In the last couple of newsletters we explored how Logos (the Word, or the Truth in language) has been getting thinner and thinner since In the Beginning when The Word created the world until now where it's been reduced to little more than Instagram Memes. Wisdom just ain't what it used to be.
We also wrapped our heads around how Chronos (or Time) has been getting thicker and the frame-rate of information we have to process has grown exponentially...
To the point where the overwhelming burden of awareness of our mortality, the suffering of extended humanity and the overlapping existential crises we all face is threatening our capacity for grief.
(Check David Attenborough's recent video for a sobering update)
And a big part of that overwhelm is because we're trying to process it all through the narrow frame of isolated individual self identities.
The Good Life
When the French Enlightenment gave birth to liberalism, people (actual individuals––not tribes, clans, faiths or nations––but actual singular individuals) were granted inalienable rights, and an increasingly entitled shot at the Good Life.
This was crazy novel. Never been done before.
Most people had never ventured further than fifty miles from the place they were born, and most had lived a life nearly indistinguishable, in faith, in profession, in prospects, than their mothers and fathers before them and their grandparents before that. Their "self identity" was smeared across generations of family, clan and tribe.
So even one's very identity was radically different than how we think of ourselves today. No "anyone can grow up to be president", no "I'm kinda spiritual but not religious" no "I'm just gonna travel for a while after school, give my self time to figure out what I really want," not even "you guys are my real chosen family." None of that. Just a heaping dose of WYSIWYG. What You See Is What You Get.
But for a brief few centuries––as Logos was getting skinnier and Chronos was getting thicker, things lined up in the sweet spot for a rational individual to be able to handle.
It wasn't perfect and it wasn't planned––but it sort of worked. I could read Martin Luther's theses and decide if I wanted to become a protesting Protestant. I could pick up a political pamphlet and learn to identify with Marxist class struggle, or listen to Tony Robbins audio cassettes and NLP my way into unstoppable success.
But now, the frame rate of information has become so intense, the complexities, contradictions and tragedies of unfiltered Reality so dense, that we are breaking our hearts and brains. The era of the Rational Individual might have officially ended, and we're in the throes of the birth pangs of something else, something possibly more. Just nobody told us.
Hyperstimulated Nervous Systems
There's a thousand places to mark the beginning of the End of Individualism, but an easy one to timestamp is the advent of MTV. Until that channel debuted, most videos consisted of stable long shots, continuous framing, and storytelling that decently matched reality as we'd experience it through our own eyes. (if you've forgotten, just try sitting down with your kids to watch any classic movie filmed earlier than the mid-80's––the young'uns positively squirm in their seats with impatience!)
Then MTV pioneered jump-cut edits, where every 2 seconds there was a new image, spliced, juxtaposed and slammed together into a pastiche overwhelm of light, sound color and symbol.
We've become so used to this new cadence that our newsprograms––which used to feature a sober trusted voice sitting at their desk reading from a page straight into one camera (the Ultimate Rational Individual), now, are cluttered with graphic overlays, scrolling news chyrons and talking heads that look more like a video game.
Our nervous systems are so hyperstimulated that when most families sit down for "movie night" today every member is also running at least one additional screen that they can flick to to check, comment, scroll just in case the main feature slows too much.
But really, the problem is much deeper than technologically induced collective ADD.
Too Much Voltage in the System
As we become increasingly aware of the meta-crisis we're in, there's simply no way to maintain Hope for ourselves. Our own lives, our own dreams, our own values, all are getting ripped out of our hands in the slipstream of accelerating exponential change.
And that's why folks are veering into nihilism and despair. It's a bit like having an array of solar panels in the desert hooked up to one little golf cart battery. There's just too much voltage in the system for that storage unit to handle––and the result is overcooked cells and electrical fires.
Same goes with trying to process reality through the "battery" of our singular, isolated rational identities––where if it doesn't work out for us, in our own lifetimes, we break or give up hope. Mostly because we were told and sold a story where it was all supposed to work out for us, if we only wanted it, believed it, bought it enough.
But there is another option––a way for us to go from personal hope to a radical hope that is more robust and a little less fragile.
Resurrecting our Self Identities
Weirdly (or perfectly) it involves resurrecting that more ancient version of our self-identities––one that is bigger, longer and deeper than our fleeting personal experience.
So much in the same way that indigenous and pre-modern societies didn't orient around single lifetimes and the promise of personal satisfaction, we can seek refuge, ballast and purpose in anchoring ourselves to intergenerational struggle and possibility.
Because here’s the thing: We might do everything we can and still not make it.
"We live at a time of a heightened sense that civilizations are themselves vulnerable," University of Chicago philosopher Jonathan Lear writes in Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. "Events around the world—terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and even natural catastrophes—have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name."
Lear explores what it means when we have to give up hoping for a return to the old and familiar touchstones of our way of life. What can we do, how can we go on, if the world we grew up in ceases to exist? "The inability to conceive of its own devastation," Lear says, "will tend to be the blind spot of any culture."
Regular old "whistling past the graveyard" hope won’t be enough to save us from
our demons or the darkness. We’re going to need something stronger.
In place of that quid pro quo bargaining kind of hope—where we put on happy faces and wait for the ship to right itself—Lear highlights a fundamentally different kind of hope, radical hope. "What makes this hope radical," he explains, "is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends our current ability to understand what it is."
Radical hope gives us perspective beyond the false certainties and certain vulnerabilities of our own lifetimes. We may not get to the Promised Land ourselves, but we keep on walking in the conviction that our children, or their children, might.
The question’s not having hope, as Cornel West reminds us, it’s being hope. As we let go of our own personal references and preferences, we can reorient to the longer arc of humanity finding its way to the Omega Point.
If we can expand our notions of self-hood to bridge time, space, and grief, we can begin to cultivate something else––that Radical Hope that Lear speaks of.
We can hold the Great Unfolding a little more loosely, but a lot more fiercely. We can choose to play our part, not in the narcissistic story ourselves getting what we think we deserve, but in a much larger and longer Passion Play that ends well only once all is well.