The world has recently felt like it's in a constant flux of turmoil. Our information intake is flooded by images of destruction, decay and constant paranoia. Global riots, plague, famine and conquests have become our existential norm for the better part of the year 2020. Our generation is facing a historical fork in the road that we can’t possibly grasp the full extent of because we are trapped in the now. We are facing a collective crisis of meaning.
The psychological theory of Terror Management has shown that when people are given reminders of their own mortality, they feel a sense of anxiety and insecurity, which they respond to by becoming more prone to status-seeking, materialism, greed, prejudice, and aggression. They are more likely to find meaning in conforming to culturally accepted attitudes and to identify with their national or ethnic groups. According to Terror Management Theory, the motivation of these behaviors is to enhance one’s sense of significance or value in the face of death, or to gain a sense of security or belonging, as a way of protecting oneself against the threat of mortality.
Nature has presented us with the blinding light of our mortality through the Covid-19 pandemic, and that has coincided with global riots, and racial division that forces people to cling to their national or ethnic pride in order to look away from the constant awareness of our own mortality. Instead of clinging on to divisive ideas like national or ethnic pride, I decided to look at what previous generations who were faced with the overarching awareness of their own mortality did in similar situations.
For the past few decades, our mortality could be placed away as some abstract idea existing in some abstract future. With the western world not facing wars or plagues on its own soil for the better part of a century, it was easy to look away from the concept of constant chaos and into the television screen, or at our mundane capitalistic pursuits. Now that we have been forced to shut everything down due to a deadly virus, and look at ourselves, it's becoming more and more difficult to look away from that reality.
In the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam war, a subculture that was named “Hippies” emerged. This subculture has now been watered down and commodified by the media and culture, and made to seem like white college dropouts that did drugs and had orgies, which was partially true, but that was not the essence of the movement. I believe the movement was the medium for a spirit that has presented itself all throughout human history.
The ideology of the hippies believed there has to be something more. Something more than the perceived norm of the nuclear family, white picket fence, and two cars in the garage, that we don’t talk about much. The war reminded young Americans about peace, love, harmony, critical thought and transcendence. They might not have communicated it in the best possible way, and at some point they might have gone too far, but that conceptual germ still existed. The entire 60s fight for equality, justice, antiwar movements, people championing creativity, the arts, innovation, progress, and artists being the soul of society and speaking out against issues they see in the world, that is the essence of the spirit. The 60s and 70s are responsible for some of the greatest advancements in technology, film, music, art, space travel, and progress in terms of civil rights that we have seen in modern times.
This spirit presents itself when there are gaps. When there is turmoil, decay, and an overwhelming awareness of our own mortality, this essence comes through different mediums. In the 1300s, Europe's Bubonic Plague devastated the population and the economic systems, but that devastation led to the Renaissance, one of the greatest periods of human thought, literature, art, architecture and philosophy. When there is a disturbance in our normal way of life, that spirit presents itself. When things aren’t ordered and perfect, there’s an in rush of something, and people throughout history have tried finding out what that is.
When things are ordered, we tend to become tranquilized by the trivial. The mundane regularities of everyday life tend to encompass the majority of our experience. We get worked up about work, traffic and the general bureaucratic infractions of modern day society. Our art becomes docile and soulless, our society becomes homogeneous, we become consumption robots focused on fulfilling our next hedonistic indulgence, and we can forget that we are fragile super monkeys on a rock, zooming through the vacuum of this infinite chemical explosion.
Corporations and institutions have been able to modify modern humans to clones with paleolithic emotions, living in medieval institutions using godlike technology for the sake of satisfying our most primitive desires. We use the greatest technology humanity has ever created to watch porn and order cheeseburgers, which are both dope, but imagine the potential. That is what these moments in history help us focus on, our own potential.
