Since the millennium, commentators of every variety have been trying to get a handle on the collective significance of the continuous crises besetting us in modern times: banking crises, terrorist crises, political crises, sovereign-debt crises, climate-change crises, energy crises, food crises, ecological crises, manmade and otherwise.
But the crises we face on many fronts are symptomatic of a deeper problem, with more potential repercussions than those of any single cataclysmic event.
They are simply a measure of the vast disparity between our definition of ourselves and our truest essence. For hundreds of years we have acted against nature by ignoring our essential connectedness and defining ourselves as separate from our world.
We’ve reached the point where we can no longer live according to this false view of who we really are.
What’s ending the story we’ve been told up until now about who we are and how we’re supposed to live — and in this ending lies the only path to a better future.
Life as war
The leitmotif of our present story is the hero up against it all. We take it for granted that our life’s journey is meant to be a struggle.
No matter how pleasant our lives, the vast majority of us maintain a stance of operating contra mundi, with every encounter some sort of battle to be fought — against the co-workers who seek to usurp our jobs or promotions, or the students who raise the bell curve against which we are judged; against the people who take our subway seat, the shops that overcharge us, the neighbors who have a Mercedes when we drive a Volvo, and even the husband or wife who has the temerity to insist on maintaining an opinion that is different from ours.
This idea that we operate against the world has its origin in our basic understanding that this self of ours — the thing we call ‘I’ — exists as a separate entity, a unique creation of genetic code that lives apart from everything else out there.
The most enduring statement we make about the human condition, the central fact of our existence is our solitude, our sense of separation from the world. We regard as self-evident that we exist as self-contained, isolated entities, living out our individual dramas, while everything else — other atoms and other cells, other living things, the land masses, the planets, even the air we breathe — exists as something distinct and wholly separate.
Our hearts, we believe, beat finally and painfully alone.
This paradigm of competitive individualism offers us a view life as a heroic struggle for dominion over hostile elements and a share of strictly limited resources. There’s not enough out there and others may be fitter than we, so we have to do our damnedest to get hold of it first.
Consequently, for more than three hundred years our worldview has been shaped by a story that describes isolated beings competing for survival on a lonely planet in an indifferent universe. Life, as defined by modern science, is essentially predatory, self-serving, and solitary.
The individualistic, winner-take-all zeitgeist of modern times is to blame for many of the crises we presently face in our society, particularly the excesses of the financial sector, with its insistence on a bigger and better profit every year, at any cost.
On a personal level it has left most of us with a distinctly hollow feeling, as though something profound — our very humanity — has been trampled over, in our daily wrestle with the world.
We urgently need a new story to live by.
The new rules of the game
For the past two decades, ever since I began pondering the meaning of cutting-edge discoveries in science, I have been struck by how much of scientific theory — and consequently our model of the way things work — is currently going up in smoke.
An entirely new scientific story is emerging that challenges many of our basic Newtonian and Darwinian assumptions, including our most basic premise: the sense of things as separate entities in competition for survival.
The latest evidence from quantum physics offers the extraordinary possibility that all of life exists in a dynamic relationship of cooperation. All matter exists in a vast quantum web of connection, and a living thing at its most elemental is an energy system involved in a constant transfer of information with its environment.
Frontier biologists, psychologists and sociologists have all found evidence that individuals are far less individual than we thought they were.
Between the smallest particles of our being, between our bodies and their environments, between ourselves and all of the people with whom we are in contact, between every member of every societal cluster, there is a Bond — a connection so integral and profound that there is no longer a clear demarcation between the end of one thing and the beginning of another.
These discoveries suggest that the idea of the individual — as in an individual thing distinct from other things — is ultimately a fallacy. There is nothing — from our subatomic molecules to our entire being — that we can define with any certainty as a wholly separate body that can be isolated and ring-fenced.
In every way, individual things live life inextricably attached and bonded to an “other.” Nature’s most basic impulse is not struggle for dominion but a constant and irrepressible drive for wholeness.
These discoveries hold not only vast implications about how we choose to define ourselves, but also vast implications about how we ought to live our lives. They suggest that a drive for cooperation and partnership, not competition or dominance, is fundamental to the physics of life and the biological makeup of all living things.
If we are to reform our society, we first need some new rules to live by, and these must start with the basics: a new definition of what it means to be human.
We need to look at our universe with a fresh pair of eyes. Applying these new discoveries to every aspect of our lives requires nothing less than making ourselves anew.