My Turn: Waiting on a new social mind

  • Children play on a playground in San Francisco on Dec. 26, 2016. Jean Stimmell

For the Monitor
Wednesday, December 13, 2017

In 1900, American historian Henry Adams wrote his prediction for the year 2000: “At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived in the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. The new American would need to think in contradictions. The new universe would know no law that could not be proved by its anti-law. It would require a new social mind.”

In part, Adams was right. We now control unlimited power and have invented many wonderful things – catnip to our never-ending quest for novelty and diversion. But we continue to be stymied in developing a new social mind.

In fact, it is quite the opposite: Politically and culturally, best exemplified by Donald Trump, we are regressing back to reciting simple truisms from the past to avoid dealing with the complexities of our new age.

Rather than dealing with contradictions by inclusion, embracing both/and, we have doubled down on the dichotomy of either/or. Abortion is either good or bad. The opposite political party is either good or bad. Immigration is either good or bad. The list goes on and on.

I see a parallel between our situation today and the story of the Tower of Babel, as told in Genesis 11:1-9: After the Great Flood, a united humanity, speaking a single language, came together and began work on a city and tower tall enough to reach heaven.

God became angry and put a stop to the project by scrambling their speech so they could no longer understand each other and scattered them around the world. According to scholars, God was not angry because they were building the tower but because they were becoming filthy rich, corrupt and idolatrous. Therefore, he knew that if allowed to work together, they could do much evil.

Thousands of years later, we have the scientific know-how and technology to actually reach the heavens. We have attained god-like powers that we could use to: protect our precious little planet Earth by switching to renewable resources to end pollution; use our amazing medical advances to ensure all Earth’s inhabitants have the opportunity to live a long life; distribute the plentitude of food we already grow so each of us has a fair share. In short, we have enough expertise and resources so that all of us could afford a life of dignity and comfort without degrading the environment.

Or, conversely, we could use our god-like powers to divide and destroy, as we are doing today, embroiled as we are in a succession or wars without end made worse by the darkening cloud of an impending nuclear holocaust as our leader and that of North Korea huff and puff. They are playing a childhood game of chicken, each threatening to annihilate the other’s country – and perhaps the world – in a blast of fire and fury.

Rather than moving forward together, united in speech and trusting in our common humanity, we fight among ourselves. We condemn the immigrant, whom all of us originally were, calling them “illegal aliens.” We condemn our neighbors who practice a different faith, belong to a different political party or come in a different color. Rather than cooperating with other countries, seeking common ground for our common good, our president insists on “America First.”

Why have we not been able to develop that new social mind that historian Adams foresaw, capable of thinking in “complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind?”

The sticking point is that a tolerant, all-inclusive mind requires what we are lacking: a solid spiritual foundation.

We have taken on the powers of a god in terms of our material life but, in the process, lost touch with age-old sacred values, which form the cornerstone of religions around the world: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you; speak the truth; it’s more blessed to give than to receive; love thy neighbor; blessed are the peacemakers.

Instead, our new gods have become celebrity culture and unfettered capitalism, which has resulted in an amoral society presiding over an Amazon of Things. Translated that means survival of the financially fittest: If you don’t measure up, “you’re fired!”

Looking for a parallel with the Tower of Babel, it would make sense that we have angered God for our transgressions: dividing and destroying rather than uniting. God has taken umbrage, not because we are reaching toward the heavens but because, like the citizens of Babel, we are attempting it before we are spiritually ready.

Of course, if someday we do reach that higher state where we all see humanity as a unity and have compassion and respect for everyone, we will not need God’s heaven up there past the Pearly Gates. We will have created heaven right here on earth.

And, perhaps, that is what God intended all along.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)