When people think about the future, at least in many of the progressive circles that I move in, do you know what they think about? Gloom and doom. Generally, our collective future is imagined in relationship to many of the truly overwhelming global challenges that we're facing, like climate change, environmental degradation, overpopulation, the threat of terrorism, and of course, the financial crisis. The question on a lot of people's minds is, are we going to make it? What will happen to us if the planet really heats up and the polar icecaps melt and the oceans rise? What will happen to the biosphere when our increasing population growth becomes unsustainable? What can we do to prevent radical Islamist terrorists from eventually acquiring nuclear weapons? How will our financial system be able to survive an economic collapse in the Euro zone?
If only we could come together locally and globally to solve these enormous problems, we imagine, the future would appear to be much brighter than it looks right now. But I wonder...
Imagine for a moment that in fact we were able to come to terms with and triumph over these global crises. Imagine a world utterly free from these pressing problems. And then imagine your own life and the lives of your extended family, friends and acquaintances. Would it really be different? Would the deeper existential and spiritual challenges of the human experience be affected? I doubt it. We tend to think that once issues of survival and basic necessity are met, then all will be well. But it's simply not true.
I just got back from a lecture tour through northern Europe, where I was speaking to some of the luckiest people on the planet today. The standard of living in Sweden, Denmark and Holland is truly a marvel and testament to human progress and prosperity. The promise of the Western Enlightenment has reached its zenith in these countries where the rights, freedoms and privileges of the individual are historically unprecedented. Yet in spite of this, in my experience it is clear that in general the most fortunate among us are still quite lost when it comes to knowing what the next step is. In Scandinavia, it seems to me the majority of individuals are living the "good life" with shockingly little sense of their own good fortune. I go there every year and my consistent impression is that most people tend to be very busy with not much more than their personal lives.
As we endeavor to find solutions to the very important issues threatening our collective survival, we also simultaneously need to be concerned about the future of our shared culture. Highly educated, thoughtful, sensitive men and women are gradually becoming more and more aware of the fact nobody seems to know how human life is supposed to be lived in this second decade of the 21st century. That means the very structures that make up our shared culture, like our values, beliefs, customs and even personal aspirations, seem ever-more-oddly out of step with the reality of the fact that time is moving faster and faster and that we live in an era of exponential change. Indeed, it seems the world we live in is changing more quickly than our outdated world-views can keep up with. And that is creating cultural stagnation, both seen and unseen.
Most of our shared modern and postmodern values tell us that in spite of our unprecedented prosperity, the human experience is still essentially about competition, survival and, ideally, attaining wealth and comfort. But could that possibly still be true for those of us who've rarely missed a meal or seriously worried whether we were going to have a roof over our heads? I think not. And yet, in so many ways, we haven't caught up with our own good fortune. Most importantly, it hasn't dawned on us yet that even if the larger global challenges that we're facing were solved, we would still find ourselves in a cultural cul-de-sac in our personal and social lives.
Of course, it's critical that we face and respond to the overwhelming and very real challenges that threaten our survival. But to me it's equally critical that we ask, "Where are we going?" Once all of our survival needs have been met, what's the purpose, if there is any, of the human experience? In Scandinavia, for example, free time, the greatest gift of modernity, is now readily available to the multitudes. And yet most, it seems, aren't sure exactly what to do with it. Should I go to the gym, go for a walk in the park, read a book or go to the pub? Once we've acquired enough life experience to understand that romantic love, child-rearing, material abundance and even creative fulfillment don't necessarily solve the deepest questions of human meaning, what"s the next step? That's what I believe more of us need to be concerned about. What's the next step for you and me at the level of shared meaning and purpose? Who are we, why are we here, and most importantly, how should we make deeper sense out of the experience we're having right now and will be having five, 10 or 20 years from now?
I certainly wouldn't want to find myself in the painfully ironic position of waking up 50 years from now, and finding that as a result of technological innovation, we were on the other side of the biggest threats of the 21st century, and yet had still no idea about what we were supposed to be doing with our lives besides having a pleasant ride.
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This article was originally posted on Andrew Cohen's BigThink.com blog, "The Evolution of Enlightenment."