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The Lesson of This New Age of Conflict, Trauma, and Pain

The Lesson of This New Age of Conflict, Trauma, and Pain
Mohamed Salem / Reuters

A new age of conflict, trauma, violence, and pain is exploding around the world. And as I watch it—as we watch it—I’m reminded of a night. Long ago, now. Let me tell you the story of that night, to bring out what I think the lesson of this age, this moment, as we watch the globe convulsing, is.

San Francisco. I was there, lured, by the promises of a Big Internet Company. They needed a Guy. A Big Brain. They told me I was the guy. So there I was, waiting. To sign on the dotted line. Living in a hotel. Right down the street from a storied, old-world bar. Two of my friends lived in the neighborhood, too. A couple. She was becoming a psychologist, and he, a historian. I was on my way to becoming an economist, writer, thinker.

We’d meet at the bar, and just…talk. Do you remember those kind of nights in your life? Not ones for fun, necessarily. But for…truth. We were so young then. And we were trying to understand this strange thing—the relationship between ourselves and the world. Who were we? What were we there for? And so we’d talk and talk.

And that night, we came to an epiphany, of sorts. After a few cocktails, whiskies, arguing, sometimes vehemently, over the differences between our fields, drunk not on the liquor, but intoxicated, I think, by the ideas, the feeling of discovery, the connections we were making. At last, after all these nights of talking, debating, challenging each other, we agreed on something at last.

We were here for a reason. And that reason was as simple as it was fathomless. To minimize suffering. An inelegant way to put it. The stuff of naïveté and idealism, you might say, chuckling to yourself. Kids, thinking the world’s that simple. And yet I remember that night often these days. Not just because of the perfection of it—three friends, fog, bar, epiphanies, life, ideas. But because…

Look at the world today.

Think of the world then. In those days, you see, this idea was something…less controversial, perhaps. Minimizing suffering was a thing, a goal, an objective, a process, that we had a path to. Democracy would spread. Prosperity would rise, thanks to technology and markets. Living standards would rise. Cooperation among nations would ensue. The demons of the past—poverty, deprivation, demagoguery, fascism, authoritarianism, rage, hate, and ultimately, conflict, violence, and war—would be distant memories.

All we had to do was follow the plan. Not us, the three of us, but the world. The formula’d been discovered. Of Modern Alchemy. For turning Lead into Gold. The lead of suffering, into the gold of…

I’ll come back to that.

Look at the world today. What do you see? We’ve failed in this vision. At This Most Beautiful of Ideas. See how conflict and war spread around the globe. Look at how authoritarianism and fascism rise. But it’s much, much more than just that. See how profoundly, shockingly distressed young people are. Consider how rates of despair are skyrocketing.

All of those are forms of suffering. Because of course suffering is manifold. There are more names for it than I can list. Modern ones, which are sometimes medicalized, therapized: depression, anxiety, trauma. Or sometimes we put them politically: disintegration, decline, devolution. They can be put sociologically, too: social bonds and ties sundering, “the loneliness epidemic,” friendship itself becoming a luxury, as in, the real thing, people turning to AI companions in…what? Emptiness? Hopelessness? Desperation? There are the obvious forms: the mindless, senseless violence that fanatics and lunatics of every stripe inflict on the innocent, rising to power, pitting people against one another. And all this can be put in older ways, too: angst, anomie, immiseration, the Grand Ideas of classical economics and sociology.

Our world is suffering. In intense and profound ways. That might simple, maybe obvious, even a bit of a cliche. You can even, say like a good college student, "but it always has been!" True, yes, sure. And yet the depredations of the past should hardly justify the tragedies of the present. So I want you to see this moment, especially, in context. This Most Beautiful Idea of All—minimizing human suffering—is something that we are now failing profoundly at.

At every level. I gave you a little taxonomy of suffering above. But think now about the various levels of failure that it involves and implicates. It means our systems of governance are failing, at national and international levels, hijacked by demagogues. That our social institutions are failing, from education to healthcare. It means that our models of growth and prosperity are failing, too, unable to lift living standards. It means that our idea of what a society is anymore is under question, social bonds ripping apart, reconstructed and deconstructed away from equality and truth along the lines of allegiance to crackpots, tribes, and hierarchies, which more often than not preach lies, hate, and violence, whether Manfluencers and misogyny, or political strongmen and demonization.

We are failing at the greatest task we have, in all-permeating and remarkable ways.

That’s not just my opinion. It’s a demonstrable fact, for which there’s copious evidence by now, if you need it. The UN’s development goals, which are our civilization’s truest barometer of progress—the UN itself warns that they’re stuck, stalled, and going into reverse. In places like America, the sense of despair and pessimism is rising off the charts, literally—a statistic we’ll discuss in days to come is that half of American kids feel persistently hopeless—and conflict and violence are now more or less an open goal of the fanatical wings of politics. I could go on, listing the situation in nation after nation—but I shouldn’t need to.

So what are we really talking about here? This Most Beautiful Idea. What is it, really? The…notion…that we’re here to minimize suffering? As in, that's the point of us? It’s the basis of civilization itself, at least in the modern sense, but perhaps not just limited to that, because of course, many ancient, indigenous civilizations had astonishingly sophisticated and profound notions of just this Most Beautiful Idea.

