Written by Paris Williams, PhD
Do you find yourself unable to nod off to the sweet bliss of ignorance or denial when contemplating the catastrophic state of the world? Do you find yourself feeling deeply concerned about the enormous harm occurring to other humans, our fellow Earthlings and this beautiful planet, our home? Do you find yourself feeling deeply concerned about our future—for humanity, our children/grandchildren, and our fellow living beings?
If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, and if you’re not willing to “ask your doctor” for a pill to push these thoughts and feelings away, then it’s likely you’re finding yourself struggling with one or both of the following dilemmas:
(1) How do I find the courage to continue trying to make a positive difference in the world when so much is broken?
…and (2) How can “little me” make any real difference in the face of it all, especially considering that a select group of extremely self-centred individuals seem to hold all the power?
And if humankind has any chance at all of making it through the next few decades, let alone transitioning to a genuinely sustainable society, then I think we have no choice but to face these dilemmas head on.
I think that we really have to begin by addressing the first dilemma, because it’s hard to do much of anything at all, let alone enjoy our lives, when our spirits are being crushed by such despair and hopelessness. I think that Joanna Macy, the pioneering deep ecology teacher, healer and activist, offers a powerful way to work with this dilemma in her definition of “Active Hope”:
“Active hope is not wishful thinking. Active hope is not waiting to be rescued by the Lone Ranger or some saviour. Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life, waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. You and we all are capable of falling in love with life at the moment when it needs our response….
It is a readiness to engage and a readiness to discover the strengths in ourselves and in others, a readiness to discover the reasons for hope and the occasions for love, a readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, ready to discover that again and again….[Seeing] active hope as a verb, it is something you can do even when you’re feeling discouraged.”
In other words, even when the future seems completely hopeless, by embracing our strength, our love, our values, our spirit in this here-and-now moment, then that’s enough to make whatever life we have left one worth living. And regardless of what may become of humankind or the Earth, we are still all destined to die someday, and we still have this life to tend to. If more and more of us can make the transition to living this way, then it may well be that such an attitude is humankind’s best chance for survival. And even if it’s already too late to save humankind, at least by living this way, we can still make the best of the time we have left.
The second dilemma we face, then, is, How can “little me” make any real difference in the world in the face of so much inequality and devastation?
In order to address this dilemma, I think that we first must start by openly and honestly facing the reality of our situation, as difficult as that may be to do.
Evaluating our Challenges
There are a number of very “inconvenient truths” that I think we must first come to terms with before we can do the hard work of contributing to the positive evolution of humankind. Actually, let me reframe this and say that the very act of openly acknowledging these truths, facing them head on, and working to transcend them is the first step in humankind’s evolution to a sustainable form. So what are these inconvenient truths?
A form of essentially unbridled plutocratic capitalism has worked its way into virtually every corner of human society. While there may be some degree of genuine democracy still gasping for breath within some of these systems, for the most part, what has developed is an increasingly globalized plutocracy that has become corrupt to the core—a system that prioritizes competition over cooperation, and personal profit above people and planet. It is a system devoted first and foremost to maintaining and increasing the wealth and power of a very small minority of wealthy individuals.
And, as an inevitable by-product of such a system, there exists a ruling class of obscenely wealthy and powerful individuals who essentially own most of the world’s resources and governments, and who strive with all their power to maintain and increase their personal wealth and power, feeding their apparently unquenchable greed for such by virtually any means imaginable. If you think I’m being overly dramatic, try spending a day hanging out in an industrial slaughterhouse, trekking across the Alberta tar sands, or picknicking within one of the many war-torn regions of our planet unfortunate enough to contain resources that the ruling classes drool over.
The system has evolved in such a way that the more power/wealth we have, the more comfortable we become with the status quo, and the less compelled we are to work towards a more harmonious and equitable world. Hence, the world has evolved to the point where the large majority of the global population live in relatively abject poverty, requiring nearly all of their willpower just to maintain their day-to-day survival; a moderate number of the population live in the “middle class,” typically devoting much of their personal time and energy to increasing the profits of their employers and the ruling class, but generally not being miserable enough to push for major change; and finally there is that very thin sliver of pie at the top that rules the roost—i.e., the ruling class.
