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Seeing the Challenger disaster, my first thought was: we’re not getting off this ball of dirt, after all; we’re going to have to clean it up. I now think this was half true. “It” isn’t what we must attend to.
Years later at sixty-two a near-total but temporary paralysis cleared up a lot of questions about reality and illusion. While recovering, reading through a lifetime’s accumulated writings, I saw that since childhood the industrial destruction of the world had always been my central concern. I began work on a book.
The project took a wild and wandering path. My famous and expensive development editor declared the thing finished, and wished me luck. It was nowhere near finished. After ten years writing and re-writing and rearranging, it seemed pointless. There seemed to be no conclusion, no completion, it arrived where it started. A sad place of disillusionment and despair only made worse by better explanations.
I sent the MS off to a friend who lives in Chile, and he agreed with me that the conclusion didn’t do justice to the rest of the work. Then he invited me to visit, and I jumped on a plane. That trip was a turning point in my education, which has always involved fortuitous encounters at a crossroads. Now it seemed there were a lot more pathways converging.
Then the pandemic arrived, and the videoconferences began. Soon I was holding three a week, informal gatherings with about a dozen friends across almost as many time-zones. There was a context; each was an expert, a leader, a scholar, a teacher, a healer, an activist, a master in some critical field. As it turned out, some had already met; others I introduced. In profound awe and wonder we just tried to be with the clear trajectory of our species toward extinction.
Something began to emerge that is not the sum of parts. I could not see it all at once; one can’t. But if we look slightly askance, as sailors know to do at night, we can see something that doesn’t appear to our direct gaze. I began to understand that it wasn’t just my mediocre intelligence that made this such a puzzle. There is no language for what was present, breathing, just out of sight. It’s just not perceptible from our way of being-in-the-world.
If that’s so, how can we point to it, much less deal with it effectively? In 2022 a friend, Meredith Ramsay (Community, Culture, and Economic Development, Second Edition: Continuity and Change in Two Small Southern Towns, State University of New York Press) called my attention to The Matter With Things, Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. The more I read, the more light and clarity there was. I was moved to a place from which I could see something emerging from the background.
A dozen of the most discerning minds I have ever known have spent their lives illuminating something, each bringing a context in which the others take on new dimensions and make even more sense. And now Iain McGilchrist has connected and enlarged these conversations yet again.
This multi-dimensional stringing-together of glimpses into a world barely suspected, and yet so much richer than ever imagined, adds no new fragments of knowledge. It is instead a sharpening of focus, or I want to say immediacy, an interactive quality, a participation, an engagement, that wasn’t quite accessible before.
It all brings me to this: humanity need not end as seems most likely, in less (far less) than half a century. We have what we need; the changes we must make, not to the world, but to our way of being-in-the-world, have begun, if we look a little askance (like sailors at night).
And no mistake, our future really hangs in the balance. And it really is up to us. All of us. You, too. I’m reminded of the monkey-trap with an opening big enough for the monkey’s open hand, but not a monkey’s fist full of berries. Our survival will be an act of collective volition. At the same time, we are unlikely fully to understand this even while it takes place (as would be only natural for us two-minded two-leggeds).
A worldview that includes relatedness, dignity, compassion, forgiveness, ancestral and collective trauma healing, is rising. Cultural perceptions invoke global behavioral correlates. This has been called Cultural Selection, and displaced the natural kind a few thousand years ago. An eyeblink in our two or three million-year span as homo sapiens. This may be a return to the biosphere, as to the arms of a family to which we had become estranged. Or to which we had not yet been born.
Putting words to such an enormous and complex transformation can hardly prepare us for what’s coming any better than a home pregnancy test. The first birth-pangs are here. Grab your hat.
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