I often say that we live in an age of trauma. There’s a simple way to think about that. The world is so messed up, we’re having to invent new forms of mental imbalance just to make sense of our own inability to cope with it. The world is so messed up it’s messing with our heads.
Take the example of “climate grief.” Last year, the APA wrote a report which began to recognize that natural disasters and climate change were having severe, lasting psychological effects. That might sound obvious to you — but it’s a brave step. We don’t think hard or often enough of how badly we’re affected by just existing in times like these. Climate grief, I’d wager, will come to be recognized as a defining psychological imbalance of the 21st century. But it’s hardly the only one.
Just scanning the headlines is one long exercise in trauma. Yes, trauma. You see, you’re quite wrong to say “but we have it better than anyone before in history!” Do we? People in the middle ages, the dark ages, the Roman empire, and so on, didn’t have access to the kind of information or knowledge we do — at the tap of a finger, anytime, anywhere. If the planet was about to melt down — they wouldn’t have had a clue. Nor did they have the power to make the planet melt down. It’s the fools’ logic of an economist to say we are the most fortunate people in history — materially, perhaps that’s true, in some meaningless way. We’re not robots, after all. But psychologically, emotionally, we are constantly confronted by relentless, addictive flood of information which confronts us with death, harm, and ruin. That’s the stuff of severe, lasting harm. It bruises and batters us deep down in the soul to constantly “read” about — know about, think about, suffer through — the death of the planet, democracy, society, the future. It takes a piece of us with it.
(And so we are all grieving today. I say that, and I think people recoil a little bit. But don’t you think it’s true? Every single person I know is in a kind of deep grief — even if they don’t quite know it themselves. Think about the signs. Trouble sleeping. Anxiety, depression, brooding.
An abiding sense of sorrow — letting go of what can never be. The process of mourning — letting go a past that can never be again.)
As a result of this age of profound, shattering grief, when we mourn for so many things that matter so much, all at once, is that we are suffering through what might be called a loss of libido. (Sorry — don’t roll your eyes, because I don’t mean it in the most superficial terms, though it shows up even there, which is that we’re having less and less sex.) I mean it in the sense of Eros, life-force, will to live, to flourish, to realize ourselves authentically, fully, and fiercely. (You see all those young people giving up on their dreams? All those old people who only seem to care about themselves? All those politicians having creepy affairs but not having the courage or purpose to give a damn about society? That’s all the loss of Eros.)
It is as if our will to live — to live fully, authentically, well — is vanishing — and is being replaced by a kind of destructive, ruinous impulse instead. At a social scale, maybe a global one, not an individual one. How, exactly? Look at skyrocketing suicide rates. Look at how neighbor is turning on neighbor. Look at how country after country is retreating into its little shell. Look at how we give up on the challenges before us — the big four — climate change, inequality, stagnation, and division. We shrug, or hand our heads in despair — but either way, it feels as if we are defeated. This is a loss of libido, of Eros, at a social scale. What is replacing it is Thanatos, the death instinct. The impulse to seek vengeance, to take revenge, to burn the house down, when you cannot climb to its top. Eros seeks transcendence — the loss of the self, it’s merging and connection into a larger whole (isn’t that what you’re after when you’re having sex, falling in love, or appreciating a beautiful sunset?). Thanatos seeks annihilation — the exaltation of the self, as the only being, even at the price of the destruction of the world.
The truth is that we are surrounded by Thanatos. Immersed in destruction, because we are permeated by self-preservation. It has come to define our lives in ways we don’t see, appreciate, understand, or know. Technology, social media, is a mighty force of Thanatos. Rather than offering us genuine self-transcendence — like we might feel watching a beautiful sunset — it offers us nothing but unbridled narcissism. The annihilation of the world, so we are the only ones left standing. Look at me! Like me! I am the one that matters most! Capitalism, too, which created this kind of technology, is Thanatos in pure form. It tells you are inherently worthless, so then you compete for status through consumption — you are basically competing to be the only one that matters, with more money, toys, prettier partners, and so on. Thanatos-as-capitalism says it doesn’t matter if it costs the whole world, democracy, the planet, the future, society, even your better self — as long as you feel like the only one who matters, because it told you never mattered to begin with.
But that is exactly how you get to a planet melting down, democracy dying, society in tatters, nations divided, and a world this troubled. Thanatos is the impulse to ruin, destroy, and pillage, so that one can stand atop the wreckage, it is the aggressive, egoistic, domineering force in us. So quite naturally, when we build institutions and norms and values upon it — where else can we end up?