Most of us, to varying degrees, have become personally conditioned and desensitized by having been raised within such a broken system. Most of us have developed a general condition of learned apathy and helplessness, and for the most part, we have become generally desensitized to the enormous pain and dysfunction within the world around us.
Given the fragmented and isolated nature of such a broken system, many of us have unsurprisingly become personally addicted to certain harmful behaviors—the excess consumption of products we really don’t need or that are built on the backs of exploited and poverty-stricken people; eating foods that are harmful to the environment and other sentient beings; burning excessive fossil fuels; and numbing away our unpleasant feelings with alcohol and drugs (recreational as well as prescribed—the rulers are more than happy to help us out with this, so long as they get paid for it—“just ask your doctor…”).
Finally, no matter how you look at it, the prognosis for humankind is very poor. To begin with, there is the serious risk of a major (possibly nuclear) world war as the various ruling factions become ever more desperate to maintain their grip on their power and the rapidly depleting resources of the world. And even if we set this issue aside, the multiple disasters taking place within the broader living systems of the Earth—accelerating climate change, habitat loss and species extinction—are extremely urgent. So urgent, in fact, that a number of highly educated ecologists and climatologists have concluded that it’s already too late—that a number of tipping points have already been set in motion, and that the Earth is likely to become uninhabitable for humankind in the very near future. Some are (slightly) more optimistic, but the general consensus is that the situation is seriously ominous.
Evaluating our Strengths
In spite of what appears to be an extremely difficult if not impossible hand to work with, I believe that we still do have a lot going for us.
For one thing, we’re still here, and the major Earth systems are still mostly functioning, though certainly somewhat beleaguered. But I don’t think there’s any doubt about it—if humanity has any chance of pulling through this crisis and remaining a member of the Earth community beyond the next few decades, then we’ve really got our work cut out for us. We all have to really buckle down, face our challenges head on, acknowledge (and appreciate) our strengths and resources, and especially for those of us fortunate not to be living in abject poverty, we also have to be willing to make a number of sacrifices.
Here is a summary of what I feel are our most pertinent resources:
We have our “basic goodness.” In spite of the widespread ignorance, disconnection and desensitization caused by having been raised within such a broken social system, most of us have personally experienced the fundamental “basic goodness” that lies within us, fleeting and/or buried as it may be at times. This consists of our capacity to recognize and actually feel within our bones our interconnectedness with each other and with all living beings; and to experience the genuine compassion, kindness and care that naturally emerges when we do so.
If you find yourself feeling a bit skeptical about this one, take a moment to reflect on a time when you felt deeply connected to a loved one, a child, a companion animal, or a beautiful sunset or wilderness landscape, even if you have to reach way back in your memories. Hopefully when you do, you can feel at least a hint of these “unitive feelings.” These feelings of love, compassion and kindness emerge in us naturally, spontaneously, when we feel deeply connected to another; and when we allow this awareness of connectedness to expand to embrace all other beings, then… well, it’s beyond words really; and if anything can save us, this is it.
Human beings are extraordinarily innovative, imaginative and productive. Looking around at the state of the world today, it’s certainly justified to suggest that these particular qualities of ours have actually gotten rather out of hand. But what if we find a way to marry these qualities with our capacity to experience deep interconnectedness and compassion for others…? What if…?
Human beings have the capacity to self-reflect, to be aware of our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and impulses, and to reflect upon the consequences of our actions prior to acting them out. Granted, we often neglect to do so and simply let our impulses and auto-pilot behaviors run the show. But we do have this capacity nonetheless; and just like a muscle, it’s one that gets stronger with practice.
Now that we have made an assessment of our most essential challenges and resources, let’s turn to the issue of solutions. How can we harness our strengths and resources to address the very serious challenges that face us? In particular, how do we shift our course to a long and prosperous future, one that is harmonious with our fellow Earthlings on this wonderful planet? How do we address the dysfunctional behaviors of ours that have led to this disharmony and destruction? And how do we address the dysfunctional system that continues to reinforce such behaviors?
