Bob Goodlatte) represented only poorly (mostly through mere gestures) the interests of the people of this district, but of the fundamental dishonesty of the Republican Party of these times he was an excellent representative. My campaign slogan was “Truth. For a change.”
When I felt “called” to launch this campaign, the “prepare for the best” image that I envisioned, and that inspired me, was not so much that I would unseat that incumbent, though I did my best to do that. Rather, the hoped-for scenario was that I would be able to take my message national. (In other words, running for Congress was a continuation of the same mission that had inspired me to write my blog NoneSoBlind some years before, but casting that mission into a new form.)
Here’s how I imagined my campaign getting my message national exposure: I figured that a candidate like me, running in a district like mine, with a message like mine, could make an excellent story. (I’ve read plenty of such “profiles” with less intrinsically interesting meat on them than that.)
I could imagine such a story being written up for New York Times Magazine. I could imagine getting an interview on “The Rachel Maddow Show.” (And if that went well, my history with guest appearances on radio suggested, that first interview just conceivably might lead to more such appearances.)
I still believe all that was quite plausible. But it didn’t happen.
(I did have one shining moment of “going national”: a six-minute speech I gave at a big political banquet just happened to get recorded, and then the video of it, posted on Daily Kos, went viral. That brief speech, by the way, contains within it – by implication – some substantial chunk of my Big Picture.)
No biopic for me. I fell short.
The campaign was eminently worthwhile on the smaller scale of the District, however. It was a great experience for April and me, and our effort was much appreciated by our side of the electorate. No home run, but a clean single (if not a stand-up double).
Most of the time, for all my swinging for the fences, I don’t strike out—even in terms of impact. I try to design my undertakings so that the limitless ambition is not (to change the metaphor) like trying to jump across a 100-yard chasm, i.e. an effort in which to fall short is to plunge into the abyss. Rather, I try to design my leaps so that even if I fall short, I’ll land respectably.
Nonetheless, in terms of its emotional requirements, this “prepare for the best” approach has its problems. To pursue the highest ambitions, despite the high probability of their remaining unfulfilled, is a recipe for disappointment. Sometimes, falling short feels like failure, and I hate the feeling of failure.
Dealing with all disappointment has been one of the great challenges in my life.
The fact that I continue to swing for the fences, despite failing to hit the home runs, and despite my abhorrence of the feeling of failure, points toward another way this path grows out of the contact with “the sacred.” It’s about resilience.
As I said above, the love of the sacred helps explain the “why” of the “prepare for the best” approach. But it is being “fed” by the sacred that helps explain the “how.”
For all the disappointment, and the real pain that it has often brought me, whenever I renew my contact with the sacred, my well gets fed by an underground spring.
Returning therefore to the question of the benefits of taking on this “integrative vision,” if it can bring you to greater contact with the sacred, it will fortify your own spirit, and that will make you stronger in your service to your own most sacred values.
What “Prepare for the Best” Means with This Series
This series is also a “prepare for the best” mission, but in a somewhat different way.
In all my previous missions, my hoped-for scenario involved more or less immediate impact. (With The Parable of the Tribes, I knew it would take me years to bring the work to full fruition, but I hoped that once it was out into the world, it would swiftly make a “splash”—i.e. that it would quickly have an impact on people’s thinking, and eventually on people’s actions.)
The project on which such hopes for immediate impact most dictated my course of action was with the publication of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, in 2015. It was, in fact, a self-publication –my only self-published book — because I thought it important for that message to get out into the nation in time to have a chance to impact the 2016 election. And self-publishing the book was the only way that could happen.
I knew this was a long shot, but it turned out to be an even longer shot than I’d figured because I under-estimated how virtually insuperable are the obstacles for getting attention to a self-published book. (E.g., the New York Times won’t even consider reviewing such a book.) So, although I did write and publish that book in time to affect the election, I had no way to reach a readership large enough to matter — in terms of the national conversation I was hoping to shift.
It was actually the failure of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST that set the stage for this series. (Yes, I hate to say it, but the f-word – failure – does apply to that effort. No home run, not even getting on base.) Here’s how this series grew out of that failure.
I’m in my 70s now, and I’m compelled to recognize that the time is not that distant that I’ll no longer be around. Imagining that time, I can see that the ideas in The Parable of the Tribes might survive me. They are out there. But the larger “integrative vision” – which contains the parable of the tribes as well as all the other parts developed in the past 35 years—that vision has previously appeared only in WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST. And that book has not been disseminated widely enough to prevent its having essentially disappeared from the world a generation hence.
