Things Fall Apart: Why We Think Everything’s Getting Worse

Most Americans, year after year, continue to think that the country is on the wrong track. The older you are (i.e, the more experienced you are, and the more of history you’ve seen), the more likely you are to think everything is falling apart. And it’s not just in America: worldwide, people tend to think things are getting worse. And it’s undeniable that the world is facing horrible problems: climate change, pollution, terrorism, income inequality, racism, sexism, etc., etc., etc.

Maybe you’ve noticed the same thing in your own life. I don’t mean to be depressing here… but how many times have you failed to change a habit, or break an addiction? How many of your jobs have fallen through? How many times have you had to move away from your home? How many pets have you lost? How many of your friendships and relationships have failed, or faded away in distance or time? How many people you’ve loved are gone forever?

Almost all of us have tragic answers to those questions. The things we love in our lives always end; the patterns we love endlessly unravel.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

In nature, things unravel, too. But there, something else is always raveling up to take its place. Trees die, but their tall standing snags — monuments to themselves — are colonized by armies of insects, fungi, and other critters, which in turn become feasts for woodpeckers and other animals. And when the snags finally fall, they become nurse logs for the next generation of trees, nourishing a richer, more diverse forest.

A tree’s death is a catastrophe, but it’s also what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe: a sort of deus ex machina, except that instead of a god swooping in from on high at the last minute to save everything, it’s a sudden unexpected change in fortune that’s consistent with the established framework of the milieu. It’s a miraculous redemption that arises inevitably from the world itself.

Oftentimes, a eucatastrophe is the result of the efforts of many, many individuals (humans, bugs, plants… doesn’t matter), each working for their own benefit or the benefit of their local community. Individually, each effort is barely noticeable, but when they’re added up, profound changes take place. Since these small efforts are self-directed, it can be extremely difficult to see what the final aggregate result will be, and whether it will, in the end, be good or bad.

Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. – Elrond, in the Fellowship of the Ring

So perhaps things look like they’re unraveling simply because we don’t have the complete picture. We as a species are young, and our vision is limited. We sometimes glimpse things that might happen, but for the most part, we only see the present and the past. It’s no wonder that most of what we see seems to be dying or dead.

The core of the problem, really, is that we can so rarely see patterns before they emerge. And so the world seems to be falling into disorder, and our lives seem to be full of endings, with precious few new beginnings.

It is an illusion, though. A new order is rising up, but we can’t see it. This is why eucatastrophes are surprising.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Oftentimes we can see the re-raveling only in hindsight. Human history is littered with dire disasters and intractable problems: the ‘population bomb’, the end of oil, war, the nuclear holocaust, monarchy, illiteracy, slavery… But it’s an undeniable fact that most of these problems have gotten better over the last few hundred years. Not solved — not by a long shot; even one person enslaved is a terrible tragedy. But better. Most problems, like human rights violations and non-renewable energy, have been improved through long years of thankless toil. Many others, like slavery in the US, cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Some, like the falling rates of crime and warfare worldwide, have just been slowly eroding away, though no one really knows why. And a few, like the hegemonic Soviet Union, have ended in a completely unexpected eucatastrophe.

This happens in one’s own life as well. I’ve left behind friends in six different cities, lost three jobs, lost a marriage… Many of these changes left me wondering whether everything I’d worked and struggled for was gone forever. But of course, I made friends in the seventh city, scored that fourth job, and found a true soul partner. After 40+ years of life I’m finally starting to glimpse the larger tapestry sometimes. There are still problems and tragedies I struggle with, but someday — sooner, perhaps, than I can see — they will pass, too.

Seeing the Raveling

How can we get better at seeing patterns before they’re fully formed?

First, practice. Look for the raveling. Too often we focus only on what is going wrong, or what we fear will go wrong. This is instinctive. As embodied beings, it’s natural to be wary, to watch for danger. But take time to look for what is going right, or what might go right, and focus on that as well. The old saying is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst; and both parts of that are important.

Also, study history. Look at how eucatastrophes happened. Most people were surprised when the Soviet Union collapsed, when monarchies ended, and so on — but the writing was on the wall for decades. What writing is on the wall now?

Trust your gut. Your conscious mind has access to only a small part of your complete consciousness. Your subconscious is always looking for patterns, and usually sees the big changes coming. Meditation, and talking to guides, can help.

And finally, have some faith. One of the things I struggle with personally, as a Druid, is what Alison calls the ‘Problem of Justice’. Just as Christians wonder why God permits evil in the world, we who follow a nature-based spirituality wonder what is natural and what is unnatural, what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good. When you see an oil spill or a huge parking lot and you feel a visceral revulsion or sorrow, your body is telling you that it is unnatural, wrong, evil — especially when compared with a forest or pristine river. But obviously humans are part of the natural world, and what we do is natural; so in a sense, an oil spill or parking lot is natural too. So why are we always tearing things down, causing mass extinctions, and fouling the waters? How can these things be “natural”, how can they be “good”?

