Falling Off the Edge

hugh macleod dinosaur
drawing by hugh macleod at gapingvoid

How do you deal with a level of cognitive dissonance so profound that it casts a veil over all your interactions with other people, and makes these interactions seem somehow unreal?

What do you do when you dare not speak honestly about the things you know, the things you believe and care about, for fear the people you’re speaking with will just tune out or turn away? For fear they’ll put some distance between you and them, because they don’t want to talk about it, or even think about it. Because they’re not ready. Or because they just don’t care — or more accurately perhaps they just can’t care.

That may sound arrogant, but it’s not meant to. I don’t claim to have any answers, or a monopoly on understanding how the world really works or what, if anything, we should do about it. I’ve just had the luxury of time, access to resources and a sense of curiosity to find out what most people haven’t been able or willing to explore. It would be nice to talk with people about it. But I can’t.

John Gray, in Straw Dogs, writes:

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.

Science has been used to support the conceit that humans are unlike all other animals in their ability to understand the world. In fact, its supreme value may be in showing that the world humans are programmed to perceive is a chimera.

Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould.

I appreciate that we’re all doing our best. We’re all busy looking after “the needs of the moment” — urgent family matters, work priorities, chores that cannot be put off, trying to cope with our internal demons and the traumas that our culture has inflicted on all of us. As I describe it in Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour, things considered urgent will always get done before things that are merely important, and merely important things will never get done because once the urgent work is done, we are too exhausted to do more than what is easy and fun. I get that. That was my reality for decades, and I’m not ashamed of what I did, and didn’t do, during that time.

It’s not so much that people are unwilling to acknowledge “inconvenient truths” as much as that people are so caught up in the moment-to-moment crises occurring in their immediate circles, and within themselves, that they simply can’t. They are overwhelmed already, and if they had the intellectual and emotional bandwidth to entertain something more, a discussion of the existential crisis facing our planet (one that we can likely take no action to ameliorate) would not be their first choice. Nor would a discussion of what it means to be human.

When I do find people interested in talking about the matters I usually dare not talk about — civilization’s already-beginning collapse and the accelerating and inevitable sixth great extinction of life on Earth, or the non-existence of self and time — these are generally people who gain needed reassurance about their personal worldviews by debating with others; their objective is to satisfy themselves that you are wrong. They are not interested in listening, or exploring possibilities. And, generally, I am not interested in debating. I just want to share truths as I understand them, not as an evangelist but because it’s through informed and open-minded conversation that we come to really learn and understand, and make sense of things.

Dave's Networks 2015
(Worldview codes are from The New Political Map.)

So I talk, with most of those in my circles — the 200-or-so people whose company I keep, face-to-face or virtually, because I enjoy that company (now that I’m retired I rarely have to converse with people whose company I don’t enjoy) — about things that matter to them, about things they are ready and interested in conversing about. I just shut up about the things that are, these days, most important to me. It’s just more trouble than it’s worth.

The metaphor of trying to sell a meteor to a dinosaur, shown in the cartoon at the top of this post, is precisely apt.

And hence the cognitive dissonances. Hence the veil of unreality that pervades my connections with people.

We are social creatures, we humans. We do most of our ‘making sense of the world’ through collaboration and conversation with people we trust and love, with people who share our worldviews. What happens to you when you can no longer have such collaborations and conversations, because your worldview has diverged too far from almost everyone else’s?

In my experience, you give up and accept that your worldview must be wrong, because solipsism is a very fragile philosophy. (That’s especially ironic for me when one of the subjects I long to talk about is the complete illusion of the self. I’d make a lousy solopsist.)

The alternative, of just dwelling alone (at least among humans) with this too-far-ahead (or completely insane) worldview, is probably unhealthy. I feel sometimes as if I’m becoming invisible, or going mad. As if I’m falling off the Edge I began living on a dozen years ago when I started to explore the subjects of this blog. I feel incredible frustration struggling to come to grips with an intellectual understanding that is at once mind-blowing and seemingly impossible to grasp experientially, when there is no one to really share it with.

What I long to do is to move past a discussion of the inevitability of civilizational collapse and the sixth great extinction, and the illusion of self and time, and discuss what does it mean?. Not what can we do about it, but what does it mean?