So I found myself thinking: if I died now, that “integrative vision” could be lost forever.
And if that vision could be valuable for the world – if it’s true, as I feel in my gut, that this vision has the potential to help the world grow in more whole directions — its simply disappearing (and thus going to waste) would not be OK.
So I asked myself, how can I prevent its extinction? And that led to my thinking about the possibility of doing this series.
As part of that thinking process, I had a conversation with my friend (and member of this series’ co-creators group) David Spangler. It was that conversation that resolved my doubts about embarking on this “Better Human Story” effort.
David agreed with me on this (a point I made in the first installment): the intellectual climate of today (in America at least) is not receptive to Big Picture ideas. He himself has observed that. But ways of thinking change, he said. And for that time “when a new tide comes in,” he said — i.e. for a possible coming era when people feel a need for something like what my “integrative vision” provides — “it’s important to get the ideas out there.”
Above all, what that conversation did was encourage me to shoot for a new kind of “prepare for the best” scenario: I launched this “Á Better Human Story” series as a seed being sent out into the future.
For an immediate impact, what would be required is some kind of “catching fire” in the minds of many. At least many thousands of people would have to jump on board. Maybe many tens of thousands.
But for a seed into the future, I am guessing, all that’s needed is a couple of hundred people who absorb the ideas with enough seriousness that, if that “tide” has come in, say, twenty-five years from now, the ideas will be sufficiently present in the cultural system to germinate in that then-more-receptive intellectual climate.
That goal –to find a couple of hundred people serious in the right ways — doesn’t sound impossible. Even in an era where people don’t hunger for deep understanding of the Big Picture, even with an intellectual culture that doesn’t think in terms of putting the pieces together, there are some human anachronisms running around. (Anachronisms in being either behind their times, or ahead of their times, or both.)
Like the Marines, I’m looking for “a few good [people].”
(It should be noted that it is because my goal is to find a relatively few good people of that kind –serious, with muscular minds — that I’ve thought it fitting to write entries of some length, rather than to cater to the current penchant for the quick-and-dirty. Brief is fine. But in trying to convey a vision that requires assembling plenty even of bigger pieces to create the whole picture, making each piece fairly substantial seems the only sensible strategy of presentation. And I figured that the people I’m looking for—i.e. those who might carry a seed of visionary thought into the future—are not the kind of people who will blanche at having to read something longer than an op/ed.)
Seeds into the future. No expectation of big splash in the present.
Still rather iffy. Will there be such a future intellectual climate, in which people feel a need for what this “Better Human Story” provides? And if such a time did come, will the ideas in this series be sufficiently present in enough people’s minds to be brought into the conversation?
Iffy, but not impossible. And that fence-in-the-future is what I’m swinging for here.
Should I Be Swinging for a Nearer Fence?
But then my brother – the same brother (I only have one) who was quoted earlier saying “Liberal America can finally see evil, they can see it in Trump ” – has suggested I should not give up on having an immediate impact. He thinks that in this time, when people are seeing all the brokenness this president embodies, enough people will want to understand how something like this could happen.
How did America get to this place where such a man like this could be chosen, by the American electorate, to be president? How did things in America move so far in the direction of brokenness?
And, Ed says, “You provide an answer that works. Your ‘vision’ can take them one level down to see the nature of the force that brought us here. And for those who want to get to the deeper level, that explains how such a force arises and operates, you’ve provide that as well. You can give people a ‘box’ to put their current intense experience of ‘evil’ into.”
I remain skeptical. I’m skeptical about how many people in today’s America really care whether they see beyond Trump to the force of which he is a manifestation. Even more skeptical about how many care about understanding the deeper level at which a force of “brokenness” contends with a force of “brokenness” over which will shape the human world.
I’m skeptical because, time after time, I’ve witnessed how people respond, and don’t respond, as I offer pieces that both illuminate the immediate and use the immediate to point to the deeper level. Mostly, people note the former and seem not to notice the latter.
But then, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe these times have moved people into places they have not previously been. Maybe a new appetite has arisen with such blatant brokenness now coming at us daily in such grotesque form.
The big crowds in the street that did not show up for, say, the theft of a Supreme Court seat – the theft of a Supreme Court majority – in 2016, have showed up now that Trump is president. New activism, and who’s to say that people are not ready to think in new ways as well?
So let me close by inviting you to consider, as you read — in the coming installments, my explanation of the nature, origins, and workings of evil – whether (like my brother Ed) you think there’s a more immediate “fence” to be swinging for. I.e. whether this vision — presented in some, presumably accessible form — could have a useful impact in this immediate crisis.
I’d like to know what you think.