As acclaimed Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry says, “There is a fine balance between hope and despair.” Every once in a while, I find myself getting wrapped up in existential angst. I wonder what will become of my world, my children’s world. As one corporate ex- ecutive after another gets led away in handcuffs, do we keep buying their products? Will consumers keep demanding lower prices while customer service and product quality erodes? As the polar cap melts away and our biosphere continues to deplete, is it just the scientists that worry? Will taxpayers keep demanding lower taxes while our health care system buckles trying to handle the oncoming rush to the emergency room of middle-aged boomers with clogged arteries from our processed food diet? I reckon one day, there will be a reckoning.
I think about how future generations will describe us in these times. We have graduated from the Newtonian Industrial Age – to what? The Digital Age? While the tools may have changed, business has not really yielded new mindsets from the mechanical and linear thinking of the industrial era. We just expect everything faster now.
Author Ronald Wright goes back to the Stone Age in his book A Short History of Progress, to examine how people and civilizations have wiped themselves out. Victims of their own progress, the Mayan or the Romans or even Easter Islanders did not have the benefit of history that we do. Yet we seem to be making all the same mistakes, only faster and on a global scale.
Jane Jacobs in her book Dark Age Ahead says we have collective amnesia about how Dark Ages come about. They come about when the pillars of community and family, higher education, the practice of science and science-based technology, governmental powers and self-policing by the learned professional become ruined and/or irrelevant.
Dee Hock, former CEO and founder of VISA, wrote Birth of the Chaordic Age, a tumultuous time where the “chaos” will eventually create the new “order”. This is how nature works and how we’ll need to adapt now that we have stopped producing widgets. It is a dire warning that the chaos is like nothing we have seen and will be unpleasant indeed for those who refuse to see it coming.
If you are celestially inclined, the astral plane suggests that we are now in the Age of Aquarius, a Golden Age where thinking individuals are now making more holistic personal choices about how to show up at a more caring workplace. This “New Age” has not arrived at the workplace for most though. Dilbert is still funny. Shows like Ricky Gervais’ critically acclaimed television series “The Office” wins accolades. The Canadian documentary film “The Corporation” presents a compelling argument that the places we work are, by definition, psychopathic. Do we laugh or cry?
Historians and NYU professors William Strauss and Neil Howe have written a chilling prophesy in The Fourth Turning. They go all the way back to the War of Roses in 1459 to illustrate the historical and disturbing cycle we should have expected in “the oh-oh decade”. Every “turning” is roughly a generation and every Fourth Turning begins with a catalyst – “a startling event that produces a sudden shift of mood. This spark is linked to a specific threat about which society had been fully informed but against which it had left itself poorly protected.” Just another post-9/11 doomsayer? Perhaps, only these words were written four years before 9/11 – and well before Brexit and Donald Trump.
Jean-Paul Sartre the French writer and champion of existential angst, wrote in The Age of Reason about a man obsessed with his freedom to choose. Reason could free us from our institutions, state and religion that we previously considered too sacred to challenge. The story is set in 1938 in the shadow of the Second World War – our previous Fourth Turning.
Satre and these other thinkers have been holding the mirror up for the rest of us. Their despair is balanced with the hope that people will take responsibility and claim their freedom and courage to act. They also do not believe in staying quiet. Neither should we, because there is too much at stake for us all and that reckoning might not be too far away.
Am I getting you down? All these authors are not painting the rosy picture we want of society or the places we work, so we are tempted to quickly disregard them. Sometimes we create our own defence mechanisms to protect us from the anxiety that comes when the balance between hope and despair seems to tilt towards despair. From global warming to nutrition for a hungry planet to terrorism, the issues are all connected in a complex matrix and they are big. And individually, we are so small in comparison. We ask ourselves “Would I have really made a difference?” Storyteller Tom King points out that this is the question we always ask after we have given up.
What enables us to hear the truth and act, despite our anxiety, is courage. It is in these “moments of truth” that we are confronted with choice. We can “tune-out” and become numb, or fill our head with happy-thoughts. We can “tune- in” and wallow in despair. Or we can act on the hope that we have just enough time for our actions to make a difference. The ultimate truth is we are free to make those decisions that test our mettle and make our heart skip a beat – whether it is protesting unjust wars, unsavoury elections, or raising a crazy idea at a business meeting. Although this begins as a solitary and lonely act, it ends up being the very thing that inspires others to follow. The Coeur-Age is my label for today’s times. If we can face our present day realities, it will require sustained courage to address all these issues. And plenty of it.