|cc Jean Stimmell photo: 2019|
James Speth, the former dean of Environmental Studies at Yale, made this confession. He had previously considered the greatest environmental problems to be biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change, which could be solved with "30 years of good science." But now he thinks "the top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.”1
I completely agree.
I wrote a column recently about how restoring Gaia to her rightful place might be part of the spiritual and cultural transformation we need, leading us toward human sanity by embracing ecological imperatives. Here’s another perspective:
What if my fantasy is well underway, altering our image of ourselves in new ways. It happens: Western science has altered how we view the world twice.The first turning point occurred when Newton discovered natural laws predicting how the planets revolve around the sun. Rather than everything being interrelated as indigenous people believe, each element of Newton's world was separate and distinct, like the components of an old-fashioned watch. Mechanical analogies dominated that era, not only for things but for humans, too. For example, Freud used hydraulic metaphors to describe how he thought the human mind works.
Then science made a monumental U-turn. Discoveries in cosmology and quantum physics disproved the notion we were separate, individual actors. Rather than the old notion that we were, like steel ingots, forged for life at an early age, quantum physics advanced the idea that everything, including our human 'selves.' is relational, always in flux.
As professor and author Charlene Spretnak describes it: “all entities in this world, including humans, are thoroughly relational beings of great complexity that are both composed of and nested within contextual networks of creative, dynamic interrelationships,”2 These relationships are so encompassing, nothing can exist outside of them.
Because of continuing scientific and technical breakthroughs, the speed of relational change is now unprecedented. Like it or not, we are transitioning into a new way of being. This is a momentous event, the most decisive shift in how we think about ourselves since the Hellenistic revolution over 2000 years ago.3
While this staggering reversal may actually be our long-term salvation, it is causing severe, short-term dislocations. What could be tougher than being threatened with the loss of our identity? It's happening today to all of us. Certainly, it is at the root of the populist revolt today by Trump supporters and other tradition-bound conservatives.
The legendary psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton was among the first to recognize this shift. He saw how we were being "buffeted about by unmanageable historical forces and social uncertainties." Yet, he perceived a benefit: out of this swirling confusion, we "are becoming fluid and many-sided. Without quite realizing it, we have been evolving a sense of self appropriate to the restlessness and flux of our time." He called this mode of being the 'protean self,’ after Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms.4
Kenneth Gergen has also written about our postmodern dilemma in The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. He, too, sees the old unified self losing ground because we are can no longer ignore the diverse voices of all humankind: “As we absorb their varied rhymes and reasons, they become part of us and we of them.”5
As we expand our perspective of the world by seeing it through multiple eyes beyond our own, our old sense of an "authentic self" will continue to wither away. Eventually, the fully saturated self will become no self at all.
Gergen’s forecast seems to me to be a double-edged sword.
Society could become, at the extreme, either a dystopian nightmare or an enlightened state. At the high end, humanity would resemble Indra's Necklace, a revered metaphor in Buddhism illustrating the interconnection of all things:
If we were to incorporate this ‘no self' metaphor into our lives, each of us would shine like a single brilliant jewel in reality's necklace. Each jewel would reflect every other jewel, and each of the reflected images of the jewels would bear the image of all the other jewels. Whatever affects one jewel would affect them all.
In a word, we would all be in it together.
Perhaps such a 'no self' condition is necessary for us quarrelsome primates to coexist together without destroying our home.
2 Relational Reality: New Discoveries of Interrelatedness That Are Transforming the Modern World by Charlene Spretnak. 2011 as noted in http://mmstudies.com/scholars/spretnak/
4 Robert Jay Lifton, The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation (New York: Basic Books, 1993) p. 1.