What's Going to Happen Next?
Fires, pandemic, war, floods... What next? Are we ever going to get back to normal?
“Normal” is a story that we use to give meaning to our lives. In this 3-part essay, we'll examine how our foundational story of the world works and how it informs our choices and actions.
We'll also explore how we might create a different story, one which would lead us collectively to make more life-affirming choices.
This essay is about our “story of the world” — our understanding of how the world works and who we are.
This is critical to understand, because it’s what informs our choices and actions. We behave according to a script that comes hand in hand with our understanding of who we are and what kind of world we live in.
Trying to change our behavior without changing the script we're reading from is futile. But if we change our collective self-story and world-story in a deep, fundamental way, our behavior will change in equally deep and lasting ways.
There is a story available to us that prompts cooperative and life affirming behaviors rather than competitive and exploitative ones. Indigenous peoples and eastern spirituality have been indicating it, and the newest sciences are finally now "discovering" it.
What might be going to happen next really comes down to which script we’re reading from.
Naming the nightmare
I don't know if I can comprehend what it might feel like to be living in a war zone or facing starvation.
Closer to home, for me, in south-eastern Australia thousands of families have lost everything to flood waters and are without insurance. Some may have had nothing to lose in the recent flooding, because they lost it all two years ago in the fires.
Other people are still reeling from the fallout of Covid around the world. And some would respond to that with, "Fallout? Its not over yet. We're still in it."
I could go on. I will go on. Because I don't want you, a relatively well-off reader who has the means to sit and read this, to think that you should just buck up and be grateful for what you have. It's more complex than that.
There's the sense of grief that comes with the loss of cultures and languages around the world; with living through a mass extinction of animals that were commonplace to our grandparents and that our children will only see on screens; and with waters, forests, mountains, and grasslands going, going, gone.
The existential anxiety that comes with wondering what kind of life the children of even well-off people today, will have tomorrow.
The sense of loneliness, the anxiety, the lack of dignity or purpose or connection that comes part and parcel with the story we’re living in, as well as the feeling of futility, of being unable to do anything to make a real difference.
Perhaps most intangible of all is the nagging feeling that even though you have plenty to eat and you personally are not threatened by any of what I just listed, your life still feels like its a little bit (or a lot) wrong somehow.
If you pay attention to your insides they feel uncomfortable, and for some of us that's putting it very mildly. (Most of us avoid paying attention to our insides for just that reason, but that doesn't help in the long run.)
In his book Fully Human, Steve Biddulph points out that no-one escaped the horrors of the industrial revolution, world wars, genocides, and colonialism unscathed.
And in It Didn't Start With You, Mark Wolynn explains how trauma marches on down the generations until it meets with consciousness and can be released.
Even if on the surface you're just a "normal" human being, what has become normal for us is actually quite horrific.
In Section 1 of this essay we’ll examine this story of "normal" that we've been living in. In Section 2, we’ll ask a question that holds clues about what keeps us trapped in it. And in Section 3, we’ll explore what waking up and choosing a different story might look like.
There is hope. Let us begin to cultivate it. The first step is understanding where we've come from and where we're at right now.
1. Our Old Story of the World
Outside my window there are pastures and a plantation of young bamboos. In terms of our physical needs, life is relatively secure for me and my family.
But beyond that, lies rest of the world. The mess out there and the size of the powers that be are beyond my comprehension.
To help us comprehend, we make up stories: constructed realities that give meaning to the world and to our own lives.
In turbulent times, society becomes vulnerable to false meaning-makers who would rescue us from our bewilderment. They offer ... a single explanatory logic to tidy up the messiness of a chaotic world. …
The most prevalent simplifying strategy is to identify a villain and blame everything on him [or her, or it]."
From one villain to the next
In the simplified narrative that is our most common story-line, the good guys are the people (including you and I, of course) who live safely and sensibly according to science, logic, and reason. The villains are whomever or whatever threatens to disrupt this bubble of safety.
If we have a plain, easy “good vs bad" story-line that seems to make sense of the mess we see, then things are simpler, right? All we have to do is identify and stop the "bad guy."