What does it mean to live in the final generations of a two-millennium long civilization that has grown global and monolithic, substantially eradicating all alternative cultures in its wake? What does it mean to witness the culmination of a thirty-millennium long (not very long in Earth terms) rapidly-accelerating extinction event, the first in 65 million years, that will transform the face of the planet?

What does it mean to be a self-perceiving human ‘individual’ and realize that one’s ‘self’, one’s sense of separateness and self-control from the rest of life on Earth, is a useful and convenient illusion that doesn’t really exist? What does it mean to appreciate that the qualities that most distinguish humans from other creatures — this sense of self, of ‘mind’, of separateness, of ‘consciousness’, and the sense of discrete, linear time — are massively-simplified constructions of the human brain that are not only unreal, they actually create a separateness and an incapacity to realize what is actually real, an incapacity to just be in the world that ‘less intelligent’ creatures aren’t hampered by?

Of course, what these things mean ultimately doesn’t matter. The more-than-human world is indifferent to our struggle to make sense of things, to appreciate their implications. An appreciation of these things won’t change the course of events, won’t change anything in fact.

Or maybe, for us poor too-smart-for-our-own-good creatures, it could change everything. Perhaps an appreciation of these things could allow us to rejoin the community of all-life-on-Earth, transcend our self-inflicted misery and suffering, and re-learn to just be, presently and joyfully as a part of it all.

Maybe. I don’t know. There’s only so much you can figure out talking to yourself.

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17 Responses to Falling Off the Edge

  1. Sue says:

    Recently I did an online … well, it wasn’t a course, it was more a shared space with a forum and a weekly chat by the wonderful Charles Eisenstein where he interviewed guests and participants in the group. It was called The Space Between Stories. There were no grand answers to the problems we face, and I could feel the fear and frustration of us all as we grappled with the almost overhwelming desire for just that. The conclusion, if there was one we came to, was as you say – that any answer lies beyond, in just being. One of the participants, Bayo Akomolafe, who is a Nigerian thinker and psychologist, talked about the deeper, darker ways of being that exist in all cultures except our most stupid one, about walking while not knowing where you’re walking, about a radical acceptance of that not knowing which leads out into knowing.

    Some days I share your views that we are doomed. Others I see that all we’ve ever needed has been a chink of light. But it’s true that there are so many zombies. Is it Buddhism that talks about hungry ghosts? That totally epitomises western culture and I’m not convinced that its inhabitants won’t use its dull and shitty tale to be the death of us all. And yet … who knows? Perhaps the new story is coming and we just can’t see it yet through the death and decay of the end of the old one.

  2. Paul Heft says:

    There are many who want to put a grand meaning on this edge of history at which we stand, they want to wrap it in an edifying story that will lead us away from the edge into a glorious unfolding of civilization, a great advance, a redemption for our species.
    (“The Great Turning … to a life-sustaining civilization.” —Joanna Macy)
    (“The universe as a whole … evolves toward ever-greater complexity, beauty, possibility, and awareness …” and “Creation unfolds in its epic journey of self-discovery.” —David Korten)

    But you, many readers and I foresee civilizational collapse and a great extinction. Is it really necessary to find meaning in this? Macy, like you, believes in “speaking the truth about what we are facing … [being concerned] without necessarily getting hooked on something having to endure.” After all, “we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell … But what it comes down to is that we are here now. So the choice is how to live now. … We can do it beautifully. If we are going to go out, then we can do it with some nobility, generosity and beauty, so we do not fall into shock and fear.”

    I understand this to be an attitude, an orientation. If it’s a “meaning for life” then it’s wide open for our interpretation. Living “beautifully” is a personal choice that doesn’t have to be grandiose or universally held. It doesn’t have to aim for changing the course of events.

    In your case I think living beautifully includes compassion for the entire living world, with particular attention to the human species whose mind seems so adept at inflicting pain on itself through its fearful self-consciousness. That doesn’t mean you can care for the world, and anyway that’s not where you are driven. Rather, you (through this blog) are generous with your insights and your musings, gently sharing what might be shocking ideas to many readers, helping us see the unexamined false assumptions we often hold, the distorting worldviews. You are generous with your stories of other ways of imagining life, so that we might loosen (perhaps slightly) our identification with particular beliefs, roles, norms.

