Too Big to Fail and Too Small to Matter: Don't Go Back to Sleep!

IMG_7698 cropped.jpg

What follows is the text of a talk I gave to students last week at Hartnell College, Salinas, about why their educations matter.

Good afternoon and welcome to the final session of the 2015 Academic Expo at Hartnell College, a place that I’ve come to see as a big round doorway through which you can step into a more creative and better future. I’m honored to have been invited as your educator in residence to talk to you today about the importance of your research for Hartnell College, and for your lives and for your communities.

You’ve probably heard that your education will make you an efficient part of the economic system, more competitive, and of course, wealthier. If I thought that was the most important reason for getting an education, I would say to you, “Run away! Run away!” For we now have global research on happiness that tells us it is indeed important to have enough money to get food, clothing and shelter, and a little more for self-expression; but that after that, money doesn’t matter much to happiness—it can even take away from happiness when it brings with it excessive demands on time and energy and creates more stress, when it takes you away from your family and friends.

So let me tell you what I think is the most important reason for getting a higher education: the biggest challenge of living an adult human life is to be able to question what you’ve been taught, and to improve upon it, to make it truer and more helpful. You do this by noticing the way that what you’ve been taught matches—or doesn’t match—your actual experience of living, while, of course, actually making a living and maintaining relationships. To illustrate education well used, I’m going to tell you about three educated people who used their ability to think creatively and changed their worlds.

In the heavy gray winter of 1639, the French philosopher Descartes sat by the fire in his winter dressing gown, wondering if he could sincerely doubt that he was really sitting by the fire in his dressing gown. From this simple thought experiment emerged his most famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” What he meant was that he could doubt everything except the fact that he was thinking, because doubting is evidence of thinking. He was actually turning his mind to a time when, as a younger man, he’d been shocked to discover that he’d been taught and had believed things that were false. He’d promised himself then that he would come back one day to the task of working from the ground up to build a philosophy of life that was not dependent on anything he’d been taught. His statement about thinking was the one indisputable fact he could find as a starting place.

Who here can’t remember a moment when you suddenly understood that something you were taught and believed wasn’t true?—perhaps by relying on that something and feeling the ground give way beneath you? In that moment, when we know we’ve believed something that’s false, and built on wobbly foundations, we have the choice to either ignore our own real experience and join in the deception, or to challenge what now seems clearly wrong. Mind you, we all do join in communal deceptions because we don’t notice most of them. That’s why its really important to listen to yourself when you do notice, when living experience tells you that something you’ve learned just doesn’t fit.

So here’s my second example. In the nineteenth century, the young neurologist Sigmund Freud rocked the world with his idea that there is in each of us an unconscious mind that is the biggest part of our mind and the source of many of our problems. He was saying that we each have a mind that is operating outside of our own awareness, and he was saying it to a culture that defined itself as conscious and rational. Between then and now, many people have developed Freud’s work and many people have ridiculed it. But neuroscientists today, using brain imaging techniques, have concluded that about 98 per cent of the brain’s activity happens outside our awareness. Unlike Freud, these scientists don’t focus primarily on the problems caused by our unconscious minds; instead they talk about the great efficiency of minds that can operate without attention or effort. But they also note the important point that these minds have the flexibility and the power to the change the culture that programmed them.

Freud would likely smile in recognition at our realization that we’re deeply programmed in two fundamental ways: first, by the cultural environment in which we are raised, which becomes a part of us—without our knowledge or consent. It unconsciously guides our behavior with its values and habits for the rest of our lives, if we sit back and let it. Second, by our family situation, which —also unconsciously and without our choosing—passes on to us the ways that our particular ancestors view and do relationships. Because of this, I suggest in my book Spirit Unleashed, that the single most important thing we can do as humans is to wake up from our unconscious programming, to wake up into learning, and knowledge, and critical reflection, so that we gain the ability to improve on what we have learned.

Now let me go back to Descartes for a moment. His project to build a perfectly true philosophy failed, and it created a whole new set of problems for later generations. You see, one of his fundamental concepts was that everything in the universe except the human mind is one great big machine that can be explained with the right mathematical equations, and then controlled by humans! The math and science that he devised did create a new era, the era of modern science and technology; but the shadow side of that era is that we humans have become separated from nature in our own imaginations, a fact that has led to the global ecological crisis we face today.

My point here is that our deep cultural programming has given us some foundational ideas that are wrong. We are not separate from the rest of nature. And the earth is not just a collection of natural resources for our use, as we’ve been taught to think, and we are not human resources to be fed to some huge mechanical economy. And whether we call ourselves capitalists or socialists or whatever else, I think we’ve failed to notice that we’ve tacitly accepted that the purpose of life is to produce and to consume, creating strong economies as our most important activity in life.

But we now know that trying to keep this form of a strong economy for seven billion human beings makes impossible ecological demands on the Earth. We have to question the wisdom of production and consumption that we’ve been handed. I’m reminded of a saying which I first heard spoken in Costa Rica: “Cuando el último árbol haya sido cortado, el último pez atrapado, y el último río envenenado, sólo entonces nos daremos cuenta de que no se puede comer el dinero.” When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, and the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money. Expressing a similar insight, on a different continent, Dr. Wangari Maathai, a young economist, realized that the village women of Kenya were working harder and harder for less and less as they foraged for firewood. In 1977, she implemented a simple idea, that every woman should plant and nurture seven trees, and so she began a quiet revolution, the Greenbelt Movement, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004.

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen us make institutions—governments, corporations, economies—that are too big to fail, but because those institutions are too big to be moved by the needs of individuals, families, local communities, they do fail; they must fail. Just pull up the memory of that recorded voice you so often hear, saying, “Your call is very important to us; your waiting time is approximately 38 minutes.” Yes, it gives you that frustrated feeling, a disengaged cynicism, an anger at the system that erases you. These huge and impersonal institutions tell us over and over that we’re too small to matter. But let’s not forget that these gigantic forces were made by humans and they can be remade by humans.

We today share the task not only of waking up out of the unconscious slumber that threatens every generation, but also of learning again to focus our minds—we have so much information that we have to choose what we give our attention to. I think we need to define and describe foundational things, like what is really necessary for both human well being and for the health of the planet that supports us. You’ve got to find a way to bring these institutions back to the scale where human lives matter. I say “you’ve got to,” because I think it will take longer than I will live. And one day, you will humbly learn that, just like every generation before, you’ve created the next generation’s problems. But you will look at them with hope, as I look at you today.

When people like you and me use our disciplined and educated minds, there is always hope because creativity is our one endless resource. That’s why your research projects matter; they nurture the capacity of our shared creativity, and they give hope for the future, and they make you come alive. But no one of us can do all the work; it’s a shared project to make sure that the programming we pass on to the next generation actually has some value for their living.

Yes, I share your hope that your education will increase your income so that you can have the things you need, and on top of that some pleasures of your choosing. But I urge you not to accept being a piece of the big economic machine as your meaning in life or the purpose of your education—that will just dump you into depression. Instead, I encourage you to be a happy person who asks good questions, demands good answers, has rich conversations and relationships, creates beautiful new things and solves old problems, so that the world can go on.

As you ask your own questions, and gain skill in answering them, you’ll discover your own work in the world. But, whatever else you do, please be true to your own experience: question things that seem false and do the things that make you feel alive.

And take with you these words from a Persian poet who lived almost a thousand years ago, the great poet, Rumi: “All day I think about it, then at night I say it. / Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? / . . . The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. / Don’t go back to sleep. / The door is round and open. / Don’t go back to sleep.”