From the age of eight, I was a church chorister. Although I turned to Buddhism at the age of thirteen, when it occurred to me that the Bible was a work of fiction blatantly marketed as an implausible sequence of historical events, I cannot claim I felt indoctrinated into the Christian religion.
The experience washed over me like a wave, leaving little substantial in its wake, other than a curiosity in rites and rituals. And myths of course. The only exception to my indifference might have been when Miss Allen, headmistress and respected spinster, gave me six strokes of her cane across the palm of my hand for not remembering the catechism with the precision she obviously desired. This stinging rebuttal to my latent precocity, I thought, was unkind and decidedly unchristian.
To be fair, on that occasion it might have been more to do with my penchant for impulsive wisecracks. For when asked What is the chief end of man I did not hesitate before replying Having sex – as a witty substitute for the more conventional response which had more to do with glorifying God and enjoying Him forever. In the moment I imagined my answer to be a valid substitute. But possibly not quite good enough for Miss Allen’s pedantic sensitivities.
On the whole, though, I cherished my childhood, developing a love for church music that remains with me to this day. I particularly enjoyed singing psalms. They were far more beguiling than hymns. Furthermore, it did not occur to me that these ancient verses were in any way unrelated to my own experience of life. On the contrary, they had everything to do with me and my surroundings. They were about my own social inadequacies, the love I received from my mother, my father’s sense of theatre, my brother’s irritations, my friend’s unhappiness…
Even more than that, though, they dealt with what filled the newspapers during the post-war years, and still fuel our attention via social media today… the disillusioned voter, the outcast’s fear, the oligarch’s greed, the leader’s tyranny. Yet 3,000 years have passed. Is that truly the extent of the progress we have made? Are we still attending to the same old problems, reacting with the same levels of emotional maturity, and continuing to behave in a manner that would not have been out of place all those centuries ago?
In a piece I wrote recently, entitled The Wisdom of Generations, I expressed faith in the desire of humanity, and young people, in particular, to join together in reinventing our presence on this planet. Today, I feel less optimistic, mostly because of a different question that has been irking me. Is it realistic to expect that a family of 7.7 billion hominids can, in the space of a decade, or perhaps two, effect meaningful change in how they inhabit the land, govern their affairs and relate to one another? If we look to history for the answer we are bound to feel uneasy.
How quickly, do you suppose, will we be able to embrace a form of entangled humanism, where ingrained reciprocities between humans and other life forms are recognised in law, and a new constitution relevant to sustaining life, can emerge?
Our most sacred purpose, simply because no other species has the capacity to accomplish it (unless super-intelligent machines take the matter into their own hands in sheer frustration at our stupor) must be a passion for civilisational renewal – evolving world-systems that preserve life within accepted planetary boundaries. How long will that take do you suppose? How soon will we accept the need to turn against brutality and bloodshed in order to wage peace rather than war? How quickly can we turn tribal rivalries into global cooperation? Hate into love? Hubris into humility?
Uncomfortable questions such as these flare more brightly within the bleakest corners of our experience: the insatiable cycle of desire and consumption; the contempt for all life exposed by totalitarian states; acts of terrorism and persecution; economic discrimination entrenched within a universal system that privileges few; mental health problems arising from bullying, or anxiety, or just the daily need to deal the best way we can with the malaise afflicting so much in the world today…
These skittering sparks, invariably draw our attention once more to the human condition, to the material world we have constructed that might not be as benign as we had hoped, and the profound issue of how human nature must change – even though how much is even open to being changed remains in doubt.
It is hardly surprising that the socio-economic world we have constructed over the past few decades is one that many young people are rejecting. From Chile to Thailand, from India to Russia, and from Hong Kong to Iran, increasing numbers of young people refuse to embrace the fantasy we have so carefully fashioned. Why is that so?
Because they comprehend that meeting the essential needs of each person on the planet – based on current relations between resource use and human well-being – must entail violating several ecological boundaries. They can see this so clearly. This is why they are pointing out that the emperor we worship, neo-liberal capitalism, is both naked and limping along on crutches.
We can insist all we like that a majority of citizens worldwide are more prosperous today than was the case a century ago. Carefully selected statistics can be found to prove any point. Of course, those statistics cannot account for family violence, terrorism, autism, mental health, political narcissism, or the deep-rooted feelings of unhappiness that hang in the air.