First of all, understanding and dealing with the ruling class…
Let’s start by looking more closely at the system of essentially unbridled plutocratic capitalism, which is surely one of the largest thorns in humanity’s side when it comes to any movement towards positive evolution.
As mentioned above, both the primary fuel and the toxic by-product of this system is an extremely wealthy ruling class. First of all, I want to say that I personally identify as a humanistically-oriented psychologist (among my many other identities), and I have faith that there is a “basic goodness” that exists within all of us, even those who have been deeply wounded and/or corrupted in various ways; though for many of us, it may take a lot of healing and/or effort to uncover that “goodness.”
Even when I reflect upon the nature typical of so many of those in the ruling class—someone who justifies the hoarding of millions or even billions of dollars while so many others in the world can barely feed their family or send their kids to school, or someone who justifies the bombing of thousands of innocent people in order to increase their personal wealth or power—I still do my best to remember that although they may have become completely lost in their own greed, fear and disconnection, there is still a human being with the potential for goodness lying somewhere beneath that mess.
But that certainly doesn’t mean that the rest of us should continue to condone such behavior, and allow such individuals to continue doing so much harm. Au contraire, for those of us who haven’t lost contact with our compassion towards others, I feel it is nothing less than our duty to humankind and all other life on this planet to do our utmost to prevent these people from causing so much harm. This is the concept known as the “protective use of force” within the Nonviolence philosophies.
But then the problem arises—even if we would really like to stop such harmful behavior, and even if we can find the courage to do so, how do we stop the behavior of people who are essentially the acting rulers of human society?
In order to answer this question, I want to suggest that we turn this question on its head and ask ourselves, How exactly is it that the ruling class has managed to co-opt the remaining 99+% of us to do their bidding? The answer, I believe, is relatively simple. They are masters at blowing on the embers our own potential for fear, greed and disconnection; at crushing our potential for compassion, connection, mutual empowerment and kindness; at skilfully sowing seeds of animosity and hatred among us; at widely spreading misinformation over and over again via mind-numbing news, television programs, commercials and other media; and by tossing well-placed “breadcrumbs” to maintain the loyalty of those members of society that they most desperately need in order to continue enforcing the status quo (particularly the judges, politicians, police, soldiers, and psychiatrists, among others).
As a seasoned and well-traveled psychologist myself, having studied human nature through the lenses of a number of different worldviews and cultures, I feel confident in saying that this is not conspiracy theory—this is simple human nature, and the ruling classes know exactly what they’re doing. As human beings, we have the intrinsic capacity for compassion, empathy and kindness, and for experiencing the profound unity and interconnectedness among all life on Earth—what I and many others refer to as “basic goodness,” among other similar terms. You could say that these virtuous qualities come “wired” into us.
And yet we also have the capacity to experience overwhelming hatred, fear, greed and helplessness. When we feel threatened or experience scarcity, it is these latter qualities that typically come to the fore. Again, this is well established psychological and neurological science. And the ruling classes have developed great mastery in cultivating these latter qualities among “the masses.” In fact, it was pioneering psychiatrist Sigmund Freud’s own nephew, Edward Bernays, who first formally developed the concept of “propaganda” and played a prominent role in educating the ruling and corporate classes in exactly how to use propaganda and other forms of misinformation to shape the behaviors of “the masses” for the benefit of further enriching the wealthy and further disempowering and dividing the rest of us.
So we’ve simply got to face this unpleasant truth—the ruling classes know exactly what they’re doing with regard to maintaining and increasing their wealth and power, and they are very well skilled at blowing on the embers of our hatreds, fears and ignorance. However, I believe there is a crucial piece that they are missing, what I would call their Achilles heel.
