“When we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Victor Frankl
I’ve been reflecting on this remarkable period we’re living through.
And I think that if these past few fraught weeks of the Humanity 4.0 horror show have taught us anything, it is that in times of great constraint, a remarkable counter-unleashing of human possibility, creativity and adaptability ensues.
In a lightning short span of time we have witnessed 7.8 billion people (with what turn out to be very thin membranes of mortal protection) reduced to cave-like existence, and forced to find new ways to cooperate, communicate and recalibrate catalysing a collective revival of altruism and existentialism in a kind of modern-day renaissance.
Having said that, my intent is not to rose-colour this moment in time.
Because we have, of course, also witnessed mind-boggling acts of un-cooperation, political ignorance (guess who?), primal hoarding and mass diversionary gorging on the Netflix documentary Tiger King– a dark and disturbing tale of the American Dream which lays bare humanity gone completely nutbag rogue. (I went there, too. Can’t. Even. Explain.)
But my point is that this period has indeed seen a renaissance of sorts – with a large number of us humans rapidly recalibrating, innovating and accelerating problem-solving with florid experimentation, and remarkable acts of benevolence, rapid technological adoption and real human progress.
If we examine the great renaissances of the past, they were epochs that saw a rise in humanist philosophy (a belief in self, the absolutism of human worth and individual dignity); secularism (a move away from notions of the afterlife and a shift to belief in the intrinsic importance and possibilities of human life on Earth); plus a healthy dose of wide-spread skepticism (a deep questioning of the world and environment, rabid experimentation and ‘out of the box’ thinking).
What we have witnessed on a wide scale these past weeks has held all of those renaissance principles.
Mainly because many of us have gone into (forced) hibernation to do a solid rethink on our worth, our purpose and what it actually means to be human in the rat race of our times – a little stunned as we come to terms with the realities of our freshly surprising fragility and the deeply etched flaws of our collective hubris.
Against the backdrop of the ever-darkening complexities of the black swan economic and confounding health crises that are playing out across the planet right now, what we are actually living through is a seismic survivalist shift. A tipping point for humans on earth. And our brains are scrambling to make sense of it all. Why is this happening?
There are many theories floating in the opinion soup.
Whether you cling to the determinism of Gaia, the impassioned pleas against the crises of modernity from Greta Thunberg, Great Filter theory that assumes dumb humanity will ultimately shit where we live and thereby completely destroy our own habitat (clever), or indeed the prescient Camus-predicted plague that will counter our turbo-capitalistic descent into pestilence, this COVID-19 global existential jolt does make one wonder whether this really may be the great Saganist pale blue dot wake-up call to our reckless, hapless, hopeless species that we had to have.
Whatever the dogma you cling to, we’ve been snapped into consciousness.
Within a matter of weeks, the insidious entrance of COVID-19 into our everyday lives and postulated comforts has made many of us violently ‘woke’ to the short-sighted omnivorousness of our previous realities.
Certainty is gone. Assurance is absent. Anxiety is rife. Markets are smashed. Jobs are gone. Livelihoods are broken. Schools are closed. Systems are imploding. The paradox of choice is compressed.
We are effectively, collectively flying blind, making it up as we go and grappling with the shut-down of status quo, the collapse of long-termism and a shroud of uncertainty about the days and months (and likely years) to come.
So it’s with new eyes that we notice our previous latte-sipping, lycra-clad, suburban sleepwalk towards ‘progress’ was a little bit assumptive.
That our daily gorge on reality TV and social media soma, our shoulder-shrugged hurtle toward Singularity and our willingness to nod at earnest Three Horizon over-wrought strategy models whilst spouting ‘value-adding’ business rap power-jargon suddenly looks pretty pathetic and misplaced – and has absolutely no useful role to play in the current epoch.
That was then and this is now.
We can no longer go on the way we were.
Because in the early wake of the covid crisis, we’ve actually all been outed as fish in water.
The late, great essayist-novelist David Foster Wallace tells the following story in a famous 2005 commencement speech:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys! How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes; “What the hell is water?”
Wallace’s point was that most of us wander through our lives dead-eyed, unconscious and unwoke to the daily drip of hyperbole, set to the day-to-day trench default that is humanity in a post-Industrialised world.
We relentlessly perpetuate – unthinking, unblinking – habitually capitulating toward our next meeting or e-comm hit or home renovation, with (in Wallace’s words) “the most obvious and important realities often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about”.
But COVID-19 is our wake-up call. A chance to notice. Our chance to recast humanity 4.0. This pandemic is the crack that lets the light in. For in the midst of chaos lie the seeds of opportunity that can grow new understandings, novel solutions and a mass human enlightenment of sorts.
What COVID-19 has given us, like the wars and pandemics that have gone before, is a chance to press pause and pull back on our relentless blind hurtle toward an unknown wall – and rethink what it means to have a healthy, worthwhile human existence on this pale blue planet right now.
This could be the new Age of Reason – our 21st Century step change toward a human species guided by rationalism, empiricism and progressivism.
What we do know is the curve will eventually flatten. And we will likely endure. We have so far managed to survive 200,000 years, and seen centuries of human progress, mind-blowing achievement in the face of adversity and multiple civilisations flourishing. (We’ve also done some very dumb shit along the way.)
But if we can take the opportunity to learn the real lesson in this retreat to early human cave-dwelling social assemblage, survivalist problem-solving and a resurgence of modernist existentialism, we can see it as an opportunity for satori – a sudden recasting and breaking down of our arbitrarily divided and hastily constructed selves, and a reordering of our global systems and day-to-day human ways.
We can challenge ourselves to change ourselves.
We can create, adapt and simplify.
We can maybe write a new constitution for ourselves, and humanity writ large.
And we can finally wake to see what is in plain sight: “This is water. This is water.”