How do you deal with problems that seem too big?
Traditionally, we look for government intervention. But some problems seem bigger than one government even.
So we form international bodies; the EU, the UN, a thousand talking shops and gatherings of important people. Who seem to achieve so little.
The problems are so big, and we so small. And there is the mortgage to pay. And Game of Thrones is on the TV. Perhaps all I can do is look after me and what is mine. And try to be kind to others when I can. Digitally.
I was reading some of the words of Timothy Morton recently. He is perhaps the closest thing we have to rock-star philosopher, an academic professor who collaborates with Bjork. One of the awkward squad.
Morton suggested that some concepts (which he called ‘Hyperobjects’ might represent something very real, but they are no longer useful terms- they are too big to get into our heads; black holes, the internet, global warming. He even suggests scrapping the word ‘nature’ as it is so big that it is meaningless.
Meanwhile, says Morton, we have now firmly entered the Anthopocene age, we have created our own epoch, we have altered the whole planet. There is lots to fear- extreme weather, resource shortages, mass extinctions of species. We KNOW all this, but we are powerless to act on this information. Our relationship to the world has changed- now just living involves moral choices to continue destruction because although individual acts are insignificant, we are one of billions all careering towards the same precipice in what Morton calls a ‘traumatic loss of co-ordinates’. We caused it, but we can not control it.
Morton goes on to make some comments that might seem on the face of things horribly fatalistic.
- The catastrophe we fear has already occurred. The greenhouse gasses we have released will be there still in 500 years.
- We thought we could manipulate the planet (farming, engineering). We were wrong.
- We are not any different from the other (non-human) part of the planet. We do not stand apart.
- Anything we burn, flush or throw away does not leave.
- The hunter is hunting himself.
From this mess, Morton somehow manages to conjure hope. He says that there is solidarity in ignorance which must eventually lead to change. We must come to the idea that we can’t transcend our reliance on other humans and the whole world. We can only live with these limitations. He says this should not be a matter for gloom, but rather for liberation.
Do you feel liberated?
What might set us free?
I have been thinking about this in relation to the Beatitudes, because of a project I am working on. You remember the Beatitudes I am sure, but just in case you need a nudge, these were the words spoken by Jesus as part of his incredible change-everything-turn-everything-upside-down Sermon on the Mount. You could say that the words he spoke were a distillation of everything that he wanted to say, everything that mattered;
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew chapter 5, NIV
How are these words relevant to now? How do they engage with a world caught up in Morton’s ‘Traumatic lack of co-ordinates’?
I think the first things the words do is to remind us of the scale and reach of humanity. We are many, but we are one. We are community, but we are alone.
Next they remind us that life is full of challenge. Perfection and comfort were never guaranteed. We have no right to an easy long life, particularly at cost to others.
Then they remind us that the small things matter more, particularly small things done in love. One exchange at a time.
They remind us that people matter most, one at a time.