Perhaps you have noticed that all around us our familiar institutions seem to be cracking and crumbling, and at best stumbling forward.
Educational institutions, for example, designed in the 19th century, are straining to hold together — not unlike our hundred-year-old bridges bending beneath the weight of more traffic than was ever imagined.
Our 200-year-old financial system is spawning things it can’t control — the speed of wealth and capital transfer and absence of national borders seem to make some of its central elements irrelevant.
So many of our institutions and grand philosophies come to us from the 19th and early 20th centuries, but we are light years away from that pre-WWII world. They now represent the big ideas and eloquent rhetoric of a world dead and gone. Think of the intellectual, psychological, and imaginative distance between the world before Hiroshima and Auschwitz and the world after them.
I am not talking about the physical world so much as the human perspective — the mind’s eye.
Take just a moment to consider the difference between the political culture before the assassinations of JFK, MLK, Bobby, and Malcolm, and then the post-Nixon environment. Likewise, there is an uncrossable distance between perspectives on the human condition that existed prior to the Moonwalk, and the one conceived under more current images of the polar ice shelf melting.
Even more profound, conjure up the difference created in worldview, when in your left ear you are waiting several minutes for an operator to connect you with another party, and in your right hand, with your thumb, you post a tweet 2,000 people on six continents will read within seconds.
My friends, those different worlds are just barely connected, like a spinal fracture exposing a thin strand of nerve. The distance is so great it has utterly changed the human mind and what the brain sees and imagines.
But there is a tectonic rupture we haven’t truly recognized yet.
In this moment in the history of humankind, we have at least three centuries of human mindset double- and triple-exposed, one on top of the other. At one and the same time, looking around the world and even in our own country, we have people living under the assumptions of the 19th century, with others living within the worldview of the 20th century, and still others fully ensconced in the 21st century. Simultaneously, human beings are sharing the same planet but seeing the world around us from totally separate experiential frames — even though sometimes all of us are using the same super modern technology.
Change can be merciless, especially to those organisms, structures, and ideas that tether themselves to stationary objects in hopes of preventing change. How many once vaunted institutions and even individuals, have we seen end up like a dry, dead coral reef exposed to the open air and sun by a receding shoreline, the ghost of a once vibrant ecosystem?
When I was a freshman in college I was struggling to keep up, and one of my professors offered her students a speed-reading course. When I was tested, my speed level was at third grade. I felt humiliated when I found out but was told it wasn’t unusual. In part, I was told, it is because we stop teaching kids “how” to read in third grade, and so that is when I stopped learning to read and simply read. Individuals, marriages, institutions, communities, and even entire nations litter the pages of history as testaments to neglect and resistance, instead of open and eager adaptation to the relentless change that is the nature of the cosmos.
When we stop is where we stop.