The 21st century is going to be a difficult decade. But the most difficult thing about it, perhaps, will be the challenge of building a world on Eros, not Thanatos. It’s funny — today’s leftists are already trying. What is the obsessive focus on gender and sexuality if not Eros? But it is a small kind of Eros. Eros more properly understood is the instinct to merge, to be one, to lose one’s self. It’s what you feel dancing at a nightclub, or at the pub with your friends, or when you see a little child’s smile. It’s not just sex — though that’s what today’s left has, a little childishly, reduced it to.
A world built on Eros would prize the fulfillment of every being within it as it’s first priority. Every river, tree, insect, and person. Flowing, growing, humming — maturing. Do you see what I mean? A river’s potential is to flow, an insect’s to fly, a tree’s, to grow — and yours is to mature into grace, truth, decency, courage, defiance, wisdom, passion, insight, love. When you stand before the flowing river, you feel a sense of oneness, don’t you? So the more flowing rivers there are, the more self-transcendence there is for you, too. In this way, all things are linked through Eros — your possibility is to maximize the possibility of all things, just as their possibility is to maximize yours.
Thanatos, sadly, finds its truest expression in modern American life. Why don’t people give each other healthcare? Why would they prefer to make their neighbours beg for insulin online? Why don’t they stop each others’ kids getting massacred at school? America’s unbelievably, strangely, weirdly cruel culture and abusive society are expressions of Thanatos. Everyone is trying to climb over everyone else — so no one really goes anywhere but down. Society has become one giant arena for bruising, battering, bloody competition. It is lethal competition, too — lose that job, there goes your healthcare, bang! You’re dead. So through America’s example, we see the lesson of Thanatos versus Eros spelled out very, very clearly.
Thanatos seeks your self-preservation, even at the expense of the destruction of all things, all beings, everything. The whole universe could implode, and as long as you came out on top, Thanatos would say all was right and just and well. But Eros seeks the fulfillment of all things, through you, precisely so that self-transcendence can happen. If there are no rivers flowing or suns setting over them — what is there for you to transcend into? Do you see what I mean? It’s a subtle point, so think about it.
When people are threatened, Thanatos kicks in. The self-preservation impulse takes over. The fury and rage of destruction mount. Having build system after system of Thanatos — capitalism, technology, and so on — we have also built a world where people’s selfhood is constantly, perpetually, severely threatened, whether through a lack of money, resources, time, or care, and so, quite naturally, they are trying to preserve themselves, instead of gently transcend themselves.
What are we really grieving for these days, my friends? Is it just “climate grief” which tears through us? Not at all. We also grieve for, are anxious about, dread the loss of, democracy, society, the world, civilization, and the future. Yet grief is best understood as the loss of Eros, an opportunity to reach self-transcendence that is now gone forever — which one must let go. When you “grieve” for a parent or spouse or friend, that is what you are really missing — the merger, union, that you felt with them. And you can feel that loss of Eros everywhere in the world today. In the fury that’s sweeping the world, for belonging, for meaning, for purpose. In the rage that’s ripping across country after country, to be seen and counted as someone that matters. That is what I mean by the “loss of libido.”
Thanatos came to replace Eros, as capitalism and technology swept the globe — people, constantly threatened, adopted an aggressive, hostile, destructive stance, in the name of self-preservation. It doesn’t matter if we destroy the river, the tree, the insects — as long as I preserve myself. But then there is nothing left for us to transcend ourselves with, either. So in that way, capitalism and technology have also led us to give up the will to live fully, authentically, honestly, expansively — because doing so always recognizes our highest need is for self-transcendence, even though our first one is for self-preservation.
All of which leads me to a simple conclusion. The 21st century must be a time of Eros, if we are to heal this broken, troubled world. Not because I say so. But because we need to heal from the ruinous malaises of the ages of capitalism and technology. The anxiety and fear and isolation and meaninglessness they brought with them. We need to grieve, and grieve deeply, for all that we harmed, hurt, lost, abandoned, and ruined, in order to live again. And that is what is really being tested in this strange, difficult, century. Whether or not we want to live again. The alternative is, as it has always, been, death. The age of Thanatos is coming to an end. But will the age of Eros begin? That, my friends, is the question.
meditation for the New Year:
Take some deep breaths, put your feet on the ground, and get comfortable in your body.
What is sacred to me? What do I most deeply care about, want to cherish and protect? What do I care about more than my own comfort or profit? What do I love?