There’s a word we use these days, but I think we’re forgotten what it really means. Or should mean. We use it in a personal context. In an organizational one. An institutional one. Even corporations trumpet it. In other words, we’re surrounded by layers upon layers of this word, which is a thing we’re supposed to have for ourselves, and then again, in our organizations, and then again and again as we engage with institutions, each other, our societies.

Purpose. The word’s been cheapened, a bit, perhaps. Maybe we need “a new one”—that’s how we solve the problem of words losing their meaning by being overused these days. I don’t know—let’s just stick with it for now, and perhaps try to reclaim it.

What does it mean? What should it mean? What it should mean, at its truest and best, is to express This Most Beautiful Idea—reducing, minimizing, diminishing, human suffering. Not in a childish way—nobody’s saying that, along the lines of social criticisms of the 60s and 70s, leveled by works like A Clockwork Orange, for example, that every impulse should be controlled. Sure, some suffering’s necessary. But not…this much. Expanding, rippling out through the world, pulsating across it like a shockwave.

So perhaps, today, I’d put it differently than that night, all those years ago, when three friends sat a bar, and Fixed The World. This Most Beautiful Idea, the fundament of civilization, is purpose. The real thing. It means something like: to transform suffering. Into fulfillment, happiness, trust, truth, creativity, decency, discovery, friendship, cooperation, self-determination. To expand the limits of agency, and dramatically alter the horizons of possibility. This is what our institutions are for, our systems are to do, what we're here for. It's the meaning of our endeavor, the one called "civilization."

Big Stuff, in other words. Go ahead and chuckle, if you must. Still, this? This is the work of the 21st century. To turn lead into gold. The lead of suffering, into…all the names of life. Not just for us—“human” suffering. Think of extinction unfolding around us. How do you think a magnificent centuries old tree feels, being incinerated? We don’t “know,” but do you want to bet it feels nothing? Is that an appropriate stance for a thinking person to take? Doesn’t it itself involve a form of nihilism and fatalism, not to assume that life lives in the same ways we do? Big…Stuff.

This is the real work of the 21st century. All of it. This new age of conflict, violence, trauma, and pain? It’s telling us something.

We have lost our purpose. Not just in personal ways—though that’s eminently true, too: we all feel a bit lost these days. I mean it at larger and larger scales. What’s…the purpose…of America…anymore? Can anyone tell me? The bitter divisions render this a broken question. What’s the purpose…of…I don’t know…tech? Just to addict us to cheap bits of info, so it can commoditize our “data,” and sell it right back to us in the form of stuff most of us can’t really afford, which leads to an escalator to hell of debt? What’s the point of our organizations, most of them? Just to sell us more stuff, as living standards plummet?

What’s the point of our civilization? Is it to…elevate and expand the possibility of every life, so that it can reach fruition? Not just you and me, but rivers and oceans and forests, for example. Is it just for billionaires to become trillionaires by turning the planet into a cinder? Is it for demagogues and crackpots to rip societies apart? Or is peace, truth, beauty, goodness, and equality? What are we even doing anymore?

We have a Gigantic We Don't Know Why We're Here Anymore or What the Point of It All Is Level Purpose Crisis, my friends. Among many other forms of crisis, to be sure, but to me, this one is more fundamental. Economies, societies, polities, people are in crisis. But underneath all that, below it, lies a cracking, imploding foundation. Purpose…in this truest sense...is turning to dust. At every level. And so what's trickling down through our institutions and our world, in that oceanic vacuum, that bewildering emptiness, is rage, hate, conflict, lies, brutality, rage, fear, all the poisons that kept humankind mired in folly and stuck in violence for so long.

Our first job these days is turning all that around. Not just the level of stuff that’s often demanded of us: “actionable insights!” “Deliverables!” And so on. But the much deeper and more profound questions facing us now. They’ve become existential—we now face existential…everything…threats, challenges, risks—for a reason. Without a purpose, this is where you end up: this dystopia we're drowning in.

And I mean that in a mature sense, not a childish one: "hey, it can be your 'purpose' just to make money and turn people into Nazis!" No, dummy, that's not what the art of transforming suffering into possibility is at all. It is the precise opposite, exploiting and encircling suffering, and intensifying it.

So we need…I don’t know. What do you call it? A New Enlightenment of The Human Soul? Made of...Chief Purpose Officers? Governance and Institutions Which Exist For a Reason Again? Purpose…heavy lifters? Guides? Coaches? Leaders? Purpose…agendas? Rights, social contracts, institutions that rise to another level of purpose? And I don’t mean in the lightweight, fluffy sense of green or good-washing, I mean it as the central thing that we do, first of all, primarily, the raison d’être, above all, the priority, the point. You see, the first part of that paragraph sounds silly because even our language is inadequate to really express the structures and roles and forms that we need to become, build, inhabit, and create. This is how far behind the curve we really are.

This Most Beautiful Idea. I’ve never forgotten that night, not because of what we discussed, learned, thought. But because it was right around that moment, that time, that the world began to..fall apart. That the trajectory of human progress slowed and reversed. That suffering began to mount, rise, and then explode, again, in all the forms we see now, war, violence, trauma, despair, hopelessness, rage, isolation, conflict. That night, we thought we Fixed the World. Funny how things work. Here we are, decades later—and here we’ll always be, I suppose. The World Still Needs Fixing. But today? We’re failing at the single greatest task that we have, civilizationally, organizationally, institutionally, and even personally. And that is where the future really begins—or doesn't.

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