    And it seems that, for you, living beautifully includes allowing yourself (and reminding others) to experience wonder, joy (and sadness) in “just being,” experiencing life directly, learning how to put aside the personal stories, myths, and cultural filters that induce us to become anxious, judge, control, manipulate, dominate, conform, rationalize, pretend, ignore, and hide. You recognize that intellectual understanding can never be complete nor accurate, so you are (quite appropriately) looking beyond the intellect for a way of knowing the world with more immediacy.

    In what sense are you saying “it could change everything”? Do you mean, if everyone had your understanding or followed your path? (If so, then I agree in theory but consider that a pipe dream.) Or do you mean, a big change in your perspective on, or your understanding of, the world? Yes, that seems a real possibility, and it’s exciting to those of us who share many of your views and frustrations and may be on similar paths. Please continue sharing!

  3. Wendy says:

    What an interesting essay! This follows my thoughts quite well and then diverges from them in interesting ways. When I was a child I learned about plate tectonics and how mountains form, and I wondered what it would be like to see that process unfold. I was sad because what I learned was that it is so slow I could never actually see it. One of The perspectives that I find hard to share is my amazement at seeing geologic – level changes to the earth (such as the loss of the arctic ice).
    I faced the reality that all life on earth would die long ago, when I learned that at some distant point in the future our sun would grow old and turn into a red giant and engulf all the nearer planets, earth included. The idea that life will just go on, indefinitely, with only gradual changes, is a fantasy that is contradicted by the fossil records of life on earth and by the astronomical evidence of the life- cycle of stars. This never worried me at all. But now, when profound geologic-level changes are occurring right now, which can be traced back to our own species’ existence, I have been visited by both worry and guilt, and a sense that we could as a species change our ways, and run out our time a little bit (geologically speaking) longer. I don’t know if we can, I think perhaps it is possible. But the other idea I have a hard time talking about is that I don’t think it matters. We were never going to exist forever. Just like no person will live forever no species will live forever. I have finally faced the inevitability of our species extinction, I have gone beyond the worry and the guilt.
    I am still interested in working to stave off massive human suffering through the process. I am also interested in humans going into space, because we could, and because it is so like us. We are the ones that when faced with an ocean as far as the eye could see said, no idea what was on the other side, obviously no way to get there, thought: what if we take one of these little wooden canoes out and see where we can get?

  4. rob de laet says:

    To avert complete catastrophe, not only do we need a binding Paris accord plus a global fee and dividend system on carbon. It will not be enough, because there is too much in the pipeline. We need to start massive – and I mean massive – reforestation, global scale reform of agriculture to non ploughing carbon negative methods and restoration of grasslands, cordon off huge tracts of land for natural habitat restoration, which will also restore the hydrological cycle at a micro level. This way we could get to necessary negative emissions by 2025. It will still get to be the worst century ever, but we have a chance to avoid annihilation.

  5. christer says:

    It seems humanity needs to bring humanity to the brink of self destruction, to experience that, as well, before being capable (at least those that are left) to create something new, in harmony with nature. The question is who will be left? The urbanites in cities, the farmers and fishermen in coastal plains? Who will be the lucky (or unlucky) to survive and witness the rebirth of humanity?

    That is one way of looking at our present predicament.

    Another is seeing this life as just a short instant of learning, an opportunity to Love, Share, Give, and Receive.

    It all ends up being a choice in the polarities of a dualistic existence, however short…

    Thanks for sharing, it all resonates very much with my feelings.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Paul — yes, exactly. It could change everything only for those able to arrive at that realization. That may be just you and me, and I’m not so sure about me.

    And just to be clear, when I talk about “what does it mean” that’s in the narrow sense of what are the implications of realizing these things, not “what does it mean” in any profound, spiritual, larger than anything we can understand meaning. I’ve long ago given up looking for or ascribing that kind of “meaning” to anything.

  7. liliana says:

    By these days and over the next month I will be away from home and internet, I want to read your post carefully then. (And I must recall my writing skills and my limited knowledge of English). Thank you very much.

    I see you are very interested in the concept and practical non-self. From my point of view this Practice is not direct or simply equivalent to non-existence of the self. This, which, ultimately, is a philosophical conception (epistemological and cosmological), … or one expression (in the words) from mystical experience, … or of access at zazen, or, to kensho experiences (in Zen Buddhism).

