New Clear Vision


constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted


Only Connect!

February 06, 2017 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Ecology, Economy, Education, Jennifer Browdy

Urgent Questions for Our Time

by Jennifer Browdy

Social ecologist Nora Bateson published an urgent blog post recently, a list of the questions she believes need to be posed in order for global society to shift from our current careen toward chaos towards a sustainable future. Her excellent questions are (and I quote):

“Education: How can we best cultivate curiosity, information, and learning between generations to prepare ourselves to perceive and respond to the complexity of our world with less destruction than centuries past?

“Health: How can we support health in human beings by making it possible for each person to eat healthy food, sleep well, know that their families are supported, be respected in their community, have relevant contributions (education and employment), breathe clean air, and drink clean water?

“Ecology: How can we interface with the complexity of our natural world so as to create less harm to the interdependence of all living things?

“Economy: How can we shift the economic system so that it is not based upon exploitation of nature and humanity –without crashing the globe into chaos? (note: no one gets rich on this version of economy)

“Politics: How do we get the policy makers of our world to mandate cross-sector information for their decision making processes so that they have the possibility of taking into account complexity?

“Media: How do we get a moratorium on binaries? How do we support public understanding, not trained in perceiving complexity, to become accustomed to it and demand communications institutions deliver cross-contextual information?

“Culture: What is the approach to open the global discussion about the pending fate of humanity? What matters? What are we willing change? How can we survive together?”

She specifies, “The danger we are in is woven across these contexts, so the questions posed must correspond to that transcontextual process,” and “All of the questions…scale from personal, to institutional, to global concern.”

I so agree that ours is a time of questions. In my classes these days, I spend a lot of time working with my students on formulating their questions about whatever material we’re reading/viewing/discussing. The old answers no longer suffice, and the old ways of framing questions are often too simplistic to address the full scope of the complexity and multi-dimensionality of our time.

I tell my students that I care more about the questions they raise in their humanities papers than about their “thesis statements”; and that the goal of their work is all about process: tracing a new thought path by getting into conversation with others about possible answers that can help us all to refine our questions, sharpen our vision, and build sturdier bridges into our uncertain future.

I believe that there is an important category/ context missing from Nora’s list of questions: the sacred.

I have been thinking a lot about the 95% of the cosmos that is made up of “dark energy” and “dark matter” — “dark” meaning that we don’t know what in the world it is. Everything we can perceive represents only 5% of the universe. What is the rest?

My guess is that the vast 95% is related to what humans have been referring to for millennia as the metaphysical, the psychic, the spiritual, the divine.

That divinity is the big “context,” the sacred connective tissue shining through the cracks between each of Nora’s questions. Science has only just realized it’s there, though our mystics and shamans have always been able to access it (sometimes with a little help from the fungi and plant world).

I see Nora’s first and last questions as related, closing a circle. Education must encourage curiosity and questioning about what matters most: the survival of our species and all of our companion life forms on Earth, including the elemental building blocks of life and the vast, largely invisible-to-us micro-biomes that support and enable life on the planet.

If we shift our vision from the foreground represented by Nora’s rightly urgent questions to the background — the vast “dark” energy and matter that we might call the spiritual interconnections of self and cosmos, immanent in every speck of the familiar 5% confines of the universe we know so far — suddenly the questions shift too, crystallizing into a mighty clarion call that can reach around our little planet and unite us all:

How can we live in sacred harmony? How can we most firmly, most productively, most lovingly connect with each other and with All That Is?

I am reminded of the famous quote from E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, when Margaret Schlegel reflects on the “incomplete asceticism” that rules her would-be lover, Henry Wilcox. Margaret believes that:

“She might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire…. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die” (Chapter 22).

At this moment, in the early 21st century, we are poised on Forster’s “rainbow bridge.” We have the potential to “connect the prose in us with the passion,” to leave the beast and the monk in us behind.

It’s time for Benjamin’s Angel of History to turn around, snap out of the trance of the past and look bravely into the glowing, as-yet-unlived future, asking the question that reverberates through the “dark” realms of our cosmos: How can we connect and truly progress?

Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D. is an associate professor of comparative literature, gender studies, and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and is the author of books including What I Forgot … And Why I Remembered.

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