Our two missed cultural rescue boats: The 1960s counterculture and the New Age

by Bob Schwartz

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.

© 2021 Bob Schwartz