Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

We just don’t accept it.

Playing the role of Forrest Gump  (the small-town dimwit of the 1994 movie by the same name ) Tom Hanks sits on a bench by an outdoor bus stop with a box of chocolates on his lap. A nurse shows up, sits next to him, and rudely ignores his offer of one. Unfazed, the ever loveable Forrest remarks in his childlike southern drawl: “My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates… you never know what’cha gonna git.”

We humans are the petulant nurse in the story, stubbornly refusing Gump’s chocolatey truth. Amid a universe in constant upheaval, we demand certainty. We are spooked by spontaneity and bewildered by change. We can’t seem to live without controlling every aspect of our lives and insist on knowing what’s inside every chocolate before we take a bite. We are never patient, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to an aspiring young poet who sought his advice.

“Be patient,” he counseled, “toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. Live the questions now, and perhaps, gradually, without noticing it, you will live some distant day into the answer.

Each experience has its own velocity according to which it wants to be lived if it is to be new, profound, and fruitful. To have wisdom means to discover this velocity. — Rainer Maria Rilke

In exile from his homeland during WWII, philosopher Walter Benjamin said that “to be lost is to fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. One does not get lost,” he added, “but loses oneself. It’s a conscious choice… a chosen surrender.”

This doesn’t mean giving up, but giving oneself up, which the ancient Greeks called kénōsis — the act of self-emptying — the arrestment of one’s will and desire. It’s Christianity’s notion of the self-emptying of Jesus’ own will to become receptive to the will of God, or fate.

Our world today is awash in uncertainty. Thousands are dying while millions lose their jobs. Whole industries are in peril and many countries at the brink of ruin. We’re at the mercy of an invisible, virulent scourge that has undermined our sense of control and proven how powerless we are.

When free falling into the abyss, it’s natural to want to flail our arms in search of a tree branch to save our lives. So is flapping our arms or praying for wings. But from what I can tell, no amount of flailing, flapping, or praying is going to stave the fall. It seems we are headed toward a nasty pileup. Quarantined and curled-up in crash position inside our homes, we can keep grasping at nonexistent branches, or choose to let go, surrender to the moment, and live the questions.

What is Covid-19 trying to tell us? What has it revealed about the human condition and the way in which we lived our lives before being turned upside down? What does it say about society at large and each of us in particular? Were we even in our right minds before the pandemic? What must change?

My friend and fellow writer Mary Reynolds Thompson may be right in saying “we often need some cataclysmic event to crack us open, just as bishop pines require fire for their seeds to fly open, like tiny stars in the night.”

Man builds on the ruins of his former selves. When we are reduced to nothingness, we come alive again. — Henry Miller

Like a massive earthquake, Covid-19 has toppled our most cherished illusions — of certainty, security, invincibility and control. And like a receding tide from what seemed a flawless beach, it has also laid bare all the ugliness — the fetid pools, turds and rotting carrion in society; it’s crappy values and misplaced priorities, its ruinous paradigms and widening fault lines of injustice.

Before rushing to clean up the mess, though, we need to purge. To self-empty, like the ancient Greeks suggested. To use this dark moment to come to terms with ourselves and the fat turds we’ve dumped on the world while frolicking in abundance and denial. Time to also come to terms — once and for all — with uncertainty and the little control we’ve always had, always will. With so many lives being upended, so many fortunes changing, about the only thing we can control right now is how we choose to navigate the gauntlet.

About me are great natural forces — colossal menaces, Titans of destruction, unsentimental monsters that have less concern for me than I have for the grain of sand I crush under my foot. In the maze and chaos, it is for me to thread my precarious way. — Jack London

Fortune is a capricious, unsentimental bitch. One day she bestows upon us all the gifts from the horn of plenty and, the next, jolts the tiller of our lives and throws us off course. That day has come. Our world is tossing and heaving in unchartered waters.

“Never have I trusted Fortune,” declared Stoic philosopher Seneca, “even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings she bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.”

Inner peace, suggested Greek philosopher Epictetus, “begins when we stop saying of things, ‘I have lost it,’ and instead say, ‘It has been returned to where it came from.’” Arriving at such sweet state of serenity must be apex of bliss, but if we are to get there, we must learn to accept any chocolate given to us from now on and know when to let go when the time comes. The important thing, Epictetus said, is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it.