We can also instruct our children to shut up, grow up, and accept reality. But the world we are demanding they tolerate is the one we created. It is our world – not theirs. Clearly, they do not detect a viable future, or one that they would actually want, from their collective vantage point. All they know is what they see, and feel, and tell each other: a reality that benefits fewer and fewer people. A world torn apart by greed and inequity. One in which business corporations unduly influence state institutions, and where prejudiced media constantly reinvent the news. A world steered by unelected oligarchs who are reliant on our compliance and a global economy that is damaging to human wellbeing. A world of dissolute socio-political models they will need to redesign, if that is still possible, once we decide to get out of their way.
In summary, this is how we can explain why there is so much outrage, targeting incumbent leaders, from young people today. That is why they are showing us their frustrated anger. Little wonder their exasperation spills over into screams of how long o lord will you forget us? What we always forget, or conveniently put to one side, is that through our actions we extinguish their hope. We steal their future.
Left unaddressed I would expect the youthquake we are seeing around the world to grow and escalate into civil resistance, riots, insurgency and, quite possibly, political and social revolution. Such an uprising could be the burning platform we need to come to our senses. Perhaps it is the shock needed to jolt us out of our arrogance and complacency.
Much of what we understand and accept is contextual of course. I remember explaining to a group of young middle-class entrepreneurs a few years ago, well before the internet had a grip on our awareness, that an increasing majority of their peers could not possibly share their optimism that things were getting better, or that social progress was palpable. The group in question was amazed. They could not comprehend how people their own age, in their own city, were feeling isolated, anxious, depressed, and alienated when life was so good for them.
The two facilitators of this group, both women, were infuriated that I dropped this idea, like a hand grenade, into the conversation. They instantly dismissed it as being incorrect, insisting that I must be mistaken. They went so far as to accuse me of treachery: implanting dangerous notions that could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the unsuspecting minds of their young charges. I explained that the previous day I had been working with homeless kids, trying to help them find a few shreds of hope for a better future when many of them were not even sure where their next meal was coming from. But this was considered irrelevant. A truth not to be spoken about too loudly. A world best kept hidden lest we were overwhelmed by compassion for circumstances we could do nothing about.
We do not like alternative truths to intrude too much on our daily lives – especially if they chafe and scrape against our most sensitive beliefs. We can be so fragile when challenged in such a manner. But fragility can lead to ignorance, and ignorance invariably gives way to apathy. That is the real problem. Apathy cannot be tolerated in an era when an unprecedented ecological breakdown is being aggravated by equally exceptional socio-economic, political and cultural stresses.
Personally, I welcome the frustration and outrage on display by youth globally. It is at least open and honest. I take their heartfelt calls for change as a sign that our species can and will survive. Whether it is religious persecution in India, pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, or strikes against climate change right around the world, actually matters very little. I applaud any determination to oust corruption and injustice, along with any attempt to shame us into informed action.
Life-affirming defiance is an inherent part of adolescence of course. The youth of every era find it in their blood to unsettle the established order. I myself joined the anti-nuclear weapons marches from London to Aldermaston as a teenager. But my motive was the fear of nuclear war rather than anger targeting any specific grievances to do with work or inequality.
These new waves of youthful protest are qualitatively different. What we are witnessing is a phenomenon made possible by globalism. The expectations of these people are much higher than in previous generations. They are connected, well-educated, politically astute, mutually aware, more attuned to universal rights such as free speech, and far less likely to be bound by cultural or religious conventions.
Whether these separate movements will eventually merge, ushering in an age of rapid evolution, or revolution, is impossible to say at this stage. But the fact there is no discernible common denominator, each social upheaval differing in its detail, other than the influence of youth, is certainly fascinating.
Of one thing we can be sure. In this tide of social unrest and intensifying activism, those in power will not remain impassive for long. Democratic governments are already resorting to propaganda – showing a readiness to lie, manipulate and misinform their citizens, in futile attempts to manufacture consent. Meanwhile, the pushback from the ruling elites in totalitarian states is likely to be more forceful.
Let us hope that youth ultimately prevails. Let us pray, too, that their “lords” (and ours) will not “forget” them. Instead of sidelining them, or simply putting up with their transgressions, why not encourage young people to help us overcome our blind spots, so that we can make the necessary transition from exploration and degradation to curation and regeneration more effortlessly. Are we so arrogant and stupid enough to believe that wisdom resides only with those elected or appointed to lead, when that leadership is so obviously failing us?