The conventions of both major political parties have taken place, not only amidst overheated political rhetoric; but also in the midst of what promises to be the hottest summer in recorded history. For the first time on record, every inch of all 50 states is forecast to see above-average temperatures for the entire period leading up to the election. In the Middle East, where extremism and endless wars can seem like “hell on earth,” temperatures have reached as high as 129 degrees.
“We’re in record breaking territory no matter how you look at it,” said Jennifer Francis, an Arctic specialist at Rutgers University, “the ice is really low, the temperatures are really high, the fire seasons have started earlier… it’s uncharted territory we’re finding ourselves in.” Truth be told, we are in uncharted territory in terms of human culture as well.
As surface temperatures reach new highs month after month, people all over the earth become over-exposed to the burning rays of a once friendly sun. At the same time, once protective layers of social institutions wear thin and polarized political parties struggle to contain the raw forces of human emotion. Between the rise of global warming and the spread of global terror it becomes difficult to avoid intense feelings and extreme thoughts as inner fears compete with outer threats.
Both political parties suffer intense internal divisions at the same time as the hostility towards the opposing party slips into spasms of revulsion. Mutual hatred may prove to be the biggest motivating force during this exceptionally overheated political season. At a deeper level these are symptoms of an even greater tearing of the fabric of the world. To be alive at this time means to become a witness, willing or unwilling, to the loosening of the web of nature as well as the unraveling of the fabric of culture.
To be alive at this time means to be a witness to the cosmos melting into chaos; leaving us in a tumultuous state that James Joyce termed the “chaosmos.” Cosmos means order, as in the grand scheme of things; the whole thing seen as a whole with each piece in its natural place. The opposite of the cosmic arrangement is chaos [Gk khaos] meaning “chasm” or “gaping void.” Chaos is the primal emptiness, the abysmal abyss, the black hole from which all things appear and into which they can easily disappear. Chaos connotes collapse, dis-order, division, fragmentation, everything falling apart; the emptiness in the middle growing greater and the void of life becoming unavoidable.
The world exists between these two huge energies that make, unmake and remake everything. Some eras rise on the filling tides of cosmos as the breath of inspiration launches wondrous forms over the face of the earth. At other times, the tides of chaos tip the scales out of balance throwing everything into extremes of disarray. The world dips into a “dark night of the soul” where whatever rises can fall quickly, where the reach of great ideals can fail in the face of emotional storms, where tragedy can become more of a season than an isolated event.
The overwhelming problems and massive threats are pressing and real; yet they also serve as a cosmic wake-up call intended to stir us from the sleep of simple existence and so-called “reality.” In the midst of all the turmoil, something subtle and enduring about the world is trying to be rediscovered. The human soul has a mythic propensity and cosmological instinct for making something out of nothing and we are being asked to participate in the change. The human soul knows the presence of both chaos and cosmos. It can survive all the lost dreams and sudden reversals that the tides of chaos produce. Unlike the rational mind, it follows unseen patterns that include both loss and renewal, both catastrophic collapse and the little redemptions that make life possible on earth.
The human soul can hold views as opposite as order and disorder, as contrary as hate and love, as exclusive as progress and collapse. Even as things fall apart the soul imagines endless ways to hold body and spirit together. Yet, in order to make a real change a person or a culture must consciously step beyond their usual condition and enter uncharted territories before life can find a true path onward again.
Down through the ages, humans have proven to be both “tough-minded” and “tender-minded.” Tough-minded attitudes have produced skills of survival that employ hard-nosed analysis and practical solutions. Tough can mean “strong and firm and steadfast.” Yet, the tough-minded can become excessive and exclusionary, turning hard-headed and hard-hearted. In the extreme they tend to become fundamentalists, survivalists, extremists of all kinds.
Tender comes from roots meaning, “soft, delicate, young,” implying weaknesses associated with being “fresh, green or new.” Tender are the new shoots just trying to break through the hardened ground and enter the world. Tender-hearted are those who tend to things that are young and fragile or just coming into being. In the extreme, the tender-minded can become too soft-hearted and lenient, be overly forgiving, even too humane for their own good.
The two attitudes can manifest as hard thinkers opposed to deep feelers; yet like cosmos and chaos the two are eternally entwined and mutually involved. Like our ancestors, we each bear a mixture of the two attitudes as both tough and tender ways of being have proven to be necessary for human survival and for sustaining human cultures. The question is not so much which one is better, as much as which qualities are most needed at this time.
We live in hard times when the tendency to be hard-minded and hard-hearted can intensify as a reaction to the pressures of great uncertainty and radical change. As people become increasingly afraid of what might happen they become more willing to believe that the other side is dead wrong, ill-intentioned and possibly evil. There is a great and growing imbalance between the hard-headed and tender-minded views that leads to greater and greater chasms of misunderstanding. There also develops a tendency to commit to a fixed ideology or a “strong man” type of leader as hardline attitudes make it easier to justify fear-based reactions that punish or reject those who happen to see things differently.
Subscribe Donate ShopThe ability to be tough-minded remains useful; but by now, the fact that we are all in trouble in terms of both radical changes in nature and deep disturbances in culture can only be denied by those who become blindly reactionary. The more tender-hearted imagination suggests we are all in this together and that the underlying unity in life must be found if we are to survive. After all, we all live under the same sun. We have all entered uncharted territory together and altruism, inclusion and understanding are also tools of human survival.
The old soul that dwells at the core of each person has a tolerance for chaos and an instinct for survival. Not the simple biology of the survival of the fittest, but a complex involvement with hidden aspects of creation that only become known when the chips are down and there’s nothing else to do but take on a bigger imagination of the cosmos and of one’s place within it.
Just as time seems to be running out on everyone, timeless things try to slip back into human awareness. Things become both impossible and more possible at the same time. Amidst a hardening sense that it all might end at any time, new ideas and surprising designs appear. The return of cosmic order and cosmic sense always happens at the edge of the abyss, on the brink of disaster where life and beauty and meaning are snatched once again from the teeth of chaos.
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