Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Growng Up in the 21st Century

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day and today I’m woolgathering and taking stock. I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. Why wait until some arbitrary day on the calendar to do something that needs doing or change something that needs changing? But I understand that it’s human nature to procrastinate all that doing and changing and the start of the new year does serve to remind one that time is passing, if you need to be reminded of that sort of thing. Personally I’d be in serious contention for the title of world’s worst procrastinator of I let myself, so I’ve always made a conscious decision to try to get done as quickly as possible things I might otherwise put off. This leaves me free on New Year’s to take stock and plan what I want to accomplish in the future. And to ruminate on what has happened in the last year and try to understand it. I find this works better for me than trying to change everything at once, failing miserably, and then giving up for the rest of the year- which is what resolutions seem to wind up causing for a lot of folks.

The year has been rather uneventful for me on a personal level. Sure there have been the sort of things that crop up in any given year of your life- I bought a new car, sold my old one (both transactions on Ebay, that was a first), and had a bout of illness (practically the first time I’ve ever been seriously ill, so that was enlightening) but most of my time was taken up with the things that comprise day to day life- work, play, taking out the garbage. My life goes on at a pretty even keel. One of the advantages of getting a little older is that you’ve had a chance to work a lot of things out, to figure out what works and what doesn’t. And one of the advantages of my job is that it helps me keep things in perspective. It’s hard to sweat the small stuff when you deal with people who are dealing with real crises every day.

OTOH, the year seems to have been pretty traumatic on a national and world level. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I think we’re on the cusp of big changes. One of the constants in the universe seems to be that things have a specific plan to their existence. Everything from plants and animals, to people, to stars, to galaxies, and presumably even the universe, has a series of stages they go through from birth to death. For instance, a star and it’s attendant solar system starts out as a ball of gas. The gas congeals into the sun and planets. The sun ignites when it gets dense and hot enough for hydrogen to fuse. There’s a period of furious activity where billions of orbiting particles get whittled down to a few hundred thousand and the planets cool. Then the sun settles into a long period of stable activity. Eventually the sun grows old and uses up the available hydrogen. It cools, expands, and eventually dies. Sort of like people. There’s birth, childhood with all its associated traumas, adulthood with it’s attendant stability, and eventually old age. One of my favorite psychological theorists, a fellow named Eric Erikson, postulated that human beings go through eight developmental stages from birth to death and that each stage had a central challenge that had to be overcome to advance to the next. I think intelligent species are like that too. Human beings have gone through a sort of childhood, where we developed society and technology, and an adolescence, where we covered the planet and learned some rudimentary control over the forces of nature. Now we seem to be entering a period of adulthood. We can no longer afford the excesses of youth. But like any adolescent, if we don’t learn to control our impulses to be wasteful, greedy, thoughtless, and self absorbed, we aren’t going to be able to enjoy a long fruitful period of adulthood. My entire life I’ve lived in a world where human beings had the capacity to destroy themselves and the planet. And somehow, so far we haven’t. But the problems are becoming more complex. Now we don’t have to worry just about doing something mind-bogglingly stupid and starting a nuclear holocaust. We have to start thinking about how we are going to manage the planet so we have a long prosperous life as a species. I hope we’re up to it. If we aren’t it’s entirely possible that, like many adolescents who don’t grow up, we’ll ruin our future or perhaps even kill ourselves as a race. I think we’re at that point now. We have the capability to do almost anything if we’re smart. But if we don’t quit acting like children we aren’t going to last long. It seems the time has come for us to start acting like adults.

Will we be able to? I honestly don’t know. There is such a strong spark of the divine in us. We can be so good and caring and smart. OTOH, like any child on the brink of adulthood, we have such great hesitance and fear when we think we are going to have to start being responsible for ourselves and start making good decisions. The current financial crisis is like the hangover that follows a wild college frat party. The party’s over, it’s Monday morning and time for class. If you don’t make yourself get up and go in spite of the fact that your head is pounding and the next little while is really going to suck, then you’re never going to graduate. Maybe in the long run this financial crisis will be a good thing. Those bleary eyed Monday mornings teach you that spending the weekend getting loaded is a pretty stupid idea. And people often are at their best when challenged. I’ve noticed that when times are good and things are easy, people often get complacent and lazy. A kick in the pants sometimes smartens us up considerably. I’m just not looking forward to the hangover. But if we wind up with a better world when we come out the other side then it was worth it.

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