Those individuals at the “top” who are so dedicated to maintaining and enhancing their personal power and wealth? By the very nature of being in such a position and having cultivated such a toxic frame of mind for so long, they have also been intensely blowing on their own embers of hatred, fear, greed and disconnection. I venture to say that these qualities have become so exaggerated and entrenched for most members of this class that most of them have completely lost sight of the more noble aspects of their own nature—the capacity for love, compassion, kindness and the interconnectedness of us all.
Research shows that the richer you get, the more your happiness depends upon personal power, status, and personal achievements; and the less able you are to experience the much richer happiness that is associated with love and compassion for others and an appreciation of the wonder and beauty of the world. And for this very reason, I would say that most of the members of this class and the system that they perpetuate are completely blind to the fact that the hell and suffering that they bestow upon the rest of the world is also fuelling their own misery—certainly in the future, but even to some degree in the present.
Even while these individuals revel in their wealth, they are only further isolating themselves and fuelling their fear and greed with their behavior—they are certainly not fostering compassion, love and kindness, which involve far more pleasant states of mind. In essence, then, the ruling classes have become deeply addicted to their drive for wealth and power, and when combined with their vast power, their addiction is causing enormous harm—to human society, to the Earth, to our fellow Earthlings and ultimately to themselves. Of course these people are human, and they deserve our compassion and kindness as much as anyone, but their destructive behaviors must somehow be stopped.
So this brings us back to the question of how do we stop them? Well, for their sake and ours, their destructive behavior simply has to be stopped; and that means that we simply have to find a way to take our power back (remember, “simple” does not mean easy!) So how do we do that? Let’s start by looking at strategies that we’ve already tried:
Will we have to violently revolt? The history of humankind is filled with bloody revolutions—when the poverty-stricken lower classes finally became so fed up with being enslaved and exploited by the rulers that they put their lives on the lines, grabbed their pitchforks, their swords, their guns, or whatever weapons they could find, and violently revolted. But even when such revolutions have succeeded, the end result has typically been little more than a transfer of power from one set of self-centered rulers to another.
No, many of us have come to feel strongly that if we truly want to evolve into a nonviolent, equitable and sustainable society, then the means to do so must also be nonviolent, or we merely perpetuate the same violent, self-centered and authoritarian system. I think that Martin Luther King, Jr., stated this principle well when he said:
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (1967, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, p. 67)
So then what about grabbing our signs, raising our voices, and loudly protesting against the system/government/corporations/rulers? While such a strategy is (or generally intends to be) in line with nonviolent principles, I would say that the benefits of such strategies vary widely depending upon their intent. If the intent of such protests is to build connection and solidarity among “we the people,” and to alert each other to the destructive behaviors of the ruling class, then I would say, Yes! protesting has demonstrated itself to be an effective strategy for this, and for healing the many ruptures within our society, and to counter the harm caused by the “divide and conquer” strategies of the ruling class.
However, if the intent of such protests is to try to persuade the ruling class to more seriously consider our needs, or to intimidate them into changing their behaviors, then I would say that this approach will most likely just fall on deaf ears. Sure, they may throw out a few “breadcrumbs” to quiet “the minions”; but otherwise, members of the ruling class are far too content with the status quo and far too addicted to their personal wealth and power to be so easily persuaded so share more of that wealth and power with the rest of us than they absolutely have to.
What about trying to change things from the inside? As much as I would love to see this work—virtuous individuals pushing into the higher echelons of politics to try to make a difference—the reality that so many of us have painfully witnessed is that in the large majority of cases, such individuals are either slandered or intimidated out the door, are effectively side-lined and muffled, or they themselves become personally corrupted and co-opted into the system. Sure, occasionally the rare virtuous individual has managed to instil some positive change using this strategy, but in the larger scheme of things, what we typically get are more “breadcrumbs for the minions” if we’re lucky.
