Who inspires the West

As a Dutchman, visiting Australia and other Western countries regularly, it strikes me how we are all taken by the same fear and discontent. Only a few decades ago, after the fall of communism, we celebrated our First World victory with uncut triumphalism. Today, it easily feels as if we are on the losing end of history and living in a world that isn’t ‘ours’ anymore.

Not a misplaced sentiment, as until recently the world was ‘ours’ indeed. For centuries we did not hesitate to exercise our military and economic power to acquire the best deals and most lucrative businesses. The result was an unprecedented wealth and a job security we happily got used to. But things are changing. New powers are reshuffling the cards dramatically, national affairs are being overruled by global affairs, old certainties are becoming uncertain, and even democracy, this flagship of the West, is facing growing competition from authoritarian regimes.

We live in stormy times, no doubt. And this is the inevitable question in a storm: will our body or our spirit take over? Do we allow ourselves to slip into the survival mode of an animal? Or do we have the resilience to stick to the ways of a reasonable and compassionate human being?

If the latter: who will lead? And if less and less people listen to pastors, priests and politicians: who will fill the gap? You and me, perhaps?

Allow me to describe three features of the storm that is hitting us, and a few ways to take an inspiring stand in it.

Three features of the storm
For the first time in 5000 years, the whole world needs to work together to get the whole planet in order. Issues like climate change, cyber threats, terrorism, trafficking, slavery, pandemics or nuclear threats can only be solved if countries closely cooperate. This contains also some good news: reality demands that we overcome our differences. The current trend, however, is in the opposite direction towards nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia. And the only leaders who can actually fix the planet are the ones elected to defend the self-interest of their country. A group of legitimate egoists is supposed to seek the greater good. No reason (yet) to prepare for the apocalypse, but no reason for blind optimism either.

For the first time in 500 years, the West needs to share its power and wealth with the rest. Precisely when the world is reorganising itself on an unprecedented scale, the West is losing its grip on it. A most inconvenient coincidence. Western citizens call upon their leaders to restore the securities of the past. But the politicians are in an impossible position: on the one hand they are held accountable for the well-being of their nation, on the other hand this well-being is more and more dependent on issues they do not control (like climate change or the world economy). Some flex their rhetorical muscles: just close the curtains and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t count. But the issues turn out to be more obstinate than any country put first.

For the first time in 50 years, Westerners need a Grand Narrative to be resilient again. For decades we could afford abandoning all the religious and ideological perspectives that used to give us hope and consolation. For decades, the old Narratives could not offer us something better than we already had. But now, as our grip on things is loosening, we realise that we have very little to gain and so much to lose. Feelings of insecurity kick in, requiring a new resilience. And resilience is precisely what we lack in the West. Even though we are still quite able to be happy when things go well, we are the first to get anxious and depressed when things go wrong.

In the past, many would take comfort and courage from the hope for a communist revolution, others would focus on heavenly happiness in the afterlife, and still others would await the Messianic age on earth. Whatever Narrative people embraced, it gave them a joint strength to bite the bullet. In our time only one gospel dominates: “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” A great pep talk to get us out of bed. But it leaves us empty-handed when we cannot control our life any more. The current storm confronts us precisely with the latter. Many issues have grown too big to be solved by a single human or even a single nation. If we don’t invest in some resilience, our mental and emotional empty-handedness may turn out to be very costly (if not dangerous) for Western societies and beyond.

Seven inspiring stands
What inspires in stormy times? Not a lot of talking, but people living what they believe in. What makes their lives inspiring? Seven stands, I would say.

  1. Stay calm. Inspiring people have the strength to control their fear and discontent. They don’t panic or give up in a storm, but keep looking for creative and lasting solutions.
  2. Stay compassionate. Inspiring people are stronger than their biological self-defence mechanisms. Rather than spending all their energy on saving themselves, they have the strength to look around in a storm and care for the ones who are hit the most.
  3. Stay hopeful. In whatever secular or religious form, inspiring people don’t lose the ability to have faith in the future. They keep communicating in their words and actions that this world is worth investing in.
  4. Stay visionary. Inspiring people withstand short-sighted answers to fear and discontent. They seek the well-being of the entire planet and all nations, rather than pursuing a protection and expansion plan for their tribe only.
  5. Stay stubborn. Inspiring people withstand social pressure and stick to what they believe in and who they believe in. Consistency and loyalty turns them into beacons of hope and direction for others.
  6. Stay human. Inspiring people bridge the social gaps in society by being human among humans, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or gender.
  7. Stay joyful. Inspiring people keep celebrating the good things in life. They don’t deny what is wrong, but hold on to a sense of gratitude for anyone or anything that points them to the gift of life. Fear and discontent are contagious, but inspiring people know: so is joy. Whatever the moods and whims of a nervous society, inspiring people continue to build a spirited counter-movement of hope- and compassion carriers that can take us through the storm. Who is in?

