To what extent do you believe you know yourself? How closely do you think your outward-facing image is aligned with who you are down deep inside? From my own observations (starting with myself), being fully aware of who we are is generally an elusive task. As author and professor, Michele Nevarez, said on my podcast: “It takes more than a lifetime to get to know yourself.” But without digging in on this question, the challenge becomes in sorting out one’s own identity versus the larger groups with which we affiliate. This speaks to the core of one of the four major paradoxes with which we must all deal: the need to belong and yet feel different. It is typically easier to join a group than to unpeel the layers to know oneself deeply. Being part of a group is comforting, as it provides a sense of belonging. But more often than not, the group is a confederation of people with loosely defined perimeters. For example, say you support a certain football team (in my case, Liverpool FC). Sure, everyone believes in and throws themselves behind the Reds. But what are our shared values? Can we name one thing we all have in common other than our support for the team? When we are part of a group, it begs the question: who are we?
A false sense of belonging
What do we mean when we use the term “we”? And, to what extent do you really fit in? Does your association with a bigger unit of people help you to identify yourself? If you feel like you belong to a group, to what extent do you exist within it as a fully developed individual? On the other hand, if you don’t feel like you belong to a group (a bigger “we”) then how does that make you feel? If you haven’t got a well-defined understanding of who you are nor do you connect with any well-knit group, you are at risk. The risk is one of becoming untethered, disassociated, lonely and disappointed. You might seek to find solace – even meaningfulness – in vacuous or amorphous groups and causes that appear exciting, but in reality, have ambitions that are impossible to fulfil (e.g. fix world peace, end world hunger, equality for all…) and are far from nourishing your deeper soul. These affiliations are generally well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided and are bound to fail. As a result, many people are experiencing a crisis that harms their well-being and is deeply existential. We are living in incredibly dynamic, if not “interesting” times. However, it can also feel like we are headed toward a frighteningly dystopian world.
Dystopia? Take your pick!
What dystopian novels come first to mind for you? 1984? Brave New World? Fahrenheit 451? Do you remember feeling nervous while reading them? Did you find any of them enjoyable? While one might say dystopian novels aren’t to be enjoyed, lately it feels like some of the ugly visions may be coming to fruition. It’s probable that you read one or other of these when you were at school (back in the “good old days”, eh?). Did you ever read the story We, about the protagonist D503? If you didn’t, I highly encourage you to read it! If you already read it and it’s been over a decade since doing so, then it might be time for a re-read. We was written in 1924 by the Russian Evgeny Zemyatin. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, he invented the modern dystopian literary genre. Zemyatin preceded Huxley and Orwell, and undoubtedly had an impact on these later authors. Next year, We will celebrate its 100th birthday, and although written in a very different context, it has stood the test of time in terms of providing a vision of how a society goes bad. It lays testament to how ‘good’ intentions go wrong. To be sure, it is scarily relevant for today. We love to believe in doing good in the name of progress, but without a sound measure of reality and healthy level of debate, the one-sided almost authoritarian version of what is “good” will have many unintended consequences. In a world locked in discord, dwindling conversation, and disconcerting incivility, we should open our eyes to what may lay in store ahead.
A wide-ranging existential crisis
At the core of today’s issues is an existential crisis — both at an individual and societal level — unlike ever experienced before. This situation has arisen because of a confluence of events and circumstances, not least of which is an extended – dare I say unprecedented — period of peace and prosperity, in the developed world. Although, between the wars in Ukraine and Israel, the ongoing Jihad, seven military coups in Africa over the last three years and several score violent civil and drug wars, one might be tempted to say that the world is teetering on broadscale strife. But for those not directly involved in a conflict, I have a tendency to believe that people are bored – and yet scared — in the West. There is no big bad mortal enemy to pursue, so we end up having to conjure up new ways to feel enlivened, to be important. In the absence of sticks and stones, we have turned our attention to words that hurt. As a result, cradled in our pristine, convenient and safe lives, people’s resilience toward true hardship is tanking. Meanwhile, narcissism has been trending ever higher. The news cycle and social media have helped to make many people consistently feel anxious and/or bad about themselves.
A decline in resilience
The sage Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said that “Nobody is spared suffering at one time or another. But everybody in the midst of suffering is given a chance to bear testimony of the human potential at its best, which is to turn a personal tragedy into a human triumph.” What Frankl and millions of Jews faced, what millions of soldiers experienced in war, what the citizens of London, Manchester, Dresden, and Hiroshima suffered during the WWII bombings… make the suffering we are experiencing today in the West pale in comparison. But, as a society, we’ve lost perspective. To wit, in schools across the West, we no longer study history in its context. We take apart history and, in its retelling, we ignore the thinking and circumstances of the time. We judge past events and people through modern mores that make it difficult to tolerate anything that happened. As Douglas Murray points out in his brilliant book, The War on the West, the damage is coming from within. To paraphrase Murray, we seem hellbent on annihilating all the institutions and former heroes of the West, from Gladstone and Churchill in the UK to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in the US, in a desire to recast them as villains and establish the victimhood of those who, generations later, didn’t suffer the true hardships. In this sense, the way that cultural memory of the past is effaced in The Giver by Lois Lowry shows what happens when we no longer understand our past as it was.