No doubt we’ll figure this out. But how we emerge from the crash will depend on what we do before we hit rock bottom. A new world, or new way of life, said Henry Miller, is not made by trying to forget the old; it is made with a new spirit, with new values.

If we use this time to live the questions… if we surrender our old ways of thinking and dare crack open our imaginations, we will come out of the dark — like tiny stars in the night — with saner, more fruitful answers to give our lives and the world a new orientation.

The Great Purge of 2020

Refusing to return to “normal”

Can you hear it?

Like birdsong on the advent of spring, people around the world are beginning to sing for change.

Still scattered, but rapidly coalescing into a common melody, its key signature was just found graffitied inside an empty Hong Kong subway tunnel:

“We cannot return to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem.”

Like drunkards waking up from a collective binge, many of us are shaking our heads and shuddering as we contemplate the mayhem wrought by our collective, all-too-human hubris, indifference, self-indulgence, and misplaced priorities.

How could we have been so blind? So self-centered and stupid?

Because you see, drunkards and junkies don’t binge with forethought. Prudence, I’m afraid, is not one of our strong suits. Yet, from the sound of it, it appears we’re finally waking up.

Our intuitive wisdom is making us sense that Covid-19 is not an isolated, temporary affliction, but symptomatic of a deeper sickness. The sickness of the human mind.

In the deathly quiet of isolation, people are clamoring for a new way forward. From balconies, windows and rooftops, many are shedding joyful tears and a collective sigh of relief as they witness nature quickly healing from the scourge of our rapacity, the blight of our addictions, the heavy footprint of our limitless appetites, the deep scars carved by our delusions, and the wounds inflicted by our untrammeled desires.

At last, we are singing due praise to the lowly delivery man and janitor, the migrant farm worker, the tireless nurse and teacher, the struggling artist, the dowdy cashier at the local store, our solitary postman — all the humble souls who so often went unrecognized, now our lifelines and heroes, while our once idolized celebrities cower inside their gleaming yachts and stately mansions sending us tone-deaf exhortations to image a world without possessions and corporate titans and politicians itch to rush us back to “normal.”

The kind of normal that accepts 7 million yearly deaths from air pollution as the price of doing business.

The normal that tolerates the daily loss of 9000 children to malnutrition while one third of all food is wasted.

The normal that is able to reconcile the staggering chasm between the annual $1.75 trillion wasted on the world’s war machine and the mere $166 Billion allocated to development aid.

Or the one that buys-in to the perversity of planned obsolescence willfully ignorant of how much of our electronic waste ends up trashing and poisoning the world’s poorest regions.

The normal of opulence living side-by-side with the homeless and growing deaths from despair.

Where the deaths of schoolchildren to mass shootings are brushed off as merely collateral damage in an ideological struggle.

The normal that accepts a dying planet in the name of progress.

That kind of normal.

Enough!’ seems the message people are shouting from their balconies in a massive shakeup of values and priorities.

We are beginning to recognize the limits of human power and the sham of our preeminence. That we are but one of millions of species inhabiting the planet. We are discovering that well-being and peace of mind are not measured by stock indices or the size of our homes or bank accounts. That the world’s entire arsenal of war is useless. That so long as one link is weak, or broken, we cannot call a chain strong. That death does not discriminate and that security is an illusion. That for too long, we have allowed others to define our standards of success, tell us what we need, or dictate what constitutes “normal” and a life well lived.

It’s like a great awakening from mass hypnosis and an opportunity to purge.

Perhaps our last.

In 2013, Universal Pictures released ‘The Purge,’ in which the New Founding Fathers of America — a totalitarian political party — are voted into office following an economic collapse. They pass a law sanctioning an annual “Purge” during which all crime — including murder, arson, theft, and rape — is legal for 12 hours. A chance for people to unleash their darkest impulses and vomit their pain on the world.

The 2020 pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a real life purge. Only this time, we are to remain indoors, there to raise a mirror to ourselves and come to terms, once and for all, with our complicity in the state of affairs.

If we are honest, we will have to admit that before Covid-19, we were already infected.

The affluenza virus we’ve spread across the world is coming back to haunt us, though its symptoms and effects were eating away at us way before Covid-19.

For long, we’ve been suffocating under hell-like wildfires, megadroughts, toxic air, poisoned waterways, contaminated food, dead bees, and the howls of the destitute and the displaced. We’ve been tumbling icebergs, bleaching coral reefs, felling forests, strip-mining mountaintops, exhausting the planet’s topsoil, and bringing death to countless life forms in Earth’s 6th mass extinction and, possibly, our own. In short, a serial gang-rape of the planet.

