When you walk or drive down a city street, what you are seeing all around you are manifestations of thoughts.
Every building began as an idea in somebody’s mind. Somebody acquired the land. Somebody designed the house. Somebody had the idea to organize people together to build the house, either to make money or to live in it. The trees you see were planted for shade in the yard, on the sidewalk, along the street. The pavement that we accept as a “natural” part of our landscape was conceptualized, designed, engineered, installed, and is maintained via thought.
Thoughts create our physical reality, and they also create our larger reality. During ancient times, when there was an electrical storm, people perceived the thunder and lightning as the voice of a powerful deity. If somebody got hit by lightning, that proved to others that the person had committed some crime or displeased the deity.
When the thunder rumbled loudly nearby, people knelt to the ground and cried out their prayers. They knew, when they saw the awesome streaks of light across the sky, that they were seeing the finger of their god writing messages or expressing an opinion.
Today thunder and lightning are seen and heard as the discharge of electrical energy between ions in the air and the oppositely-charged ground. If somebody is struck by lightning it is either due to their own stupidity (standing on the golf course with a club in the air) or just bad luck. If the storm is severe, we take cover out of fear of a dangerous natural phenomenon, rather than a wrathful god.
The same event creates a completely different feeling, thought, and behavior in the people who observe it today. The point is, the experience of reality is different, and what makes it different is thought.
A few years ago, I was invited to give a speech at a conference sponsored by Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After the presentation, Louise and I went for a walk through the Old City, down through the Arab quarter where most of the tourist shops are. It was a Friday, the Moslem Sabbath, but not being Islamic, we doubted this would affect our sightseeing and shopping. It being a very hot May day, Louise was wearing a comfortable pair of walking shorts. As we moved through the streets, one shopkeeper came out of his store and started shouting at Louise, calling her a “western pig,” a “whore” and a “blasphemer.” “Don’t you know it’s a holy day, you bitch?” he screamed. “You have no right to show your legs!”I mention this culture clash because the shopkeeper’s reality was that a woman was flagrantly breaking the law.
Louise’s reality held that it was a hot day in a tourist center and she was dressed comfortably in conservative shorts, according to Western standards, and being harassed for it.
My reality told me that a man was displaying bad manners and disrespect for my culture and religion, for women, in general, and for another human being, in particular, by shouting instead of quietly coming up to us and presenting his case. We were all correct.
And so now all of humanity is presented with a dizzying set of conflicting realities. What we choose to do about them will determine our future as a species. Consider these various ideas different people might have about life:
“We need electricity to be comfortable and maintain our way of life,” or,“ Producing electricity is pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to global warming and extremely destructive weather patterns.” “Being able to drive where and when we want to at a cheap cost is freedom,” or, “Americans’ driving habits are feeding the destruction of the planet.” “All of nature is here to serve the needs of humankind,” or, “Humans are no more or less important to the planet than any other life-form. ”These ideas are grounded in the stories—the myths of our culture, our paradigms, our beliefs—that form the core of what we tell ourselves is “reality.” Stories, in this context, are anything we add to our original experience that alters what we think is going on, or changes how we think about things. Since so much of what we call reality is subjective, there are few “right” or “wrong” stories; instead there are “useful” and “not useful” stories, depending on what culture you belong to, and depending on your status in your culture. Depending on your relationship to the natural world and your vision of the future.
Increasingly, the stories we’ve been telling ourselves for centuries are now moving from the “useful” to the “not useful” category.
An example of such a story is the Biblical order to have as many children as possible. In the days of Noah and Abraham, the tribe with the largest number of young men to create an army was usually the tribe that survived. “Be fruitful and multiply” was a formula for cultural survival, even though in nearly all cases it then led to “and when you run out of resources and living space, kill off your neighbor and take theirs.” We’ve rationalized this over the years by saying that this conquering and dominating lifestyle has brought us so many “good things”: television, visiting the moon, modern appliances, the eradication of many diseases. I remember in high school a recruiter for the Army came in and gave a pitch for the armed forces to our 10th grade class. “Most of the really important advances in our civilization, from the development of rockets to the discovery of antibiotics, were caused by the necessities of war,” he said, providing another feel-good rationalization for the periodic mass-murder of humans. War is good: it leads to progress and lifestyle upgrades.
Back when the planet only had a billion people on it, a person could probably build a case for the value of huge families, growing populations, and the conquest of nearby (or distant) lands. It may be of questionable morality, but it could be defended by the norms of a culture which had survival and growth as its primary goal.
Now, however, such stories imperil the very culture from which they’re derived. The good news is, if we redefine our cultural norms, re-tell the stories which make up the reality we follow, then humanity’s behaviors will change to conform to the new stories.
The ancient Greeks changed the world and established the foundations of western civilization with the idea of integrating democracy and slave ownership. In fact, every time a culture has evolved, since or before then and for better or worse, it’s been because of an idea, an insight, a new understanding of how things are, and of what is possible. Ideas preceded every revolution, every war, every transformation, and every invention.
This is an excerpt from The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight. Photo courtesy of Luc Schuiten.