People think that philosophy is about pondering, and ideally answering, questions like the following ones: Does life have meaning? What…
Think, for a moment, of who you are today, right now, reading this wherever you are – waiting in an airport, sprawled across a couch, shoulder to shoulder on your way to work. For just a moment, think about your life – your joys and disappointments, how things are or how they could have been, how happy or sad you are with everything, or somewhere in-between.
Now imagine yourself five years from now – what you’re doing, where you live, who you’re with. Chances are you don’t imagine being exactly the same person in exactly the same circumstances five years into the future. Chances are you imagine things are better somehow: you’re driving a better car, making better money, in a better relationship, looking and feeling better.
We want to believe that everything about our lives can change, will change for the better. That’s our idea of progress. That’s our idea of growth.
These ideas didn’t evolve in a vacuum. They’re culturally derived and part of our mental landscape – scenery we see every day and don’t think about too much. But what if these ideas of progress and growth aren’t serving us any more, and what if alternate ideas are available for us to explore and adopt?
Progress, in the West, means more satisfaction for whatever it is that ails us, and what ails us is usually personal; we’re mostly interested in what’s better for us and ours. There’s always more progress to be made no matter where we are on the ladder to the top. We like to think our lives can expand along with the eternally expanding universe. If we’re not making progress, we’re stagnating – and stagnant pools are dull, stale, brackish. Stagnant, in fact, is pretty much the opposite of how we’d like to think of ourselves: fresh! bright! dynamic! Absolute progress doesn’t interest us either. It’s relative progress we’re after: we’re really doing better when we’re doing better than the next person.
In the West, progress occurs when the economy grows, and the economy is said to be growing when the value of a country’s economic output (its Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) goes up. When GDP rises, so the story goes, your country’s income per person is going up, your standard of living is going up, and your children will enjoy a better lifestyle than you do. Yes, non-economic growth matters too, but as the story has it, it’s economic growth that lets us pay for non-economic realms that matter to us – things like health care, education, public libraries, the arts, social programs, and safety nets.
Of course, that’s not quite the whole story. Plenty of people have pointed out that the benefit of economic growth depends on exactly what it is that’s growing. If a factory dumps its waste in a river and other companies get hired to clean up the mess, that spike in clean-up sales increases the GDP and grows the economy – so although your standard of living may technically be going up, your quality of life, as measured by the murky water in your drinking glass, is not. (That kind of scenario, by the way, happened in 2010, when JPMorgan Chase bank analysts suggested the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico grew the U.S. economy by increasing GDP slightly since roughly 4,000 people would be hired for clean-up efforts estimated to be worth $3 to $6 billion.)
So what’s a citizen of the West to do? What alternatives are there to these ideas of growth and progress that embody an economic, individualistic, better-at-all-costs-but-it’s-never-enough orientation to the world?
One alternative is to think about how growth and progress happen in the garden. Seeds, planted deliberately or drifting randomly, lie dormant and unheralded until just the right conditions exist, and then? They self-annihilate, rooting into the dark and stretching up to the light, breaking open until their original form is totally unrecognisable. Seeds mature into impossibility, the way a single tiny tomato seed ends up being the unlikely packaging for a two-metre tomato plant. Seeds surprise us.
Seed growth is a version of what renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell called the hero’s journey – a dangerous adventure with no rules and no security. The journey begins with the call to cross from the external to the internal world. If you refuse the adventure, life dries up. But if you answer the call, psychologically you pass from the realm of conscious intention into energies that move from another centre, that of the unconscious; physically you move into a field of action you know nothing about, where for better or worse anything can happen. In that new realm, you search for what was lacking in the place you came from. Once you’ve found it, you complete your journey by bringing the found ‘gift’ back to the community, renewing the external world with the flow of life. That’s seed progress.
But this ‘return’ poses a problem. Your adventure isn’t complete until you’ve made it back, but the world won’t always know it needs the profound ‘realisation’ you’re returning with. How do you react if you’re met with a cool reception? You might say, “Forget it, why bother with the world? I’m going to be a hermit,” which Campbell calls a refusal of the return. You might say, “OK, what do they want? I’ll give it to them,” which Campbell calls a renunciation of what you’ve learned in exchange for a public career. Another option, Campbell says, is to find some part of the realm to which you’ve returned that can receive a little bit of what you have to give.
That last option takes courage because the world isn’t necessarily going to agree with or even acknowledge the ‘realisation’ you’re bringing back. Yet in order for the world to be renewed, we need people to keep putting forward such alternative ideas. Author Doris Lessing suggested that the future of everybody depends on strengthening those individuals who are able to resist following the pack, and then educating our children to become those people themselves.
So think again of who you are today, right now, reading this wherever you are. And think again of what your life could look like five years from now. Will you pursue an economic, never-ending version of making things better for you and yours, or will you risk going underground, answering the call to your own true adventure?
In the end, both options claim, “This is growth, this is progress.”
But only one refreshes you, along with the rest of us.