All along, Earth has been trying to make us change course by appealing to our intuition — the wise voice of instinct we share with our animal kin. Once intimately connected with nature, our feeling bodies have been warning us that our current path is unsustainable. Our increasing levels of stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, boredom, loneliness and feeling of utter meaninglessness are the language our bodies have been using to tell us something is fundamentally wrong in the way we live, think, relate, consume, and waste.

Under the eerie cloak of silence that has descended upon our loud, frenzied lives, we have the chance to listen and purge, to heal and recover so we may begin repairing the damage we have caused.

The Great Purge of 2020 is a call to self-revolt. To rid humanity of its delusions and irrational impulses. To arrest its godlike powers and bring an end to its assault on itself and the planet. Now that we know how helpless and powerless we truly are, it is also a call to humility. To admit we don’t have all the answers. To reorder our priorities, reconsider our values, and redefine ourselves as human beings, instead of human havings.

“To put the world in order we must put the nation in order. To put the nation in order, we must put the family in order. To put the family in order we must first set our hearts right.” — Chinese philosopher Confucius

Setting our hearts right begins by realizing our tenuous hold on life. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, let it be the shocking awareness of our mortality, not at some distant point in the future, but at any given moment.

At every doorstep, rich and poor alike, Covid-19 has placed a Memento Mori: a reminder that our precious life can end at any second.

“Let that determine what we do and say and think,” counseled Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, for there is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion, added Carlos Castaneda, centuries later. These profound truths should suffice to make us purge the flashy items in our bucket list and replace them with what truly matters.

With our priorities rightly ordered, we can keep setting our hearts right by cultivating the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity, defined by Roman statesman Cicero as: “A habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature consisting of four character traits: Prudence, Justice, Courage, and Temperance.”

Prudence: also described as wisdom, is the ability to judge between actions. It’s that sweet spot, between stimulus and response, wherein lies our power to choose, as said Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. A prudent person, for example, doesn’t drunk-shop — a $48B affliction, in today’s world.

In Stoic philosophy, prudence is understanding what’s important in life and living accordingly.

No man can have whatever he wants, but he has it in his power not to wish for what he doesn’t have and cheerfully make the most of the things that come his way. — Marcus Aurelius

Justice: also considered as fairness, was considered by Aurelius as the source of all other virtues, one extending beyond Confucius’ Golden Rule: Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t like them to do to you. For the Stoics, the scope of justice must also consider our duty to our fellow beings. It’s “the principle which constitutes the bond of human society and of [the]community of life,” said Cicero.

The belief in the interdependence of everything in the universe —  that we are all one — is perhaps the Stoics’ most radical idea.

“What injures the hive injures the bee.” — Marcus Aurelius

Once this pandemic ends, Aurelius’ admonition should make us refuse the self checkout line at the supermarket, for example, to protect the livelihood and cross smiles and small talk with Iris, who, for all we know, may depend on her cashier’s job to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments and help with her son’s crippling college debt. Post Covid-19, we will hopefully trade convenience for connection. Comfort for belonging. Choose to do without, to grow within.

Temperance: is the practice of self-control, abstention, and restraint of our irrational appetites. Greek philosopher Aristotle called it the “Golden Mean,” found between excess and deficiency. Excessive desires are nothing but symptoms of discontent and dissatisfaction. Temperance is the knowledge that abundance comes from having what is essential, of realizing you can never get enough of what you didn’t need in the first place, as said nurse and author Mary Ellen Edmunds.

Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? First, to have what is necessary, and second, to know what is enough. It is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more that is poor. – Seneca

Courage: also named fortitude, is endurance, inner strength, forbearance, and the bravery to confront and overcome your fears, prejudices, and misconceptions. The courage to face misfortune, to risk yourself for the sake of your fellow man. Courage to hold to your principles, even when others get away with or are rewarded for disregarding theirs. Courage to speak your mind and insist on truth.

I know perfectly well that death is invincible. Man’s worth, however, lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and courage. — Nikos Kazantzakis

With our hearts thus set right by the recognition of our unpredictable time on earth and through daily cultivation of a virtuous life, we must purge our cynicism to recover the idealism of youth. The ‘can-do’ spirit that dares imagine a better world even if it seems impractical or unrealistic.

