We live at a strange moment in time. To listen to Steven Pinker, for example, there are reasons for optimism. Life expectancy and literacy have improved around the world; absolute poverty has declined; democracy has spread across the world and the rule of law is more universally accepted than at any time in human history. The myth of progress has statistical support. Yet for many, there is a sneaking feeling that progress has its shadow side. More people may be educated, yet global temperatures are rising and the political will to tackle the problem is weak. Violent deaths may be on the decrease, yet knife crime is on the increase and the terrorist threat is severe.
I suppose that every generation has its reasons for despair but ours may have more. We have a sense that the whole planet is in crisis, not just from the devastation we have caused to the environment but from the algorithms we are writing that are leading to a digital dictatorship that threatens, according to Yuval Noah Harari the end of homo sapiens. When the quality of life for so many has improved so much, why is there cause for concern? Without realising it we have moved into the anthropocene age in which human influence has a far greater effect on the planet than geology or evolution. So we have no one to blame but ourselves. We live in a world that bears the fruit of our ideas and actions. This moment in time is of our own making. Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why can’t we change the script we live by? Why do we not do what we know is good?
We are overwhelmed by the complexity and underwhelmed by the answers that are promoted by the media, politics and religion. Perhaps it is in this contradiction that the seeds of a deep longing find fertile soil. I venture to suggest that in all of us there is a deep longing, a hunger, a desire for more – a sense that I am not fully myself – I want to be fully human. Often temporarily satisfied with a fulfilling job, a relaxing holiday, only to find the hunger return when the experience is over. We turn to a variety of techniques to get in touch with ourselves only to turn the technique into an end rather than a means.
One way to describe the process that helps us find ourselves through our action in the world is to see our relationship to the world as an ongoing, inquiring, conversation. This is not a verbal exchange but a much deeper dialogue with the elements of the material world and the elemental forces of the social and political world in which our truth is tested and our identity is forged. It is based, not just on our beliefs and values, but the quality of attention we bring to the world.
I recall the ancient story of Moses in the desert who noticed a bush burning but not being consumed. In that moment he was aware that he was not alone. The ground on which he walked was holy. And because it was holy he took off his shoes. The original verb is the same word used of an animal shedding its skin – shed your shoes – discard them, you no longer need them. Without shoes the soles of our feet touch the rough and smooth of the ground. To walk on holy ground is to be truly grounded – of the earth, humus, from which we get the words humility and humanity.
To stretch the image further, as we walk this world we leave behind our footprints, the marks of our presence and, at the same time, the world leaves its marks on us, refining us through our work, helping us become all we can be. Each of us in the course of life is building a work, an opus, to which all of our life experiences have contributed. We are becoming ourselves.