To put it the way Charles Eisenstein does in his writings, if we find the bully, the corrupt official, the criminal, the foreigner, the pest, the weed, the pathogen, the trouble-maker in whatever form, and destroy, imprison, punish, or control them, then for a while all will be well.
The trouble with this is that it doesn’t ever actually get to the cause of the problems – the conditions that facilitated the villain's rise to power, or the imbalance that invited the pest or pathogen to dominate. When one villain or manifestation of evil is stopped or somehow removed, another appears in its place.
The “good-versus-evil” narrative—the one that says we must find and control whoever or whatever is to blame for our troubles—is not working.
If we want to change the substrate from which the bad guy keeps re-emerging, we're going to need a different story1.
Taking a long, hard, look at the modern story of progress
Before we can create a fundamentally different story, it will help if we really, deeply, understand the old story that we’re trying to leave behind. Otherwise, we’ll just drag it along with us.
In "Reinventing Progress,” Eisenstein describes our current story, the modern story of progress, by listing the assumptions that a human being living in this story might hold. Reading his list, I recognized so many familiar, accepted assumptions that I grew up with and never questioned for the first half of my life.
Here is my paraphrasing2 of Eisenstein’s list of what he calls the “precepts and narratives of the ideology of progress, in which the actions of the technocratic [and the financial elite, and the governments they fund,] make perfect sense”:
Modern science, reason, and technology are helping humans achieve health, wealth, security, and social harmony. We need to keep modernizing more and more of the world until all of it is under complete control, including humans and all other life forms.
The powers to control all life would be dangerous in the wrong hands, but thankfully, intelligent and rational people are in charge - which makes it OK.
When new technologies don’t work perfectly we have to hide the harms they do, because people need to be protected for their own good from information they could misinterpret.
There is no limit to what science, reason, and technology can achieve.
Surveillance, tracing methods, centralized digital currencies, media censorship, robotics and artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, geo-engineering, nuero-chemistry, and other technologies of control all produce benefits that outweigh their drawbacks. And with these ongoing developments the economy can grow indefinitely.
These technologies are inevitable. We have no choice but to ready ourselves for the future that Science and Technology have prepared for us."
Trusting these assumptions makes the world we currently live in make sense.
Trusting these assumptions also give us a feeling that at least someone out there is in control. That’s why questioning them is difficult, painful, frightening, and we tend to resist doing so with all our might.
What’s up with control?
We’ve just read a set of widely accepted assumptions about "progress" that fit within the story we’ve been living in. How do they make you feel?
If you feel yourself rebelling against such a level of control, you’re not alone. Eisenstein calls this "the techno-totalitarian agenda" – the agenda to bring everything under complete control, for the good of all humankind.
For me, it's taken a while for it to really sink in that a small number of wealthy, powerful people would like to trace my every move, control how I spend money, control what media I see, control my capacity to grow and process my own natural foods, and would even meddle with my neurology, biology, and genes.
I choose to believe that the people working to achieve this level of control are well-meaning. They really think they know what is best for all of us. But that doesn’t make me any more comfortable with their agenda.
Most of us feel at least a passing twinge of discomfort at the thought of being personally subjected to this degree of control. But in spite of that, intelligent, discerning adults in every walk of life are still willing to go along with the modern story of progress. After all, someone has to be in control, right?
Why are we willing to give up our personal autonomy for the sake of collective control?
In a nut shell, I believe it’s because we’re afraid that if we don’t, we’ll be swept right back into the dark ages. Germs, plagues, pandemics, terrorists, who knows what else, will sweep us back where we came from if we don’t submit to the various forms of control mandated by modern science and technology.
But the question of why we’re willing to give up our individual autonomy for the sake of collective control could do with a bit more unpacking, and in the next Section we’ll do exactly that.
2. A Question to Help Us Step Out of the Old Story
So, we've talked about modern “progress” and its obsession with control. And we've identified an important question to ask ourselves:
Why are we willing to give up our personal autonomy—our most fundamental freedom—for the sake of collective control?
