Sometimes I feel nostalgic for the cultural mythology of my youth, a world in which there was nothing wrong with soda pop, in which the Super Bowl was important, in which America was bringing democracy to the world, in which the doctor could fix you, in which science was going to make life better and better, and they just put a man on the moon.
Life made sense. If you worked hard you could get good grades, get into a good college, go to grad school or follow some other professional path, and you would be happy. With a few unfortunate exceptions, you would be successful if you obeyed the rules of our society: If you followed the latest medical advice, kept informed by reading the New York Times, got a good education, obeyed the law, made prudent investments, and stayed away from bad things like drugs. Sure there were problems, but the scientists and experts were working hard to fix them. Soon a new medical advance, a new law, a new educational technique would propel the onward improvement of life. My childhood perceptions were part of a narrative I call the Story of the People, in which humanity was destined to create a perfect world through science, reason, and technology: To conquer nature, transcend our animal origins, and engineer a rational society.
From my vantage point, the basic premises of this story seemed unquestionable. My education, the media, and most of all the normality of the routines around me conspired to say, “Everything is fine.” Today it is increasingly obvious that this was a bubble world built atop massive human suffering and environmental degradation, but at the time, one could live within that bubble without need of much self-deception. The story that surrounded us was robust. It easily kept anomalous data points on the margins.
A Wrongness in the World
Nonetheless, I (like many others) felt a wrongness in the world, a wrongness that seeped through the cracks of my privileged, insulated childhood. I never fully accepted what I had been offered as normal. Life, I knew, was supposed to be more joyful than this, more real, more meaningful, and the world was supposed to be more beautiful. We were not supposed to hate Mondays and live for the weekends and holidays. We were not supposed to have to raise our hands to be allowed to pee. We were not supposed to be kept indoors on a beautiful day, day after day.
And as my horizons broadened, I knew that millions were not supposed to be starving, that nuclear weapons were not supposed to be hanging over our heads, that the rainforests were not supposed to be shrinking, or the fish dying, or the condors and eagles disappearing. I could not accept the way the dominant narrative of my culture handled these things: As fragmentary problems to be solved, as unfortunate facts of life to be regretted, or as unmentionable taboo subjects to be simply ignored.
On some level, we all know better. This knowledge seldom finds clear articulation, so instead, we express it indirectly through covert and overt rebellion. Addiction, self-sabotage, procrastination, laziness, rage, chronic fatigue, and depression are all ways that we withhold our full participation in the program of life we are offered. When the conscious mind cannot find a reason to say no, the unconscious says no in its own way. More and more of us cannot bear to stay in the ‘old normal’ any longer.
The Narrative of Normal
This narrative of normal is crumbling on a systemic level too. We live today at a moment of transition between worlds. The institutions that have borne us through the centuries have lost their vitality; only with increasing self-delusion can we pretend they are sustainable. Our systems of money, politics, energy, medicine, education, and more are no longer delivering the benefits they once did (or seemed to). Their Utopian promise, so inspiring a century ago, recedes further every year. Millions of us know this; more and more, we hardly bother to pretend otherwise. Yet we seem helpless to change, helpless even to stop participating in industrial civilization’s rush over the cliff.
I have in my earlier work offered a reframing of this process, seeing human cultural evolution as a story of growth, followed by crisis, followed by breakdown, followed by a renaissance: The emergence of a new kind of civilization, an age of reunion to follow the age of separation. Perhaps profound change happens only through collapse. Certainly that is true for many on a personal level. You may know, intellectually, that your lifestyle isn’t sustainable and you have to change your ways. “Yeah, yeah. I know I should stop smoking. Start exercising. Stop buying on credit.”
But how often does anyone change without a wake-up call, or more often, a series of wake-up calls? After all, our habits are embedded in a way of being that includes all aspects of life. Hence the saying, “You cannot change one thing without changing everything.”
Awakening to Interconnectedness
On the collective level, the same is true. As we awaken to the interconnectedness of all our systems, we see that we cannot change, for example, our energy technologies without changing the economic system that supports them. We learn as well that all of our external institutions reflect our basic perceptions of the world, our invisible ideologies and belief systems. In that sense, we can say that the ecological crisis—like all our crises—is a spiritual crisis. By that I mean it goes all the way to the bottom, encompassing all aspects of our humanity.
And what, exactly, is at the bottom? What do I mean by a ‘transition between worlds’? At the bottom of our civilization lies a story, a mythology. I call it the Story of the World or the Story of the People—a matrix of narratives, agreements, and symbolic systems that comprises the answers our culture offers to life’s most basic questions:
• Who am I?
• Why do things happen?
• What is the purpose of life?
• What is human nature?
• What is sacred?
• Who are we as a people?
• Where did we come from and where are we going?
