For many of us 2016 will go down in our memories as one of the most significant, surprising and challenging years of the new millennium, and not just because of the giant rumblings in the global political sphere, but because much more personal dramas have also been unfolding: the kind of low key dramas which are part of the fabric of our everyday lives. These are usually processed quietly and without fuss but they usually cause us more sadness, grief and uncertainty than the tumultuous events playing out in our larger society because they are so close to our hearts.
As our sense of safety and security becomes more precarious because of the increasing instability in our society it makes sense that these dramas will increase in frequency and intensity; there will be more stress at work, more friends and family members will experience mental health problems, we’ll have more money worries. As a result more of our energy will be required to manage our lives and so we will have less energy to invest in our activism, whatever form this activism takes. This is a worrying state of affairs, one that can only be challenged through the building of stronger and more supportive communities, so that we receive the emotional support we need at the same time as participating in our collective work to foster much needed changes in our society.
We are living through a time of hugely significant endings and of fledgling new beginnings. As the neoliberal era comes to an end, it’s death rattles discernible to pretty much everyone by now (much to the dismay of those who have a great deal to lose as a result and are either in a state of abject denial or feverishly trying to accumulate more wealth to insulate themselves from future insecurity), it can be easy to get caught up in the kind of pessimistic, individualistic thinking which can cause us to become profoundly stuck: “It’s all so overwhelming! There’s so much to be done! What difference can I make?” We’ve all been there.
It’s obvious that the current system will not last forever, but most of us have grown up in this system, don’t know any other way of doing things and so find it incredibly difficult to see beyond it, to what will come next. In their book Active Hope, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone describes three common stories that people tell themselves about the monumental times we’re living through. The first they call “Business as usual” – this is a story we see playing out everywhere in society. It’s a story that reassures us that everything will be okay as long as we carry on as normal: We can continue growing the economy. The market will self correct. Technology will save us. The second story they call “The Great Decline” – this is also a familiar story, one that permeates our cultural unconscious and finds expression in the apocalyptic disaster movies which have become so popular in recent years. This story tells us that everything is going to go downhill from here, that there’s no hope, that the best thing to do is batten down the hatches, look after our nearest and dearest, keep calm and carry on.
The third story they calls “The Great Turning”. This is a story which embraces the idea that change is possible. It is not hopelessly optimistic like the story of “Business as usual”. It acknowledges that there will be a huge amount of struggle, suffering and uncertainty in the coming decades. We will experience profound losses and overwhelming grief. But it is not excessively pessimistic like the story of “The Great Decline”. It contains in it a sense of hope and a clear vision of a future human society which exists in balance with the rest of nature, a culture which is spiritually and psychologically mature. It has an understanding of the rise and fall of civilisations and the great cycles of life. As surely as spring time follows winter, life is born out of death. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell has this to say about this process:
Schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme of return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements. Only birth can conquer death — the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new. Within the soul, within the body social, there must be — if we are to experience long survival — a continuous “recurrence of birth” (palingenesia) to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
As Joseph Campbell understood only too well, the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world is are incredibly powerful – they form the foundation of our lives and influence every decision we make about how we live our lives. In this sense through these stories we create our own reality. This is something that happens on an individual level, often preventing us from reaching our potential as individuals, but also invariably happens on a collective, societal or civilisational level. When we act out a self limiting story as a civilisation we fail to reach our potential as a species. In many ways the story of industrial growth capitalism has served us very well as a species but it is a story which we have outgrown and so has become just such a self limiting story.
Think back to your childhood and early teenage years. Recall one or two of your favourite books and movies from this period, stories which you may have obsessed over, read and watched over and over again. Reflect on how the genre and the themes explored in these stories may have shaped your perspective on the world, your way of seeing things. If they were love stories are you now a hopeless romantic? If they were science fiction stories do you now dream of a Star Trek-esque post-scarcity future or a Blade Runner-esque dystopian nightmare?
Are you telling your own story with your life or are you telling someone else’s? It’s a very important question – perhaps the most important question of all. Many of us are stuck in old stories, ones which served us well as children but now we’ve outgrown. These old stories are about separation – from Self, from others and from the more-than-human world. If “The Great Turning” is to unfold – and it’s far from certain that it will – our new stories must be about connection. But how do we move from those old stories into new ones when it seems like all around us vast walls of separation are planned or already being constructed? These are the violent death throes of an empire built upon a story of separation, an empire which is beginning to tear itself apart.
As the old story of separation reaches it’s dramatic climax, the new story of connection has already begun. I guess it boils down to a simple choice really. In the words of Andy Defresne, a character from one of my favourite movies as a teenager, The Shawshank Redemption, a film I watched many times over: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” That’s goddamn right.