In the Biographical Note to A Short History of the World, Patrick Parrinder states that H. G. Wells “saw history as a ‘race between education and catastrophe.’ ” I was instantly struck by this statement not only because it succinctly hits on my own perspective but on the deep-rooted foundation of our current crises and those that have plagued the human race throughout history.
In the vast dark ocean that is the universe there is a process, a process that is also found in the natural world, in civilization and society, in cultures and families, and in the microcosm that is each human being. This is the cyclic process of life and death, two forces that manifest themselves in the simultaneous growth and decay into dissolution and a return, or rebirth, of all that has life, all that exists. As we live we also die in the same moment; the natural, irrepressible state of things is one of continuous sacrifice. We cannot have all we desire at once; we must lose parts of ourselves along the path of maturity and development. As we grow in the journey of self-awareness, which not only reshapes our self-understanding but also our vision of that which lies outside us, our innocence and our youth melt into oblivion, our illusions are lost and shattered, and our ideals become tempered by the realities of the sacrifice that is at the heart of all things. A sacrifice that may go unnoticed but, as with all material things and attachments, must also inevitably be let go of and relinquished.
It is only in the letting go, in the sacrificing and detaching from all anchors that weigh us down and prevent us from flourishing as individuals and as a species that progress can be made, that human beings can move toward a more just and equitable society, creating a more vibrant and lasting civilization across the globe. In writing this I am reminded of the Buddha’s parable about the man standing on the shore who has no way of reaching the farther shore, and so he gathers branches, grass, etc. to build a raft, which he then uses to get across the water to the other side. Once he is back on land, what does he do with the raft? Does he take it with him or leave it behind? The Buddha states that the man would leave it and continue on.
For me this is a wonderful metaphor for our evolution as human beings. I believe that throughout our lives we outgrow certain ideas or beliefs that have nourished us and no longer need them, as they do not aid us in our current state, and so we must let them go and leave them behind like the raft, for if the man carried the raft on his back as he made his way inland, it would only weigh him down and prevent him from a more fulfilling experience and understanding of this new shore (read new part of the self), just as ideas and beliefs that once helped us no longer do so when they have no relation or application to our current experiences, and holding on to them would only slow us down and cripple us, disabling us from further exploring and discovering our always-changing selves and the world in which we live.
It is the ignorance of this stark but fundamental truth concerning sacrifice, or letting go, that is at the root of what troubles and ails humans at a personal level and at a social, national, and international one as well. Until we begin the work of a proper education in self-discovery and a more expansive and deep education in the world around us that should happen not just in school but also afterward where we direct our own learning, we will not be able to recognize our own flaws and failings and those of all humans past, present, and in the future. The future can be changed; we do not have to go in the openly catastrophic direction in which we are headed, but a change of direction begins with and in each of us. We cannot press others to educate themselves without doing the same.
We must begin to defeat ignorance, fear, anger, and hatred by educating ourselves, and demand that our education system nationally and globally be drastically renovated to include a diversity and plurality of voices and perspectives, beliefs and ideas, in the arts and humanities as well as the sciences, from the earliest texts of antiquity to the ones currently being produced. By opening the hearts and minds of our youth today and tomorrow (as well as our own on our own time) to all views on a whole raft of subjects we can stem the rising tide of these irrational, negative passions and channel this energy toward the more positive and constructive ones of love, compassion, tolerance, and understanding. Through a thorough remodeling of our education system we can make a start at defusing the perpetual chaos and destruction that has been our fate and legacy and stop the apocalypse toward which we are blindly hurtling at such a frightening pace.