Our Collective Despair

Our world is in the midst of rapid change, clearly these are turbulent times in which we live. There appears but one real certainty – uncertainty.

We have now a number of generations that have grown up and indeed lived their much of their lives in an atmosphere of fear, of impending doom for society as we know it.  It is manifest in so many areas of our society, it pervades our public consciousness.

"What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad."  Morpheus – The Matrix (1999)

Amidst the haste of our modern "lives" we scurry about, rushing towards what?  The elusive dream of fame and fortune?  Dreams of power and wealth?  These wealthy people and celebrities we are heavily conditioned to idolise, these luminaries that reach this supposed "pinnacle" of human existence, how happy are they truly?  They regularly display through their antics, their selfishness, their addictions, their early deaths, their infedelity etc. they perhaps aren't as happy as we are led to believe.

"…take a good look, because he's the poster child for the next millennium. These people, it's no mystery where they come from. You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire. You build egos the size of cathedrals. Fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse. Grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green gold-plated fantasies until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own god. Where can you go from there? As we're scrambling from one deal to the next, who's got his eye on the planet? As the air thickens, the water sours, even bees' honey takes on the metallic taste of radioactivity… and it just keeps coming, faster and faster. There's no chance to think, to prepare; it's buy futures, sell futures… when there is no future. We got a runaway train, boy."  John Milton (the devil) – The Devil's Advocate (1997)

Surely one of the sadest indictments of the health of our society is the rate in which we (particularly our youth) choose to end our lives.  According to recent data, "Over one million people commit suicide every year, making it the tenth-leading cause of death worldwide. It is a leading cause of death among teenagers and adults under 35.  There are an estimated 10 to 20 million non-fatal attempted suicides every year worldwide."

Something I find astonishing is that suicide is rarely discussed in the larger context of the human condition.  Research and discussion is focused on the individual life, ie – mental health, the quality interpersonal relationships, various forms of abuse (either self inflicted or inflicted by others) and how the individual copes with environmental stressors (eg – financial pressures).

Of course all of these are very legitimate areas for research and discussion but what seems to me largely unexplored (in this context) is the larger collective sickness of human society.  A sickness which I term "Our collective Despair".

Suicide is a problem that is rarely discussed in our society.  There is a school of thought that suggests it irresponsible to talk about, that by talking about suicide it is romanticized, glamorized in some way.  It may be true that glamorizing individual stories of suicide, of reporting them in a fashion which "celebriWell I have to say I disagree, I think that this is an issue that we vitally need to talk about in our society, for many reasons.

The Corporation.  Sociopaths.  Henry Ford.

In the U2 song "Zooropa" there is a line “uncertainty can be a guiding light”.  Something about this line rings deeply in me, I find it an interesting reflection on where we are collectively at, on the times in which we live.   For me it suggests that in this time of uncertainty there is a huge opportunity, that indeed we should in some sense embrace this uncertainty and endeavour to move forward with courage.  That in this time of collective despair there is also great hope for building a better future.

I remember first becoming aware of this feeling as a child (maybe 12 years old) watching a video in Biology class. I can’t remember the title (nor too many specifics of the video to be honest) but the presentation introduced a concept to my impressionable young mind of “2 minutes to midnight”. It referred to the “Doomsday Clock” which counts down to midnight, midnight representing "catastrophic destruction" for the human race.

Pretty heavy going for a 12 year old!!

Around this time I also have strong memories of the Mad Max movies shortly followed after by the Terminator movies.

These films depict very serious themes which were part and parcel of the world I grew up in.  Though they may be veiled under the guise of a fictional story obviously they are an expression of serious thoughts in relation to the trajectory of our society.  Events in the real world,  served to reinforce these themes.  Of course they are two sides of the one coin.

It goes beyond movies of course. The artists, scientists, deep thinkers and mystic/religious types of our times have been banging on about the critical nature of our times for many years now. We are saturated with these messages.

Whatever the outcome, whoever is right, whoever is wrong, it is the here and now which is important. We can’t afford to ignore these messages, nor can we afford to dwell on them to the point of driving ourselves further into despair.

It’s very easy to fall into despair when looking at the enormity of the world’s problems. I’ve done my fair share of it. It’s not the most productive of head spaces.

It is however, a real phenomena, to ignore it, is to continue in one’s current trajectory and embrace disaster. Both in an individual’s life and in collective life we experience despair when we can’t see any solution to our life’s circumstances. It is a stagnant feeling, a feeling of hopelessness, of no direction.

But it has a purpose. It illuminates us to the fact that something needs to change. Without these uncomfortable feelings, what motivation would we have to bring change into our lives?

So in the midst of our collective despair we can perhaps feel good about the fact that finally the impetus, the motivation for some deeper changes is becoming manifest.

I think it was Lao Tzu (ancient Chinese philosopher) who said “You can’t start a revolution on an empty stomach”. The question remains as to whether we (in the West) can start one with a full stomach but an empty heart.

In all the great stories the heroes face tremendous hardship, overwhelming despair. What is it that keeps them going? What is it that keeps them moving towards their goal?  A common theme is that they are fighting for something larger than themselves, whether it be to save someone else (a loved one) or whether to ‘save the world’ the hero often displays little regard for their own wellbeing, their own lives as they go about completing their mission.

"They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally, they became heroes"  said Princess Leia (from the original Star Wars novel by George Lucas).  I wonder, are we in a sufficiently dire situation for us all or at least sufficient numbers of us to embody this hero archetype?

My intention here is to firstly to document some of my own feelings and musings, to begin to bring together some of the many threads of my own thoughts from the various experiences and sources in my life.  If I can achieve this much then I will be happy.

There seems to me a gap here. We have the grumpy old men and to a lesser extent the grumpy old women of our world with a firm grip on the microphone. I would like to here hopefully give voice to what I feel is going on for the young folk of our turbulent world.

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