The Apocaloptimists’ Tales #4: A message from Cassandra

I am the closest thing to a prophet you’re going to get and believe me no one here is excited by the prospects.

I know what you’re thinking. Matted hair. Crazy eyes. Looks more like a bum than a sage. Liable to go into a rant at the slightest provocation. And yes, at the moment, that’s a pretty accurate description. But what you don’t know is that none of us started off like that. We are crazy, sure, but because of the rest of you.

That, and the curse, of course. But that’s only part of the story.

You see a madman in front of you, but I wasn’t always like this. I have a history. I looked normal, once. Respectable. Admirable. An up-and-comer. I laughed at the idea of fate. Or evil. Work hard = get ahead. Make your own destiny! And evil? Never ascribe to malice what can more easily be explained by ignorance. Education! That was the key. The future was bright. Just around the corner… just one or two more steps.

Then Life revealed itself to me. Now, I know in my bones that my fate was sealed before my birth. A product of a particular place and time; the inevitable meeting of two genetic signatures. Poof. Me. Born. Assigned. Never asked. The next of Cassandra’s many children.

And evil? I have looked into the eyes of evil itself — the hollow stare of “just following orders” and “gotta pay the rent.” It’s hard to deny evil when you’ve seen its face and know its name.

I am told those early years and that mélange of tragedy and trauma — all those strange accidents of history — were conspiring to make the person you see before you, perfectly suited to this point in time. Perfectly conditioned to play the role I have as your personal prophet. You are reading these words because your destiny and mine are intertwined. I have been sent to you, specifically. In all of space-time and the universe, here we are together.

Never fear, though. You will walk away unscathed by this encounter. I, on the other hand, will be left just a little poorer. A little weaker. Like Tinkerbell when no one believes.

But that is my curse to bear, not yours. I can tell you yours, of course. That’s pretty much the only job requirement I have as prophet. I see your future as vividly as you see your face in the mirror. I can’t not see it, though I have tried. So, I warn you again and again, but to no avail. Somehow, you can’t see the reality that is staring back at you — so overcome by your addiction to comfort and privilege that you can’t fathom it. I call out “Look out! Stop!” but the words evaporate before they reach your ears, dissolving into the ravings of a lunatic. Obviously talking about someone else. Clearly unbalanced. Clearly disturbed.

And there again, you are correct. I am unbalanced and disturbed. Your denial of reality is so complete that it erases part of me. Your crazy is so powerful, it draws me in. It’s all I can do to stay here in reality, desperately resisting the siren song of your collective delusion.

But none of that changes your fate.

Still, sometimes I think I would swap yours for mine if I could. You at least, have the luxury of feigned ignorance. You can still pretend it’s all so confusing. Bad things shouldn’t happen to people like you. You are innocence personified — all the best intentions. (Best not to think about actions, though.) Just hold tight. Of course, the system will figure it out in the end! Hold the company line and maybe you can cash out before the bills come due. Screw the kids! Screw the future! No one ever cared about you; why should you care about them? Just because the world’s on fire? What’s that to do with you? Your too old or fill-in-the-blank to change. All your life, other people have taken the heat for your bad choices. Why should that stop now?

Oh, how I long for that sort of brazen hubris! What it must feel like to be immortal, unimpeachable — the keeper of all that is true and good! God’s literal gift.

Alas, that’s not how fate works. I couldn’t switch even if given the chance. I couldn’t be you for a minute. I don’t have the hutzpah. Or the imagination. How you find the energy to maintain the fantasy is beyond me! Truly, a testament to doing a little work developing that denial muscle every day. It’s quite impressive in a twisted sort of way.

Mind you, the truth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Like Gloria Steinem says “the truth may set you free, but first it will piss you off.” The truth is messy. Untidy. It is definitely not “all good” nor is it “all love.” The real truth doesn’t fit in neat lines of black and white, convenient lists of “always good” and “always bad.” It pulses and moves like a heart beat or a wild animal. Always dynamic and yet also timeless.

But for all that, the truth is simple. We confuse the Truth that can be known with the truth that can be described. It’s all metaphor and all metaphors are true, partly. The tao that can be named is not the true Tao.

