Brother, Can You Sparadigm?

Along life’s metaphorical road (winding, pot-holed, autobahn or cul-de-sac) you see scenery that is amusement or illumination, depending on how you look. On roads more-or-less travailed I have found myself hitchhiker, nomad, overwheeled, and sometimes just plain lost.

The road thing is nice, too, because you can use it in oh so many ways to sound profound. The road of one’s life . . . the Road of Life. Only hindsight charts terra incognito with any accuracy. So where we have arrived becomes inevitable, because none of the what-ifs actually materialized. If they had, we’d be looking back from some other where over some other route through an unrecognizable landscape, and proclaiming a like inevitability.

So what is he going on about this time? you might well ask. Road metaphor: after an aimless cross-country ramble you come upon a meandering byway: paved, dotted-lined, empty. Sit down for awhile on the shoulder and try to figure which way’s which. Dust-patina’d, I’ve been contemplating the future (ours: the Future) and studying the past (Life’s Past: scenarios of genesis; ontogenies of us). Evolutions and extinctions are the big engines that have moved us mostly here: then the little servo-mechanisms of culture, politics, religion, geography, language, have brought us to millennium’s mountain-pass, and will carry us on a trajectory, tempered by our own volition or inertia, through.

(Everyone’s passed a pass before. That notch in the skyline beyond which emptiness hangs ascendant; before you reach it, your imagination, or someone else’s authoritative travelogue, paints the landscape that will reveal itself when you attain the height. Or you approach what you have gulled yourself into believing is the height of the land, after which you can anticipate luxurious descent, only to attain a mere wrinkle in topography, with greater and more torturous terrain ahead. The Pass: beyond which lies, according to the various chroniclers of future history, a barren waste, a cannibal-ridden festering jungle, a poisoned sea, a pastoral paradise gracefully inhabited by wise and gentle scholars.)

All of us, all of us (willingly or no, consciously or no) know the problems we (with a big W) face. The most elementary inductive reasoning will lead us a detour briefly off and shortly back onto the road—like one of those scenic vistas on the Interstate:

The way we are is the natural consequence of the way we were. The way we’re going to be is the next logical step, projecting from where we are. If we don’t like where we’re heading, we’d better change the way we’ve been being. If we decide to change the way we’ve been being, then we need a hard look at the reasons we’ve been being that way in the first place.

Under the guidance of far greater minds than mine, I’ve on occasion essayed to sketch out my own crude road map of there to here and back—or at least somewhere—again. And in expectedly over-simplistic terms, my map (metaphorically speaking) looks something like this:

We were very cool neighbors when we were all hunter-gatherers. We were good (if upstanding) primates, doing primate-things: foraging, a bit of hunting, a lot of grooming and probably no small amount of playing. Then agriculture happened to us, and the world would never be the same. Entwined with this technological innovation—which allowed for increased population density, division of labor, class-stratification, the advent of all formal sciences, the need for written language, borders, weaponry, law, and the clearing of fertile fields in which to sow the dubious crops of oppression, ideology, warfare, and, of course, environmental devastation — entangled with this innovation, I repeat, and inseparable from it, was and is the notion of man’s dominion over nature. Man’s dominion: supremacy: ultimately conveying not a descriptive but a prescriptive state of being. And Man’s (for most of History’s theatrical run) not Human’s, because gender-oppression seems integral to that old paradigm.

Concomitant principles of being human became fixed in the common consciousness: the inherent virtue of possessions; the desirability of power, wealth, control; the necessity of economic activity’s perpetual increase. All of which put us on a collision-course with biological law, which predates, underlies, and supersedes any codified rules and regulations we’ve managed to come up with since we fooled ourselves into believing we were changing courthouses; and from which there is no appeal.

Alas, you can’t shift paradigms like you shift gears. Religion has always been a sort of paradigm shift: each new one being revisionist from earlier forms. But it takes a sociological crucible of apocalyptic temperatures to forge a new major religion (although if we were to wallow in our analogical medium, perhaps a plague of cults could be likened to bubbles around the simmering edges?), and no one in his/her right mind would actually want that.

But you can work analogy like clay. Cleaner, too. Some of our ancestors did, some of our not-too-distant kin still do, brachiate through the vanishing forest. We have that capability: we all watch as, every four years, young athletes aspire to gibbon-hood on rings, on parallel bars, in rigorous competition. And like the kinetic gibbon, the phlegmatic disappearing orangutan, the miraculous gymnast all know: sometimes you have to let go of where you were to get to where you’re going.

The trajectory, the terminus of the arc, would be a question of physics, but this is metaphor. So it must be a matter of faith: that we might find safe refuge only upon the letting go.

The millennium is nearly upon us. Though it is in plainest fact merely a ticking over of the calendar, itself an artifact of our current civilization and with no intrinsic significance, still it is assuming mythic proportions; and it is clear (to many, at least; certainly to my own admittedly biased sensibilities) that we are approaching some sort of historical crux, fulcrum, or other dramatic device. If we are constrained to progress from predetermined points, nevertheless we can influence direction and therefore destination with each choice, with at least one of which each of us is provided in every ticking-over instant. It’s a manner of lottery: but if enough of us choose correctly from the proffered paradigms, we might still find that fairer landscape. Although no guarantees should ever be trusted, as we sail through the notch of ascendant sky into the unmapped unanticipated terrain that lies beyond.

Lawrence Blair Goral
4 July 1998
Coloma, California