Everything you want to know about where we are and where we may be going can be found in a study of World War II and the atomic bomb.
In 1945, we witnessed two phenomena.
We learned about the depths to which an “advanced” society could descend. That human beings in substantial numbers, who pretended to embrace civilized ideals, could endorse and follow a path that can be described as demonic.
We learned that as technological developers, we were capable of threatening the physical well-being of the entire planet. We could literally produce an apocalypse.
Each of those is with us now.
The ease, for example, with which leaders and followers of certain ideologies seem willing to throw away principles we thought were inviolable for the sake of their ideology, disguised as the greater good.
The threat of technology to the entire physical world, and to all who live in and on it, so that irreparable damage is increasingly inevitable.
Keep thinking about World War II and the atomic bomb. About what 1945 might teach us about ourselves and our possibilities.
There’s a joke about a guy trapped in his house during a rising flood. A rescue boat comes along, but he refuses. “God will provide,” he says. A second boat comes. Same story. Same with a third boat. The guy drowns. He meets God and he asks “What happened? Why didn’t you rescue me?” God says, “What do you mean? I sent you three boats.”
The 1960s counterculture is dismissed and derided. “Look at the hypocritical hippies who grew up to be materialistic capitalists. Look at all the cultural dead ends they marched us into.” And so on.
The New Age movement that flourished in the late 1980s and early 1990s is similarly looked down upon in some circles. Movements about peace, love, understanding, soulful transformation, etc., were nothing new. They had centuries of history. It was the 1960s that revived interest, and that interest was grafted onto that longstanding (perennial) philosophy.
There is some acknowledgment that these two birthed or encouraged some good and useful contemporary phenomena. Meditation and yoga are now center stage. The environmental movement has similar backward reaching roots. There are more examples like these.
Both the 1960s counterculture and the New Age movement were much more than a collection of practices and beliefs. They were about different ways of being and tools to get there and tools to use there. That they got close to the mainstream—incorporated in original, transformed or sometimes abused form—was a good thing.
But it could have been more. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have been a mixed bag. The past few years, right up to the moment, count on the lesser side.
History is unknowable and uncontrollable. If the 1960s counterculture and the New Age movement had reached deeper into the mainstream, we can’t know what differences it might have promoted. We could be in a version of the same troubles we are in right now, maybe better, maybe worse, maybe sooner of later.
It is pleasing to think that moments and movements come along carrying the force and possibility of personal and institutional transformation. Boats to rescue us, or at least keep us from drowning. The 1960s counterculture and the New Age movement were two boats we decided not to take. Maybe there will be third.
America is fortunate compared to many nations. After the Revolution, we never had to live with a foreign occupying force. The last time there was a homeland occupation was after the Civil War, when the victorious North took over the defeated South (an event that still resonates today).
America had the tools to defeat Covid, or at least hold it substantially at bay. Mitigation strategies such as masking, distancing, testing, tracing were available—and ultimately vaccines. But there was insufficient will to use these soon and soundly enough. So now that Covid is endemic and still mutating, the mantra is “learning to live with it.”
It is too darkly smart to say that “living with Covid” doesn’t apply to the 700,000 officially (900,000 unofficially) who have already died from it, or the more than 1,000 a day still dying. That remark aside, we are staring into an unknowable hole of our own digging. Maybe another more pernicious variant. Likely the confluence of Covid and flu. Chronic “long haul” conditions we are just learning about. Along with the certainty that Covid is here to stay, in great part because of what we did or didn’t do.
So the next time you hear or say “learning to live with Covid,” contemplate and discuss exactly what that means. Around the world, people know what it means to live with an evil occupying force intent only on making them suffer and killing them. It is by no means too late to lessen the suffering and death the enemy tries to inflict. But we did have a chance to make things better, and we blew it. Please let us try again.
Around the fourth century, a number of Christian contemplatives left society and went into the desert to be alone, quite alone or in small groups. They didn’t stay forever, but while they did they left behind writings about their experience, known generally as the sayings and wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers.
In the 20th century, Thomas Merton left society, of which he had been a brilliant and creative member, joined a Christian order that mostly observed silence, became world famous for, ironically, writing the first of many books about his experience, built a hermitage on the Kentucky monastery grounds to somewhat escape society again, and along the way, not surprisingly, wrote a book about the desert contemplatives.
Academics have probably developed measures of how social we are at any time. The non-expert conclusion is that up until the pandemic we had grown massively social, especially but not only with the predominance of digital media. The pandemic changed that quite a bit, though social media filled in many gaps.
Almost universally, and often not inappropriately, this retreat from society was viewed as a detriment to be remedied as soon as possible. But we shouldn’t be too quick.
Those who are by nature, need, practice or joy social miss the company, and should pursue and embrace it. But give a thought to the desert fathers and mothers, and to Merton.
Merton spent his life struggling with the tension between the unique value of removing from society and the unique value of being in it with your whole body, heart and mind. The pandemic has offered an opportunity to contemplate—to live—that tension. It is easy to ignore, rushing to fill the social void as much and as soon as possible. Still there is still something in the hermitage, in the desert or in Kentucky or in your life, to commend a little alone.