But words are still important, so here is the truth: If you don’t pull your weight, someone else has to do more. If you eat more than your share, someone will go hungry at the end of winter. If you take more than can be given, the well will run dry.

These truths do not change because you don’t believe in them, though I know you do not. You cannot see how such simple truths have anything to do with your oh-so-complicated and oh-so-modern and important life. That is what will seal your fate. And, sadly, mine too.

This is why we, all Cassandra’s children, look crazed to you. We have been gifted with perfect prophecy and cursed with an inability to communicate it to the rest of you. We shout, sing, contort, innovate, create, cajole, plead, and pray a truth that is simple and plain to see:

Repent. The end is nigh. The only message of the prophet.

You are in danger and you have the power to save yourself. Why don’t you save yourself?!? You sit there, mesmerized by the flickering screen in the middle of a burning house. But there is nothing we can do to penetrate that thick cone of privilege and denial, wrapped in your warm cloak of comfort and belief.

Luckily, I know it’s not just me. I am legion, though we are all alone. In fact, I suspect if you’ve made it this far, you too are one of Cassandra’s children. Those unable to hear our message have already checked out, clucking their tongue at the tone or turned off by the type of font. But you know my frustration — seeing what seems so clear and plain and yet not being able to get someone you love and care about, someone who’s actions are causing the very pain they complain about, to make the connection.

So, brothers and sisters, let’s be clever, you and I. Let’s avoid the fate our matriarch endured by heeding the message she left us. With her last will, she left a testament for us — a gift to all her many children. We know the truth. Not the hype and Hollywood version. We hear the whimper while all around us, people wait for the bang, transfixed.

There is no magic incantation that will turn the deluded into believers — not that can be chanted alone. We cannot prevent what is to come nor can we alter the grand trajectory, but that doesn’t mean we can’t shape our little corner of it. Our gift is ours to share for the deserving. Cast not your pearls before swine. Conserve your energy for the struggle that is beginning and turn towards your siblings for support.

The time has come to band together, those of us who can see the writing on the wall. Reality always wins and we are on the side of Reality. Let’s stop wasting our precious time trying to connect with the disconnected. Instead, let’s work together to find ways of increasing our resilience in the face of what we all see coming our way. Eventually, I know we can create a space in our hearts and communities to accept those newly disillusioned when eventually reality forces itself on them, too, but first let’s secure our own oxygen masks.

The simple truth is that this culture, the one that led to climate collapse and the authoritarian impulse, can not endure. And the shape of the culture to come is already emerging. We all sense its vague outlines, though I doubt any could describe a single detail in any accuracy. So, this is a call to all my kindred spirits, all the Children of Cassandra, those allies of Reality — let’s come together to manifest — to make real with our hands — the culture that we know comes next.

The Lifeboat Project

This is a call to action.

We live in turbulent times and they are likely to get even bumpier. The combined pressures of climate chaos, social breakdown, and a post-peak-energy future mean there will be no “going back.” Science is telling us that we need to mobilize like we’ve never mobilized before and yet our institutions — the same ones that created the mess — have demonstrated quite clearly that they are not up to the job. No one is coming to save us; we’re going to have to do this ourselves.

We think our best hope lies in creating a fleet of “lifeboats” — place-based resilience networks with the practical skills necessary to face an uncertain future and insecure supply chains — connected in a peer-to-peer mutual support network. If this sounds even remotely interesting to you, we want to connect with you.

As part of our commitment to mobilization, we are putting 100 percent of our efforts into growing the Lifeboat Academy as an experimental “lifeboat” — a model of resilience and regeneration at the person, place, and community level and creating a support network with others working on similar projects.

Our dream reaches in two directions at once. In one direction, we want to train dozens of lifeboat crews who can start building practical, place-based networks of committed individuals in their local community. In the other direction, we want to grow a different kind of network that takes its cues from natural systems — a light, nimble, multi-nodal hodge-podge that leans into six degrees of separation to move information and resources where they need to be for mutual benefit.

That’s what the Lifeboat Project is all about and we invite you to join us.

If you’re already building your lifeboat, we want to find ways to learn from your experience of what works and what doesn’t and find ways to reach those who are just hearing the alarm bells ringing now. How can we help them fast-forward to meet us? And how can we work together for mutual benefit?