Write or draw your answer, and take a moment to contemplate:
- How does the sacred nurture your spirit?
- In what ways are you putting your best energies to the service of what is most sacred to you?
- Are there changes you could make in the coming year to put more of your time, your heart, and your skills to the service of what you care most deeply about? If so, let that be your New Year’s Resolution!
Take a breath, and imagine how you will feel when your best energies are aligned with what you care about most. Breathe in that rush of joy and true power, and let it help you make the changes you need for your best year.
If you can solve the problem,
Then what is the need of worrying?
If you cannot solve it,
Then what is the use of worrying?
We can never be secure in life, and yet, we can be secure in how we approach life. A disciple asked the great Tantra Master, Marpa, “What is it like to be enlightened?” Marpa answered: “I’m as miserable as before!” The disciple, deeply shocked by this statement, said, “if you, the great Master Marpa, are as miserable as before, why should I be working so arduously through meditation practice to attain enlightenment?”
Marpa answered astutely: “There is only one difference between me and you. I can choose to be identified with misery, or not.”
Below is a reflection upon several things I have read and listened to since leaving the farm. These are concepts that stood out to me and caused me to further reflect on my experiences at Plukrijp.
We live in an individualistic society, valuing ourselves as individuals, not as part of something larger and greater than ourselves. Capitalism and consumer culture have taken advantage of this concept of the ’individual’. People are encouraged to consume partly as a means of defining who they ‘really’ are. Express yourself! ‘Because you’re worth it.’ We are trapped in a cage created by a worshipping of the all-important self. Imprisoned by our own short term desires. Driven in part by consumer culture, there is an emphasis on the idea of the freedom to be an individual. We feel that we are free but does this form of individualistic consumer life really provide us with freedom?
As Adam Curtis puts it “We have been told that freedom, is freedom to fulfil our trivial and petty desires, but real freedom is freedom from our trivial and petty desires.”
We feel that we are free to consume whatever we want in order to create any kind of lifestyle we desire. When our desires are so frequently manipulated by those who want us to consume, can we consider this freedom? We are motivated to pursue what society has taught us to deem as valuable rather than any true understanding of our own value.
We live in a society that encourages fear and the control of any potential risks. The fear of chaos/lack of order and the fear of the perceived ‘other’.
Additionally, people now live their lives as a spectacle. Opening them up to the external observer. To be viewed and validated by others. Where the number of likes on facebook equates to a greater sense of self worth. Where people don’t do things to do them but to be seen to do them by others. The phenomenon that motivates people to give a £20 note to a homeless man but only after they have started videoing the act to share with their ‘followers’. A world in which we carry around the eyes of hundreds or thousands of others with us in our pockets and routinely display our lives to them for their judgement.
There is a need for a new story. However the factors above, among others, make any kind of revolution unlikely to happen. In ‘21 lessons for the 21st century’ Yuval Harari describes how we started the 20th century with three grand stories; the fascist, communist and liberal. Fascism was knocked out by the second world war. The years between the 40’s and the 80’s saw a battle between the remaining two stories, until the communist story also collapsed.
We were left with liberalism as the ‘dominant guide to the past and the indispensable manual for the future of the world.’ Liberalism has not been, as some had once hoped, ‘the end of history’. We are now faced with a ‘tidal wave of disillusionment’ towards liberalism. It is this disillusion that can explain the current climate of Brexit and president Trump. People are no longer happy with the current structure that the liberal story takes.
It seems that we are now in the position that there is no story left to believe in. The disorientation this causes can lead to apocalyptic thinking, particularly in the left. ‘Trump signals the end of the World!’ We are in need of a new story.
What are we to do in the face of this lack of a believable political story? In a culture of hypernormalisation in which we know the way things are is not quite right, but that feeling is ‘normal’ and we are pacified, feeling unable to do anything about it? Where people are so highly unlikely to feel the need for, let alone create, a revolution? When we face major problems that require global cooperation?
What can we do about it?
It’s easy to feel powerless.
Writers like Harari, Curtis and Harris use their skills to create tools of communication that inform others and encourage conversation. We can do this in our own way, talking about the topics we find relevant and important, with others we encounter. Maintaining the conversation with open discussions about where we are and where the hell we are going.
In asking the question, ‘what can we do about it?’ this quote seems pertinent.
“Don’t engage in oppositionalism, establish alternatives and live in them.”
Sometimes, the more force you use to push something away, the more force is generated to push right back against you. Rebellion can take a different form than outright opposition.
In this way, Plukrijp is a beautiful form of resistance and counter culture.