Our culture answers them more or less as follows. I will present a pure articulation of these answers, this Story of the World, though in fact, it has never dominated completely, even as it reached its zenith in the last century. You might recognize some of these answers to be scientifically obsolete, but this obsolete nineteenth and twentieth-century science still generates our view of what is real, possible, and practical. The new physics, the new biology, the new psychology have only barely begun to infiltrate our operating beliefs.
So here are the old answers:
Who are you? You are a separate individual among other separate individuals in a universe that is separate from you as well. You are a Cartesian mote of consciousness looking out through the eyes of a flesh robot, programmed by its genes to maximize reproductive self-interest. You are a bubble of psychology, a mind (whether brain-based or not) separate from other minds and separate from matter. Or you are a soul encased in flesh, separate from the world and separate from other souls. Or you are a mass, a conglomeration of particles operating according to the impersonal forces of physics.
Why do things happen? Again, the impersonal forces of physics act upon a generic material substrate of fundamental particles. All phenomena are the result of these mathematically determined interactions. Intelligence, order, purpose, and design are illusions; underneath it all, there is merely a purposeless jumble of forces and masses. Any phenomenon, all of movement, all of life, is the result of the sum total of forces acting upon objects.
What is the purpose of life? There is no purpose, only cause. The universe is at the bottom, blind and dead. Thought is but an electrochemical impulse; love but a hormonal cascade that rewires our brains. The only purpose of life (other than what we manufacture ourselves) is simply to live, to survive and reproduce, to maximize rational self-interest. Since we are fundamentally separate from each other, my self-interest is very likely at the expense of your self-interest. Everything that is not self is, at best, indifferent to our well-being, at worst hostile.
What is human nature? To protect ourselves against this hostile universe of competing individuals and impersonal forces, we must exercise as much control as possible. We seek out anything that furthers that aim; for example, money, status, security, information, and power. All those things we call ‘worldly’ at the very foundation of our nature, our motivations and our desires, are what can only be called evil. That is what a ruthless maximizer of self-interest is.
What, therefore, is sacred? Since the blind, ruthless pursuit of self-interest is antisocial, it is important to overcome our biological programming and pursue ‘higher things.’ A holy person doesn’t succumb to the desires of the flesh. He or she takes the path of self-denial, of discipline, ascending into the realm of spirit or, in the secular version of this quest, into the realm of reason and the mind, principles and ethics. For the religious, to be sacred is to be otherworldly; the soul is separate from the body, and God lives high above the earth. Despite their superficial opposition, science and religion have agreed: the sacred is not of this world.
Who are we as a people? We are a special kind of animal, the apex of evolution, possessing brains that allow the cultural, as well as the genetic, transfer of information. We are unique in having (in the religious view) a soul or (in the scientific view) a rational mind. In our mechanical universe, we alone possess consciousness and the wherewithal to mold the world according to our design. The only limit to our ability to do so is that amount of force we can harness and the precision with which we can apply it. The more we are able to do so, the better off we are in this indifferent or hostile universe, the more comfortable and secure.
Where have we come from and where are we going? We started out as naked, ignorant animals, barely hanging on to survival, living lives that were nasty, brutish, and short. Fortunately, thanks to our big brains, science replaced superstition and technology replaced ritual. We ascended to become the lords and possessors of nature, domesticating plants and animals, harnessing natural forces, conquering diseases, laying bare the deepest secrets of the universe. Our destiny is to complete that conquest: To free ourselves from labor, from disease, from death itself, to ascend to the stars and leave nature behind altogether.
The Story of the People
The answers to these questions are culturally dependent, yet they immerse us so completely that we have seen them as reality itself. These answers are changing today, along with everything built atop them—which basically means our entire civilization. That is why we sometimes get the vertiginous feeling that the whole world is falling apart. Seeing the emptiness of what once seemed so real, practical, and enduring, we stand as if at an abyss. What’s next? Who am I? What’s important? What is the purpose of my life? How can I be an effective agent of healing? The old answers are fading as the Story of the People that once answered them crumbles around us.
Like the crisis, the transition we face goes all the way to the bottom. Internally, it is nothing less than a transformation in the experience of being alive. Externally, it is nothing less than a transformation of humanity’s role on planet Earth.
I do not offer this writing as someone who has completed the transition himself. Far from it. I have no more authority than any other man or woman. I am not an avatar or a saint, I am not channeling ascended masters or ETs, I have no unusual psychic powers or intellectual genius, I have not passed through any remarkable hardship or ordeal, I have no especially deep spiritual practice or shamanic training. I am an ordinary man. You will, therefore, have to take my words on their own merits.
And if my words fulfill their intention, which is to catalyze a next step, big or small, into the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible, my very ordinariness becomes highly significant. It shows how close we all are, all of us ordinary humans, to a profound transformation of consciousness and being. If I, an ordinary man, can see it, we must be almost there.
This is the edited first chapter from The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible by Charles Eisenstein. Reprinted with permission.