Shuck and Jive

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Meaning of Life, Part 30

The only certain thing about the coming century is its immense uncertainty. The great temptation of our time will be the impulse to flee from this uncertainty. Given the black-and-white propensity of Western minds, it will take conscious effort to resist taking refuge either in despair--in the conviction that "it's too late"--or in the alternative, to bask in groundless, sunny optimism that "we'll figure out something, because science always does." I have heard a great deal said about the importance of hope as the human prospect grows darker, but hope will sustain us only if it is clear-eyed....

....The flight from uncertainty into the arms of Providence, whether it is faith in a technological fix, deliverance by the invisible hand of markets, or the apocalyptic belief that human history is approaching its end, relieves us from the responsibility for the future and the obligation to make difficult choices, to act, and to shape the future as best we can for those making their way in the midst of what could be wild and calamitous change.

Human cultures have found ways before to confront the essential uncertainty of existence without taking refuge in escapism. The ancient civilizations of the Near East--the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, and the Vedic Indians--shared a sense that the cosmos, the order of the world, was always threatened by chaos and always would be. The drama of existence unfolds through the never-ending struggle, but the world nevertheless goes on. This ongoing struggle, these myths tell us, lies at the heart of existence. There is no promise of an easy exit. Similarly, a friend shares stories fro her Navaho tribe that counsel against seeking an easy way. One does not expect life to be free of difficulty and sorrow.

"Societies founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life," observes John Gray, the British historian. "We have been reared on religions and philosophies that deny the experience of tragedy." I think he is right when he concludes: "The good life is not found in dreams of progress, but in coping with tragic contingencies." P. 250-1.

Dianne Dumanoski -- The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth

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