“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities—brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”John W. Gardner
“We need not only a purpose in life to give meaning to our existence but also something to give meaning to our suffering.”Eric Hoffer
“paradigm n. 1. a typical example or pattern; a model. 2. a mode of viewing the world which underlies the theories and methodology of science etc. in a particular period of history.”The Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002
Paradigms do not die easily for any of us. Every people and culture in history has had and has its ruling paradigms. We are acculturated to believe that the world and cosmos work according to this common understanding of reality. Families and communities operate within the shared paradigm of a clan, a nation and a civilization. Some local expressions may deviate to a degree, but on the whole are rooted in the bigger picture.
In the 21st Century, the overarching Western (and, to a large degree, global) paradigm is scientific, technological, and evolutionary. This tells us that all things can be learned and understood, formed, reformed, fixed, and improved by Science and its applied side, Technology. The downside is that those two demi-gods can just as easily be turned to evil and destructive ends as used for good.
Western humans entertain a sort of self-hypnosis that we can and will master nature, compel it to do our bidding, because, tiny on the cosmic scale as we are, we are smart, really smart! We can learn everything we need to because we are so smart. We apparently are in the process of uncovering the very secrets of the Universe Itself – its when, what, and how at least. Our current paradigm mostly sloughs off the why and who and makes the where irrelevant.
A near synonym for paradigm is worldview. We all have one. Worldview is a broader concept than paradigm because it takes in everything we believe, whether we are conscious of those beliefs or just operate from them without ever formulating them in so many words. Much of our worldview is simply absorbed from our infancy on, and perhaps even in the womb, but the human infant rapidly moves beyond mere instinctual responses to learn how things fit into its little world and how to begin manipulating aspects of that little world to satisfy its basic needs and begin using things. As we grow, huge new parts of our worldview are added by imitation, absorption, formal instruction, and experience.
Worldviews are not static structures within our psyche. Events and experiences constantly impact them and make us modify them on an ongoing basis. Big events, whether positive or negative, bring acute crises in our worldviews and challenges to our paradigms. An accumulation of small factors may also do this over time. This is true for everyone individually, and just as true for societies. Our responses to these crises reveal our fundamental character and direct our future course.
Our opening citations tell us that there are two basic responses to every major challenge – rise up to meet it as an opportunity to grow, or run and try to hide from things we can’t or won’t face up to. There are two variations available. First, a tactical withdrawal, as the military would put it. Draw back temporarily to regroup, to gain some time to reform the lines so that we can move forward later with a plan to meet the crisis and find and perhaps even exploit the hidden opportunity within it. The second is to bravely (or abjectly) surrender to fate and let disaster triumph.
We of the West in the early 21st Century are at a major crossroads. The crisis in our culture and souls has been growing for many decades until it is now screaming at us. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water being very gradually heated up, we have been ignoring its growth until it has become the elephant in the room. Every now and then it startles us with a resounding “BOOM!” We are briefly forced to come out of our stupor and self-absorbed quest to accumulate and satiate ourselves, but then hasten to “get back to normal”.
Think World War 1, the Great Depression, World War 2, the 60s Counterculture ferment, Civil Rights and race riots, 9/11, and even the economic meltdown of 2008. All everyone wanted after these times of turmoil was to somehow bury it all and get back to “personal peace and affluence” as Francis A. Schaeffer put it. We operate with an illusion that we deserve and can achieve something like Utopia via luxury, ease, and convenience. Discovering the world does not promise this, we seek to approximate it in our personal lives. Here in the West, we believe we deserve it, we are owed it.
Other civilizations seem to have kept a more balanced perspective. Buddha’s wisdom that “All life is suffering” guides hundreds of millions to understand that the kind of Utopia the West propagandizes is an illusion that just begets more suffering. Hinduism says “Amen” and offers eventual perfect unity with the One after multiple lifetimes of vain striving.
We of the West have taken the opposite tack and succumbed to a materialist worldview that tells us that the only version of Paradise is one to be found here in the one lifetime we know we have. Such a Paradise must perforce consist of maximum pleasure and comfort, for what else is there? You cannot offer people a vision of the future perfection of the human race as a substitute and expect them to sacrifice their own chance at some joy and contentment here and now in the name of evolution.
Ideology fills no heart’s void. It divides. Science in itself answers no ultimate questions. How does it help you even if it’s true that the Cosmos is 14 billion years old? Humanly, it’s meaningless to tell us that it will go on for another fifty billion years before it either implodes to start all over again, or just dissipates into a cold, dead, never-ending expanse.
We cannot avoid wanting “something to give meaning to our suffering”, as Hoffer says. Truly, existence without meaning is suffering at its worst – viz. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist classic, La Nausée. The need to know “Why?” ever haunts us, and the “Just because” of Evolution falls dead in our hearts. Even the hardest atheist hopes his/her life has meant something to someone. Humans are cursed with the terrible, tremendous, burning need for hope. We are bred to the bone with the aspiration to know the truth – about ourselves, about our earthly home, about this enormous reality called Cosmos.
Every child learning to discover knows in the gut that all this cannot be just a freak, a huge cosmic joke, a meaningless illusion that tricks us into believing it is here for a purpose, into which we fit somehow.
Despite more than a century of intellectualized propaganda that there’s really no meaning and that there is no Creator-Being behind it all, even most Westerners still stubbornly cling to the belief that there is such a Being, that it does mean something, and that we do have some unique place and role in it all, both as individuals and as a species. The very fabric of our being is formed to believe.
Hence the gnawing doubt that eats at our subconscious and keeps blowing on the smouldering wick/ “celestial spark” of conscience to annoy us and prick us and remind us that we have a moral obligation to seek justice and act humbly and do mercy to one another in the name of and in honour of that Creator who, it has long been said, made us in Their own image.
Hence the mostly sublimated but always-there suspicion that we really do need to repent! For something! Even when we find some good reason to, it’s never quite enough. The heart, mind, soul, and spirit still hunger for something deeper that the partial points to. For without turning to the Creator, there is no ultimate reconciliation possible, no final resting place to find. The still small voice thunders inside our deep of deeps, “Turn around! Turn back! The Kingdom of God is within, in that place of the broken Divine image waiting to be made whole again.”
TO BE CONTINUED