Our Collective Despair — Opportunity in Crisis

Karun Cowper
Jan 3, 2015 · 5 min read

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 infidelity, 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. Fibre-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 saddest 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 and as a social justice issue. Research and discussion is focused on the individual life, ie — mental health, the quality of interpersonal relationships, various forms of abuse (either self inflicted or inflicted by others) and how the individual copes with environmental stressors (eg — financial pressures) — all worthy areas of research.

Call me crazy if you will, but it seems perfectly clear that there are many macro, big picture forces at play that are part of an important equation determinant of an individuals mental and emotional health. Whilst the medical illness “industry” (an industry full of various vested interests) has many well intentioned folk, real heroes of humanity, they are operating within a paradigm where the 1% dominate and the 99% are subjugated and even the most talented and holistic of healers cannot shut the world out from crushing down on their charges.

What i am saying here can probably be best expressed in Krishnamurtii’s famous quote..

“it is no measure of well being to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society”.

Books such as Noam Chomsky and Edward s. Herman’s ‘Manufacture of Consent’ give extraordinary insight into the nature of the forces at play in our western societies and offer essential understandings of the nature of our current human condition. There are of course other pathways to understanding, the main point here is that (given the current condition of our media landscape and education system) it does take real work on the part of the individual to get a true understanding of how the world really works — in order to break out of the proverbial (?) matrix.

It’s very easy to fall into despair when looking at the enormity of the world’s problems and the strength of the dominant narratives. I’ve done my fair share of it, we all have at different points. Activists and people of all walks of life working to make this world a better place need to remember to take care of their own internal world. It’s not sustainable to be focused only on fixing the evils in the outside world, a holistic approach is necessary. It is simplistic to say that real change comes from within, a superficial understanding of this statement leads to many excuses to not engage with the real world, however it cannot be denied it is a statement of truth. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” as Ghandi so eloquently expressed it.

Despair, our collective despair is however, a real phenomena, to ignore it, is to continue on the 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 deeper change is becoming manifest.

Lao tzu (the ancient Chinese philosopher) said “you can’t start a revolution on an empty stomach”.

The question remains as to whether we 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 other, often larger than themselves, whether that 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?

(Background image courtesy Living Essences of Australia)

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Originally published at neoradical.com.

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