In a recent post I said that pollution is the largest objective problem that faces us. I should probably make clearer what I mean by that.
Objective means that the consequences of our reckless behavior have already begun, and will probably continue to happen for some time after we’ve begun to behave more rationally. Underlying that problem, though is the more profound problem of human nature that causes us to make stupid decisions.
We see examples of that daily. Crowds running over each other to buy things on Black Friday that many of them probably don’t even need. Republicans and Democrats indulging in hatefests rather than actually serve the public. Wars that nobody seems to be able to stop. It doesn’t seem as if these behaviors are going to end soon, but our survival as a species ultimately depends on ending them. As most of us are now, we don’t know how to stop, but need to learn. Catastrophes will underline that need, and may actually motivate us to learn.
But it doesn’t always work that way. The American Civil War didn’t end racism: both North and South were predominantly racist to begin with. The South blamed blacks for the war, and the North wasn’t much more welcoming to them, so the problem has persisted until now. There are some signs that it may be going away, but the time of this country actually becoming color-blind has not arrived..
The saying that those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it still applies. Each side of politics in this country condemns the other for wanting to dictate, and there seems to be some truth on both sides. The President having power to kill any American he deems an imminent threat to the country sounds like more power than any one person should have, and even if it’s handled cautiously at one time, that doesn’t guarantee it will be in the furture.
Rigging elections by gerrymandering (and I’m told that Republicans do this a lot more than Democrats, though probably a lot of Democrats wouldn’t be averse) or by suppressing voter’s rights sounds to me like the slippery slope to dictatorship. Radical Republicans are recapitulating Lenin’s behavior when he purged anyone from the Bolshevik party he considered insufficiently radical. The difference in views doesn’t matter in this instance. The behavior is much the same, and the outcome could be a party where only the insiders are trusted, and the great mass of the population have few or no rights.
So how do we fix human nature? The answer seems to be by overcoming the most noxious parts of it, obviously easier said than done, but necessary for survival (humans tend not to pay attention when survival isn’t involved) and to reorient our world.
We have the recent example of Nelson Mandela, who became a revolutionary, was imprisoned for a large part of his life, but used the imprisonment to grow and understand more and more about the world. Even that wasn’t enough, though. When he was released from prison, he later said, he realized that he had to put away hatred, and because he was able to do that (and because he was a masterful politician), he was able to become president of South Africa, and preside over its transition to a democracy without the usual accompaniment of blood and terror–or at least minimal amounts of it.
Nonviolent revolution wasn’t entirely unprecedented. The Soviet empire broke up with minimal violence too, though violence did come later. But nonviolent revolution remains the exception, not the rule.
And a lot of people would prefer violence. Grievances often linger. That was the reason Mandela had a Truth and Reconciliation commission set up: to expose the lingering bad feelings so people could forgive themselves and others for what they had done, or what had happened to them in the past. Anyone who refuses to consider that they might be wrong will find it difficult to forgive.
One writer, (J.G.Bennett, whom I recently posted about) commented that during World War II he didn’t disagree with the stance of pacifists, but felt that war could not be prevented until individuals rid themselves of the causes of war within them. Hardly anyone is able to proceed so far, I think, but each individual effort is worthwhile.
The same author thought that the current crisis in human affairs would be resolved through human willingness to cooperate with Divine Intelligences. Whether by this he meant God, angels or other Divine subordinates, I don’t know, but our current problems are such that we, as we usually are, will have great difficulty not only finding solutions (scientists have been looking hard for technological solutions for some time), but in getting people in general to accept and cooperate with any solutions. They won’t do anything that doesn’t look sensible, from whatever perspective they have.
To say that the solution to our problems is to love our neighbors and enemies may be true, but people will generally see that as impossible, and refuse to even try. That’s why setting up the Truth and Reconciliation commission, as Mandela did, was so necessary. It gave people a structure to work with and through, which led to deeper understanding and forgiveness. It didn’t mystify the process, but did manage to persuade enough people that it was worth undertaking. Such a process could be a beginning in many places, including here. Injustice is everywhere. That, at least, would be an alternative to using violence to resolve problems.
A spiritual teacher recommended a much deeper mode of training that would lead to the same end, but would be inaccessible to many. What good would that do? Those who were able to benefit by the training would influence others. The salt of the earth that hasn’t “lost its savor.”
Sufis have played that role for centuries, particularly in the Muslim world, which hasn’t prevented Muslims in general from doing things they ought not to, any more than Christian teaching in Europe prevented terrible behavior. That doesn’t mean it’s an approach that should be dismissed, though.
Bennett also commented that his teacher, George Gurdjieff, believed that there was always a group of highly developed people who looked ahead for centuries, trying to influence the human race into better lines of development. The Theosophists, like Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, believed in a Great White Order that watched and tried to help human societies. Their view was romanticized, though, and presented people who might belong to such an order as all-powerful. According to Bennett, from the way Gurdjieff presented his views on such a group, they were by no means all-powerful, and influenced human societies by the introduction of new ideas that could encourage new ways of seeing and behaving which would lead to new directions of development.
