March 10, 2011 —
Has the earth shifted under your feet yet?
No, I’m not talking about Christchurch, New Zealand, which was recently hit by its second major earthquake in less than six months. I’m not talking about Arkansas, where a recent increase in seismic activity has been linked to the “fracking” process for extracting natural gas. And while I am speaking metaphorically, I’m also not referring to the political changes that are still reverberating across many Arab countries as I write, “earth-shattering” though those changes certainly are.
It’s tempting, to be sure, to paint what’s going on in places as diverse as Libya and Wisconsin—and here around us in the Upper Delaware Valley, for that matter—in terms of grand tectonic movements, to think of massive historical forces grinding against each other, sending out shock waves as old forms are destroyed and new ones created. But my concern at the moment is more on the individual, personal level.
Namely: what do we do when our old stories, our tried-and-true ways of seeing the world, become obsolete? These stories, or “narratives,” as I’ve been referring to them in the last couple of columns, help us comprehend what is going on around us. What happens when they are taken away?
We spend the first parts of our lifetimes learning how to see, how to categorize the flood of sensory data we experience, how to evaluate patterns, and how to sort out real dangers from illusory ones. We learn what others expect from us, and what we can usually expect from them. We learn to predict, and generalize, and navigate our way through the world. We learn the rules, and the exceptions to the rules.
But sometimes the rules change. They change when personal tragedy strikes, when disasters hit, when conflicts erupt—or when the existing order of society becomes no longer sustainable.
And when that happens, the disorientation can be gut-wrenching. Like a neophyte on a bad LSD trip, one can find things that should be solid, that have always been firm and reliable, become fluid and changeable, or disappear altogether. Suddenly one doesn’t know what to do, or how to react, or exactly what is really happening. Things normally benign can take on threatening aspects, or one can unwittingly throw oneself into harm’s way.
At such times, the very ground we stand on no longer seems steady. With nothing to hold onto, nothing to guide us, our own sense of identity can itself be shaken, possibly even shattered.
This is what I mean when I speak of feeling the earth shifting beneath our feet—the awareness that a transition, a basic and profound change, is bearing down upon us.