    I do not pretend to refer once again to the subject, however, I want remit to a Buddhist researcher-writer, whose work I value.


  8. What does it mean? In the sense of the implications of realizing these things?

    I love that we sometimes touch that conversation together. While we are playing games. While we are working on a plan for culture in our community. While we are trading stories about workshops.

    What does it mean that we may be the first species to be conscious of it’s own inevitable extinction? I don’t know. It just seems to invite me ever deeper into not knowing actually. I so mistrust the future now that I’m not sure what to do.

    I think, as I said to you last week, it means preparing my kids with basic heuristics for living that might serve them. Things like “Treat others well. Be gentle. Learn to live with difference. Remember that you are privileged. Use your anger as a man to stand up for those less powerful than you. Do what you can to bring beauty and peace in the world. Make mistakes and admit you’re wrong. Try and leave things better than when they were left to you. Never burn bridges. learn how to do something practical. Look after your body.” Those were the things I told my son to do, given that I was asked to write him something that would help usher him towards the future.

    What it means for me that I have to prepare my kids differently than I was prepared.

  9. Siona says:

    “Maybe. I don’t know. There’s only so much you can figure out talking to yourself.”

    Yes. And who’s to say you’re still not talking to yourself, and that I’m / we’re all not just a reflection of that self mirrored back?

    (With love and presence and always joy)

  10. Kristen Reynolds says:

    Thank you for your essay. I feel alone much of the time, too. Essays like yours really help to show me that there are others going through the same isolation.

  11. Sue says:

    I think in the end what it means does matter, because, as Max Weber insisted, what distinguishes human being behavior is that it is meaningful. Humans must always make sense of things before they can act. With everyday, familiar things that sense is judged so automatically and quickly that we are unaware the process exists, it is only when we encounter the new and unfamiliar that we become aware of the process of having to make sense, establish meaning, before acting.

    I puzzle over these same things everyday. In particular, I’m absorbed with observing the different way that we humans make sense of the same events. Each of us has a cognitive map (or a schemata) that we use to make sense of the world, events (whether it is your daily interaction in the family or work or a Supreme Court decisions or a Katrina scale catastrophe) are fitted into that schemata and understood within that framework….until the moment that something cannot be fitted into that cognitive map. Some things just simply have no place that they can fit in the map, some fit but only by distorting the map beyond comprehension. At which point the individual either rejects the event or redraws a new cognitive map that can accommodate it. Rejection seems to be the most common response. With things that are distant (happening to others, elsewhere or in the future) and abstract (part of a large pattern that cannot be perceived directly but only through large scale data and theory) rejection is fairly easy, the thing is labeled as unreal, a hoax, a mistake, a fabrication. Things that happen to us directly that don’t fit our cognitive map (rape, assault, abuse, war, disaster) can still be rejected, submerged and ignored but only at the cost of psychological trauma, of losing a portion of ourselves. Nonetheless people do it all the time. People repress memories that don’t fit their cognitive map.

    What makes one person redraw their cognitive map to incorporate knowledge about climate change and civilizations decline, and another person not to do so? What makes some people incorporate an intellectual understanding of climate change but refuse to connect the current environmental conditions with that?

    One of the things that has most intrigued me in the past week, has been observing reactions of various Facebook friends to the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage. While the majority of my friends list was inclined to turn their profile photo into a rainbow, a significant majority were more likely to post links to prominent conservative Christians who were declaring the decision as the end of civilization and the destruction of the United States.

    In some ways I think my religiously conservative friends are more perceptive of the fragility and danger of our current civilization, they just fit that awareness into the wrong cognitive map and ascribe the causes to the wrong things (Gods vengeance for sexual sinfulness) …and therefore do exactly the things that contribute to the problem rather than ameliorate it. I want to reply to their Facebook post with – Yes, you are right, we are going to hell in a hand basket, but not that hell and not for that reason…but I don’t.

    But I’m luckier than most, I have a spouse who shares my cognitive map (more or less) and I do get to talk all the time about what I’m thinking, with no need to censor even the gloomiest, doomiest ideas. Together we talk about what it means. Nonetheless I still wake up in the middle of the night wondering what we should do about our understanding of things, and I have no real answer to that.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    I wish I could merge the Facebook comments on this post (https://www.facebook.com/dave.pollard.52/posts/10153663613689311) with the comments here. Very intrigued by the responses to this.

