It was never the case, at least not in the modern world. Outside a few. Outside a few lone souls, able to live on grass and berries. Able to hunt and gather, make their own shelters, their own clothes, treat themselves when they got sick. Pull their own teeth. Make and fix their own modest tools. Having next to no layers between themselves and the earth. Right there. Being there always. Right on top of the earth, like mother and child.
And they better be beyond lucky. They better not fall and break their ankles, legs, hit their heads, catch pneumonia or worse. They better, in a word, or two, or three, stay perfectly healthy. It was never the case, outside those rare few souls.
Humans are social animals. We need one another, obviously. And in the modern world, the degree of need and interconnection is beyond complex, far beyond ancient ideas of kin and village, with steeper hierarchies today than in any past worlds, arranged for us, not by us, prefabbed for us in ways both artificial and arbitrary — Potemkin-like — it’s a wonder this isn’t foremost in our thoughts at all times, as we make our way through life.
It is true that we brought some of this dependency on ourselves, as we spun out in all directions, expanded our sense of what was important to us, our sense of what we need each day, which meant a removal from the first ground of our being, a removal from the earth and any chance we may have had to truly be self-reliant to a point. Even back then, even at the dawn of things, it wasn’t possible, except for those rare few. We listened too much to Sirens. We listened too much to ghosts in three piece suits.
We gave in. We gave up. Division of labor, division of expertise, division of the spoils, the allocation of resources decided by the few for the many. Those Sirens and those ghosts. We’re close now to peak dependence, at the same time our personal agency, our personal control over our own destinies, may well be at an all time low. May well be peak inverse.
Year by year, generation after generation, we’ve been led down a pathway toward an existential crisis, a series of these crises, an acceleration of that series, for a host of reasons and rationales. But if we need to boil all of that down to just one, to just one reason why, to just one answer voice cause meaning provocation, it’s money. It’s “I think therefore I buy.” For much of humanity, possibly most, almost all, our management of our consumer choices, our thinking through what, when and where we buy things . . . inanimate objects . . . stuff . . . makes us who we think we are, and this, in our mind’s eye, makes us believe we’re self-reliant. Because we can. Because we can buy stuff.
Not make it, grow it, maintain it, fix it, replenish it. Buy it. But in the Age of Pandemics, we’re quickly learning we can’t necessarily do or count on that any longer, and it’s time to ask ourselves why and how and beyond just that. It’s time to question the system we inherited and its effects, the one that spun us out this far from our home in the first place.
Kobe Bryant’s passing, at 41, is a tragedy, as are the deaths of his daughter, Gianna, just 13, and the seven others on board that helicopter. Millions across the globe have been impacted by this, perhaps especially the generation that grew up along with Kobe, watching his evolution into one of the NBA’s all-time greats. His peers in the game of basketball have spoken out, too, some tearfully, and it’s apparent they honestly grieve this loss.
My own reactions were heightened by seeing the reactions of others, the human family in moments most unguarded. There is something profoundly beautiful and moving in our ability to openly weep for others, to care inwardly and outwardly for persons we don’t even know. Alone. Together. In public and private. In joy and sorrow we are bridges to one another. We are bridges.
How many times have people wondered to themselves or aloud, after reading, say, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, why can’t we heed its lessons throughout the year? The death of a beloved public figure, and the reactions to these losses, make me wonder something similar: Why can’t humans maintain that immediate emotion of oneness with both the object of loss and those sharing that emotion? Why can’t we see one another in the light of our mortality, always? In the light that burns out for all of us, sooner or later?
I imagine there are some who can. Who have. Who will in the future. But they’re rare breeds, and so scattered they form no critical mass, or even a small crowd. Too difficult for us? To feel this way, week after week, month after month, year after year . . . Probably.
Not too long ago, I read a stunningly profound book, by Martin Hagglund, which explicates one possible road toward getting there. I’ll save a full review for the future, but, suffice it to say, I highly recommend Hagglund’s book.
His key insight, perhaps, is that we should build societies based on our mortality, on the realization of our radically limited time on this earth, and do everything in our power to make sure everyone — as in, everyone — has the best possible chance to make the most of their time, their lives, as they dream they should be. Artists, poets, musicians, novelists, and more than a few mystics, have long fought for the idea of living life to the fullest, and showed us why (countless times) this was so critically important. But the artist as seer, as visionary, tends not to speak in terms of systems, at least not through their creative work. Hagglund, as a philosopher, writing a non-fiction, book-length essay, can travel roads (in this case) most creatives typically avoid.
Here’s a clip from the book, focusing on, in this case, C.S Lewis grieving over his wife, Helen Joy Davidman :
Perhaps the next great step for Homo Sapiens will be to find a way to at least start that journey, one that heeds emoted insights from thousands of great works of art, and visionary builders of systems too. Both/And.