Reclaiming the power that we already have…
So what’s left? We shake off this trance of learned helplessness, and recognize that we already have the power. Our so-called leaders have essentially become a bunch of lost addicts perpetually seeking their next “fix.” And in the same way that attempting to appeal to reason is generally ineffective for someone gripped by a serious addiction to drugs or alcohol, so attempting to persuade the ruling classes to drop their addictions is also likely to be largely ineffective. What generally is an effective means for helping an addict to come out of their addiction is to support them in coming out of their isolation and in developing authentically loving connections with others. So if we really want our leaders to come out of their addictions, then I think the only way is for “we the people” to lead by example—to stop allowing the ruling class to blow on the embers of our fears, hatreds and disconnections, and to begin cultivating our compassion, connections and kindness. As for the “leaders”—well, they have a choice—they can ether join the party or get out of the way.
So what does this look like in more practical terms? In simplest terms, I would say that we each need to do the difficult work of taming our own “wild” minds in the same way that we would tame a wounded and wild animal—with persistent yet loving discipline. First of all, we face the hard reality that those who have been raised in this society (in other words, all of us) have developed certain fears, addictions and disconnections that contribute to the perpetuation of a highly dysfunctional and destructive human society; and then we actively begin taming our own “wild” minds to reign in our destructive impulses and addictions, and to actively foster compassion, empathy and kindness towards ourselves, our fellow humans, and the other living beings with whom we share this world.
To get more specific, this entails:
Actively and regularly connecting in a more mindful and kind way with our own inner experiences—our feelings, impulses, needs and values. Examples for this kind of work would be personally contemplating/reflecting/reading/writing about our interests, our concerns, our values, our passions; or getting in tune with our minds and bodies via yoga, meditation, exercise, mastering a physical sport, art or music.
Actively cultivating our kindness and compassion for and connection with others. Examples of this are consciously considering the consequences that all of our actions and purchases have on other people and living beings; spending time in heartfelt dialogue with others, making sure to practice empathic listening and heartfelt expression; having fun with other people and animals; spending time in the outdoors.
…and refusing to support the harmful practices and organizations with our money/purchases or our precious time. This would involve things such as actively boycotting products that are violent/exploitative of other people, other Earthlings and the environment; and being selective about the kind of work that we do and who we work for. Of course, our individual circumstances vary, so we simply have to do the best we can with where we’re at.
- I think it’s important to acknowledge that those of us who are wealth-wise in the global “middle” are in the best seats for fostering real change—on one hand, it’s less likely that we have become as hopelessly addicted to wealth and personal power as those in the upper classes; and on the other hand, we aren’t so overburdened by simply trying to find the next meal, clean water, and a warm/safe place to sleep as are those in the poorest classes.
…..Furthermore, the purchases and consumption habits of the middle-class, as well as the fruits of our labour, are an enormous source of wealth and power for the ruling class and fuel for the continuation of this broken system. Our collective refusal to continue supporting these harmful industries would deliver a huge kick in the gut to this plutocratic system, and possibly even a fatal blow (please forgive the not-so-nonviolent metaphors); and at the very least force the ruling class to adopt less harmful behaviors in order to maintain their profits.
- Another key point that needs to be mentioned here—when it really comes down to it, the ruling classes are only able to continue enforcing their power through the threat or use of violent force, combined with a steady stream of misinformation (i.e., the police and military being the front lines of this, with the justice system, various “secret services,” the mental health system and the corporate media providing close back up). Yet most of the individuals employed within these systems are not themselves members of the ruling class, though they generally are targets of customized misinformation campaigns, and/or enjoy certain privileges involving additional personal power, wealth, job security and other enticing breadcrumbs to maintain their loyalty.
…..This situation opens up a tremendous vulnerability for the ruling class—one they certainly don’t like but about which they have no choice. Imagine for a moment if a movement of virtuosity and compassionate civil disobedience were to take hold within any one of these social control agencies. Remember that old expression—“Suppose they gave a war and nobody came”? What if the police and judges began coming forward and saying, “Enough! We’re not going to let people rot in prison for nonviolent crimes,” or “No! We’re not going to treat people differently based on the color of their skin or their country of origin.” What if the psychiatrists and psychologists began standing up and saying, “Enough! We’re not going to keep enriching the pharmaceutical industry by putting more and more adults and children on their brain-damaging drugs.” What if the soldiers handed in their guns and their drone remote controls and said, “No Way! I’m not going to kill any more people for the sake of making the rich richer.” What if…?