Imagination sparks when we unclutter our minds from the adult affliction of common sense. – Physicist Brian Cox

For who’s to say certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs? asks 12 year-old Adora Svitak. “Kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things,” she says. “Kids can be full of aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry, or everything were free… kind of utopia. How many still dream this way and believe in the possibilities? In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility.”

The fact the current pandemic struck us on the advent of spring is profoundly symbolic and meaningful. As Nature unfurls her bounteous spectacle of renewal, she is beckoning us to do the same. Like Jesus on Golgotha, we are undergoing our own crucifixion — the chance to purge ourselves from the ego-cravings of the Self to be reborn in spirit. A precious opportunity to push the boundaries of possibility and bring about a new normal to the world.

I realize that weaning ourselves from our previous way of life will be massively disruptive. Recovering from affluenza will undoubtedly lend a death blow to many industries which (let’s face it) only exist to feed our addictions, temporarily assuage our insecurities, and prop-up our fragile egos. Going forward, it may indeed be the highest wisdom to elect to be a nobody in a relative paradise rather than a celebrity in a world that has lost all sense of values, as said Henry Miller. No guiding morality, I claim, can develop without a hierarchy of values.

Refusing to return to normal will be disruptive, surely, but I’m convinced that in its stead, novel trades, communities, cities, technologies, art forms, and life experiences will emerge which respond to our true needs, are focused on what matters, and in harmony with the whole.

That, anyway, is my song.

Those who insist on returning to “normal” would do the world a great favor by booking themselves a one-way ticket to Mercury.

I hear it’s pretty nice up there… 800 degrees during the day; minus 300 at night. Lots of rocks.


Related articles:

A Black Swan and a Dark Age

What Now, Pandora?

Something Extraordinary Happened

 

What Now, Pandora?

If anything, now is not the time for hope.

Written about 3000 years ago by Greek poet Hesiod, the myth of Pandora may shed some light on humanity’s current predicament and contain a hidden clue for a better way forward.

In her ‘Short Story of Myth,’ religious scholar Karen Armstrong warns that “it is a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought that can be cast aside when human beings have attained reason. Myths give explicit shape to a reality that people sense intuitively. It is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave. It puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action. It helps us cope with the problematic human predicament and to find our place in the world and our true orientation. It lifts men and women onto a different plane of existence so that they see the world with new eyes. A myth, therefore, is true because it’s effective, not because it gives us factual information. If it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.”

This is exactly what we need right now: To silence the voice of reason and listen to our intuition, to see the world with new eyes and change our minds and hearts to find a new orientation. Our traditional ways of thinking, I’m afraid, are not going to cut it this time. Humankind needs a new story, fast!

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

The myth recounts how Zeus, ruler of all gods, ordered Hephaestus to fashion Pandora from clay, thereon to live among humans as punishment for Prometheus having stolen fire from the gods and gifting it to mankind.

In Hesiod’s poem ‘Work and Days,’ we read:

“To make up for the fire, I will give them an evil thing, in which they may all take their delight, embracing this evil thing of their own making.”

Thus spoke the father of men and gods, and he laughed out loud.

Then he ordered Hephaestus to shape some wet clay and to put into it a human voice and to make it look like the immortal goddesses…

And he ordered Aphrodite to shed golden charm over her head; also harsh longing and anxieties that eat away at the limbs.

And he ordered Hermes, the messenger [of the gods], to put inside her an intent that is doglike and a temperament that is stealthy.

And [Hermes] put inside her a voice, and he called this woman Pandōrā.”

Let us skirt the obvious patriarchal allusions of women being the bane of man’s existence and dig deeper to discover the symbolic meaning of Pandora.

“For us moderns,” says Karen Armstrong, “a symbol is essentially separate from unseen reality, but the Greek symballein means ‘to throw together.’ This sense of participation in the divine was essential to the mythical worldview. The purpose of a myth was to make people more fully conscious of the spiritual dimension that surrounded them.”

Famous mythologist Joseph Campbell put it this way: “The life of a mythology springs from and depends on the metaphoric vigor of its symbols. These deliver more than just an intellectual concept. The symbol, energized by metaphor, doesn’t just point to something else but awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and reality itself.”

So what does Pandora symbolize?

We get an inkling from Hesiod’s poem. Pandora, he said, is the evil of our own making; the harsh longings and anxieties that eat away at us.

