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In a meandering way, I’m exploring the role of our worldview in creating trauma, and the role of trauma in creating our human predicament. My last article looked at how our belief that we are separate individuals contributes to violence, war and other traumas. Today, I want to continue this exploration by looking at the importance of our ideas about the meaning and purpose of life.
The following is another extract from my article on Worldview and Peace written for the journal Dialogue and Alliance published by the Inter Religious Federation for World Peace.
Science and atheistic humanism tell us that life is a meaningless accident in a purposeless universe. The cosmos is seen as a lifeless, mindless machine with every object and event determined by chains of physical cause and effect. Life evolved by chance through processes that are driven by aggressive competition for survival. Mind and consciousness are mere by-products of complex material systems with no independent existence. There is no life force, no soul or spirit, no God. There is nothing beyond death.
Capitalism presents a similarly bleak vision. Its purpose is endless growth of economic activity without regard to its non-monetary costs and benefits, the quality of life, human welfare and happiness, or its impacts on nature. A mother who stays home to raise her children contributes nothing to GNP, but if she goes out to work both her wages and the cost of childcare are counted. GNP rises when money is spent to clean up industrial pollution, or to fight crime and drug addiction caused by social breakdown, or to treat ill-health caused by stress.
The drive for material growth ignores the fact that nothing can grow forever without limits. When cells in our bodies lose their self-limiting mechanism, they become cancerous and eventually destroy us. The human race, with our ever-rising numbers and per capita demands, already absorbs more than half of all nature’s production, leaving insufficient to sustain the natural systems that sustain us. We have become a cancer on the face of the Earth, and are in danger of destroying our own home. Paradoxically, our greatest hope for the future lies in the crisis of climate change which may yet shock us into collective action before it is too late.
Capitalism sees the meaning and purpose of life as ever-increasing consumption of goods and services rather than in relationship, community, artistic creativity, or spirituality. But the satisfactions of consumption are transient. Like a drug, each fix soon wears off and we need more. Material wants are insatiable because they mask the enduring emptiness and inner hunger of life rather than fulfilling it.
Our culture leaves us, as individuals, to discover or create our own deeper meaning and purpose rather than providing a secure philosophical and psychological basis for existence. Given this situation, is it any wonder that so many people succumb to despair, depression, apathy, alienation and anomie, or fill the existential void with hedonism, sex, drugs or retail therapy? Is it any wonder that so many are being drawn to fundamentalisms and cults that bring meaning and certainty to life? Is it any wonder that young people find a sense of belonging and a kind of love in street gangs? Is it any wonder that many react with anti-social behaviour, aggression and violence against the black joke the cosmos and society has played on us?
The nearest western civilization comes to a sense of purpose is the ideal of progress. Belief in the possibility of a better future, was stronger in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than now. Two world wars and countless lesser conflicts, the nuclear age and the era of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, the rise of international terrorism and the looming crisis of climate change have sapped our confidence. When I was young, in the 1960’s, we faced the prospect of nuclear annihilation and global hunger, but it was still possible to believe we could save the world.
Today, faith in progress is much harder to sustain, and emphasis has shifted to the less inspiring goal of sustainability and security against crime, terrorism, resource scarcity and environmental destruction. In their drive for security, the rich nations are becoming ever more aggressive both towards other nations and their own citizens. We are destroying our own freedoms, and violating our own rights due to irrational, faceless terrors. And rather than examining inner causes, we are projecting our problems outwards onto other nations and religions, creating enemies in our minds and in fact. Terrorism is the harvest from seeds we have sown.
Progress and security are goals that keep us focused on the future; on a time when things will be better if not perfect; when poverty, disease and violence will be banished, and peace and harmony will reign. We feed this yearning for a better future by perpetually forecasting and planning, and, paradoxically, by gazing in the rear-view mirror to see where we have been. We plot trends of every imaginable statistic to see if we are indeed making progress, and we take great interest in the lessons of history as guides to the future. We behave similarly in our personal lives, always imagining that things will be better when we have the latest gadget, another qualification, promotion at work, a new partner, more money … And always dwelling on past trauma, regret and guilt.
However, as Eckart Tolle argues in "The Power of Now", this focus on past and future is a root cause of our violent civilization. By nursing painful memories, we feed the desire for personal vengeance. History keeps alive ethnic and racial memories of past wrongs that often explode into fresh violence, thus feeding a perpetual vicious cycle. Similarly, violence often arises from desires or fears for the future. The Vietnam war was sparked by fear of future expansion by China. Intervention in Iraq was due as much to the desire for secure oil supplies as by fear of WMDs.
Living so much in the past and future prevents us, individually and as a culture, from living fully in the present. Yet this is the only time we actually have, as all major religions have proclaimed. The Buddha taught that the root of suffering lies in constant wanting and craving. And Jesus urged us to take no thought for tomorrow, and to learn from the example of the flowers and birds which are cared for by God.
Despite our cowboy ethic that peace grows out of the barrel of a gun, security cannot be gained by violence. Violence breeds violence. We can create peace and security only by accepting the feared stranger not just as our brother, but as part of our selves; by healing the pain and suffering; through love, trust, justice, understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness. Examples from many parts of the world show it is possible.
I concluded my last article with the image of a pendulum that has swung too far one way, and whose balance needs to be restored. In this case, perhaps one pole is unquestioning acceptance of the meaning and purpose of life as promulgated by religious authorities, and the other pole is reliance on individual exploration and discovery. In the last few centuries, the pendulum has swung from authority to individuality, and now perhaps needs to swing back towards the centre. What we need is a range of alternative, authoritative and reliable traditions from which individuals can choose on the basis of critical evaluation and resonance with their inner selves.