It’s the awareness, the full experience . . .
of how you are stuck, that makes you recover.
— Frederick S. Perls
I remember my anthropology professor presenting the thesis, over 50 years ago, that humanity has always existed at the edge of extinction, a fragile species confronted with one crisis after another. This was at the height of the Vietnam war, and I did not want to believe him. The film Apocalypse Now was released in 1979, capturing the dark horror of men’s souls torn apart by war and giving my generation the name for that feeling of doom: apocalypse. I was deeply affected by the war, becoming depressed to the point of considering suicide. I wanted to believe that significant change was possible and that we could begin an era of permanent peace. I wanted apocalypse to mean “disclosure of something hidden,” as it does in the ancient Greek language. I wanted an explanation of, and resolution of, the senseless violence.
That was many wars ago, and now America is engaged in what is termed “perpetual war.” Thousands of nuclear missiles all over the planet are armed and ready to launch. The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that world spending related to the consequences or prevention of violence exceeds 13% of the world GDP, compared to the less than 1% spent on building the peace.
We are in a mass extinction event. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. (1) Humans are potentially one of those species.
This dismal picture of a downward spiral, this devolution of ambition and accomplishment, is very challenging for most of us. However, my professor pointed out that humanity has managed to survive somehow through all the turmoil, over thousands of years. Perhaps we need to accept that our collective mythology of this particular time as the one-and-only apocalypse is a bit overblown and in need of a reality check. There may be reason to believe that our current crisis is neither the end of the world nor the gateway into a golden age. We may simply be on a long journey through this special hell and many more crises to come. What if the entire role-function of humanity on this planet were to create and resolve crises?
Apocalyptic scenarios are certainly popular. They sell movies and the daily news. They are very dramatic, engaging and stressful. They are also very black and white. There is no middle choice, no grey zone, in apocalypse. There is a strong belief that humanity is stuck, that we are all a victim of oppression, unworthy, unable to make progress and needing to be rescued. The uncertainty about what is going to happen next breeds hyper-vigilance, such that small events assume enormous significance, and imaginations run wild with catastrophic possibilities. The common thread through it all is trauma: sudden changes, fear of the unknown, pain, loss and rude awakenings.
We are not victims of the world we see;
we are victims of the way we see the world.
— Dennis Kucinich
Many leadership coaches and community social workers now know that a history of trauma in a person will evoke a victim identity that is continuously supported by apocalyptic scenarios. This presents as self-pity, rationalization and a pessimistic demeanor (2). The traumatized person may also become an aggressive persecutor (3) that attacks and blames anyone they perceive as weaker than themselves so they can appear to be strong. Or they may become a self-righteous rescuer (4) and propose that getting rid of the persecutors will bring less trauma and more compassion without realizing that they have switched into the role of persecutor, themselves.
All of these roles are a cover-up for a loss of self-confidence, which is understandable, yet these behaviors prevent creative responses in crisis situations. Traumatized people tend to repeat defensive and avoidant behaviors which almost insure that the crisis will remain in place and most likely become more urgent.
This phenomena is what leads us to believe that we are immersed in the Dark Night of Our Soul, or Apocalypse. This is Hell, the end of a life of expansive freedom, because the roles of victim, persecutor and rescuer have become trapped in a repeating spin-cycle. The question of when does this ever end becomes important. Idealists like myself will often speak of a “world that works for everyone” as if it were somewhere in the future as a result of some mammoth social change effort that we have to get done because nobody else will do it. Paradoxically, acceptance of ourselves and other people as we are right now is the most powerful way to bring that future into the present, and requires no social organization whatsoever.
The homo sapiens who escape the spin-cycle will be the ones who let go of their tight-fisted, grief-ridden anger, let go of their desire to appear smart, strong and tough, and instead allow themselves to be transparent, honest and vulnerable in the present moment. Giving ourselves permission to show up just as we are, to “let it all hang out,” automatically extends this permission to others, and we become more trusting of other people, no longer demanding or expecting them to be different than they are but extending to them curiosity and respect.
This challenge works to our advantage, personally and collectively. If we accept that the evolution of humankind necessarily includes threats to survival in order to force a search for better strategies for thriving, if we accept that there is no growth without difficult challenges, and that the nature of a world that works for our collective benefit is to constantly be presented with new challenges to “boldly go where no human has gone before,” then this difficult world of the present moment is precisely the never-ending apocalypse that we need. This is the world that is working for everyone. To be fully alive, we must be dynamically expanding and growing. If not, we are like the walking dead — vegetative and breathing but numb.
How does acceptance of “eternal apocalypse in the now” alter our approach to social change?
It improves our ability to collaborate, to combine and multiply our human energies, our human “capital.” The inequalities of status and privilege among us become a source of power sharing instead of conflict when we acknowledge that everyone responds to their particular history of trauma in ways that we ourselves would most likely respond. There is tremendous equality in the present moment when we assume that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have right now to fulfill their needs, which are the same needs that we have (5). That kind of empathy leads to requests for more information instead of accusations and labels. When powerful, open-ended questions are presented, they can over time draw out epiphanies of life-changing wisdom from people who have misunderstood their own trauma and been unable to provide empathy to their own story, unable to understand why or how they were oppressing others. The oppressed become empowered by the space allowed for them to design their own lives.
It improves our sense of security when we become the captains of our own life process and when our vanity as somebody especially powerful (persecutor) or especially good (rescuer) or especially bad (victim) becomes irrelevant, even laughable. If we know that an insult, loss or unexpected outcome cannot change our decision to remain committed to our own self-care of our strength and flexibility in challenging circumstance, we become tremendously resilient. It doesn’t mean that life becomes a bed of roses, nor do we become masochistic about the thorns. We simply see and accept both.
It means that we become much more grateful for every opportunity to be connected to the real juice of life itself, to expansive growth of meaning and purpose. When we impact and contribute to the lives of others in ways that allow them to experience their own resilience in the face of trauma, we ourselves experience a deep validation of serenity and joy.
We cannot eliminate all the sources of our traumas, but we can teach ourselves skills for transcending them, integrating them into our lives as normal and natural events, in spite of the discomfort they cause. We cannot escape the continuous march of new crises to resolve, but we can change our expectations of Apocalypse and significant social change into a relaxed and playful, even child-like, attentiveness to problems. This shift will generally lead to more satisfying results as we trudge ever onwards from one hell to another. Practicing self-management of our emotions, attitudes and attention will eventually lead us to a realization that our worst fears about conflict, defeat and extinction may be our best friend and teacher.
All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation.
~~ Sheldon B. Kopp (6)
(2)(3)(4) The Empowerment Dynamic