Editor’s Note: This article does not offer ‘hopium,’ but rather, the power of imagination to create inner transformation as we face apocalypse consciously.
I am indeed a practical dreamer. My dreams are not airy nothings. I want to convert my dreams into realities as far as possible.
— MK Gandhi
I am English by origin, but I am early World-Man, and I live in exile from the world community of my desires. I salute that finer, larger world across the generations, and maybe someone down the vista may look back and appreciate an ancestral salutation.
— HG Wells
Two visionaries of very different types penned these moving statements as World War II erupted around the troubled globe. Gandhi’s convictions would take him to jail; Wells’s would keep him scouting fires in London as Nazi bombs blew out the windows of his house. Both men sensed that apocalypse anticipates renewal as surely as descent precedes rise.
Our time is one of apocalypse, an archetype found in the lore and myth of many times and peoples. As we face crises of ecology, economy, religion, politics, finance, education, agriculture, housing, water, air, and soil, as Earth overheats, species go extinct, and the air-giving oceans die on every side, we wonder how to make sense of it all, or indeed whether it’s even possible to.
“It’s all a question of story,” wrote “geologian” Thomas Berry, priest and environmentalist, as things began to slide downhill. “We are in trouble just because we do not have a good story. We are between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.”
But how are we to compose it if we cannot even imagine it?
Practical versus Dreamer
More and more of us are share with war refugees and abuse survivors the loss of the capacity to envision a better story, a tale better than the one we now live. Like the laboratory dogs shocked repeatedly into helplessness by the inventor of Positive Psychology, we allow self-styled experts and leaders of the sort who only ever plunge us into catastrophe–the greedy, the narcissistic, the power-hungry, the violent–to go on about their terrible business as we march in step toward species-wide extinction. Yet the racketeers whom we distinguish with titles like “statesman” and “world leader” hang onto power by keeping better visions invisible.
“Practical dreamer.” The dire global situation is largely a nonverbal reply to the question of what happens when we tear those two words apart.
CG Jung noticed that two psychologies universally present flourish when operating side by side. He used the Latin word senex–“old” woman or man–to identify the practical, the detail-oriented, the structure-favoring, orderly, elderly-thinking psychology. This word forms the root of the English word “senator.” Puer–“young”; a girl or boy–refers to the psychology of ideas in motion, utopian visions, creative impulses, and flights of fancy.
Skeptic and idealist, culture critic and utopian, extraverted fact-gatherer and introverted intuitive, deconstructor and synthesizer, bottom-liner and visionary need to influence each other to maintain inner and outer balance. “Practical” without “dreamer” never flies, dares nothing, strangles new ideas in their cribs: “Yes, but how can you make a living from it?” “Dreamer” without “practical” never lands, gets lost in leaps of ideas, satisfies itself with dreams but does not ever realize them: “I don’t get my hands dirty: I’m a visionary.” The “practical” without dreaming hardens into a cynic who believes in nothing and discounts everything not nailed down; the “dreamer” without practicality thinks chanting and journaling will save the world.
Seen through this psychological lens, fundamentalist religion and scientism (the nonscientific ideology that only science offers true knowledge) look less like opponents than like senexian twins caught in futile mutual combat. With the mythical All-Seeing Eye of God we might pair the eyeball-shaped “ship of the imagination” that sails through the recent remake of Cosmos, subtitled A Spacetime Odyssey. A cyclops showed up in the original Odyssey as well, and his monocular mode of narrow vision reappears whenever we lose the ability to grasp that our perspective is a perspective subject to human limitations.
Permaculture designers tell us that Nature wastes nothing. Where waste piles up is where we have broken a natural cycle. Puer should lead and follow senex, who should follow puer. Disrupting this rhythm breaks a natural social and psychological cycle.
During a classroom discussion about puer and senex, one of my Chinese graduate students drew a figure on the whiteboard:
This is xiao (“shao”), the character for filial piety (nao in Japanese). It brings younger and elder, ideal and real, future and past, dream and practicality together into one figure, showing, at least ideally, how the two psychologies meet. How to soften the line that separates them?
Perhaps a start would be seeing how dreaming and visioning can give rise to practical considerations. Will you take a walk with me?
The word “imagination” has a Latin root: imaginare, “form an image of.” “Fantasy” comes from “to make visible.” Sometimes I walk around the neighborhood imagining how things could be different.