The answers we give to this question might help us better understand the story we’re living in, why and how it keeps us trapped, and ways to step out of it. In this section I’m going to try answering it from two angles:
- the ways we were trained to give up our personal autonomy and the ways we train our children to give up theirs, and
- the fundamental world view that prompts us to accept this training and apply it to our children“for their own good.”
How we train our kids (and how we were trained) to give up our personal autonomy
Let’s begin with the most innocent of things– the desire to teach our children to have good manners.
“Say ‘thank you’”
Training a small child to give up her personal autonomy begins very early, long before she can talk. For example, it might begin with teaching a toddler to say “ta” when we hand her a snack.
The happy sparkle in her eye is not enough; we stamp that out and replace it with a careful, robot-like, “Taaa.” The child gets that this is important, maybe even that the adult won’t let go of the snack until they hear it.
The snack—nourishment—is not freely given. It’s conditional upon a certain response from the child that means nothing to her. But not to worry. She’ll learn. We'll bring her into this story a bit at a time.
As soon as they can talk, the program intensifies. For example, we teach children to say “sorry” whether they feel sorry or not.
We do that instead of sitting down in the sandpit with them and taking the time to feel with them and slowly, gradually, helping them understand what the person they just clobbered in order to get the dump truck might be feeling.
Why? Because it’s easier, quicker, and we think it makes us look good to the other parents.
We also, for another example, make our children hug their relatives, whom they may not know well, whether they want to or not. Why? Because we’re afraid of the relatives’ disapproval if our child isn’t “socially well-adjusted.”
And then there’s school. At school, our children will spend the rest of their childhood, their entire adolescence, and their crucial transition to adulthood3 obeying rules, standing in line, thinking about what’s on the test rather than what is interesting and meaningful to them, and competing with each other for grades and attention.
What might this be teaching them about the meaning and value of being an adult in our culture, in our story of the world?
The practices I just described do not guide a young person to develop strong personal autonomy; quite the opposite. These practices teach children that their inner urges, the voices of their inner authority, are not to be trusted and that they can only earn acceptance and approval by obeying the rules laid down by outer authorities.
So that's way to answer the question of why we’re willing to be controlled: it’s because all our lives we’ve been trained to be obedient.
The process continues when we enter the adult world, only now some of the carrots and the sticks have been internalized.
Our fundamental worldview, based on science
The second angle from which to examine why we’re willing to be controlled has to do with our understanding of how the world works.
Our modern story of the world, our “science-based worldview,” is built on the reductionist, materialistic assumptions developed during the scientific revolution that took place, give or take, across the 16th to the 18th centuries.
This worldview is a very material one. It restricts itself entirely to matter that can be perceived with our five physical senses (or with tools like microscopes that extend the powers of our physical senses). In this worldview, anything which cannot be seen and measured cannot exist.
Here are some assumptions that this worldview leads us to make4:
- The only things that are alive are things that move by their own means5.
A river, for example, is not alive because it is moved by gravity, a soulless, impartial force.
Soil, for another example, is just a collection of cold, dead elements. (We accept that healthy soil is crawling with life forms that our naked eyes can’t perceive, because we can see and measure them with a microscope, but we do not accept that the soil itself might be alive in ways that science can’t currently measure.)
Trees, for another example, are seen as much less alive than humans because their only movement is towards the sun.
- The only things that are intelligent are things that express their intelligence in similar ways to us.
A chicken, therefore, is not intelligent. The only things that are conscious are, well, humans. Maybe very intelligent animals like elephants or chimpanzees might have consciousness of some sort, but it’s seen as far inferior to ours.
- You and I and all other things are separate from each other, because as far as we can see there is only space between us and as far as our physical senses can tell, space is empty, without life, meaning, or intelligence.
- Evolution is a slow, linear process that occurs by means of the fittest and most competitive individuals surviving to pass on their genes physically from one generation to another.
- Individuals cooperate and share resources with other individuals only if it enhances their chances of passing on their own genes. If there is no measurable advantage to cooperation, it’s better and more logical for an individual to defend itself from other individuals that might be seeking to take resources away from them.
