Thanks to decades of our own chemical emissions, the climate with which humans have become familiar over hundreds of centuries will soon shift under our feet, the physical premises of civilization will destabilize, and the setting we have long assumed for our species will erode at an accelerating rate. There will be a lot less of what we need, and a lot more of what we don’t. Our surroundings will become harsher than most of us have previously known and our margins for error will evaporate.
And in anticipation of that disorder and the need to maintain a humanitarian society in the face of it, the rules for the human game will have to be rewritten: The better selves we have revered in the abstract as ideals rather than as practical behaviors will have to routinely manifest in everyday life, making what we currently consider extraordinary, ordinary, and what we now see as exceptional, commonplace:
We will need to use less and share more, reconcile with our antagonists and empower our heretofore disenfranchised. We will need to enlarge our engagement with each other and shrink our impact on the planet; relinquish our illusions of superiority and acclaim our universal worth; rely a lot less on force and a lot more on reconciliation and acceptance; lionize diversity and dismiss prejudice; maximize wellbeing and minimize privilege; stop trying to gain an advantage and start weaving a common thread; pay close attention to what is going on and resist closing our eyes during the scary parts; don’t spend resources we don’t have and spend those we do have for the widest possible benefit; seek affinity and dignity; avoid delusions of grandeur and domination, however well intentioned; live closer to the ground, help all comers, and keep our minds and hearts open.
I must confess, however, that I’m not at all sure that such a profound transformation is possible.
To chew on that question, I caught up with my old friend Amos. He’s been teaching a renegade version of philosophy for almost fifty years, sometimes at universities, sometimes not. We took a walk together on the tidal flats, following a trail we both figure may well be under twenty feet of water by the time our grandchildren are as old as we are.
“So,” I prodded him, “is this kind of human elevation just a pipe dream or what?”
“It has actually been one of the foci of philosophic thought since the early 1800’s,” Amos responded, “starting with Hegel and a few others. In those days it was framed as a religious question but it has widened to include lots of spiritual traditions. Its starting point was the premise that the universe was actually the divine enmeshed in matter and the question whether that divine presence was just a transcendent overseer or an imminent force in daily reality as well. And in the course of that discussion, a long line of thinkers and religious seers have endorsed the notion that as part of the universe’s operating equation humans are wired to realize their better selves and in so doing advance the species and concretize that imminent life force that drives reality under its surface. Such transformation is not only possible, it’s what we are meant to do.
“It is, however, nothing if not difficult. Even though we are blessed with more available knowledge about personal growth than ever before, self realization is a fragile enterprise. Most who have contributed to our knowledge about the nurturing of our higher selves agree that the process proceeds from four preconditions:
“First, it has to begin with a commitment to practice the necessary virtues. Everything else pivots around this foundation of devotion. Second, that realization requires us to ‘seek out the brotherhood,’ to practice in a community. We are imitative creatures and need a constituency in which to operate. Third, it needs an ongoing attitude of gratitude. The latter is important because often our greatest moments are given to us by life—stumbled upon, if you will, rather than constructed with our effort. This is considered ‘grace’ and gratitude for what we have and who we are makes us more open to grace. And finally, number four, is boldness—a kind of fearlessness—that allows us to bring our ingenuity to bear on our effort. Transformation is not a task for the timid.”
“Does this philosophic discussion agree about what the necessary virtues are?” I asked.
“What they agree upon is the more virtues the better,” Amos answered. “Without other virtues to bolster and moderate it, a single virtue may not be a virtue at all. You don’t want courage without prudence or justice without mercy, and the list goes on. That interlocking accumulation of virtues is called ‘The Integral’ and the Integral is the engine that moves us forward. As Huxley put it, ‘nothing short of everything will do.’ Self realization requires the widest possible array of interdependent virtues and in that dynamic collection we find the better selves that we will need to nurture and express in order to survive and even prosper. I recommend starting at Generosity, like the Tibetans do, and working out from there.”
Amos noticed me wince at the vagueness of it all, and grabbed my elbow in reassurance. By this time the trail we were following had looped around and we were back on the flats where we’d started.
“Strange as it all sounds,” Amos insisted, “we are wired to do this. We really are.”
“So how do we get people to recognize that survival dictates that we be our better selves?”
At that, Amos threw up his hands in a shrug. Finally he pointed to the spot way over our heads where the water level will be before the century is over and shrugged again. His meaning was obvious.
“But by that time it will be too late,” I objected.
“No,” Amos corrected me, “when it comes to our higher selves we’re always late, but never too late. That’s part of who we are too.”