In ‘The Wisdom of the Myths,’ Luc Ferry elaborates: “Hermes gives Pandora the mind of a dog, which is to say she always asks for more than enough. She is insatiable on all levels: food, money, gifts. She always wants more… her appetite is without limit.” “Always dissatisfied, demanding, self-indulgent, she is the sum of all the contradictions of our existence,” adds Jean Pierre Vernant in ‘The Universe, the Gods, and Men.’

Sound familiar?

Ferry and Vernant could well have been describing a good chunk of consumers in affluent societies. Us, in other words.

It is through symbols that we enter emotionally into contact with our deepest selves. — Trappist monk Thomas Merton

After Hephaestus fashions Pandora from clay, the myth recounts the moment Zeus whispered in her ear tempting her to open a strange jar that the gods had given her. Commonly known as “Pandora’s Box,” it contained all the ills, all the misfortunes, and all the sufferings that would thereafter rain down on mankind.

Hesiod again:

“Before this, humanity lived on earth

without evils and without harsh labor,

without wretched diseases that give disasters to men.

But the woman took the great lid off the jar

and scattered what was inside.”

And so ended the golden age for man, just like it ended when Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden. Same story, different characters.

Let us step away from the realm of myth and into the real world to find out if humankind has ever enjoyed a “Golden Age.”

We have, of sorts, suggests Yuval Harari, author of the international bestseller ‘Sapiens.’ It lasted for 99% of the time modern humans have been on the planet when we lived as hunter-gatherers.

“On the whole,” says Harari, “foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, laborers, and office workers who followed in their footsteps. They were less likely to suffer from starvation or malnutrition and were generally taller and healthier than their peasant descendants. They had a varied diet so were less likely to suffer when one particular food source failed. They also suffered less from infectious diseases.”

Harari suggests that this golden era ended about ten, to fifteen thousand years ago with the Agricultural Revolution; a turning point he denounces as “history’s biggest fraud.”

“The extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure,” Harari says. “Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. Wheat did not give people economic security; the life a peasant is less secure than that of a hunter-gatherer. Nor could wheat offer security against human violence. On the contrary, that’s when raids began. The pursuit — through agriculture — of an easier way of life, resulted in much hardship. One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and spawn new obligations. From the very advent of agriculture, worries about the future became major players in the theater of the human mind.”

Why did humanity make such a fateful miscalculation? Harari wonders.“For the same reason people throughout history have miscalculated,” he says. “They are unable to fathom the full consequence of their decisions.

Since the Agricultural Revolution — ramping up during the Industrial era — humans, like did Pandora, have been endlessly lifting a dangerous lid with their voracious and insatiable “dog-like” appetites, with their greed and avarice, their self-indulgent addictions, thus unleashing on themselves and the planet one scourge after another in a plundering orgy of consumption — plagues, pollution, climate change, wildfires, wars, floods, famine, deforestation, desertification, droughts, dust bowls, etc. The latest ill to escape from the box is a deathly virus directly linked to man’s arrogant, mindless, and relentless assault on the rest of nature.

Let’s be honest. Before coronavirus, we were already infected. Only this time by a deadlier pathogen — our own befouling rapacity.

Seeing nature as nothing more than an inexhaustible source of stuff and a dumpsite for human waste, we are blind to what environmental philosopher John Muir intuited more than a century ago, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

An addiction is the habitual avoidance of reality, and while you’re free to avoid reality, said novelist Ayn Rand, “you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

Here we are, 2020, face-to-face with the first major consequence of our longstanding avoidance, and I fear it won’t be the last. This latest pandemic is but an ominous foretaste of what’s to come.

Pogo

Is there hope?

Therein lies the clue in the myth of Pandora.

‘Hope,’ it so happens, was the only thing that did not escape the box when she opened the lid.

Sounds comforting, but I have a hard time with the notion of hope. It’s too fuzzy, passive, sunny and cheerful, of course, but numbing, like a shot of Pollyannaish Novocaine for the spirit. I seriously doubt prayer, candle-lighting or crossing fingers are going to alter reality, unless, we — individually, and as a species — take decisive action.

My preference, rather, is for the classic understanding of hope.

For the ancient Greeks, hope was not a gift. It was a calamity, a negative striving, for to hope was to remain in a state of want; to want what we do not have, and, consequently, to remain unsatisfied and unhappy, just like Pandora.