If you are ready to start building your lifeboat but don’t know where to begin, we want to provide the guidance we wish we had been given when we were starting out.

We don’t have all the details figured out. Like everyone else, we’re just doing the best we can with what we’ve got. But we do have a solid foundation of knowledge and experience to build on. We’ve learned a few things along the way and one is we are all better off when we find ways to work together — so let’s do that.

Please, click here to sign up for the Lifeboat Project mailing list and we’ll connect with you shortly to get the conversation going — or start the conversation right now by leaving a comment or question. I’ll be posting on Medium again with ideas for how the Lifeboat Network could develop and would love to know what questions or ideas you have about the idea.

You’re gonna feel this.

I’m seeing a lot of bruised and battered, dazed and confused folk wandering around out there, so I’m hoping this might provide a bit of relief for some of you.

If my circle of friends or my own personal experience is any indication, a lot of us are starting to question our mental health lately. It feels like things are happening at every level all at once. It’s hard to differentiate my feelings about what Putin is doing in Ukraine, from the same impotent rage at what my rich, entitled neighbours are doing right in my back yard. Everywhere you look, the bullies seem to be gaining ground while our “leaders” double down on the same losing strategies and the masses stand transfixed like deer caught in the headlights.

It’s hitting us hard and deep. The political suddenly feels very personal and all of it seems to trigger every old, unhealed wound we’ve suffered, echoing the unhealed wounds of our ancestors. Everything feels unsafe and we wonder what is wrong with us — especially when it seems like some people are just stumbling along oblivious to the shit-show that is going on all around them. The world is on fire and some people are running around pouring gas on everything, forgodsake! Are they crazy or am I?

I’m a social psychologist. To me, societies have their own psychological lives that play out through the lives of the individuals who compose the society. Our emotional lives are fundamentally connected to the emotional drama that is playing out around us at the cultural or societal level. We hum with a sort of emotional resonance. So, if society goes crazy, you’re gonna feel it.

Of course, our society hasn’t gone crazy. No, really. It’s actually healing from insanity. It is nature’s way of reasserting reality after a long, fevered delusion. Unfortunately, it’s crazy-making to live through. Here’s why:

Society is, in fact, a useful lie. It’s a way of organizing complex systems in overly simplistic ways to allow our feeble human brains to get a handle on things. It’s all metaphor. It’s a map and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sure, the map isn’t the territory, but maps are still useful.

The problem happens when the society forgets that it’s just a map, not the territory itself. And this seems to happen in every society that has ever risen, in a depressingly predictable cycle. We seem to consistently suffer a sort of collective amnesia: we start to believe our own lies.

When you start thinking that the map is more accurate than the landscape, you have a disaster waiting to happen. Eventually, this societal denial builds up a toxic load. The useful lies morph into dangerous delusions. Eventually, the society is no longer able to function effectively in its landscape. It ends up spending most of its energy just maintaining the delusion. This is what we are currently witnessing in Putin’s bombs, “freedumb” truck convoys, and the GOPs desperate attempts to shout down reality.

In the end, of course, reality always wins. Societies are living things and they are subject to the same evolutionary selection pressures as any other creature. When they no longer fit within their environment, there are two options: adapt or die.

This is where things get tricky, because societies have psychology in exactly the same way as you do — as an aggregation of very diverse parts. Society-out-there works exactly the same way you do “in there.” Not like our social conditioning that would have us believe that we have a single, coherent, consistent “personality.” That’s just one of those lies that has outlived its usefulness. In reality, like Walt Whitman says, we all contain messy, contradictory multitudes and that is our strength. Nature loves diversity. In nature, more diversity = more health. But it also means that things don’t simply switch from this to that. The world has never been binary. Adaptation is a process whereby one thing slowly transforms into the other as each of the component parts themselves transform.

