Going forward… into what?

These days I often hear the phrase “going forward” to mean “in the future.” But, going forward into what? Curiously, a temporal expression has been replaced by a spatial metaphor. I can only speculate that this is supposed to convey a reassuring sense of empowerment toward genuine progress. While largely blind to what the future holds, passively weathering the winds of time, as creatures with mobility we can deliberately move forward (or backward), implying free will and some power to set a course.

In this spatial metaphor, the future is a matter of choice, bound to be shaped and measured along several possible axes. For example, there is the vision of limitless technological transformation. But there is also the nearly opposing vision of learning to live in harmony with nature, prioritizing ecological concern for the health of a finite planet. And a third “dimension” is a vision of social justice for humanity: to redistribute wealth and services more equitably and produce a satisfying experience for the greatest number. While any one of these concerns could dominate the future, they are deeply entangled. Whether or not change is intentional, it will inevitably unfold along a path involving them all. To the degree that change will be intentional, a multidimensional perspective facilitates the depth perception needed to move realistically “forward.”

We depend on continuity and a stable environment for a sense of meaning and purpose. The modern ideology of progress seemed to have achieved that stability, at least temporarily and for some. But the pandemic has rudely reminded us that the world is “in it together,” that life is as uncertain and unequal in the 21st century as it always has been, and that progress will have to be redefined. While change may be the only constant, adaptability is the human trademark. Disruption challenges us to find new meanings and purposes.

Homo sapiens is the creature with a foot in each of two worlds—an outer and an inner, as well as a past and a future. The primary focus of attention is naturally outward, toward what goes on out there, how that affects us, what we must accordingly do in a world that holds over us the power of life and death. Understanding reality helps us to survive, and doing is the mode naturally correlated with this outward focus. In many ways, action based on objective thinking—and science in particular—has been the key to human success as the dominant species on the planet. However, human beings are endowed also with a second focus, which is the stream of consciousness itself. Being aware of being aware implies an inner domain of thought, feeling, imagination, and all that we label subjective. This domain includes art and music, esthetic enjoyment and contemplation, meditation and philosophy. Play is the mode correlated with this inner world, as opposed to the seriousness of survival-oriented doing. Subjectivity invites us to look just for the delight of seeing. It also enables us to question our limited perceptions, to look before leaping. Thus, we have at our disposal two modes, with different implications. We can view our personal consciousness as a transparent window on the world, enabling us to act appropriately for our well-being. Alternatively, we can view it as the greatest show on earth.

Long-term social changes may emerge as we scramble to put Humpty together again in the wake of Covid19. The realization that we live henceforth in the permanent shadow of pandemic has already led to new attitudes and behavior: less travel, more online shopping, social distancing, work from home, more international cooperation, restored faith in science and in government spending on social goals. Grand transformations are possible—not seen since the New Deal—such as a guaranteed income, a truly comprehensive health program, new forms of employment that are less environmentally destructive. Staying at home has suggested a less manic way of life than the usual daily grind. The shut-down has made it clear that consumerism is not the purpose and meaning of life, that the real terrorists are microscopic, and that defense budgets should be transferred to health care and social programs. We’ve known all along that swords should be beaten into plowshares; now survival may depend on it. Such transformation requires the complete rethinking of economy and the concept of value. Manic production and consumption in the name of growth have led, not to the paradise on earth promised by the ideology of progress, but to ecological collapse, massive debt, increasing social disparity, military conflict, and personal exhaustion. Nature is giving us feedback that the outward focus must give way to something else—both for the health of the planet and for our own good.

Growth must be redefined in less material terms. Poverty can no longer be solved (if it ever was) by a rising tide of ever more material production. In terms of the burden on the planet, we have already reached the “limits to growth” foreseen fifty years ago. We must turn now to inner growth, whatever that can mean. Personal wealth, like military might, has traditionally been about status and power in a hyperactive world enabled by expanding population and material productivity. (Even medicine has been about the heroic power to save lives through technology, perform miracle surgeries, and find profitable drugs, more than to create universal conditions for well-being, including preparedness against pandemics.) What if wealth and power can no longer mean the same things in the post-pandemic world no longer fueled by population growth? What is money if it cannot protect you from disease? And what is defense when the enemy is invisible and inside you?

We cannot ignore external reality, of course, even supposing that we can know what it is. Yet, it is possible to be too focused on it, especially when the reason for such focus is ultimately to have a satisfying inner experience. The outward-looking mentality must not only be effective outwardly but also rewarding inwardly. It is a question of balance, which can shift with a mere change of focus. We are invited to a new phase of social history, in which the quality of personal experience—satisfaction and enjoyment—is at least as important as the usual forms busy-ness and quantitative measures of progress. This at a time when belt-tightening will prevail, on top of suffering from the ecological effects of climate change and the disruptions in society that will follow.

Human beings have always been fundamentally social and cooperative, in spite of the modern turn away from traditional social interactions toward competitive striving, individual consumption, private entertainment, and atomized habitation. Now, sociality everywhere will be re-examined and redefined post-pandemic. Of course, there have always been people more interested in being than in either doing or socializing. Monks and contemplatives withdraw from active participation in the vanities of the larger culture. So do artists in their own way, which is to create for the sheer interest of the process as much as for the product. The sort of non-material activity represented by meditation, musical jamming, the performing arts, sports, and life drawing may become a necessity more than a luxury or hobby. Life-long learning could become a priority for all classes, both reflecting and assisting a reduction of social inequality. The planet simply can no longer afford consumerism and the lack of imagination that underlies commerce as the default human activity and profit as the default motive.

What remains when externals are less in focus? Whatever is going on in the “real” world—whatever your accomplishments or failures, whatever else you have or don’t have—there is the miracle of your own feelings, thoughts, and sensations to enjoy. Your consciousness is your birthright, your constant resource and companion. It is your closest friend through thick and thin while you still live. It is your personal entertainment and creative project, your canvas both to paint and to admire. It only requires a subtle change of focus to bring it to the fore in place of the anxiety-ridden attention we normally direct outside. As Wordsworth observed, the world is too much with us. He was responding to the ecological and social crisis of his day, first posed by the Industrial Revolution. We are still in that crisis, amplified by far greater numbers of people caught up in desperate activity to get their slice of the global pie.

Perhaps historians will look back and see the era of pandemic as a rear-guard skirmish in the relentless war on nature, a last gasp of the ideology of progress. Or perhaps they will see a readjustment in human nature itself. That doesn’t mean we can stop doing, of course. But we could be doing the things that are truly beneficial and insist on actually enjoying them along the way. The changes needed to make life rewarding for everyone will be profound, beginning with a universal guaranteed income in spite of reduced production. We’ve tried capitalism and we’ve tried communism. Both have failed the common good and a human future. To paraphrase Monty Python, it is time for something entirely different.