The great example Bennett provided was the 7th to 6th centuries BC, when a number of new religions or religious figures appeared, all with a common message. Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism were either new religions, or became prominent during this time. This was also the time of several of the more important Hebrew prophets, as well as Pythagoras. Their common message was that all humans had the right to seek their own path to salvation, which had never been considered before. In the Middle East and Europe of the fertility religions, there were elites: priests, warriors and kings, who were more important than common humanity. Salvation was reserved for them. Bennett commented that although our record for atrocities is no better than it was then, our worldview has still completely changed.
If there is indeed a group such as Gurdjieff spoke of, they no doubt do have abilities beyond the ordinary human ones, and can do more than just introduce new ideas if they wish to. They may be a source of help to humans in general in the future, but it would be unwise to count on them to save us, and not make any efforts ourselves.
The latter is always a temptation, and I’m certainly vulnerable to it. It’s one thing to see that our current civilization is built on unsustainable foundations, another to disconnect from it, and begin building better ones. But those willing to make such an effort may well receive help when totally committed. Just what those foundations should be, I wouldn’t be willing to speculate in great detail, nor how to begin building them. But I suspect it will take great effort, thought and faith to build them wisely and sustainably. It may arouse enmity among others, too.
Enmity is already present. Just read about the conservative reaction in this country to what Pope Francis has been saying and doing. From my point of view, his speech and actions are simply obvious applications of the message of the New Testament. Conservatives don’t see it that way. The message they get from the New Testament is not one of love, for either one’s enemies or one’s neighbors. Pope Francis is correct in saying their god is money, I think.
And then there’s the refusal of Congress to extend unemployment benefits to people who have been out of work for a long time, to say nothing of the conservative preference not to raise the minimum wage. They’re still buying into the narrative that anyone who remains unemployed for very long is simply lazy. This idea has been debunked before. Of course there were some at the bottom of the ladder who game the system, but the harm they do isn’t comparable to those at the top doing the gaming.
The recent budget deal also raises military funding, which in my opinion, is already too high, and doesn’t do anything to take on the real pressing needs of the country, like rebuilding infrastructure, which would also have a salutary effect on the economy by providing more jobs. I don’t see any of these positions as being rational. We’re supposed to be one country, and to work for everyone’s benefit, rather than the benefit of only the few. Capitalism could be a good way to do that, if it hadn’t become corrupt, seeking profit in dishonest and unsustainable ways.
I don’t think many people would be against people making profits for worthwhile goods and services. But making profit by poisoning land, water, air and people, and by selling people worthless consumer goods is a dynamic that can’t continue to work.
It’s a dynamic that many powerful people want to continue, though. Energy companies want us to continue using coal and oil to provide most of our energy, and not to object when pollution is the side-effect. In a way, it’s a tradition, though not a very long one. We only began using oil for power no more than about 150 years ago; already we’re running out, and turning to fracking, which is only going to cause more pollution. It’s convenient for gas prices to come down, but not so convenient for our environment to become poisonous.
What would be an alternative to the current way of doing things? Doing things sustainably would mean to turn away from using petroleum and coal for power. It would mean stopping using artificial fertilizers and insecticides. It would mean not using antibiotics promiscuously in raising animals for food, and moving away from the factory farm model of agriculture. There ARE other options out there, which people are exploring, but which are also being opposed by vested interests.
And one thing that I think is often not recognized in this country is that despite our wealth and power, many people are unhappy. There’s a big industry supplying drugs just for depression, which is only one of a whole spectrum of mental health problems. Why would the country with the highest standard of living have such a problem with depression?
A friend recently noted that Victor Frankl, who spent time in Nazi concentration camps, said that depression was ultimately the result of not doing what life demands. If that is true, then our whole civilization (at least in this country) is on the wrong path.?
And what, in general, does life demand? George Gurdjieff said that when he was quite young he asked a question: What is the reason for organic life in general, and human life in particular? He had other questions too, after having witnessed apparently supernatural events, which Western science (in which he was also interested) not only couldn’t, but didn’t even try to explain. He traveled over most of Asia and some of Africa trying to answer these questions, and eventually did.
The reason for organic life, he said, is to transform energies. There are many energies that affect us, and many of them we’re unaware of. He also said that none of us is born with a soul, but each has the potential to make one, through “conscious labor and intentional suffering.” Doing this would transform the energies we’re intended to transform.
What is the consequence if we don’t do this? The energies we transform are intended to support types of life that are on a higher level than we are, as we depend on life lower on the scale than we. When we don’t live as intended, the energies must come from somewhere. If we’re unwilling to live in a truly conscious way (Gurdjieff said that most of as are “asleep”, which isn’t hard to believe when we look at how things happen) we can supply the energies by dying. This, he said, is the cause of both war and overpopulation, two of our most serious problems.
Labor and suffering don’t sound particularly attractive, but does depression sound more so? Isn’t setting goals, accomplishing them, and overcoming obstacles more likely to make us happy than neither trying nor accomplishing?
Propaganda tells us happiness lies in buying and owning things. Not many of us disagree to any great extent, but the rate of depression in this country seems to suggest it’s not true. Feeling that our lives matter, and that we’re contributing to something important seems a lot more likely to make us happy.
It’s a bit like my concept of marriage. You don’t get married certain that you’ll be able to do everything required of you, but you make a promise to give it your best effort. I think that’s what we are asked to do.
Nothing is guaranteed, but that effort is likely to at least begin solving our problems, and make us happier as well.