To a loss of meaning
Without true turmoil or hardship – much less war – we’re left to find meaning in an uncomfortable serenity. We’ve little to push up against. As the speech pathologist and author of the bestselling book, Raising Victims, Leonydus Johnson, described it in my podcast, there’s a group of vocal people, so-called Social Justice Warriors, who could otherwise be identified as modern dragon slayers. Having eliminated the original dragon, they are now having to invent new dragons to chase to justify their existence. In other words, to be worthy or to feel like they exist, they have had to fabricate a new challenge. It sounds very much like apophenia: the attribution of meaning where none exists. Especially as an idealistic youth, we strive to get animated through and excited by doing good and/or seeking justice. Almost any “good” and “big” cause will do. We attach ourselves to that cause regardless of any profound link to the self. I would say the same thing for many companies donating profits to charities (e.g., CSR) or wealthy individuals who late in life convert to philanthropy (i.e., to recast their reputation). Rather than settling on a congruent long-term purpose that genuinely resonates with core business, the company seeks meaningfulness elsewhere. Similarly, when the cause we espouse isn’t connected to our inner self, we are disproportionately keener to express our sentiments and seek happiness through short-term hits of pleasure. Notwithstanding the decency of the cause, the relationship between individual and cause is not bound by an authentic emotional connection. Without being properly introspective – and recognising our own frailties, imperfections, and inconsistencies – we are not grounded. As a result, our attachment to these causes is at best weak, if not illusory. It may look good on the resumé or on Instagram, but these causes don’t reflect our authentic reality. Consequently, we are experiencing not just a wide-ranging existential worry, but a profound crisis of meaning. Where Abraham Maslow proposed that the highest state of being was through self-actualisation, in our heightened narcissism, we’re so imbued with a need to elevate the self that we’re pushing the boundaries all the way up to self-deification and immortality.
Figure 1 – An extension of Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs
To wit, we constantly see perfectly posed individuals representing themselves on social networks. For those with an over-sized sense of self, and in particular for those who are part of the transhumanist movement, it can lead all the way to a quest for immortality. The underlying belief is that, unlike any generation or civilisation past or future, we (or more specifically, I) deserve to live forever. The number of start-ups and venture capital funds content to spawn longer lives or recast aging as a disease to cure is staggering. I cite, for example, Humanity, the AI Health Coach; Human Longevity, whose mission is to live a healthier, longer life; or Altos Labs (stacked with many heavy hitting scientists) that is “dedicated to unravelling the deep biology of cellular rejuvenation programming,” and that raised $3 billion with just a team and a website. A 2022 fund, Life Extension Ventures, raised $100 million “for startups focused on building tools for “longevity for people and planet,” such as disease prevention or organ regeneration.” In early hype, Bank of America analysts in a CNBC interview in 2019 projected that the longevity market would be worth $600 billion by 2025. In any event, several magazines, such as Neoscope and Inc., have seen fit to promote the topic of immortality as a potential gold mine for investors. Leading the parade, there are a number of “rich & famous,” who are actively seeking to “cure” aging and live forever, including the likes of Jeff Bezos (founder and CEO of Amazon), Sergey Brin (cofounder of Google), Elon Musk (founder and CEO of Tesla, SpaceX), and Larry Ellison (founder, CTO and executive chairman of Oracle). Peter Thiel (entrepreneur, venture capitalist and political activist) reported in an interview with Business Insider in 2012 that he believes that “death is a problem that can be solved.” Steve Jobs, the deceased cofounder and former CEO of Apple, said in his famous Stanford commencement speech in 2005 that mortality is “the single best invention in life.” To my thinking, not without a little irony, these individuals are creating unrealistic dragons to slay.
Alongside plastic surgery and a vast industry in anti-aging creams that’s projected by Precedence Research to hit $90 billion by 2032, venture capital funds and initiatives around immortality abound, such as the Longevity Fund, Korify Capital One and Immortal Ventures, which I note is still “coming soon.” All the same, the area is attracting a lot of interest, notably from baby-boomers who now have death in their sights. According to this Futurism article, “Bank of America analysts say that companies focused on immortality and longevity — extending the human lifespan as much as possible — are going to grow in coming years, with the market expected to be worth $600 billion by 2025.” Granted a large percentage of these initiatives around “immortality” is focused on improving life and/or curing illnesses other than aging! Such fantastic thinking is a sad statement of our times. I have met numerous 30-something (usually men) who have excitedly joined the bandwagon and are excited to have much longer lives. But, for what end? And why them?
