Martin LeFevre: Back when I taught preschool children, or was often around little ones, I would sometimes point to a tree, a bird in flight, a flower – and ask, did people make that? They would laugh and say no. Then I’d point to a building, a car or an airplane – and ask, did nature make that? “No, silly, people did,” they would say.
Virtually every four year old could easily make the distinction. It was a way of showing them how to make the most important distinction a human being can make, one that many adults either never learned or forgot how to make – the distinction between the earth and the world.
Obstinately, many adults are intentionally conflating the two — man’s world and the natural world — and thereby adding to the confusion and despair many young people feel. They repeat a childish mantra: “The world is beautiful; people are good,” and hope that in convincing the young of such existential falsehood, they can continue to believe it.
Rather than honestly address the issues of man’s destructiveness and human alienation, as well as the widespread erosion of human character, commencement speakers are papering things over by repeating platitudes.
Treacly commencement addresses are forgotten with the hangovers of the next morning. Speaking childishly to college graduates as if they are credulous children may make the speaker feel good, but such claptrap adds to the despondency about the state of the world it purports to alleviate.
Besides, they contradict themselves by telling graduates out of one side of their mouths, “You have come of age at a time of existential threat — to the planet, to democracy, to the arc of the moral universe itself.” Then out of the other side of their mouths, they insist, “good people working together with other good people became an unstoppable force for change to make an unfair world better.”
The comforting notion that “We are, all of us, creatures; we belong to this gorgeous world in all the same ways that the coyotes in the cove belong to this world,” is egregiously false. Again by ‘world,’ the speaker means the earth. If she doesn’t know better, she needs to go back to college herself. If she does, she’s deliberately lying.
Humans do not belong to the earth “in the same ways coyotes in the cove” belong to the earth. Coyotes, like all non-domesticated animals on earth, live within an ecological niche, even when their niches intersect with the built world of man.
The human world is overlaid onto the natural world, the earth. In indigenous times, the human cultures were generally harmonious with their surrounding environments. They had to be, since people were much more embedded in and immediately dependent on nature. But since the Agricultural Revolution, and especially since the Industrial and now Digital Revolutions, the break between man and nature has been complete.
Humans, the dominant species on earth, are decimating the biosphere and have started the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on this planet. By this fact alone man doesn’t belong on earth, and humankind won’t until there is a psychological revolution that changes the course of man.
Many young people don’t even feel they belong in society, and that they don’t belong anywhere except perhaps with their friends. They know it’s a lie when their New Age parents tell them, “people are good.”
We don’t have to fall back into the Christian quagmire of ‘original sin’ to realize that most people, by adapting to a corrupt, collapsing culture, are not good.
It’s our responsibility understand how “our species has made a mess of things.” It’s our responsibility as parents and teachers to nurture the strength necessary to remain with what is, so that it transforms within us.
A child that cannot make the distinction between the world of man and the life of the earth is making a child’s mistake. An adult who refuses to make the distinction is reinforcing the avoidance and denial that characterizes the vast majority of adults in America.
The antidote to despair is not to feed the young the falsehoods and blindness that have brought humankind to this pass, but to help them see and remain with things as they are.
There is something very unseemly about saying in a commencement address on one hand, “my generation wrecked so much that is precious,” and then in the next sentence, “age teaches a person how to survive despair.” Camouflaged under that self-soothing admission is the underlying contradiction that’s decimating the earth.
To perceive that humans operate very differently than any other animal on earth is not to sustain dichotomy and dualism, much less a Manichean worldview of good and evil. It’s not a choice between conflating the human world with the natural ‘world,’ and seeing humans as a separate and special creation, as Christians do.
The willful refusal to face things as they are is a wellspring of despair. Having doubt and asking questions, rather than trying, against all the evidence, to maintain false faith in people and the world, will commence a real conversation with younger generations.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. email@example.com
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