Humans are a very supple species. Put them anywhere and they’ll adapt. Just a few decades ago, if someone told us that several years from now there would be police in every school, protecting elementary schoolchildren from hate-driven xenophobes, fanatics, and racists with automatic weapons, as well as from their own gun wielding peers, we would think they were insane.
Not long ago, people used to think that things would go from good to better, to great, to even greater. This optimism is all but gone. Ethnic, religious, and racial tensions, political tensions, domestic tensions, income insecurity, rising seas and rising temperatures, wherever we look, the future is bleak.
Does it have to be that way? No, but it will not get better by itself.
There is an inherent trait in human nature that we are becoming increasingly self-absorbed, narcissistic, exploitative and ravenous. We cannot help it. We know it’s bad for us, bad for the planet, and is ruining our children’s future. But we cannot help ourselves. If we could, we would change our behavior long ago.
Worse yet, our tendencies toward narcissism and exploitation of others are on a collision course: Narcissism is pulling us apart, yet the desire to exploit our connections with others makes us increasingly connected. Since we cannot restrain either trend, we seek compromises such as texting instead of calling, and having virtual friends instead of real friends.
What is true of individuals is true also of societies, countries, and international relations. Global diplomacy has always been tricky. Today it has become an impossible entanglement of power struggles where each country wants to isolate itself, yet is dependent on other countries for its survival. It seems as though the superpowers have already accepted that—as in the film, Highlander—in the end, “There can be only one,” and are now struggling to become that one.
But two things are clear: 1) In the nuclear age, no one will be standing in the end. 2) Despite its obvious noxiousness, the intensification of these tendencies is unstoppable. At some point in the foreseeable future the tension between isolationism and forced interdependence will snap and global chaos will ensue. Nations are buying time but they cannot reverse the trend.
I would not be speaking of all this if I did not know there is a way to reverse this trend toward global chaos. This way is the way we have evolved so far. Throughout history, we have evolved through growing desires, which in turn created innovations that satisfied our new desires. In short, until now humanity has acted out on the maxim: “If there is a will, there is a way.”
When we wanted faster travel we invented new means of transportation. When we wanted better health we invented new medicines and diagnostic instruments. When we wanted faster cooking we invented the microwave.
We do the same in our societies. When we wanted political expression we invented democracy, and when we wanted freedom of thought we invented liberalism. Throughout history our desires have led the way to our advancement, and it was great.
Our problem is that now our desires are going in two separate directions at the same time: We want to turn away from people, yet feel more and more compelled to connect to them. This tug-of-war makes us feel uncomfortable.
If we did not have a role model to follow we would be doomed. How can you want two things that pull you in opposite directions, reconcile them, and still be happy?
This is exactly what all of nature does. Life is built on the contradiction between the desire to isolate, or to keep to oneself, and the dependency on others for survival. This is how atoms converge and become molecules, how molecules become cells, how cells become organs, which finally become organisms. Without the ability to keep each element in nature separate, yet functioning harmoniously and willingly with other elements in a synchronized system, life would not be possible.
Human emotions are not the same as animal emotions, and certainly not the same as plants or minerals. In order to maintain the balance between the individual and the collective, we have to make conscious choices all the time. In other words, our individual selves must agree to participate in the collective; they must see the benefit in doing so.
This is not as difficult as it may seem. We are already benefitting in every way from our participation in society. If we did not, we would have to hunt, grow, or gather our own food, defend ourselves from enemies and animals, and by and large, life would become quite miserable and short.
The problem is that our egos are portraying a false picture that contributing to the benefit of the collective comes at the expense of our own good, when the opposite is true. When we contribute to the collective, society develops an interest in our success. If each of us contributed his or her skills to the benefit of society, instead of using them to climb on top of one another in a struggle for a better job, better salary, and higher social status, our achievements would not only enhance and support one another’s achievements, but even our personal achievements would skyrocket because we would be able to turn all the energy we spend on self-protection toward improving our achievements.
Therefore, to create a durable and prosperous society, we must combine our growing desires for personal achievements into a network of collaborating desires that benefit our societies, and therefore ourselves. This is something that nature cannot do for us; it is our free choice to use our desires one way or the other.
The social environment we build determines how we will develop. If we choose the ego-way, the already budding tendencies toward isolationism and fascism will ripen into a radical regime with a tyrant as its leader, as Andrew Sullivan described in his New York Magazine piece, “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny.” A similar process will unfold in Europe, and the rest of the mostly-undemocratic-anyway world will follow. Soon after, a third world war will break out and the few survivors will still have to connect above their isolationist tendencies, or they will go through the cycle all over again, until they understand they have no choice.
If we choose the way of reason, we will build a society that supports collaboration and rewards contributing to the society. This will create a social environment where giving is praised, and taking at the expense of others is reprimanded, until people feel that selfishness does not pay. In this way we will teach ourselves to operate the same as the rest of nature. Then, as nature thrives when the self-centered human nature stays out of the way, so will we.
In the end, we can only be our best, happiest, strongest, and most complete selves when we live in a society where people nurture one another and their communities, and let the community do the same for them.
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