I could go on, but I’ll stop there because I would like you to read that last assumption again.
Individuals cooperate and share resources with other individuals only if it enhances their individual well being and therefore their chances of passing on their own genes.
This is where “us vs them” and “good vs bad” comes from
Right here we have put our finger squarely on the reason we fear the “other” and feel compelled to try to control it.
This is why every story-line in our modern worldview has a good guy (me/us) and a bad guy (the other; other individuals, the other group, anything that does not look, act, and sound like me/us, anything that might be trying to take resources away from us).
In this world-story, you are alone. No-one else is going to look out for you unless they have a genetic investment to protect by doing so. This is a lonely eat-or-be-eaten world where controlling the other—dominating, out-competing, subduing the other at any cost—is how you survive.
This is why we are willing to be controlled for the sake of also controlling the “other."
To sum up …
So to sum up our two-part answer to the question of why we’re willing to give up individual freedoms for the sake of collective control:
- We’ve grown up trying to be "good," to get to stay in the “good guys group, the in-group,” and being controlled when we failed at being good. We’re used to being controlled. We’ve also grown up learning to control other people and other life-forms when they act in ways we see as “bad,” which is defined as “anything that could be a threat.”
- The reason we’ve grown up this way and are still raising children like this is because our science based assumptions about how the world works say we must. Our world-story says we have no choice.
Is there an alternative?
The outcomes of this tragic, lonely struggle for control are all around us, plain to see and feel. As they follow us out of the sandpit and into the adult world, they're not pretty.
The world we’ve created with our control obsession is not the kind of world most of us want to live in.
But is there an alternative? If it really is an eat-or-be-eaten world, what alternatives do we have?
The answer is, “None.”
If the world is truly as we have been assuming it is, then we have no alternative than to continue to behave as if more for the “other” would be less for me.
That is why all our efforts to create real, lasting, systemic change have failed.
So long as we remain within the modern scientific worldview, we cannot thrive and neither can any other life on earth.
We have no alternatives from within our current story. Our only option is to choose, and to grow into, a different story.
Our [worldview] profoundly impacts how we live in the world. If we think we live in a materialistic Universe that is comprised of non-living particles without meaning and purpose, then it makes sense to exploit [it] on behalf of ourselves, the most visibly alive.
Alternatively, if we have direct experiences of connecting consciously with the aliveness in nature and the world around us, then it is natural to respect and care for the countless expressions of aliveness.
These are two radically different ways of looking at the Universe and, in turn, produce dramatically different views of our identity and evolutionary journey.
This leads to a startling conclusion: the most urgent challenge facing humanity is not climate change, or species extinction, or unsustainable population growth; rather, it is how we understand the Universe and our intimate relationships within it."
In the next Section, we’ll explore this alternative story in which some fields or branches of science have finally begun to agree with Eastern spirituality and indigenous wisdom on the fundamental nature of our world and our place in it.
3. A New Story
Charles Eisenstein, in his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, invites us to "let the old Story of Separation fall away so that we can stand firmly in a Story of Interbeing."
This is about more than just resisting the push to modernize everything and bring it all under control.
We need a deeper change than that. We need a completely different script, so that the prompts we receive lead us to make life-affirming choices, easily, without having to swim against the tide as we have been trying to do for so long.
In this final Section of this essay, we'll explore what this different story might look like.
A new conception of “progress”
Many years ago when my first child was a baby, I spent time with a mentor who encouraged me to redefine what the word “progress” could mean. (To me, then, progress mainly meant getting things ticked off my to-do list and achieving greater financial security.)
What happens after we question the assumptions of the materialistic scientific worldview described above, and reject them?
What if we see materialistic science for what it is—a partial, incomplete set of tools? And what if we bring the wisdom of newer, holistic sciences, and also indigenous and spiritual understandings, into our picture of how the world works?
Might we find that you and I were enough, right now, just the way we are, and all we need to do is enjoy and care for each other and our abundant, beautiful, vulnerable, resilient Earth?
Perhaps we would find that the sparkle of trusting gratitude in the toddler’s eyes as she receives the snack, free of any obligation to behave in a certain way in order to earn it, is enough.