…..The good news is that such movements are starting to take hold, but the bad news (and not surprisingly) is that there is a lot of resistance against them with ever increasing crackdowns on whistleblowers and other dissenters. Here are a few of the more well-known examples of courageous dissenters that have almost certainly generated some inspiration among others in their respective fields: (ex)Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg, and (ex)US Army soldier Chelsea Manning, (ex)CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden, About Face: Veterans Against the War, Psychiatrist Dr Peter Breggin and the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry.
We have the option to bypass the rulers and their broken system altogether and create our own “imaginal cells.” There is an intriguing process that occurs within a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly that may offer insight into how humankind as a whole may make the transition from a “voracious caterpillar” to a “lightly treading, pollinating butterfly.” Dr Sailesh Rao of Climate Healers puts it like this:
“When a caterpillar nears its transformation time, it begins to eat ravenously, consuming everything in sight. The caterpillar body then becomes heavy, outgrowing its own skin many times, until it is too bloated to move. Attaching to a branch (upside down, where everything is turned on its head), it forms a chrysalis—an enclosing shell that limits the caterpillar’s freedom for the duration of the transformation.
Tiny cells, that biologists call “imaginal cells,” begin to appear. These cells are wholly different from caterpillar cells, carrying different information, vibrating to a different frequency—the frequency of the emerging butterfly. At first, the caterpillar’s immune system perceives these new cells as enemies, and attacks them, much as new ideas in science, medicine, politics, and social behavior are viciously denounced by the powers now considered mainstream. But the imaginal cells are not deterred. They continue to appear, in even greater numbers, recognizing each other, bonding together, until the new cells are numerous enough to organize into clumps. When enough cells have formed to make structures along the new organizational lines, the caterpillar’s immune system is overwhelmed. The caterpillar body then becomes a nutritious soup for the growth of the butterfly.”
To analogize this with the evolution of humankind, we can say that these imaginal cells represent the many groups of people around the world who are choosing to bypass the dysfunctional plutocratic system altogether, taking strides towards much more connected, mutually empowered and environmentally sustainable communities. One particularly promising movement in this regard is the steadily increasing rate of eco-villages and sustainable intentional communities popping up around the world. See here, here and here for examples and more information. See here for a compelling little video illustrating this concept.
Finally, to get even more specific with regard to working towards effective solutions, the Centre for Nonviolence and Conscious Living (CNCL) has developed the Conscious Living Resolution, which is a list of here-and-now strategies we can all begin to incorporate into our lives, starting today. Given the vast inequality of the world and our individually unique circumstances, each of us will have a different starting place with regard to this list—which of these strategies we’re ready to begin adopting and/or strengthening, and which may appear too daunting at the moment. We simply invite each person to mindfully connect with the suggested strategies on this list, and see what naturally resonates with you, and which of your “edges” you feel that you’re ready to push. And of course feel free to follow your own internal “nonviolence and conscious living” compass to add other strategies to this list that resonate for you.
To Conclude—Reclaiming our power and our future is what naturally happens when we reclaim our lives
Speaking for myself and many others I know who have ventured down this path to varying degrees, I can say that this is not an easy path. We’re human, we make mistakes, we become overwhelmed by our feelings and impulses at times. Breaking harmful habits and addictions and challenging our long-held beliefs and perspectives can be extremely difficult and humbling. But have faith that the rewards are likely to far outweigh the difficulties. After all, regardless of what may become of humankind in the future, we still have to live with ourselves and each other right now. Do we want to continue living in a society (and with states of mind) based mostly on fear, hatred, greed and disconnection? Or would we rather work towards a society and a personal state of mind based more on compassion, connection and kindness? Sounds like a no brainer to me!
There are certainly no guarantees that humankind will be able to pull through the extraordinarily destructive social and ecological patterns that we’ve set in motion. But as long as we’re still here, we might as well give it all we have to maintain our existence and fight for a world worth fighting for.
And if that doesn’t ultimately pan out, well… at least we can do our best to go down smiling.