In her white paper, “The Fantasy of Technoimmortality and the Psychoanalytic Infinite,” Alla Ivanchikova wrote about some of the wildly optimistic forecasts to beat death:
“Technoimmortality,” Martine Rothblatt writes, “means living so long that death (other than by suicide) is not thought of as a determining factor in one’s life.” Rothblatt, an inventor, the founder of Sirius satellite radio and a biomedical company United Therapeutics, and an influential member of the global transhumanist movement, is unapologetic in her belief that death, as humans have known it, will one day be overcome. Another future and director of Google engineering Ray Kurzweil predicts the advent of digital immortality (form of brain uploading) by 2045. And Aubrey De Gray, a California-based gerontologist, is known to have proclaimed that the first person to live 1000 years had already been born. “
Ivanchikova is right to call it a fantasy. On balance, this desire to conquer aging and defy death smacks of an alternative version of reality. The most impressive element of these individuals seeking to deify themselves and live forever, as mythical gods might do, is the belief that they are the chosen ones, the most important individuals in the history of humanity. Should we “fix” aging and death, we’ll no longer need to have new stock to follow us. With the plunging levels of fertility, maybe that might seem desirable. But what sort of a world would that leave us with: immortal (and highly narcissistic) human beings interlocking with artificially intelligent ever-ready robots?
As is portrayed in many of the dystopic visions of the future, there’s usually a certain elite – characterised as benevolent and all-knowing — that runs the show all the while benefitting from another set of rules. The state structure is omnipotent and always positioned “for the good of the people.” In We, it’s OneState; in 1984, it’s the World State; and in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s the Gilead or the Divine Republic. The “benevolent” overlords have titles such as the Benefactor (We), Big Brother and his “Fordship” (1984), and the Chief Elder and the Giver (in the book of the same name by Lois Lowry), who are supposedly well intentioned, but their benevolence inevitably goes awry. In 2023, the quest for everlasting life is led by a super elite (with a high concentration in Silicon Valley) … another way of widening the divide between the haves and have nots. But there are plenty of individuals, with lower levels of privilege, who are keen to be immortalised if their body can’t outstrip death. These people subscribe to the Model of Infinity.
Figure 2 – Model of Infinity
It starts with a powerful sense of hope, to make the world a better place, to do good and to make life safer. The issue isn’t that hope, progress or doing good is bad. Offering efficiencies and improving safety are indeed useful. They are laced with decent intentions. It’s just that some people have preferred to focus solely on this Model of Infinity without wishing to take into account the Model of Finitude, which incorporates a significant dose of reality.
Figure 3 – Model of Finitude
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with hoping for a better world. It’s just that it must be put in the context of our deeper reality. The Model of Finitude is foundational to our existence. Without being grounded in this reality, we are bound to have fantastic ideas of ourselves, that are unbounded, untethered and ultimately unhealthy. Part of our human condition is to have constraints, to deal with challenge and suffering and to push the limits. That’s what makes our lives richer. That’s the core ingredient that makes our lives more meaningful.
A recasting of reality
With people striving to move past self-actualisation, we have seen the links with community ruptured. Whether there’s a causal relationship with the decline in religion is up for debate, but we have also manifestly lost touch with reality. We’re no longer interested in risk, having broadly adopted the principle of precaution. We shun pain and suffering, taking refuge with medications (or worse, addiction to pain killer drugs or alcohol). As a society, we avoid the topic of death and whenever possible put old-aged parents into gated – if not isolated — communities. In this latter case, I must admit having done the same, so I can say I am part of the problem. Our sense of reality is conditioned more by the emotions we feel than the hard facts of life. With everyone so preoccupied with themselves, no one has any time left to listen to others. Despite the extraordinary conveniences offered by modern life, improvements in healthcare and extraordinary ways to do everything quicker (travel, communication, date, shop…), we still want to have more. In a never-ending cycle, it’s because we have – and know of – more, that we want more. It seems ironic that we want to live longer lives but don’t have the time today to be with one another or to be of service to others. In this exaggerated self-aggrandisement, we have lost touch with our surroundings and community.
With most developed countries seeing fertility rates well below 2.0, the lineage of many families relies on a single child. With media and governments alike fanning flames of fear with worldwide and unfathomably difficult challenges such as climate change, eliminating all forms of bias, fixing all forms of injustice, and making society forever safer, it’s no wonder that many – especially among the younger generations – are suffering from a sense of disenchantment and ever-worse mental health conditions. There is a reduced tolerance of risk and a corresponding anxiety with anything that could unsettle our precarious balance.