That’s why hope remained in the box.

Therefore, to find our way out, we must examine the root cause of our irrational behavior.

According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is a never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. Even when experiencing pleasure we are not content because we fear the feeling might soon disappear and wish it to remain, and, ‘hopefully,’ intensify.

Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet cave? If not, what’s the point? — Yuval Harari

“The most important finding of all,” says Harari, “is that happiness does not depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations,” meaning, your life as it is, compared to your expectations of how you’d like it to be, or worse, how others tell you it should be. In such constant state of want and dissatisfaction, we become easy prey to the hipnotic enticements dangled in front of our eyes by mass media and the advertising industry.

If happiness is determined by expectations, the two pillars of our society — mass media and the advertising industry — may unwittingly be depleting our reservoirs of contentment. — Yuval Harari

In an earlier piece, I included a sobering indictment by German philosopher Theodor Adorno warning pointing at how capitalism craftily repackages our longings so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our well-being. “The hidden persuaders of capitalism,” further observed social critic Vance Packard, “see us as bundles of daydreams, misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, and irrational emotional blockages. We are image lovers given to impulsive and compulsive acts. We annoy them with our senseless quirks but please them with our growing docility in responding to their manipulation of symbols that stir us to action.”

Fuck that!

I say it’s time to revolt!

Time to take arms against our collective delusions and irrational emotional blockages! Time to recover from our addictions and define our own standards of success, worth, attractiveness, and well-being! Time to stop lifting the lid off Pandora’s box and cease our relentless assault on the natural world just to satisfy our caprices, ease our insecurities, and feed our insatiable appetites! Time to choose between continuing our covetous existence as human-havings, or start living as who we’re meant to be — human beings.

Covid-19 has sent us on a collective time out. Perhaps our last chance to forge a new path forward. Why not seize the moment? What’s there to lose? As it is, the world-as-we-knew-it is in shambles.

“Cracks in the foundations of life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments,” suggests philosopher Gabriel Rockhill. “Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil or push through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible.”

“The Homo Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little we can be proud of,” Harari laments. “We seem as disoriented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles — but nobody knows where we are going. Self-made gods — with only the laws of physics to keep us company — we are accountable to no one. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

You act like mortals in all you fear, and like immortals in all you desire. — Stoic philosopher Seneca

I’m not suggesting we go back to a hunter-gatherer existence. That would be as impractical and unsustainable as staying the course. I am simply proposing we slow down, that we become more embedded and dependent on our local communities for our sustenance, contentment, and sense of belonging; that we rewild ourselves, especially our children, to heal the rift we’ve caused between us and the rest of nature; that we listen to our youth and dare become infected with their idealism and divergent-thinking magic. Finally, that we focus on what we truly need rather than on what we desire and limit our consumption within the regenerative capacity of the environment.

In Faustian Economics,’ author Wendell Berry proposes that “to recover from our disease of limitless consumption, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent. We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and necessity of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. We will have to reexamine the economic structures of our lives and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places.”

Only then do we stand a chance.

We need a new story. A daring story of self-revolt!

The enemy is us — a group of deranged, godlike primates whom we must topple from their hubristic throne before it’s too late.

Something Extraordinary Happened

Is humanity on the threshold of an evolutionary leap?

Five hundred million years ago, during the Precambrian era, the instructions for building an eye jumped from plants to animals. The blueprint was encoded in the RHO gene tasked with the manufacture of the rhodopsin protein — near identical to the one in the human eye. Considered one of the major leaps in evolutionary history, this gift to animal life came from microscopic forms of marine plankton called “dinoflagellates.”

In a 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers suggest this extraordinary gene transfer occurred through symbiosis – from dinoflagellates to jelly fish. This seemingly-impossible merging of plant and animal DNA was a game changing event for life on earth.

My metaphorical imagination makes me think that the submicroscopic piece of DNA now infecting close to a million people is actually meant to open a third eye in us all. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, Covid-19 seems like a dark emissary carrying a threatening, yet pivotal message for humanity: Wake up!

Wake up from your addictions and your delusions, from your insatiable appetite for more and more stuff causing your relentless assault on the environment. If you’re looking for someone to blame, take a hard, honest look at yourself! Your addictions and insecurities were precisely what forced me to unleash my fury. You seem incapable of listening unless death itself comes pounding on your door. Do you hear it now? How many do I need to suffocate to death until finally awakening the third eye within you?

The pineal gland, also known as the third eye, is a miniscule organ located deep in the human brain which is activated when exposed to light. French philosopher René Descartes called it the “seat of the soul.” A sacred and revered tool of seers and mystics, the third eye opens the pathway to clarity, imagination, and intuition.

For a long time now, it seems nature has been trying to speak to our intuition, or embodied knowledge, warning us that our modern way of life is not only unsustainable but detrimental to our well-being. Her message can be perceived in the increasing levels of depression and anxiety, particularly in affluent societies.

In the U.S. alone, antidepressant use has soared by 65% in the past 15 years. Close to 50,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2018. The country produces and consumes 90% of the world’s Ritalin to treat attention deficit, and, every year, doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or Alprazolam to ease anxiety.

If we’re so rich, why are we so miserable?

A painful hangover would be well worth it had the party been smashing, but it doesn’t appear we’ve been having such a good time in our frenzied race to the land of plenty.

Could it be that the voice of our intuition has been telling us all along that we’re on a slippery slope to self-annihilation but we no longer feel able to control our destructive impulses? Ironically, our desperate pursuit to ‘secure’ our future has now made us more vulnerable than ever.

An organism at war with itself is doomed. — Astronomer Carl Sagan

What’s it going to take? A million deaths? The wipeout of the world’s coastal megacities by rising seas? Hordes of desperate climate refugees pouring across borders? The sudden collapse of pollinator communities and ensuing global famine? What!? “Civilizations die from suicide,” warned historian Arnold Toynbee, “not by murder.”

Something truly extraordinary happened 500 million years ago giving rise to our capacity to see.

If Covid-19 awakens humanity’s third eye, the current crisis will be hailed as a new leap in evolution; the pivotal moment when we decided to write a better and more sustainable chapter in the storybook of humankind. If it doesn’t, and we proceed with business as usual, I’m afraid it won’t take long for nature to excise the cancerous scourge we’ve become.

Author Dave Hollis recently said that in the rush to return to normal, we should use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to. It is my fervent hope that we’ll all heed his wise counsel.

Not the End of the World

But a new beginning, perhaps.

It’s neither the end of the world, nor the end of humanity. Not yet, at least.

But it sure feels that way, doesn’t it? Now that a virulent microbe has stopped us dead in our tracks making an eerie hush descend upon humanity’s frenzied existence.

Were it not for the tragic loss of life and financial pain, I would allow myself to feel vindicated for having called for a collective time out less than a year ago:

“Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would stop. Wishing someone would make all stoplights turn red; throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of the madly-spinning carousel; flip-off the world’s main breaker switch plunging humanity into quietude. Just long enough for us to come together and figure out what the hell we’re doing.”

Well, here we are. What now?

Necessarily, for most, sheer survival will take precedence over philosophical or existential questions. I am in that same boat, with no life jacket, and taking-in water at alarming speed. But like the musicians aboard the RMS ‘Titanic’ who played to their tragic end, as a writer, I feel called to lend my mind and voice to discover and share whatever can be learned from the current crisis. For this is precisely when artists go to work, said Toni Morrison. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

From a practical standpoint, I could limit my work and actions to urging the United States to demand that China permanently ban the trade of wildlife for human consumption as a non-negotiable condition to resume trade talks. For that’s how this whole mess started, as far as my research goes. Such a ban would lower the probability of a new contagion. Once the current one subsides, we could go on with business as usual.

But business as usual, I argue, is precisely what is pushing humanity to the brink, so I think it wise to not let this crisis go to waste and explore what it’s trying to tell us.

“Cracks in the foundations of our life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments,” says philosopher Gabriel Rockhill. “Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil or push through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible.”

The loud cracks now being heard around the world are symptomatic of a system beginning to show signs of structural fatigue and nearing collapse, none louder than the silent crumbling of our illusions.

Our cherished illusions of certainty, security, and human supremacy… gone!

The illusion that our relentless and voracious encroachment into the natural world can proceed without consequence.

The illusion of our separateness from nature which makes us blind to what John Muir once said, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

The illusions of limitless growth, progress and economic prosperity now crumbling at a dizzying speed.

Finally, our illusory and hubristic faith in human reason and technology which makes us blind and deaf to our natural instincts and nature’s wisdom.

An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted. — American playwright Arthur Miller.