How cities changed our spirituality

Once, we were all hunters and gatherers. Then we started developing agriculture and domesticating animals. Some of us turned into pastoral nomads, moving livestock between pastures. Others turned into farmers, cultivating fields. Then the urbanites appeared, doing everything but producing food (13 May 2012).

Those who ended up in cities had to organize themselves in new ways, as the old ways of running society didn’t suffice any longer. Innovations occurred with a profound impact on people’s spirituality. Here are two of these revolutionary changes in society:

Conflict control – from nomadic blood ties to urban law enforcement
As all the members of a nomad group belonged to the same tribe, it was in their common interest to end internal conflicts as soon as possible. Any revenge or escalation of violence within the group would only diminish their own survival chances. Most issues could therefore be resolved quite peacefully. The traditional Indian approach was to discuss the issue until consensus was achieved.

In sharp contrast to this stood the city with its many different tribes. When these tribes clashed, blood ties could no longer inhibit the escalation of violence. In order to resolve urban conflicts, a third party was needed, one with the authority to adjudicate and with a monopoly on violence. The judge appeared, and to avoid controversial verdicts that would only provoke new conflicts, laws were carved in stone. Whoever violated these laws would face another urban invention: law enforcers.

All very understandable, even unavoidable, these urban innovations. But the fact remained that the communal self regulation of tribes was replaced by laws and law enforcers. Relational solutions had to make way for legal solutions. And it wasn’t always obvious that laws and rulers served the interests of the entire community. Endless fights occurred between those who thought it right to enforce the law and those who thought it right to break the law. New forms of spirituality were needed to enhance the arrival of righteous laws and law-abiding citizens. And it still took many more centuries before one powerful idea, the idea of democracy, would finally convince sufficient citizens to combine the necessity of laws and rulers with the good of communal self regulation.

Solidarity – from family duty to religious and legal duty
Some quotations from Stephen Sachs about leadership and solidarity in traditional Indian tribes:

Leaders (who have mistakenly been called “chiefs”) functioned primarily as facilitators, consensus builders, and announcers of decisions. In general, they had little or no decision making power of their own, though usually they had influence. They were chosen for positions of leadership on the basis of their high moral character and ability to represent the people and lead in the long term interests of the community as a whole. (..) Culturally, people believed in, and related on the basis of, mutual respect, identifying with the band or tribe as an extended family, in which members supported each other in their individual endeavors to the extent that they did not contradict the common good, while they collaborated out of mutual interest and a strong sense of shared consensus. (..) At the same time, economically, as well as socially, the structure of living caused people to need each other’s support, while economic power was at least not so concentrated as to upset egalitarian relations, and was most often broadly dispersed in economies based upon reciprocity (..). Thus, by developing cooperation and a sense of unity through honoring diversity on the basis of mutual respect, these communities usually maintained a very high quality of life.

What a contrast between this servant leadership, solidarity and mutual respect among the members of nomadic tribes, and the oppression and exploitation that seems almost inextricably connected to the rise of urban societies. But let’s not rush towards moral qualifications. Let’s first recall that cities became the habitat of many different tribes. As these tribes were focused first of all on their own survival, conflicts would usually end with winners and losers – meaning that one family would turn into a dynasty of rulers and the others would have to settle with being subjects or slaves. New forms of spirituality were needed to rediscover and redefine the value of brotherhood, of equality, solidarity and mutual respect beyond ethnic borders. And it still took many more centuries before one powerful idea, the idea of human rights, provided a legal basis for egalitarian relations and community-based leadership.

We city-dwellers can easily marvel at the social and natural harmony of nomadic tribes. Romantic Hollywood productions like “Dances with Wolves” (1990) and “The New World” (2005) make us sometimes yearn for that which we lost in the city and never fully found again. Urban life has put us on a long journey towards a new understanding and embrace of brotherhood and solidarity. And yes, we did make progress, thanks to the idea of democracy and human rights. But it seems the search isn’t over. Precisely in the most democratic societies, loneliness and individualism have become major issues. It seems we need more than democracy and human rights to fully enjoy brotherhood again.

An artist’s impression of civilization in 400 video clips

Civilization by Marco Brambilla from CRUSH on Vimeo.

Civilization is a video installation created in 2008 by CRUSH and artist/director Marco Brambilla for the elevators of Standard Hotel in NYC. It’s comprised of over 400 video clips and it takes elevator passengers on a trip from hell to heaven as they go up or from heaven to hell as they go down. It took a team of around 8 people roughly 6 months to complete this video installation. Pictures of the installation and Q&A with Brambilla and Crush are posted here: glossyinc.com/civilization.html.