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« Ego and Civilization: Provisional Efforts, Not Our Best »

Thomas MertonThomas Merton (1915-1968), a Benedictine monk, once said, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” It was a simple appeal for a new human from a person whose own engagement with the ego-Self struggle brought him to a consciousness large enough that he could cross into thoughts and actions too big for civilization. He learned from Nature, pursued interfaith spirituality, and earnestly believed that nonviolent societies were possible.  

On the heroic journey, both our ego personality and civilization are understood to be provisional, not the end point—much in the way a caterpillar is provisional en route to a butterfly. Self knows how to meet Merton’s appeal for a new human. It knows that the Civilization Project can be far surpassed by our species, and considers civilization’s  societies to be making do while our species figures out how to mature enough to move beyond them. Speaking of civilization in this intermediary way is analogous to how we develop from childhood. As children, we create a provisional personality, meaning we configure a personality to handle, as best we can, the “monsters” in ourselves and the overwhelmingly big and, too often, aggressive and hostile world. 

Throughout adolescence as well, we continue to negotiate with life’s forces from a more or less provisional identity. “Civilizing” the wild things inside and out is the best our ego-consciousness can come up with given all of its past and developing fears. But what we created for the time being makes a poor choice for the long run. Similarly, civilization’s ways with Nature do not make a good framework for practicing sustainable forestry, renewable agriculture, or planning urban centers with Earth’s full community of life in mind. Provisional arrangements don’t take in enough of the factors to create the more holistic policies and practices we need to mesh with Nature or to excite us about our full potential as humans. The result is a consciousness of adolescence that continues beyond its intended years and takes over shaping civilization from households to statehouses. Like an adolescent, civilization believes it already lives according to the greatest intelligence available. It does not seek the treasure that makes possible a new human able to live to our potential within a new paradigm of interrelatedness—especially since that paradigm is civilization’s undoing en route to OneEarth living!

Nevertheless, because we are a species with open-ended possibilities for growing consciousness, the urge to go beyond these provisional arrangements stays alive in us. In addition, Earth’s insurgency calls to those inner possibilities. The Earth-Self alliance urges us to transcend what is—to heal the wounds that gave birth to provisional arrangements and move on to where we can use our greater capacities. All of Earth’s systems involved in evolutionary life groan and yearn for us to move beyond the provisional personality of our childhood and adolescence, and beyond the provisional civilization our egos have created. To go beyond the provisional, we must go where egos and civilization don’t.

(The above is an excerpt from, From Egos to Eden: Our Heroic Journey to Keep Earth Livable, Chapter Ten, “A New Human (Underworld Included.” It’s being released February 6, 2017.)

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