The Anthropocene era, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment, appears to be ending. That, at least, is my most fervent hope.

The emergence of a new era, called ‘The Ecocene’ by many, will depend on a new understanding of human-nature relationships and on ecologically informed ways of thinking and living.

Intimations of what this new era promises are already manifest. Nature is presenting us with a picture of her rapid healing power when unburdened and unsullied by man’s heavy footprint. Skies are clearing, so are waterways. Once more, dolphins frolic in Venice canals. Birds are back in Wuhan. For those who demand more objective metrics of well-being, consider that air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths per year, and that close to 9000 children die of malnutrition every-single-day. To put those numbers in perspective, the latest (4.1) death count from Covid-19 is forty five thousand.

The emergence of the Ecocene, however, depends entirely on what we do once the dust settles.

“In a very real sense,” says American author Jeff VanderMeer, “the history of the world can be seen as an ongoing battle between good and bad imaginations.”

I believe we are now starting to experience the real consequences of our bad imaginations, consequences which make no distinction between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, or between generations. We are all in the same boat, or Ark if you will, called Planet Earth, facing a common enemy… not just a virus, but ourselves.

Meanwhile, the voice of good imagination has grown steadily louder as humanity rushes towards the abyss. We just haven’t been listening.

For example, in her eye-opening 2014 TED Talk, English economist Kate Raworth wonders, “what if economics didn’t start with money but with human well-being?” She then examines the two sides of that story. “On the one hand,” she says, “our well-being depends on us having the resources we need to meet our human rights to food, water, health, education, housing, energy. And on the other hand, our well-being also depends on our planetary home. For the last twelve thousand years, the conditions on this planet have been incredibly benevolent. We’ve had a stable climate, plentiful water, clean air, bountiful biodiversity and a protective ozone layer. We’d be crazy to put so much pressure on these life-support systems [to the point where] we actually kick ourselves out of the very sweet spot that we know as home.”

But that’s precisely what we’ve been doing: moving dangerously away from that sweet spot, particularly since the Industrial Revolution.

The voice of good imagination is also coming from the young who look upon the actions or inactions of their elders with dismay. “We deserve a safe future,” says 16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. “Is that really too much to ask?”

No, Greta, it’s not. We all want the same thing. But I’m afraid nothing will change unless we change.

By “we,” I mean those whose way of life is at odds with the planet. Who live at right angles to the land. Whose interactions with the natural world, excess consumption and investment decisions compromise the health of the world by undermining its support systems and regenerative capacities. I’m talking about the fortunate ones who live in developed countries. The change must begin there.

No government or international body can save us from our addictions or temper our auto-destructive impulses. Technology, alone, won’t help either; this is just one more human illusion currently crumbling before our very eyes. And no, Mr. Musk, none of us want to join you in Mars.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

Every disaster

Changing our way of thinking starts by becoming informed citizens of planet Earth. In this quest, we have only one choice: either accept the science or not. Science is not a matter of belief or disbelief. Those who choose not to accept the science should do the world a great favor and book themselves the first space flight out of here.

For all the rest, a good starting point is learning how humans impact the environment and the top 10 solutions to reverse climate change.

Next, take a hard and honest look at your consumption. Not through the lens of sustainability alone, but far deeper. Examine all the stuff you purchase and ask yourself: Do I really need this? Has all the stuff I’ve been accumulating added to my happiness and well-being?

The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less. — Socrates

If you are among the lucky few to have investments, exercise the right to demand that your money stop funding companies which are part of the problem. Become a conscious investor, as Vinay Shandal urges in this TED talk. If you, like me, have a pension, write a letter to the fund’s manager asking her to divest from industries which are undermining our collective well-being. Or, if you live, say, in Norway, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or China, call the officer who manages your country’s sovereign wealth fund and tell him the same thing (okay… maybe not China).

For those who believe their individual actions won’t make a difference in the grander scheme, I offer you the story of seven year-old Benjamin Ball.

The current crisis is humanity’s first, and perhaps last reckoning moment. The perfect opportunity to quickly move back to that sweet spot Kate Raworth talks about. If anything, with death lurking so closely at everyone’s doorstep, it should make each of us question how we’ve been living up to this point and seize the moment to change course.

When we finally come out of this, we’ll be stepping up to a crossroad where we’ll have to choose between “business as usual” and the ultimate survival of our species. Let us wisely use this sheltered time to decide which path to take.