I will always remember 2020 as the year the wheels came off the world and everyone tried to hold on for dear life. From the worldwide pandemic that killed millions to the wildfires that ravaged many parts of our country, from a crash in the economy and chaos in our elections to fake news that caused us to distrust the very nature of reality, I’ve often wondered how we’re going to survive, and what the future holds for myself, my family, my community, and the world.
I think back to a simpler time when I went off to college at U.C. Santa Barbara. I was seventeen years old and the year was 1961. It was my first time living away from home and the campus was a brand new beautiful setting, overlooking the ocean. I was hungry for knowledge.
One of the highlights of my college years was meeting the world-renowned philosopher Paul Tillich, who was a visiting lecturer in 1963. Tillich described the challenges our world would face in the future. He forever inspired me with these words:
“Every serious thinker must ask and answer three fundamental questions:
- What is wrong with us? With men? Women? Society? What is the nature of our alienation? Our dis-ease?
- What would we be like if we were whole? Healed? Actualized? If our potentiality was fulfilled?
- How do we move from our condition of brokenness to wholeness? What are the means of healing?”
I took Tillich’s advice to heart. After graduating from U.C. Santa Barbara, I went on to medical school at U.C. San Francisco. However, finding the medical education of the time too restrictive, I transferred to U.C. Berkeley and earned my master’s degree in Social Work. I began working as a therapist, specializing in gender medicine and men’s health. I returned to graduate school to conduct research on the different ways in which men and women experience depression, earning me a PhD in International Health.
My first book, Inside Out: Becoming My Own Man, was published in 1983. My 7th, 8th, and 9th books, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression, Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship From The Irritable Male Syndrome, and Male vs. Female Depression: Why Men Act Out and Women Act In, took a deeper look into how men and women experience depression differently, how wounded men wound others, and what kind of healing is necessary for all.
In 2010, I read a book that helped me more fully find the answers to Tillich’s question regarding “the nature of our alienation, our dis-ease.” It was called The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse by Rebecca D. Costa. When I picked up the book, the title confused me. What’s a watchman’s rattle? I wondered. I soon learned from Costa that in earlier times, “ordinary citizens volunteered as watchmen to protect the welfare of their communities watching for early signs of danger. Surprisingly, these early watchmen never carried weapons. They carried wooden rattles that made a loud, harsh, clacking noise designed to summon help. The sound of the watchman’s rattle was an alarm—a call for citizens to wake from their sleep and quickly join forces against danger.”
We are living at a time in which the problems we face are becoming obvious, but the causes remain obscure. As we experience increased pain and suffering without knowing the causes, there is a tendency to blame ourselves, believing that we are responsible for our suffering. We may also blame others, looking for a scapegoat to wrap our anger around. The right blames the left and the left blames the right, and the world ends up on the brink of collapse. What’s really going on?
Costa first glimpsed the answer to this question in the day-to-day activities we all experience. The first chapter of her book is titled “A Pattern of Complexity and Collapse: Why Civilizations Spiral.”
“On the morning of August 29, 2004, I had an important insight. I remember the date because I was driving to the birth of my nephew Ben,”she describes.
She goes on to highlight moments of overwhelm that many of us have experienced. “As I was rushing to the hospital, I was typing the address on my GPS screen, plugging my Blackberry into the cigarette lighter, getting my iPod into the docking station, plugging my laptop into a second outlet, putting my telephone headset and seatbelt on, and trying to drink my coffee. All the time while keeping a two-ton vehicle moving at sixty miles an hour on the road.”
“That’s when it hit me. Life has become really complicated.”
In reflecting on our lives in this stressed-out world, Costa wondered whether the increasing complexity might be related to the underlying reasons that caused the collapse of many civilizations throughout human history. She asked herself, “what occurred before the final event(s) responsible for the collapse of the Mayans, the Romans, the Egyptians, and the Khmer, Ming, and Byzantine empires?”
Costa recognized that collapse occurs in all complex societies when things become too difficult to understand and manage. Change happens so rapidly that we literally can’t get our heads around the problems. We end up blaming ourselves or each other, while the problems get worse and worse. “History makes it clear,” she says, “that we hit some obstacle that causes progress to slow long before the specific event(s) blamed for the collapse of a civilization—some recurring obstruction that is both natural and predictable.”
Costa came to see that our biological evolution, including our brain’s ability to solve problems, occurs slowly over thousands of years. New information and technologies, on the other hand, progress in nanoseconds. She then gets to the root of our problem. “The uneven rate of change between the slow evolution of human biology and the rapid rate at which societies advance, eventually causes progress to come to a standstill.”
The result, Costa says, is that “we reach the cognitive threshold, the point at which society can no longer ‘think’ its way out of its problems and, finally, one or more of these problems push the civilization over the edge.”
How close are we to going over the edge? She describes the early warning signs:
“We become unable to solve our most threatening problems,” Costa explains. “We know what they are, and we have a lot of ideas on how to solve them, but we can’t seem to act on what we know.”
- Substitution of beliefs for knowledge and fact.
“Beliefs are easy,” Costa says. “You either accept them or you don’t. But the acquisition of knowledge is pricey. You have to prove a fact is true then replicate, test, assess, interpret, process, learn, and apply. Put simply, when complexity makes it difficult, or impossible, to acquire facts, we revert to unproven beliefs.”
- Irrational policies.
“In the final stage, we create irrational policies that have no chance of success yet give people a false sense of comfort,” Costa adds. “With global climate change, for instance, we are not able to implement policies which would actually reduce emissions of gases that are warming the planet, but we tell people we can all do our part by recycling.”
I look forward to your comments. In Part 2, I will offer five practical tools that can help you get through the challenges ahead.