“What is going on here?!!” the question we all wake up to these days. If you think you have the answer, you don’t. If you refuse to ask the question, you contribute to the bedlam. The best we can do is to keep the question front and center and see where it leads us.
One thing to consider: the dizzying hyper-pace of rapid change—economical, cultural, political, ideological, ecological—creates an unstable environment that is stressful to the human psyche. Low stability creates high anxiety and high anxiety lowers us to the brain-stem of fight/ flight/ freeze reactions that blocks our capacity to think clearly, imagine creatively and feel wholly. The rise of fundamentalism in all its horrific guises— political, religious, ideological— is a fearful response that has us refusing to look at truth (flight), paralyzes our ability to think (freeze) and rouses us to blame and attack imagined enemies (fight).
Back in 1979, in the midst of a year-long trip around the world, I received a letter from a friend telling me about long gas lines and increases in prices. I wrote this in my journal:
What freaks me out about returning to the U.S. is the frenzied pace at which things change, the feeling of being caught on a runaway horse that you can’t control. Though things are changing here in Indonesia and in India, the pace is slow enough that there is ample time to absorb and digest it. Culturally, there’s a strong sense of stability, as I noticed reading a description of life in the Ramayana that was pretty close to modern day rural India and as I felt so strongly in Varanasi witnessing a scene that could have been a thousand years old.
In America, no sooner do you gulp down and swallow one change than another is forced down your throat before the first is digested. Especially economically, things are changing so fast that it feels like the whole country is walking on ice, slipping and sliding around with barely a moment to stand firmly balanced. That feeling of the surroundings being so far out of our control that all we can do is look on helplessly while ice cream triples in price, gas soars out of sight, movies reach New York’s old play prices, apartments keep rising. I wonder if the Muni buses are still 25 cents. This perpetual state of crisis feels psychologically crippling. Like something dropped from the sky that picks up speed as it hurtles down to the earth, “progress” and change in America is accelerated so much that there are generation gaps within a five-year age span. As Arnold Toynbee wrote: “Modern civilization is nothing but Adam’s original sin equipped with an infinite quantity of energy and explosive power.”
Because that power is so fierce, the balancing power of the alternative culture must be equally fierce to combat it. Which is why so many people feel like the spiritual center of the world has shifted to America, where so many are investigating spirituality and engaged in political resistance. Like the climax of the wayang kulit shadow puppet play, the forces of good and evil gathering to prepare for the final battle. The battle is as old as human history but ,as Toynbee notes, a thousand times amplified. Whole countries with nuclear weapons instead of swords, Mother Earth herself at stake, the princess that has been abducted. May America’s runaway horse of greed and domination grow weary, catch its breath, pause to consider where the hell it’s running to and why—and then stop and smell the flowers. “
In 1979 when I wrote this, ice cream was $.30, movies $4, gas $.86 per gallon, rents as cheap as $125 per month split three ways with roommates and as noted, the San Francisco Muni bus $.25. In 2022, ice cream is $4.00 a scoop, movies $15, gas $6.86 per gallon, rents for a single studio $2200 per month and Muni $3. The pace of change keeps accelerating so an i-Phone two years old is already obsolete. Our skills at skating on the slippery ice of rapid change are diminished and many simply choose to cling to a pole of fundamentalist thinking or conspiracy theory with their assault rifle at their side.
I believe that the planned obsolescence that contributes to rapid change, our historical obsession with “progress” and addiction to the new and different, our fixation with more and more and more is something we could reconsider. High stability means low anxiety and that is a healthier state of affairs. Building things to last that are capable of repair, keeping joyful traditions alive, while also fresh and new (the territory I helped create and defend at my school), shifting our hunger for the new from things to art, learning to live with less and appreciate that which is perpetually renewable— gardens, music, child-raising, etc — would all steer us away from the anxiety that not only spawns fundamentalism and delusion, but also feeds depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, all those things that cripple our capacity to love, savor and protect life.
But slowing the rate of change will take time. Meanwhile, let’s improve our skating skills, peel ourselves away from those rigid poles of fear that paralyze us and learn how to negotiate the slippery ice of our modern times.