December 21, 2012
The Return of Optimism
Since the world hasn’t ended yet, it seems like an appropriate time to talk about optimism. But given the many crises humanity is facing, is it actually reasonable or wise to promote an optimistic outlook for our collective future?
In the following excerpt from his book Evolutionaries, former EnlightenNext Senior Editor Carter Phipps introduces what he describes as “a new spirit of optimism” that results from seeing the world through an evolutionary lens.
Andrew’s final Guru & Pandit dialogue of 2012 with Ken Wilber about the apocalypse is coming up TODAY Friday, December 21st at 7pm ET (USA). Register here.
The Return of Optimism
Excerpt from Evolutionaries by Carter Phipps
A number of years ago, I began to notice that almost all of the Evolutionaries I encountered, all of the individuals who were inspired by the potential of using evolution as a context for understanding life and culture, had a third quality in common that made them stand out from their cultural milieu. In addition to being cross-disciplinary generalists and being able to think across evolutionary time, they also demonstrated a profound faith in and commitment to the future. They radiated a powerful optimism, one that stood out even more for being so counter to the overwhelming mood of the moment.
Indeed, Evolutionaries are deep optimists. I’m not talking about a naïve optimism, a forced optimism, a superficial optimism, or even a hopeful optimism but an informed confidence in the knowledge that evolution is at work in the processes of consciousness and culture, and that we can place our own hands on the levers of those processes and make a positive impact. It is a subtle but powerful current of conviction that lifts the sails of the psyche and propels it forward into the future. Evolutionaries don’t just believe that the future can be better than the past; somehow they know it— like a great leader knows that she can make a difference; like a great athlete knows that he can compete and win.
I would suggest that the unique flavor of this evolutionary optimism cannot be attributed to a mere personal feeling, inspiration, or belief. It runs deeper than that. Evolutionaries evince a confidence that is different from the brashness and bluster that flows out of the personal ego. It carries with it a conviction that reaches beyond any quality found only within the boundaries of the personality.
And they transmit that confidence to others.
We tend to transmit to others how we feel about life at a fundamental level. When one spends time with a great mystic or saint, there is a quality to the personality that is recognizable, whatever the particular tradition of that individual or belief system—a quality of ease, of deep peace, and of transcendent being that we experience in the company of those whose source of confidence lies far deeper than the individual psyche.
The same is true of this evolutionary optimism. It arises from a direct perception of the possibility of evolutionary development and connects us to drives and impulses that are neither personal nor cultural, drives that some feel are connected to creative forces at work in the evolving universe. It is as if the essence of the process itself—its creativity, dynamism, and forward movement—comes alive in the personality of those who have embraced an evolutionary worldview.
It is important to note here that the evolutionary optimism I am speaking about does not equate to a conviction in an inevitable positive outcome, or a belief in a miraculous “shift” that is just about to happen. We see this kind of thinking all too often in spiritual-but-not-religious circles—whether it be a Mayan prophecy, the Harmonic Convergence, or some sort of “Earth Change” that will pave the way to the future. Such ideas are often held by individuals with the best of motives, who look out at a world of climate change, terrorism, corruption, overpopulation, and financial disaster, where billions live in poverty, and conclude that things are not getting better at all. Or if they are, they aren’t improving fast enough. And then they pray, hope, meditate—for some event; some change of consciousness; some immanent convergence, emergence, or resurgence of love, light, peace, and compassion to deliver us from the darkness and ignorance that has a hold on our collective soul. And too often, they invoke the term “evolution” to describe this shift in consciousness.
Such thinking has nothing to do with evolution as I understand it. In fact, I would suggest that it is not a faith in evolution that leads one to embrace such naïve or exaggerated hopes but, in fact, a lack of faith. It is an insufficient appreciation of the power of evolution and a failure to understand how it works, at a cultural level, that leads some to start reaching for super-historical forces to emerge and save the day. When we begin to appreciate the true dimensions of the vast evolutionary process that we are a part of, our optimism becomes grounded in the slow but demonstrable reality of actual development.
When I was a boy, I would watch the great tennis players of my era, Björn Borg and John McEnroe, vie for the Grand Slam titles. And I would imagine what it might be like to be able to play like that and compete at such a high level. That vision I held in my mind was important to my development as a player. But ultimately, what was more inspiring and invigorating was to experience myself learning actual new skills, however far they may have been from those of my heroes—to see the reality of self-development and build confidence in the fact that I could transform myself into a better player through my own efforts. Such an experience temporarily breaks the spell of solidity, at least in relationship to our personal capacities.
When we remove the illusion of immobility, it’s like breaking a dam in our consciousness. We start to see the world around us in new ways, experience new and liberating possibilities, and see more directly the underlying momentum that is part of the process of human nature and human culture. We start to see how we can actually choose to develop and mature, individually and collectively—whether it’s on the tennis court or in much more important areas of human society. That is the source of evolutionary optimism.
There is nothing wrong with great visions of possibility. We need them, as long as they’re not crazy and unrealistic. They inspire us and give us direction and focus. But what truly uplifts and invigorates us is to participate in actual development, and in doing so to appreciate how this development is connected to the larger historical flow of evolution since the beginning of human culture.
When our eyes open up to the reality of evolution and we can look back and see not merely thousands and thousands of years of survival and endurance but centuries and centuries of hard-won progress, we will stop hoping for miracles. We will embrace a deeply optimistic vision of the future, one that empowers us to embrace the challenging but ultimately much more rewarding work of contributing to a process that transcends our own lives and that, miraculously, we can affect with our own actions.
Andrew’s final Guru & Pandit dialogue of 2012 with Ken Wilber is coming up TODAY Friday, December 21st at 7pm ET (USA). Register here.
Image: Bailey Weaver/Flickr.com