    Siona, I think you are correct. We love and care about (or loathe and conspire against) the people we imagine others to be, not who they really are, because we can never know who they really are. Our perception of others, and indeed our perception of the world, is a projection, a tunnel, a way of making sense in an evolutionarily useful (falling in love and procreating; building community; making things) way that is mostly a guess rather than a real picture of reality. Perhaps the cognitive dissonance is mostly just diffraction patterns in the sonar we send out, like bats in the dark.

    Sue, that’s a fascinating analysis — thanks. Perhaps I should read more Max Weber; the connection between cognitive maps and cognitive dissonance especially merits more thinking.

  13. Brutus says:

    I definitely have the same sense of a veil between me and others, but it’s not limited to issues of civilizational collapse. It’s about nearly everything. Philosophers have recognized this many times as the fundamental aloneness we experience now that modern consciousness has separated us from each other and the natural world. Only a few activities allow us to bridge or connect with others effectively, and those moments are typically fleeting. That’s simply our reality, so I try not to struggle too much with the discomfort and frustration, but I can’t help but to feel isolated and to long for something else.

    Regarding finding meaning in, well, everything happening to us and around us in the world, grand schema and union theories elude us all. Some chase harder after them than others, but those who never bother or give up early might have the right idea. Who’s to say? I continue to search for meaning and answers (not solutions), but everything I learn is always only provisional. There will be no satisfying closure. In the meantime, I do my best to be of good character and forgive the failings of everyone, including my own.

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Brutus — I get where you’re coming from. I suppose it’s seeing the veil that’s the change for me; most of my life I wasn’t even aware of it. And yet I’ve never really felt lonely, or alone. It’s more like being told there’s an operation you can get that will enable you to see with a richness and clarity you’ve never seen before, but not being able to afford it, or even get your name in the queue for it.

    As for meaning, I’ve taken to looking for it in the prosaic sense of ‘what are the implications of it’, more than the philosophical, spiritual, purpose-in-life kind of sense. That’s mainly because in that sense I’m not sure life has a ‘meaning’, so I’m not inclined to get attached to looking for one.

  15. Vassilios says:

    When the infant, future poster, enters language, enters the symbolic.
    That contains hidden negotiations so the subject’s gift is taken.
    Freedom, from now on, can be given via some therapy or advocacy, in other
    negotiations with ex-infants of different career.
    Slowly-slowly diplomacy develops as aspect of humanism.
    We are ready to fall in love, articulate ourselves, support others, give birth.
    We have a style which we misnome as persona and our agony, for many years will
    be to find the discourse that will celebrate it in auditoriums that we will invent.
    In our miserable world, some people will talk to plants all their lives, some others will
    talk to avatars, some will talk dirty to avatars as if having sex, some will talk expressing
    a manufactured soul. Nobody will be synchronized with anybody , because listening requires silence and silence the infant never had.
    I wonderd, many times, how “difficult” writers, like Derrida or Eco, spoke to their wives.
    Did they all fall in love with post-structuralists, or at home there was a vernacular
    communication, not good enough for the public sphere?
    It’s a game of loneliness, “reaching the other”. We’ve practiced the written with the digital tools, to avoid the voice, the embarrassment of gaze, the complications of touching. And now we have to find common grounds by return to bourgeois mannerisms. We must cultivate a “politeness” that will replace the missing gravity.
    We can not fart in a foreign server.
    Will liberation exercises help? Can we become honest inside the narrative?
    I think protocols are generated everywhere. Institutionalisation is wall to wall.
    A generous institutionalisation that allows the “opposition theory” as entertaining
    We can not get happy sending messages. Hermes is not with us.
    Authenticity is somewhere else. Here, this “here” we have constructed via servers and
    interests to ostracize silence will manage “relevance” in continuities outside us.
    So we tolerate this world of part-time intimacy, with different clocks and unexpected
    significations, or we go home, to the ones who never posted, waiting for us to take them to the century of blessed melancholies and homey smells.

  16. Anne says:

    Thank you so much, Dave, and all commenters!! I relate. The isolation increases; I’m moving more and more into contemplation and just being.

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