The concepts of permaculture, and how these are realised on the farm, answer many of the problems of society listed above.
Community and the acceptance of the whole as being greater than the part. If one is integrated into a real community, it is difficult to maintain a strong sense of individualism. When daily efforts are pooled and group energy goes into work that serves the community as a whole, it is tangible how much more can be achieved with a sense of we rather than I.
Sharing and resourcefulness. If most things are shared and we aim to waste as little as possible e.g. eating skip food, building with recycled materials like pallet crates, exchange via the freeshop and a repair rather than rubbish mentality. This way of thinking, alongside taking stock of what it is we really ‘need’ greatly reduces the perceived ‘need’ to consume. There comes a recognition that all needs can be met, that an abundance can be found, without any mindless consumption.
This is also linked to the idea of value based upon substance. In general society, value is somewhat determined by the way a person looks, dresses and what they own. This concept, in part, drives the consumption of ‘fashion’. Buying the latest ‘style’ and then throwing it away when it no longer serves as a symbol of status or identity.
In permaculture, as it is realised at Plukrijp, this becomes a redundant idea. Value, in this instance, is based instead upon what an individual contributes to the community. When you are surrounded by people who do not look at the external in order to assign value but rather at the inner qualities and skills one has to offer, when things are shared and there is no way to gain value based on what you own, you are invited to assess where your own value truly comes from. This idea welcomes a degree of self reflection. The image one has portrayed is no longer blindly reflected back and one has the opportunity to be faced with what was hidden behind an artificial image.
With the realisation that we do not need to consume in an attempt to piece together some false image of ourselves to the external world, we move one step closer to “freedom from our trivial and petty desires.”
If you are fully engaged with the community when living in a place like Plukrijp you should no longer feel the need for validation from distant, external audiences e.g those found on facebook. There is the opportunity for genuine human interaction. There is no need to reflect a false, artificial image of who you are. To frame yourself as a spectacle. Due to proximity, it is far more likely to be recognised as false. To continue in falseness or spectacle will only rob you of real experiences with other human beings who are physically there, waiting for connections.
An openness and honesty in communication also means that superficial connections are quickly moved on from. When this happens, conversation becomes authentic and there is no need for the superficial stroking of egos. We are presented with the potential for real self-reflection, introspection, feedback and growth.
“For me, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself and the World.”- Harari.
In this way, real communication helps us towards an understanding of our minds, the minds of others and a deeper, more lasting sense of satisfaction. This cannot be found in the chasing of things that provide temporary hits of satisfaction such as facebook likes.
We also live in a world in which facebook sends us a feedback loop of our own opinions. We don’t encounter this living in a community. We are not fed back our own opinions but are confronted by interactions with others whose opinions differ from our own. This allows us space to reflect on and learn from what others think. Recognising that our own World view is not the be all and end all but rather the beginning point for much greater understanding and learning. It is almost impossible to grow if you are never challenged.
Frank often talks about the function of fear. How we are often living so far from our limitations that we live in fear because we remain unaware of what we are really capable of or the pressures we can take. In this way, fear acts as control and keeps you smaller. If you never truly push to the edge of your limits because of fear then you will never grow. You will get smaller as you put up new boundaries inside of your true limitations and as such, perpetually increase your fear.
When we live in a World in which the narrative is saturated by fear. Growing up in a fearful society with fearful parents. What is brave is to acknowledge that much of that fear is constructed in your own mind. Then to learn to move on from that imagined fear and push to your limits. Is the fear real or a story? Where is the tiger?
To me, taking the step to live in this communal way, or even further to create a space as Frank and Martine have at Plukrijp, is one of the greatest things you can do in reaction to some of the problems of general society. To write a new story, not only for yourself but to invite others to come and live and write and edit that story with you.
It may not be a story that everybody wants to read. Or for some, it is a story to dip in to occasionally rather than on a permanent basis. For me, it symbolises that we do not have to sit and wait for someone else to write a new story that includes us. We can take it upon ourselves to find that story and to live it. To embody it. To show others how it’s done. In my eyes, it’s the greatest form of opposition to some of the shit parts of society. Plukrijp has inspired me to pursue a different way of living.
If any of this is of interest to you I can highly recommend the following:
Hypernormalisation by Adam Curtis (film),
The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis (film)
21 Lessons for the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari (book),
The Waking Up Podcast by Sam Harris (ep. 68 is with YNH) and
Under the Skin with Russell Brand (eps with both Curtis and Harari, also a podcast)