These repellent stucco cottages, for instance, most of will collapse in the next big earthquake. Why do we not build beautiful structures to last? And why not more room between them, more trees, more food gardens, more open spaces where neighbors can converse? On a windy day the towering palm tree planted next door where no palm would naturally stand threatens to clobber the passerby with a heavy falling frond.
I pass an apartment building with dozens of TV dishes on the roof. There is American hyper-individualism for you. Surely one dish would do. Or none…
In a park I note the children playing together: black, yellow, red, white, mixed… They’re already realizing a better world. Diversity isn’t just a trendy idea or a corporate fad: it’s how Earth grows healthy ecosystems, how the personality welcomes its wholeness into consciousness, how we grow healthy societies….
Teen males in a passing car roll down tinted windows to hoot at young women having a chat on the sidewalk. Lyrics about “booty” and “bitches” also pour out. I imagine a time when brutal economic demands don’t keep working parents apart from children or elders warehoused away from the distracted young spellbound by digital upgrades of Plato’s cave of shadow shapes. I imagine respectful young men, and confident women who walk free of the fear of abuse and violence, peacefully reaching adulthood…..
Smoke on the horizon: another blast at the oil refinery. Poor families running for cover and not finding any. Why do we still use petroleum? No casualties or damage to report at the local wind farm….
Here is a crumpled paper bag with a McDonald’s logo, the contents dumped two feet from a trashcan. By heart-wrenching contrast, how much cleaner and lighter things are when we grow up in reverence of place and land and Earth…
…See with one look around the consequences of imagination’s failure, and reflect on the healthier and happier possibilities.
Overidentification with–meaning: psychological possession by–the inner-critic senex who chops down our fantasies as impractical is not the only reason we fail to dream. To imagine what we might never see is to risk bitter disappointment. Easier to lapse into hopeless cynicism or the child stance of learned helplessness: “The powers that be won’t permit it.” Indeed, staying chained to the fear of doing without is exactly where the ruling institutions of a dark time want to keep us. The awakened ability to dream, to love, and to organize is the greatest threat faced by those who hold power illegitimately.
But we too are the powers that be, and we can choose not to be fooled or bullied into silent passivity. Paul Tillich put it like this:
It takes tremendous courage to resist the lure of appearances. The power of being which is manifest in such courage is so great that the gods tremble in fear of it.
As I walk around and dream with my eyes open, I reflect (moving from puer to senex) that everything I’ve just hoped for already thrives somewhere. We might not see it in our standardized and hystericized “news,” or hear about it in a classroom organized like an assembly line, but all over the world, countless experiments in living in peace, justice, and beauty unfold. Communities free of racism and sexism, ableism and ageism. Soils nurtured to produce clean food. Art and festival celebrating earthly joy. Young and old enjoying each other’s company. It’s all out there, and more, happening in a million places around the blue-green globe.
So why not just scale it up?
As I continue my stroll I recall a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which Samuel Clemens, brought forward into the 24th century, is given a tour of the spacious, family-friendly Enterprise by the ship’s counselor. Although he grumbles a lot, especially about the absence of decent cigars, his suspiciousness gives way to cautious approval. After asking whether a green-skinned crew member he just spotted is a slave, he is surprised by the ensuing exchange:
Deanna Troi: The people you see are here by choice.
Samuel Clemens: So there are a privileged few who serve on these ships living in luxury and wanting for nothing–but what about everybody else? What about the poor? You ignore them.
Troi: Poverty was eliminated on Earth a long time ago. And a lot of other things disappeared with it: hopelessness, despair, cruelty…
Clemens (fiercely): Young lady, I come from a time when men achieve power and wealth by standing on the backs of the poor, where prejudice and intolerance are commonplace and power is an end unto itself. And you’re telling me that isn’t how it is anymore?
Troi (smiling): That’s right.
Clemens: Hmmm… well… maybe it’s worth giving up cigars for after all.
Although Star Trek has since continued its degeneration into post-Roddenberry militaristic adventurism, the puzzle of how to dream up and implement a worldwide, Earth-honoring culture of justice and belonging and even delight seems less of a puzzle when we realize we already have most of the pieces. We need not dream, or build, from scratch. Just keep putting pieces together. We need not and cannot wait until the 24th century.
And we have a beacon: the image of Earth rising as a shining symbol of hope. Our still-beautiful planet seen as a whole for the first time in the history of the human family.
The Overview Effect is what today’s astronauts call it when a newcomer to space comes under the thrall of Earth’s glowing loveliness glimpsed from orbit. “The stars don’t look bigger,” observed astronaut Sally Ride, “but they do look brighter… When I wasn’t working, I was usually at a window looking down at Earth.”