Potential is not tangible, it can’t be shown to us, but we somehow know of its existence. When we see a child crawling on its knees, we see a world of potential. This child can stand up, start walking, grow up and cure cancer. But as we grow older, we lose that view of ourselves. We become ordinary people, trapped within the confines of space and time, being pushed around by the state of external circumstances and bureaucratic systems. We grow up to become cogs in the machine, following what seems to be our outlined path. Moments like these remind us that we exist in a malleable field of infinite potentiality that we can manipulate.
Human beings have the ability to quite literally transform reality. We are able to grasp abstraction and alchemize it into matter. Everything you see around you is a man made construct, the people that built it are no different than you. The world around us has been designed so well, that we can forget, it was initially just a design in some guys head. The computer that I type this on, a device that changed the landscape of the world, was originally just an abstract concept that wasn’t fleshed out, and now we see the device and still, we can’t conceptualize its complete future potential, but we are aware of the potential that exists within it. That's the same with the world around you. It’s a field of potentiality that you have the ability to tap into, if you choose. We can take our phones and access all of the information the world has ever known, we can take any idea that we have and try to actualize it.
This essence is the same one that pushes people to be poets instead of bankers, its an existential awareness of the futility in adhering to concepts of financial wealth and power as the end goal. Our financial and political systems exist as the backbone to assist with the regular functions of society, but we have made the financial system the goal of society and have moved away from the essence that tells us, there’s more to this life. It's the essence that people find in religious institutions, in monasteries and among mystics. Its the same essence found in people like Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau.
That spirit can be put into anything. You can communicate it through art, photography, film, design, products, engineering, philanthropy, a good deed, helping your neighbour, working to better your immediate community, anything that is focused on the betterment of the whole. By turning away from a flight from death, you see a horizon of opportunity, you can use that vision with regard for others, that awareness instantly makes your life seem like an adventure perfused with unshakeable joy. Straying away from constant individual pleasures and narcissism and focusing on the bigger picture of humanity as a whole is the access point for the well of potential.
That essence can help us focus on philosophical conversations about how to better the world, the creation of better political, economic and architectural infrastructures that are in line with our technological advancement, and in the most miniscule scales, we can increase the overall level of decency toward each other.
I believe the only way to access this potential is to work on mastering ourselves. We need to learn how to be intentional about our lives as opposed to exclusively products of external circumstance. We need to find our callings, what we care about, what we would like to focus our energy on, what we would like to better in the world, what our ideal morality looks like, what skills we have and what skills we want to learn, and the next step is to learn and practice all those ideals.
Miyamoto Musashi said "if you know the way broadly, you will see it in all things." When you learn anything, you elevate everything. In trying to learn and better any circumstance in your life, you elevate your existence, you make life run smoother and better, and seeing those results pushes you to continue creating, learning and elevating your life and the lives of those around you. When you have a situational problem and have solved it, you can apply the process of solving to other problematic situations. You see everything as connected and it helps you keep an open and creative mind. That realization enhances your ability to critically think, discern, and solve problems in a creative and elegant manner. Everything from exercising, to writing poetry, making music, even juggling, if your goal is to learn and get better, you begin to excel more and more in all facets of life, you become more confident and are able to solve problems in other areas of your life, by learning the constants of practicing, learning, failing, adapting and innovating.
Despite the suffering in the world, I find meaning in my innate human ability to empathize, love, communicate this essence and alchemize tangible abstraction to try and make a better world through my self discovery journey in this life. And that means stepping away from social media from time to time and dedicating more of my time to the process of creating art and focusing on ideas that I believe will help the world instead of wallowing in all of the suffering.
This doesn't mean sanctimonious moral posturing at all, it entails working on ourselves in order to achieve the best possible version of ourselves, while being aware that we are flawed humans who make mistakes, so we learn from those mistakes and try to better ourselves in all facets.
I choose to tackle this crisis of meaning head on, not by associating with divisive ideas of ethnic or national pride, but by working on actualizing my full potential in service of the betterment of the broader society through my creativity. I choose to access information that will add value to my life, and help me add value to the lives of others by doing something that brings me profound joy and shapes the world closer to its optimal state through my efforts. The antidote to our threat of mortality seems to, quite literally, be the change we want to see in the world.
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