But that doesn’t quite capture the feeling of the transformation. Transformation sounds so neutral. It feels like each and every element of the original form dies and only then is something new reborn. We all know the story of the caterpillar and butterfly — the classic image of transformation. But we don’t fully recognize what goes on in that cocoon. I cover it in more detail here, but TL;DR, even inside the cocoon, the immune system of the larva will try to attack the forming body of the butterfly-to-come — even as it is dissolving itself out of existence. There is a battle going on inside that cocoon — or at least that’s how the larva sees it. The larva thinks it’s fighting for its life.

A society only transforms when each of us transform, and that transformation happens at a molecular/neurological level. We all start out as part of the larva — identified with it — so in some sense we have to die to the larva before we can be reborn as the butterfly.

We love to talk about the “habitus” in sociology. Dozens of books have been written to explain the nuance of the concept, but the short form is habitus is to humans what water is to fish. It’s the environment that so surrounds us that we can’t even perceive it. Maybe it would be better to say, it’s like the Kool-Aid to fish; we drink it without even realizing it. We are born into and stew in that Kool-Aid all throughout our formative years. It shapes our core ideas about how the world “really” works, who we are, and how we fit into things. It goes beyond questions of good and bad; the habitus defines what is real and what isn’t.

But of course, you can’t define what is or isn’t real. Society is simply rendering some of reality as “unthinkable.” If society is a map, it’s the part marked “here be dragons.” As an interesting side note, you can easily identify the artificiality of social “reality” by watching when its defenders attack something — usually a suggestion that we act with kindness or integrity — with “that’s not how the real world works.” In every case, the “reality” being referenced here describes an artificially developed social standard that requires the threat of violence to maintain. Reality itself never needs to be defended.

Therefore, for a society to change, that basic operating system— the habitus — needs to be reprogrammed. But that’s the software that tells you who you are and what is real and true. So, when a society such as ours faces an existential threat — when it finds that it no longer fits in its environment — it forces an existential crisis on each of its constituent members.

And that’s where we find ourselves. The society that we were born and enculturated into must transform to fit within the material limits of reality. At a practical level, we simply need to let go of the lies that no longer work — that don’t actually fit with our lived experience. At that level, transformation is neutral. But it’s not gonna feel like that, at least not to the larva-mind. It’s going to fight back and hard. It’s a losing fight, of course. No matter what, that larva will never emerge again from the cocoon. The only real question is whether the butterfly survives or not.

So, I have some good news and some bad news and then some more good news. You aren’t crazy; our society is — or actually it’s going through the crazy-feeling process of reconnecting with reality after a long period of collective delusion. In fact, it’s been so delusional for so long that the only way we can survive is through such a deep transformation that what emerges will feel as different as a larva is from a butterfly. Unfortunately, that transformation will feel like dying in a very real way — and it’s going to be hard the more invested you are in larva-mind. This is why we are seeing the worst behaviour coming from the top of the pyramid. These are probably the most deeply delusional people on the planet. That’s the bad news.

The good news on the far side is that as soon as you can dissolve the last of the larval goo from your habitus — when you can see how polluted our water has become and start to crave pure, clear water again — the butterfly is waiting to welcome you into the process of becoming what comes next.

We are living through extraordinary and challenging times. There is nothing wrong with your emotional programming or your inner compass. Let me repeat: there is nothing wrong with you! It’s not you; it’s the situation we find ourselves in. You are angry and afraid and exhausted and frustrated because we are living in a broken, delusional society. The problem is that we have all been abused and battered by a lie that has outlived its usefulness and the discomfort we are currently feeling is there to motivate us to purge the lies from our system.

It’s time for us all to do the hard work of reacquainting ourselves with reality. And here’s maybe the best news of all — reality is just fine. Actually, it’s more than just fine: reality is awesome. What is less than awesome is our inherited culture of lies, oppression, and cruelty, so good riddance to bad rubbish. Now we can all finally learn to discard the delusional “real world” that bullies have threatened us with since before we were born and discover what it means to find ourselves connected all along.

So, I encourage you all to start identifying with the butterfly. The time has come for us to band together to support each other to dissolve those last vestiges of larval thinking and commit our time, attention and energy to bringing together all the parts that compose the butterfly. The larva’s days are numbered, it’s true, but its immune system has still got a bit of kick to it. There is real danger in this transition and our greatest source of resilience lies in cooperation. It’s time for the smart money to start betting on the butterfly.