From space I saw Earth–indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone.
–Muhammad Ahmad Faris
We were astonished to discover that, during a flight, you have to learn anew not only to look, but also to see. At first the finest nuances of color elude you, but gradually your vision sharpens and your color perception becomes richer, and the planet spreads itself before you with all its indescribable beauty.
The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.
–Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud
But as Rakesh Sharma pointed out, “One does not have to undertake a space flight to come by this feeling.”
Sometimes I like to imagine myself an early citizen of a near-future Earthrise-appreciating civilization here already in pieces awaiting thoughtful assembly, first in dream, and then on the ground.
I like to fantasize about how its citizens will live together, what they will wear, what their customs and festivals will be like, how large a part art and dance and music will play in their locally grown, reciprocally supportive centers of culture. Will they regard the image of Earth as their emblem, the glowing symbol of an intercultural, interspecies togetherness-in-diversity finally achieved after agonizing millennia of groping forward?
I picture their historians looking back on our time of troubles and wondering how their bright present–our future–could emerge from it, the rise following the descent. “We had to learn,” they remind each other, “to take matters into our own hands, for our own good and that of our planet, instead of submitting to leaders devoid of conscience or vision. We had to limit the influence of those who turn us against each other. We had to find out how to move into full human maturity. And we had to learn to make the inward descent, the psychospiritual apocalypse, staying alive to the dissolution of our most rigidly held worldviews while waiting for a hopeful image to rise from the abyss.”
The alternative? Just a sad epitaph no one will ever read: “Humanity [dates here]. Never learned how to enact the descent inwardly, acted it out literally instead. Exeunt omnes.”
We should play at living like future Earth culture citizens now, I muse, by dramatizing the New Story into being one playlet at a time. With that, a meteor passes hissing over my head on the way down into the Pacific. Never been that close to one. Wow. Where are you, Merlin?
However, if we are ever to assemble Terrania (as I like to call my own fantasy of a just and peaceful planetary society: what is yours?), we must prove worthy of it by facing the disasters breaking all around us, daring to dream beyond them, and organizing conversations so we can share these dreams forward into practices. It’s not a matter of pulling down institutions and power hierarchies to make way for new experiments in consciousness and culture: pulling down is part of the violent old Sargonian mentality, and the institutions and hierarchies are already crumbling, incapable of adapting to either locally felt needs or planet-wide consequences.
Facing up to this reality clears imaginal space for playing with, celebrating, dramatizing new ideas about how to live in beauty with our planet and each other.
As we dream we might also distinguish genuine hope from false hope. In actuality just the flip side of disillusionment, false hope puts its trust in crumbling governments, authoritarian sects, unsustainable technologies, or otherworldly speculations as though these could ever save us. By contrast, genuine hope recognizes current obstacles but aligns itself with future possibilities. It is the mood that accompanies realistic faith that we can do better, individually and collectively. In Spanish and other languages, esperar, “to hope,” also means “to wait for” and “to expect.” We might add: to demand.
As long as the Earth can make a spring every year, I can. As long as the Earth can flower and produce nurturing fruit, I can, because I’m the Earth. I won’t give up until the Earth gives up.
For me, my imaginary Terranian citizenship does not conflict with my status as a Californian and an American, just as a true planetary culture would include all the fruits of locally grown attachments. I think of the international soul-force of Gandhi’s liberatory work, and of Wells’s universal rights given form decades later by a UN committee led by Eleanor Roosevelt. For these and other practical dreamers the split between loyalties neighborly, regional, and political deserves no recognition.
As the sun sets and my steps point homeward, I remember a recent podcast in which an environment scientist confessed that his data left him no room to hope that humanity would survive global warming. We should heed such voices of despair even while realizing they announce, if not the end of the world, at least the limits of the senexian scientistic worldview of prediction, materialism, and control. Anything can happen and often does, for “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or, switching from Shakespeare to Gary Snyder: “Nature bats last.”
Imagine if we gathered in small groups to dream up ideas about finer, larger futures, then pooled the ideas to see which resonated most strongly and most ached for realization. What might we invent? What might reinvent us? If millennia of oppression since Sargon the First conquered Sumer reveal anything, it’s that planning from the top down only fosters more oppression, and that facts and plans without rich stories see only from outside, each a flying cyclops stripped of flesh and feeling.
Perhaps it’s time to try planting visions from the ground up and watering those that take root. Who knows? In restorying how we can live here, we might just prove that you can go home again. Especially if that home is your homeworld.