Image Source: Free Will Astrology.
Pessimism dominates the Millennial Zeitgeist. The thrill of predicting apocalypse is everywhere, whether you are an environmental activist, a light sweet crude oil trader or a religious eschatologist. After the stock exchange, one of the areas of our culture most devoted to predicting the future is astrology. Without discussing its credibility, one can find in astrology's popularity an index of our desire to read the signs and predict what is coming. It is a gauge of our interest in knowing time that is unknowable, and of how we try to know it.
The astrologer Rob Brezsny advocates optimism. To teach spirituality, he inverts beliefs we take for granted. A few years ago, he went out onto a freeway in California and gave away handfuls of money to passing motorists. This was his attempted karmic counter-balance to the greed of pre-Great Recession America. At the time, it looked crazy. But remember that Brezsny spends a lot of time thinking about the future. And in a way, what he did that day was a true indicator of what was coming. A Recession-ridden society is one forced to reevaluate its priorities and values, to give rather than take, to return to its roots.
Brezsny's optimism is a far cry from the bright eagerness of futurists like Ray Kurzweil, who hang their hopes on the Technological Singularity. Boomers both, still driven by the courage of their convictions as well as irrepressible confidence, it is Brezsny who appears far more attuned to the human side of massive change. One thing he argues is that we are living through the apocalypse right now. (Others think that the apocalypse has already happened and we are blindly toiling through the wreckage; in this view, World War I is often seen the turning point that changed everything.) In five years, or ten, or twenty, we will look back and say Brezsny was right, in the same way we might now say it, looking back on his antics on the motorway before the Great Recession. What does it mean if our world is on the verge of becoming 'post-apocalyptic' - and why should that be a good thing?
Der Totentanz (Danse Macabre or Dance of Death. Matthäus Merian. Image Source: Bavarian State Library via Biblio Odyssey.
Caption for the above image: Murals of the dance of death (danse macabre or totentanz) scenes were painted on walls in a church and a convent in Basel in the early to mid-1400s. They are important examples of the tradition since they are the link back to its medieval origins and also because they served as the inspiration for the classic iconography produced by Hans Holbein the Younger in his 'Imagines Mortis', first published in 1527. The murals were eventually destroyed and the most faithful reproductions of the figures in those scenes were said to have been engraved by native Basel artist, Matthäus Merian, for his 1621 book 'Todtentanz, Wie Derselbe..'. ... the first full version of this work was made available online recently by the Bavarian State Library.
Picking through the daily avalanche of information to find the thread that will make the stuff of mainstream history, the core narrative future people will tell themselves is the essence of what 'really happened' in our times, is nearly impossible. Yet there are plenty of people who are paid a lot of money, especially in the financial and commercial market research industries, to do that. For the most part, they are doom-sayers mobilized to drive home a miserable, self-fulfilling prophecy.
As I have mentioned before on this blog (here, here and here), visiting the oracle in Greek tales is a symbolic sign that the protagonist is in trouble. The regular reality the character trusts has come apart, and the hero is giving up control over what remains as a last resort in an effort to gain forbidden knowledge. Weirdly, the last stab at maintaining sanity and stability is heading over to the temple to read sacrificed bird entrails. We have reached that point. The Technological and Information Revolutions have upset regular reference points. Everything looks the same, yet is different. Over the past decade, this trend has been unsettling anyone sensitive to upheaval. And when the stock market failed, our usual oracles failed us.
This is the source of 'doom and gloom' culture. It is somewhat similar to the Medieval dances of death. Our obsession with zombies and vampires falls into that territory. These tropes fit well with the conviction, whether cultural, environmental, economic, political, religious, or purely metaphorical, that the forces of good and evil are locked in an ever-escalating conflict where there is no sure outcome, where evil may win.
Brezsny is one of few people who thinks otherwise. He feels we are "getting closer to waking up" and that "evil is boring." He has written a book about his ideas called Pronoia is the Antidote for Paranoia: "We're not looking for starry-eyed optimism and repressed boosterism. Pronoia is not boosterism for empty-brained people." He writes:
Brezsny has posted a link to a related initiative called Pronoia Resources, a site that doles out uplifting messages. Among these is a link to a TED video below, featuring a lecture by Harvard's Steven Pinker, originally entitled Everything You Know is Wrong (original link here)."In recent years, the doom and gloom prophets have become even more strident and brazen in blurting out their cacophony of curses. Joining them in the mad rush to shower condemnation on the entire human enterprise have been millions of emboldened everyday complainers who've also become addicted to the sick thrill of chronic rage.I'm sometimes tempted to view the growing hordes of fulminators as a black magic army flinging hexes and maledictions on everything they see.But whenever I brush up against that fear, I stop my mind from its careening and refocus my inner eyes. ... I soon realized that I was by no means a lone crank crying in the wilderness. I became aware of an ever-growing rebel crusade -- swarms of pilgrims and activists and artists and creative optimists who had signed on to the conspiracy to shower blessings, devoting themselves to the work of not just saving the world but making it more beautiful and mysterious and interesting.I wasn't under any illusion that they were suddenly arising because of my influence. Rather, my sense was that my book was just one symptom of an energy that was awakening in the whole world. I was a current in the flood."
Steven Pinker on the steady rise of civilization. Video Source: Youtube.
Caption for the above video: "Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. TEDTalks is a daily video podcast of the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world's leading thinkers and doers are invited to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes -- including speakers such as Jill Bolte Taylor, Sir Ken Robinson, Hans Rosling, Al Gore and Arthur Benjamin. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and TEDTalks cover these topics as well as science, business, politics and the arts. Watch the Top 10 TEDTalks on TED.com, at http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/top10."
So there it is. Today's wisdom, straight from California (which happens to be bankrupt - but never mind): Don't worry, it's all good.