By Liza Field
In all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion . . . return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right.
– Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy (c. 1450)
So 2012 is gone. What’s next?
“I can’t bring back a future for those little kids,” a fellow teacher said with dismay, after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
Three of us were climbing the stairwell at our own school, discussing it. Along with the loss of any child, we regretted, went a grownup life that would never unfold.
“But I can make better use of my own adulthood,” the colleague said. “They didn’t get to.”
The other teacher, a biologist, nodded. “Maybe if we grownups grew up, more children would get to. Many generations ahead.”
I thought about it as 2012 waned.
The first dozen years of the millennium had been riddled with predictions that there’d be no “generations ahead” – or at least not any happy ones. Everything would end or regress – thanks to Y2K collapse, terrorism, 2011 rapture dates or the 2012 doomsday.
Therefore, why bother to “save the world”?
I heard various anti-regulatory spokespersons, like Jerry Falwell and Chuck Colson, ask this on Christian radio. They pointed to ecological disasters – drought, fire, famine, bizarre storms – as God’s warnings of the end times.
Instead of focusing on Earth like the misguided tree-huggers, we should look up to Heaven, prepared to get out of here.
Indeed, Dr. Falwell departed in 2007, Colson in 2012.
But you and I, dear reader, remain for an unknown, precious bit of time, our planetary troubles intact.
This is great news! Having run out of predicted end times, after all, why not make 2013 a beginning time?
We could move from our species’ youthful stage of escapism, fatalism and destruction, toward a grownup stage of wisdom while we do have time.
This goal is quite ancient. It’s been the task of rare sages, saints, philosophers and tribal elders through the ages.
Today, however, scientists and psychologists from all quarters have noted that the crises of our day call for a consciousness leap – in many humans, not just the rare few.
We, as the most-evolved organism, are now largely steering the planetary ship. It would help if we could see.
Integral philosopher Ken Wilber, longtime researcher in consciousness-growth, says that humankind hasn’t progressed far in moral wisdom, but we’ve highly developed our tools and toys. Resource mining, technology and destructive weapons are now accessible to the wise and childish alike.
With no corresponding wisdom-growth, we’re en route to depleting the planet’s life.
How, then, does human consciousness grow?
From self-interest outward, say cognitive-development researchers. Care and action for those beyond oneself both stimulate and indicate intelligence.
The toddler, appropriately, cares about self.
Some people move beyond this “egocentric” to a conformist, “ethnocentric” stage, identified with a limited clan, a social or religious or political club.
A smaller percentage of persons grow from here to identify themselves with humankind, everywhere, then include the living world, even the universe we are part of and whose own growth we’re helping to decide. Each stage brings a bigger, more accurate view.
Most of the world’s population remains at an ethnocentric stage or lower, Wilber assesses. But current planetary crises call for our growth to “world care” levels of consciousness or beyond.
How to achieve it? Fortunately, nature’s own way of evolving offers a good model.
Biologists are finding that species who benefit their larger ecosystems, throughout planetary history, are the ones who tend to evolve. After all, they end up in a more flourishing, cooperative community. Nobody wins by destroying their own dwelling place.
Aristotle figured this out, more than 2,300 years ago. This Greek sage realized that everything existed to serve the greater good, automatically. It was programmed into all species.
But humans were the one “thoughtful animal,” able to see the big picture and choose – consciously – whether to act for its good or mere self-interest. Choosing universal good, Aristotle figured, was our uniquely high-level purpose in the cosmos.
Therefore, it was in our interest, and our only route to real happiness, he perceived, to accept our enormous, adult role and enact it daily. He figured “the mass of men” didn’t.
Back then, of course, human powers over the world were minimally developed. Unhappy, small-minded activity wasn’t capable of wrecking the entire planet. Today, it is.
That’s why 2013 offers a terrific opportunity for our kind to grow up.
The bad news is, we have to. The good news is, we’re here to.
Nothing else, old Aristotle said, will ever make us happy. And happy people want the world to live – not end.
Liza Field teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor’s School and Wytheville Community College. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.