A few years ago, while my wife and I were taking a walk at night, I was overcome with grief. I sat down at a nearby bench and was crying. When my wife asked me why I was crying, I said something to the effect of “It’s going to be so horrible. There will be so much pain, so much suffering. The catastrophes are coming and we as a society are not ready for them at all!” I had a sense of a coming apocalypse and it frightened me.
Was that an overreaction on my part? To the contrary. It was entirely rational. It was the first time it had really sunk into me that the nice middle class lifestyle which we take for granted is not sustainable. That the future won’t just an upward escalator of material progress for all. That behind the material achievements and even the scientific intellectual insights, we as a people still have a basically primitive consciousness, not far removed from the ancestors of thousands of years ago.
That in fact we as a species haven’t yet caught up to the great awakenings of consciousness of the sages of the past from two to three thousand years ago. We are surrounded by better technology and greater material well being than what the Buddha or the Upanishadic sages or Lao Tzu or Jesus Christ or Socrates had. But we haven’t yet tapped into the evolution of consciousness which they achieved. Our very material well being – which we haven’t earned individually but is something we have been gifted by our recent generations – covers over our emotional and spiritual stuntedness. It hides our inability to truly transcend our egoistic impulses. The ideals of an Ivy League degree or a BMW or a fancy salary or the good likes of a model give us the sense of sophistication – when all the while underneath the degrees and the material goods and the sophistication is the same limited and ego driven thinking of past ages.
Worries of apocalypses is nothing new. Every century has its share. Perhaps every generation at some point feels the world as they knew it is about to end. But this fact doesn’t render worries of apocalypses as mundane.
Rather, it is each generation’s chance to confront the limits of material well being and ego awareness, and to see that greater flourishing requires greater transformation of our modes of consciousness. That ultimately computers, medical care, high rise apartments with fancy gadgets – all these are still just tools. Or at most transformations of our basic cognitive modes of being. But they don’t on their own change our deepest fears or anxieties, distrusts or pathologies. Only we can change those through a heightened awareness.
The fear of the coronavirus, for example, is rooted first in fear of what will happen to me, my family, my life patterns, my society – basically, life as I know it. The anxiety is real. And rational.
But if I step back for a moment from my personal anxieties of what will happen to me, my family, my job, my city, my country, and even yes, my world – I am confronted with a stark reality which normally I ignore or forget or bury, and which the pandemic doesn’t allow me to ignore, forget or bury. And that is awareness of my own insignificance – of this limited being called Bharath with his wife and child and family and income, and tastes and desires and hopes and ideals – in the broader cosmos.
Is my life worth more than an ant’s? Or more firm and guaranteed? More important than the life of the chicken I had for dinner last night or the animals that are becoming extinct in the light of humanity’s “flourishing”?
The fantasy of normal life is that things are basically right and just. Even when thinking of racism or deep injustice, the thought is just around the corner that if only we changed some things, true justness and goodness in society is achievable. As if with some changes, deep though they are, our lives and the meaning of humanity would be etched into and merged with the meaning of nature as such. As if nature itself is calling out for our felt next step to be the next step of the cosmos as such.
Catastrophes obliterate this fantasy. Yes, there is racism. Yes, there is mass inequality. Yes, there are the hungry and the homeless. Yes, there is so much for us to do as a species. But catastrophies force us to confront the basic reality that the doing of these things – all good and important and essential – aren’t written into the very essence of nature. Rather, they are important because they are important to us. They matter because they matter to us.
That doesn’t make the mattering less important. It is mattering enough. We want to survive and thrive as a species because we want to. Not because nature will keep its hurricanes and heat waves and forest fires and diseases and cathastrophies at bay for us. That is the brute reality which catastrophies force us to confront.
This can be depressing if we assume that our lives mattering must somehow be affirmed by nature itself protecting us – as if we were its special children. So when nature seems to turn a blind eye to us, as if it were unmoved by our mass deaths the same way we are unmoved by the mass deaths of other species, it can provoke existential anxiety. As if we are abandoned. Uncared for. Where is God in all this?
God is on the other side of the fantasy. On the other side of seeing our own limitedness in the vastness of nature and being strong enough to pick up our courage and work to retain and create our world.
The truth and meaning of our lives isn’t determined by living or dying. By being in good health or bad. Hence the coronavirus can’t rid our lives of meaning. It can take my life, my family, change society, force radical transformations. Some changes will be unfortunate. Some for the better.
But what remains is the same basic choice we face, a choice which something like the coronavirus forces us to confront more consciously. And that is: do we live with the fantasy of our specialness in nature, a fantasy which resists seeing our place in the cosmos with a straight face, or do we live with a continual awareness of our limitedness and so with greater appreciation each moment for our fragile and yet beautiful lives in the cosmos?
This is not a silly philosophical issue which we can ignore. It is crucial for our lives. For the more we are able to live in harmony with nature and with our own place in it, and bring that awareness not just to “saving the planet” but to each and every human interaction and to using it to get beyond our own fantasies of daily life, the more we will survive.
Those changes in consciousness add up and a hundred years from now, our descendants – no matter what their economic or family or cultural situations, no matter if there are robots or aliens living among us – will be more rooted and secure because they will then be more conscious and mindful in their living. And in their dying. And in their confronting the pleasant times and the harsh times, the ups and downs of life.
Yes, future generations will need and have greater techonology to deal with the changing tides of nature. But they will also need a basic transformation in modes of consciousness to retain those techonologies and to try not to kill each other in the process. Techonologies will transform our consciousness. But there is a lot for us to do to transform ourselves in the process as well. To change outdated modes of habit and forms of consciousness, and to grow from within to a higher light of awareness.