Change yourself by trying to change the world

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
October 30th, 2012

“Who will do the hard thing? …Those who can.”— Rabbinic proverb.

“You are not promised that you will complete the Work, but you may not refuse it.” 

                                             — Rabbi Tarfon, 1st C. BCE

What keeps forcing itself on my consciousness lately is really not a new concern; it is new only in the context I am living in. The puzzling, maddening, persistent question, “What can I do about all the things I see wrong in our world?” is a young person’s question, an undergraduate’s conundrum, faced by every generation. Today it has a different gravity because the world is so different from when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s.

As a teacher, I am faced constantly by the unwillingness of youth to accept that world problems are as bad as I think they are. It is experience talking when I say, “You have no idea how much worse the world is than when I was your age.” It only seems liked jaded cynicism to the young, including my 20-something daughter. I wish I had experienced the world differently over the last 40 years, but my pessimism is rooted in what I’ve seen.

Having just read today the cover story in Walrus magazine’s November issue, a piece on the collapse of America by American Christopher Hedges, I am depressed. Hedges agrees with me; I conclude he is a wise fellow. The future USA–economically, politically and socially–is doomed. It is going down. Hedges wonders if it can last a year or two or ten. “Collapse” in this scenario is fascism, military insanity, violent mass poverty and criminality.

I do not find much in his depiction to disagree with. He adds a short conclusion for his Canadian readers in this Canadian journal, to prognosticate on how America’s failure will damage us. It will, in a big way. He admits that his nation’s military may inflict some major violence on the world before it loses all its global power.  The British Empire faded slowly; America’s will crash like Rome’s, and barbarism will follow catastrophic imperial collapse.

Hedges is a fine writer. He is not delivering a Jeremiad. He is describing one medium-sized city, Scranton, Pa. He talks to people and reports their conversations. They say what he believes too. America will not be a super power anymore. No one can believe a Revolution will turn things around. People are docile. The once-broad middle class is growing thin. The working poor are 2/3 of Americans. The elite don’t know how bad poverty is.

I am middle-class and have a relatively elite education, I know very well. I possess rather little materially yet I move in social circles of the better-off pretty far from working-class lives. Hedges describes the slow loss of public spending on infrastructure, healthcare, schooling, and employment opportunity. What is true for the US is true in Canada, but happening later and slower here. Still, the signs are manifest. Our middle class, too, is thinner.

For readers who might have become used to my recent style of writing about consciousness, spirituality, and mind, this column could seem more like the “old Jeanes” — political. I made a reputation in Nelson with my letters to the editor and my longer pieces on politics. I have run several times for city council and made many speeches about development economics and political reform. My reputation is solidly left-wing, even Marxist.

However, when I survey the history of intelligent, passionate and dedicated efforts to make capitalism more socially just, politically democratic, and environmentally benign, I cannot believe any longer that such efforts will alter the future. Collapse of the American way of life, of capitalism, and of material excess and destructiveness, is mandated. Humans are responsible for this world. Not just the ruling class, but the ruled too, consented to it.

What is in the constitution of the human being that has led us to this point in history, is now my preoccupation. No longer do I look for exteriors, institutions, ideologies, or systems, for solutions. Humans are not infinitely plastic, to be moulded into any shape of mind by manipulative rulers – although there has been plenty of that. I seek now to know how human consciousness might be transformed before we have mass die-off of humans.

The mass die-off has begun but is masked by rapid reproduction. In my lifetime, the rate of death from wars, famines, plagues, malnutrition, crime, and “natural” disaster, has increased. Birth-rates in the impoverished nations have outrun that, so we now have 7 billion people. Biologists can say we are in the sixth Great Extinction of species in earth history. We do not feel threatened as a species. But hundreds of millions will die early deaths.

The cause of these premature deaths of humans are human-made causes. In 1965 when I was 14 there were only 3 billion humans. We looked to a future of human betterment. The poor nations would draw even with us in rich countries. No one was saying yet that we would ruin our planet, but overpopulation was a concern. Science still seemed a good bet to solve material problems. Capitalism and socialism were competing to reach the moon.

Capitalism won. Then it overwhelmed Soviet communism, and perverted Chinese communism into whatever it is that rules China to the detriment of its environment and further grinding down of its poor to build a middle class. I won’t rant on about this. I am not trying to persuade anyone that I am right. I would rather be wrong about the doomy future I foretell for so many. But my thesis is not in fact a political one. I am coming back to the spiritual.

Having decided for myself that materialism has led humanity to a lethal confrontation with our planet’s natural limitations and to wars that scarcity will generate among the people’s of earth struggling just to live, I have to go on believing that my work in the world has worth and meaning. Nothing I have written here ought to be construed as dissuading anyone from activism against our rulers. All resistance matters, for each one who tries to save us.

Human striving to make a better future must go on. In the midst of collapse, we resist it. We’ll see more of what Hedges predicts. We must fight it even as it increases. Violence, anarchy, crime, poverty, decay – it’s not going to be stopped by prayer, I am very much afraid. But pray anyway; it’s good for your spirit. It prepares you to act.

By acting against what is wrong, we will transform our consciousness as a species. It is by what we love, not what we think, that we change. Silent meditation, prayer, contemplation, all help. Yet the material world needs you to act too. Action is where your love makes its difference. You can’t just “vibe” the world to heal it.

To anyone who would withdraw from all activity in materiality and try to make the world better only by the power of your spiritual energies, is, I think, completely misreading why spirits are incarnated into materiality.

“Trust that the cosmos loves you and will nurture you, but plant your garden.”

Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. You can find the previous edition of Arc of the Cognizant here.

Categories: Op/Ed

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