Perhaps we'd be able to grow into believing that the world is good, rather than our previous belief that it was harsh, unforgiving, lonely, and competitive.
My mentor, all those years ago, suggested that I expand my definition of “progress” to include things like moving toward integration, connection, wholeness, acceptance of self and others.
Now, I’m finding myself able to entertain the idea of dropping the need for “progress” altogether, at least the way its defined in the old story of "modern progress."
What might a story born out of this different awareness look like?
Real security comes not through control, but from relationship and belonging.
No technology is inevitable. We have the power to collectively choose how we will develop.
More is not necessarily better.
Life and earth are sacred. All resources of the earth are meant for sacred use. When we use them, we can ask whether this will contribute to more beauty, more love, more wonder, and more life.
Meaningful labor is necessary for human well-being. Technology should seek to extend the creative powers of meaningful labor, not replace it.
We can achieve more by aligning with an intelligence larger than ourselves, than we can through force.
Most things that we chased with technologies of control can be achieved with holistic and alternative technologies.
Seeing the body as intelligent, we unlock unforeseen healing powers. Asking, “What does the soil need?” we help it to heal and find that it returns our gifts to it many fold. Asking “What does my brother need?” we restore right relationship among all the tribes, races, and ethnicities of humanity.
Coming into attentive relationship to forests, oceans, rivers, wetlands, and other ecosystems, we participate in their healing too, and it proceeds at astonishing speed.
Exploring the relationship between matter and consciousness, we develop technologies of energy, travel, construction, and more that were inconceivable in the paradigm of force."
Post Covid - Back to normal? I hope not.
Sitting here at my office desk, looking out at the sunshine on the grass as the rain clouds lift, thinking about all the things happening in the world, I wonder:
What is going to happen next?
Sometimes I hear people asking, "Are we ever going to get back to normal?"
I hope not. Normal wasn't working. Let's co-create something different.
During the vaccine mandates, when many people were losing or leaving their jobs rather than get the jab, a few were also losing their homes for related reasons, and there was tension and anxiety in the air, some friends and I had an ongoing email conversation to support each other through this time.
I want to end this essay by sharing part of that email conversation.
One friend wrote:
“It has come to me that the world isn't going to return to whatever it was pre-covid. My current approach is to start to embrace new ways of meeting the needs of my family and supporting pro-choice wherever I can. The government and media and other players have fear and control as the guiding force, but this is not what most people want. We can stand up for unity, freedom and love while keeping our integrity and kind hearts.”
Another friend replied, in part:
“I don't want the world to return to what it was pre-covid... I'm holding out for something completely and utterly different.”
And a third responded:
“I am excited for something NEW post-covid. ... I’m hopeful that all kinds of very grass-roots community connection will thrive in the coming months.
I’m aware that I hold this hope from a very privileged position of having secure income, ... my own home out of town, and the ability to adapt to change... Counting my blessings gives me the energy to go forth and advocate for others...
I do think, several times a day, ‘these are the times we've been preparing for’ or ‘these are opportunities’ or ‘there is so much space for solutions to emerge’ or ‘the answers are already right in front of us,’ and so on and so on.
Like most of you, I've been a champion for resilient communities and a more sustainable, supportive, connected future for a LONG time.”
Maybe now is the moment. Maybe in the post-covid years, instead of getting back to normal, we can call into being my friend’s vision for “resilient communities and a more sustainable, supportive, connected future.”
May it be so.
Please leave a comment...
Please scroll down below the Endnotes and share your thoughts.
- Remember that line from Jaws? "We're gonna need a bigger boat..."
- I've abbreviated and simplified this list quite a lot. I encourage you to take the time to read the article I'm borrowing from.
- The transition to adulthood is one of the most crucial stages in our lives for the development of personal sovereignty.
- Read more here about how our materialistic world view assumptions compare with the holistic worldview beliefs held by indigenous peoples
- Environmental and indigenous groups are working to restore personhood to rivers and other sacred, living, non-human entities.
- And again I encourage you to read the whole thing.