Humanity’s Coming-Of-Age Ordeal

hands_holding_earthJust as life does not end with adolescence, neither does civilization’s evolution stop with the end of growth. We are in the midst of a transition parallel to an adolescent’s transition into adulthood. Physical growth ceases, and vital resources turn inward to foster growth in other realms.

Two key developments mark the transition from childhood to adulthood, whether on the individual or the species level. The first is that we fall in love, and this love relationship is different from that of the child to the mother. In childhood, the primary aspect of the love relationship is that of receiving. I am happy to give all I can to my children, and I want them to receive it without restraint. It is right for a child to do what is necessary to grow, both physically and mentally. A good parent provides the resources for this growth, as our Mother Earth has done for us.

So far, we humans have been children in relationship to earth. We began in the womb of hunter-gatherer existence, in which we made no distinction between human and nature, but were enwombed within it. An infant does not have a strong self-other distinction, but takes time to form an identity and an ego and to learn that the world is not an extension of the self. So it has been for humanity collectively. Whereas the hunter-gatherer had no concept of a separate “nature” distinct from “human,” the agriculturist, whose livelihood depended on the objectification and manipulation of nature, came to think of nature as a separate category. In the childhood of agricultural civilization, humanity developed a separate identity and grew large. We had our adolescent growth spurt with industry, and on the mental plane entered through Cartesian science the extreme of separation, the fully developed ego and hyperrationality of the young teenager who, like humanity in the Age of Science, completes the stage of cognitive development known as “formal operations,” consisting of the manipulation of abstractions. But as the extreme of yang contains the birth of yin, so does the extreme of separation contain the seed of what comes next: reunion.

In adolescence, we fall in love, and our world of perfect reason and perfect selfishness falls apart as the self expands to include the beloved within its bounds. A new kind of love relationship emerges: not just one of receiving, but of giving too, and of cocreating. Fully individuated from the Other, we can fall in love with it and experience a reunion greater than the original union, for it contains within it the entire journey of separation.

The first mass awakening of the new love consciousness happened in the 1960s with the birth of the environmental movement. At the pinnacle of our separation, triumphantly surveying our apparent conquest of nature, we began to notice how much she had given; we became aware of her hurts, her wounds, and we began to desire not only to take from earth, but to give to earth too, to protect and cherish her. This desire was not based on a fear of extinction-that came later-but on love. We were falling in love with the earth. In that decade, the first photographs of this planet were beamed down from orbiting satellites, and we were transformed by the planet’s beauty. To view earth from the outside was the penultimate step of separation from nature; the ultimate step was the ascension of the astronauts, physically leaving nature behind. And they fell in love with earth too. Here are the words of astronaut Rusty Schweickart:

From the moon, the Earth is so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in that Universe, that you can block it out with your thumb. Then you realize that on that spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it right there on that little spot that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed forever, that there is something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.

The second hallmark of the transition to adulthood is an ordeal. Ancient tribal cultures had various coming-of-age ceremonies and ordeals that purposely shattered the smaller identity through isolation, pain, fasting, psychedelic plants, or other means, and then rebuilt and reincorporated it into a larger, transpersonal identity. Though we intuitively seek them out in the form of drinking, drugs, fraternity and military hazing, and so on, modern men and women usually have only a partial experience of this process, leaving us in a kind of perpetual adolescence that ends only when fate intervenes to tear our world apart. Then we can enter a wider self, in which giving comes just as naturally as receiving. Having completed the passage to adulthood, a man or woman takes full possession of his or her gifts and seeks to contribute to the good of all as a full member of the tribe.

Humanity is undergoing an analogous ordeal today. The multiple crises converging upon us are an ordeal that challenges our very identity, an ordeal that we have no assurance of even surviving. It calls forth unrealized capacities and compels us to relate to the world in a new way. The despair that sensitive people feel in the face of the crisis is part of the ordeal.  Like a tribal initiate, when we as a species emerge from it, we too will join the community of all being as a full member of the “tribe” of life. Our unique capacities of technology and culture, we will turn to contribute to the good of all.

Source: “Humanity’s Coming-Of-Age Ordeal,” from Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein