As another calendar year draws to a close, normality as we know it is coming unhinged. For the last few years it has been possible for most people (at least the relatively privileged) to believe that society is sound; that the system, though creaky, basically works and that the progressive deterioration of everything from ecology to economy is a temporary deviation from the evolutionary imperative of progress.
We are entering a time of great uncertainty. Institutions so enduring as to seem identical to reality itself may lose their legitimacy and dissolve. The social and environmental horrors likely to be committed could incite massive civil disobedience and possibly disorder. It may seem that the world is falling apart. At such moments, it is a normal response to find someone to blame, as if identifying fault could restore the lost normality, and to lash out in anger. Hate and blame are convenient ways of making meaning out of a bewildering situation.
Anyone who disputes the blame narrative may receive more hostility than the opponents themselves, as in wartime when pacifists are more reviled than the enemy. Racism and misogyny are devastatingly real in our world, but to blame bigotry and sexism for the repudiation of the establishment is to deny the validity of our deep sense of betrayal and alienation. It does violence to the truth. Such is the cost of preserving a dying story. That is one reason why paroxysms of violence so often accompany a culture-defining story’s demise.
The dissolution of the old order that is now officially in progress, is going to intensify. That presents a tremendous opportunity and danger, because when normality falls apart the ensuing vacuum draws in formerly unthinkable ideas from the margins. Anything becomes possible with the collapse of dominant institutions. When the animating force behind these new ideas is hate or fear, all manner of nightmares can ensue, whether enacted by existing powers or those that rise against them.
That is why, as we enter a period of intensifying disorder, it is important to introduce a different kind of force to animate the structures that might appear after the old ones crumble. We call it love. So, let’s start with empathy. Empathy is akin to solidarity, born of the understanding that we are all in this together. In what together? For starters, we are in the uncertainty together. We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. Some may cling to it all the more desperately as it dissolves, but what’s done is done.
We as a society are entering a space between stories; in which everything that had seemed so real, true, right and permanent comes into doubt. For a while, segments of society have remained insulated from this breakdown (whether by fortune, talent, or privilege), living in a bubble as the containing economic and ecological systems deteriorate. But, not for much longer. Not even the elites are immune to this doubt. They grasp at straws of past glories and obsolete strategies; they create perfunctory and unconvincing shibboleths, and they have no idea what to do next. When even the custodians of the story no longer believe the story, we know its days are numbered.
We are entering a space between stories. After various retrograde versions of a new story rise and fall and we enter a period of true unknowing, an authentic next story will emerge. A story that will ask: “What would it take to embody love, compassion and inter-being?” We see its lineaments in those marginal structures and practices that we call holistic, alternative, regenerative and restorative. All of them source from empathy, the result of the compassionate inquiry: “What is it like to be you?”
It is time now to bring this question, and the empathy it arouses, into our social discourse as a new animating force. If you are appalled at the current situation, and feel the call of hate, perhaps try asking yourself: “What is it like to be a hated person?” Ask it not with a patronizing condescension, but for real, looking underneath the stereotype to find the real person. Even if the person you face appears hateful, ask: “Is this who they are, really?” We hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not know. Let’s not make our opponents invisible behind a caricature of evil.
What is beneath the hate in our world? Why do we dehumanize each other? Hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When we lose the hate, we are forced to deal with the pain beneath. This pain is fundamentally the same pain that animates moral superiority. We need to stop acting as if we are better than others, no matter how broken they appear to be. We are all victims of the same world-dominating system, suffering different mutations of the same wound of separation. We live in a civilization that has robbed nearly all of us of deep community, intimate connection with nature, unconditional love, freedom to explore the kingdom of childhood and so much more.
The acute trauma endured by the incarcerated, the abused, the raped, the trafficked, the starved, the murdered and the dispossessed does not exempt the perpetrators. We feel it in a mirror image, adding damage to our souls atop the damage that compels violence. Thus, it is that suicide is the leading cause of death in the military. Thus, it is that addiction is rampant among the police. Thus, it is that depression is epidemic in the upper middle class. Something hurts in there. Yet, we are all in this together. One earth, one tribe, one people.
We have entertained teachings like these long enough in our spiritual retreats, meditations and prayers. Can we now take them into the world and create an eye of compassion inside the hate vortex? It is time to do it, time to up our game. It is time to stop feeding hate. Next time we speak, can we check our words to see if they smuggle in some form of hate: dehumanization, belittling, derision... some invitation to take an ‘us versus them’ approach. Notice how it feels good to do that. And, notice what hurt still lies underneath.
This does not mean to withdraw from the social conversation, but to rewrite its vocabulary. It is to speak hard truths with love. It is to offer acute analysis that doesn’t carry the implicit message of: “Aren’t those people horrible?” Such analysis is rare. Sometimes, our evangelizing compassions veer into passivity. We need to confront an unjust, ecocidal system. Each time we do, we can stare hate in the face and never waver. We will access inexhaustible tools of creative engagement; and hold a compelling invitation to the haters to fulfill their beauty.