The Modern Catastrophe

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In ancient Greek, a catastrophe was literally an overturning, as in turning over the soil or tilling a field.  By extension, it also referred to the denouement of Greek dramas.  There were variations, applying to both tragedies and comedies, and the catastrophe was not necessarily “bad” as the modern English usage might suggest.  However, let’s look more closely at the overturning of the soil.  We tend to focus on plowing as the preparatory step for new planting.  New seeds or seedlings will follow, and eventually, if all goes well, a new crop will grow.  Yet, the identity of the future crop is unknown, neither implicit nor explicit in the act of plowing;  the overturning of the soil produces a blank slate, ready for whatever might come after.  Prior to plowing, there was already some sort of plant community in the field.  By the farmer’s standards, it was devalued — last year’s stubble, weeds, useless grass, or even a barren wasteland. But, if we try to imagine the “point of view” of the weeds and microorganisms already present, it was a community thriving by its own standards.  From that perspective, the plow was an agent of destruction, and the overturning of the soil was a catastrophe in all respects — the destruction of the orderly community that was already there, as it was turned over to the unknown community of the future.

Change is inevitable.  That imaginary community in the unplowed field was not static.  It was constantly evolving according to its own internal clock.  The plow changed all that.  If it wasn’t for the plow, the story of the field would be quite boring — myriads of subtle changes succeeding one another, plants growing and dying, micro-organisms eating one another, on and on, nothing really dramatic happening.  The ancient Greeks, inventors of the theater as we know it, knew that an ongoing story of peace and stability just isn’t very entertaining.  I think of the Hobbit Shire in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The peaceful, orderly life of the Shire has its attractions, especially when contrasted with the drama to come.  But an entire book or movie called Life in the Shire that was nothing more than a monotonous tale of daily chores and petty gossip in that peaceful community wouldn’t hold our attention for long, unless it was just a reassuring place to catch a break from the chaos of our own lives.  Another example would be Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  In the end, one way or another, we all feel that something needs to change, even if it is simply the interruption of the change that is already ongoing. In the Greek dramas the agents of change were often the gods — life went on until the gods intervened.  It might have been for good or ill, or maybe they were just bored;  it’s not for mere humans to say. An example from the Judeo-Christian tradition would be the plot line of the Biblical book of Job — seemingly-bored Jahweh and the Devil decide to play a game with poor Job.  We never learn why they decided to mess with him, but Job certainly experienced their game as a catastrophe.  In the Greek dramas, as in the story of Job, a dramatic change occurred in the lives of the principal characters.  With respect to what went before, that change was a catastrophe, in every sense of the word.

I’m going to apply this line of thought to the world we live in today.  Divine intervention or not, we are experiencing significant change in the speed and direction of change itself.  Societies have always evolved, as has humanity’s understanding of its place in the Universe and related concepts like the nature of good and evil.  Perhaps external intervention (whether divinity, fate or nature) has very little to do with what’s going on.   Perhaps our modern catastrophe is self-inflicted.  In any case the pace of change is accelerating in all aspects of human societies — beliefs, customs, morals, social roles, political structures, technology.  How much change can we sustain?  Certainly our institutions were defined to be relatively static.  There are procedures to revise them, but those procedures seem to be overwhelmed by the speed of actual change in society.  That’s one of the many sources of tension in the modern world.

This has been going on for a very long time. Even our perspective on change has been radically skewed by its acceleration.  Consider that it took over 30,000 years for our species to evolve from its original hunter-gatherer stage to the first agriculture.  Then it took another 5,000 years to get to the first use of bronze tools, only 5,000 years ago.  In ancient Egypt, rigidly-defined artistic standards went largely unchanged for about 2,000 years — for example, statues of women always had both feet side-by-side, while men had their left foot stepped slightly forward!  Today we consider the notion of artistic standards to be an anachronism, unless they are understood to evolve from decade to decade or differ from one artist to another.  

Nowadays we take the primacy of creativity over stability for granted.  But that’s a very novel phenomenon, absent from most of human history.  Even the relatively recent U.S. Constitution (only 231 years old) is considered an archaic document by many. The Rap music of twenty years ago is considered “classic” by some people old enough to vote.  The pervasive belief in creativity extends to every aspect of Western culture — it is what we expect in music, clothing, business, architecture, home decor, recreation, technology and entertainment of all kinds.  Perhaps more disturbingly, It also affects religion, politics, social standards, and our beliefs about good and evil.

We will all spend some time, of unknown duration, in an unknown reality called the future, which does not exist.  We inevitably live only in the present, each of us carrying some burden of memory of the past.  That’s all there is.  From that perspective, the transformation of our lives is, by definition, a catastrophe.  The soil of our present field is being plowed faster and more deeply than ever before. Meanwhile there is so much competition among sources of information (arguably propaganda) that it is challenging to learn even the basic facts, let alone formulate a judgement about them.

Notwithstanding our love of creativity, we also, as living beings, have a need for some kind of stability.  Even as we acknowledge to various degrees the need for flexibility and tolerance of different points of view, we each need some stable beliefs, however transient, some basis for judging right and wrong.  However, whatever we believe in today, we also wish for social change insofar as we formulate notions of what is wrong about the present and what a better tomorrow might look like.  Paradoxically, our yearning for stable values leads to a desire for further change, while collectively there seems to be no chance of agreement on its direction.

A tragic corollary of our commitment to our personal understanding of justice is the belief that those who disagree with us are necessarily wrong — often including the conviction that they are consciously choosing to do wrong.  It can be perversely reassuring to identify people that we might dehumanize as evil in this way.  Yet who has ever had a sincere conversation with anyone who confessed that, in a moment of sanity, they consciously chose to do what they believed to be wrong without compelling mitigating considerations?

I believe there is a far better way to live than to believe the worst of our fellow human beings just because it is reassuring to do so.  I believe it is also unhealthy to get stuck in either unpleasant upset or self-righteous elation about the unfolding transformation of society.  As an alternative I offer the following reflections on how to thrive in the catastrophe.

Each of us can start by recognizing that most of what happens around us is well beyond our power to control or even influence.  We can then go on to recognize that it is actually harmful to get upset about such things.  Getting upset about what you can’t change doesn’t change them — by definition.  Our upset simply provokes others and makes us miserable ourselves.  Even more destructively, it distracts us from more positive actions that deserve our attention.  Anger, frustration, anxiety and depression, usually focused on things we can’t control, simply serve to distract us from attention to what we can control, namely the quality of our own actions.  There’s nothing selfish about this, since we are quite free to focus our energy on actions intended to have a positive influence on society.  What counts as a positive influence?  That is entirely up to each one of us — the most effective way to combat the erosion of values is to actually have values!  It’s a personal choice (even if we justify it by appeal to God or the Constitution or the consensus of our favorite people).  If each of us keeps him or herself busy identifying the right thing to do, then going ahead and actually doing it, we have our reward.  Whether or not things beyond my control turn out according to my wishes is no reason to get upset — I will have already done my part.

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