And it’s not just humanity. When beavers flood a forest, felling and drowning dozens of trees, or when wolves disembowel an encroaching coyote and defecate around its body as a warning to the others, we have the same problem:

Many earth-centered spiritualities look to the relationships, patterns and laws of nature for insight into the ways we might live a just and ethical life — yet, within nature are myriad examples of suffering, destruction, violence, injustice, even cruelty and maliciousness… How should we respond to them? — Alison Leigh Lilly

The resolution of these paradoxes (both the Druid paradox and the Christian one) may, in part, lie in our limited human understanding. Maybe we just can’t yet see how the evils of the world will be woven into the larger pattern of beauty. In nature, always, there is a subtle, organic order at work. Problems turn out to be blessings; tragedies plant the seeds of triumphs. Even in truly awful situations — such as a forest fire — there is a hidden raveling. Underbrush is cleared out, soil is renewed, seeds are germinated, diversity is increased, and diseases are cleared away. Forests periodically burn as naturally as the cycle of the seasons. Maybe what we see today as injustice is part of a great invisible cycle.

It can be hard to have faith, to believe in rebirth, when all you can see is death. But something wonderful is being born, right now. Study, sit in silence, and wait, and you will see it.

Hummingbird on a snowy branch

At Death’s Door: Thoughts on Immortality and Spirituality

A few months ago there was another breakthrough in geriatrics. This time, scientists were actually able to reverse aging in mice.

draftimgTruthThe very thought of reversing aging has been considered insane for most of the history of science. Getting old happens — to animals, plants, buildings, planets, and stars. Bodies, like everything else, just wears out, and there isn’t much you could do about it. Sure, you could slow aging, you could keep healthy and avoid microbes and so on, and maybe double your lifespan. But reversing aging? Living forever? That’s crazy talk.

There’s no chance for us
Its all decided for us
This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us

Who wants to live forever
Who wants to live forever? …
Who dares to love forever?
When love must die…
–Queen

Humans have been ambivalent about immortality for a long, long, time. You can see it in our myths. People who want to live forever are almost always portrayed as shallow fools who end up living forever old, or mourning the deaths of their friends, or committing suicide, or similarly unhappy. The moral: quality of life is more important than quantity.

But by the time my grandchildren are born, I might be able to go to the doctor and get started on a simple drug regimen that would make me biologically younger than I am right now. I might have a lot of quality and quantity of life.

Imagine you were given that choice. Would you? Should you? It’s worth thinking about, because regardless of your own choice, some people certainly will.

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Man vs. Machine: John Henry, Science Fiction, and the March of Progress

There are only two kinds of plots in true science fiction:  Science is a Hero, and Science is a Villain.

250px-John_Henry-27527In Science is a Hero, there is some problem or other — an asteroid is going to hit the Earth, the Galactic Empire is falling, there’s a Plague IN SPACE!! — and the heroic characters unabashedly use Science to deflect the asteroid, restore Galactic civilization, cure the plague, and, not infrequently, have sex in zero-G.  Ain’t Science great?

In Science is a Villain, Science itself is the problem.  Science unleashes dinosaurs, Frankenstein monsters, unstoppable robot armies, murderous computers, super-soldiers, atomic horror, etc., and humanity has to fight them off.  Sometimes humanity barely wins, at great cost.  Other times we lose.  Science makes a nasty Villain.  Moral:  Science sure can be dangerous, kids!

These two kinds of stories echo our ambivalent attitude towards technology, of course.  Real life science has cured countless social ills and brought previously-unimaginable wonders, but it has also caused social upheaval and brought previously-unimaginable horrors. It’s no surprise that the stories that are most famous, the ones that keep us up at night, are the villain ones:  HAL 9000, velociraptors, Terminator, the Matrix…  The villains, the nightmares,  echo most closely the demons we’re wrestling.[Continue Reading…]

The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic

In the previous post, I outlined a model of prestige and stigma which predicts whether a language or religion will grow or wither in a society. Now let’s take the prestige/stigma model and look at Neopaganism today. By these measures, Neopaganism is in trouble.

Stigmatized Neopaganism

ire2Imagine trying to revive the Latin language. Imagine speaking it at home, teaching it to your children, seeking out Latin translations of modern works, and using it instead of English whenever you could. What would your friends and neighbors think? Do you think lots of people would jump on the bandwagon with you? Do you think that the revived Latin movement — “Neolatinism” — would have much of a future in your society? There are no celebrities speaking Latin on TV. There are no government officials speaking Latin in press conferences. Latin is stigmatized as a dead language with no future; why would anyone want to learn it?

If the analogy between religion and language holds, Neopaganism is in exactly the same situation as Neolatinism would be.

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The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma

Modern religions that are derived from or inspired by the indigenous polytheistic traditions of Europe (I’ll call them Neopagan) have experienced a great resurgence in the last couple of hundred years, and especially in the last fifty or so. This is surprising, because prior to that, everyone pretty much thought they were gone for good.

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Predicting the Future

Someone once famously asked, “Where we all going? And what are we doing in this handbasket?”

Predicting the future is an old game. It’s popular because it’s fun and frequently profitable, especially if you are sufficiently vague or incomprehensible. The Book of Revelation is a good example. John’s vivid accounts of horn-blowing angels, floods, devastations, numbered beasts, and a harlot riding a 10-headed monster (only to be devoured by it) has been popular for nearly 2000 years, though I wouldn’t recommend it for children’s bedtime reading. People have a great time trying to figure out what he was talking about; they’ve suggested everything from Nazi Germany to Al Qaeda. Most biblical scholars agree that a harlot was actually a reference to the Roman emperor Nero, who was alive at the time Revelation was written, and that the ten-headed beast was the Roman Empire itself. John, they say, was simply writing a prophecy of what he wanted to happen: Nero to be overthrown and Christianity to prevail within the Roman Empire. But where’s the fun in that?

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