The breakdown of a proper community
The detachment from the Model of Finitude has contributed to the breakdown of a fundamental and necessary paradox that describes the human condition: our need to belong and yet be different. The challenge is in trying to find an equilibrium between a sense of individuality and contributing to the greater common good of a broader community. Notwithstanding good intentions, how can we adequately put limits on our goodness? As the proverb goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. How do we graciously put a cap on the goodness? Any form of limitation can be seen as un-good or exclusionary. How can we define what is the right community to serve (and by extension who NOT to serve)? Who is to decide what is good? Who is to decide on the outer bounds of your community? As depicted in the figure below, we are faced with an ever-broadening choice of “communities.” For those who follow spiral dynamics or profess conscious evolution, the supposition is that the more enlightened one is, the wider the community. Ultimate enlightenment is equated with reaching complete one-ness with all. The catchy epithet that is sometimes uttered is that we are all part of the same Human Race. To say so is simple but, in practice, it is meaningless. Building on spiral dynamics, Ken Wilber developed the “integral theory of consciousness” to reflect the highest states of enlightenment whereby we incorporate all stages and identify with everyone. But, when we are everyone, we are inevitably no one.
Figure 4 – A hierarchy of community
In the case of Zemyatin’s We, this “broader community” is an all-encompassing society called OneState. The term “Integral” is used in We to refer to a rocket to be sent off by OneState to bring its ‘mathematically infallible happiness’ to other planets and civilizations. In essence, there is one group that gets to dictate what is good to everyone else. But this “we” to which we belong has become so distended that it has become foreign, at least to many civilians. The OneState that is being proposed is suffocating liberties. The more a state imposes a singular way of being (and thinking), the more the individual will feel left out. On a very wide scale, the individual is becoming more individualistic and the sense of belonging – to any real sense of community – is being lost. We rationalise that our inflated egocentrism is mitigated by an attachment to a global project (i.e., like the Integral). As politics has become more divisive, fuelled in part by the murdochisation of media, we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum ripped further afield. In figure 5 below, the dominant story in progressive circles has led to the breakdown of traditional communities toward more abstract, pan-national associations that struggle to unite because of a non-defined set of shared values and behaviours. Some have characterised these associations as the new modern-day religions. As in: something bigger — and moral — in which to believe. As my friend Louis Elson pointed out, this may not be a linear continuum, but sit on a full circle, where the narcissistic self has set out a limitless attachment to the widest possible world.
Figure 5 – The distended link between individual and community
On the right, the notion and perimeter of the “community” has been extended so far as to include everybody… as underpinned by the globalist philosophy or Universalism of Christianity and Buddhism, where we are all one world, one human race. This, too, is captured as part of the teachings of spiral dynamics with the movement from Me to We to Everybody, positing that the acceptance of everybody is the highest form of enlightenment. In this vision, there should be no boundaries, no nations, no exclusion, no discrimination … no differences. One version of this can be found in shopping malls around the world where the anchor stores, baristas, and luxury brands are systematically the same, (virtually) everywhere. The universality of businesses and retail stores is even more obvious online; to wit: Google, Amazon, Apple, and Wikipedia. In the middle of the Me-We-Everybody model lies “We.” But, as I asked at the outset, who are we? Is there no way to find serenity, dignity and prosperity in a smaller collective “we”? Must true enlightenment only be bound in belonging to everyone? And is the highest form of progress living forever or is it not about being the best version of ourselves during our finite-bound lives?
We are everybody and nobody
In our quest to accept and be like everybody, we inevitably lose ourselves. To no longer have a defined community, we end up belonging to everybody and nobody at the same time. Our sense of self is indistinguishable from the mass of everyone. To the extent we live in a duality, it is said that we can achieve one-ness when we are consciously able to move out of the skin of our own ego, as described by the French psychologist, Didier Anzieu. Only at that point, we can truly love everyone (else) because otherwise, we are merely only really loving ourselves. However, that dissolution of self is complicated. While I’ll accept some can achieve this state, I observe that the vast majority of people cannot and will not be able to peacefully cede their own identity. Frankly, I don’t even think it’s a healthy thing to do. To my thinking, an inherent part of the human condition is inscribed in the need to survive, to perpetuate your genetic code and to feel unique… and yet have a true sense of comradery and belonging. When philosophers who promote a higher consciousness talk of the supreme activities of cooperation, transcendence, and creativity, there is yet a distinct need to express one’s individuality through unique creative process (e.g., a work of art, an invention, or offspring).
For sure, we need to recognise our latent paradoxes. But more importantly, we need to reinject a dose of reality in our frameworks and exigencies. We need to add perspective to recalibrate our level of suffering. We must find ways to exist through a more meaningful life where we allow the individual to flourish all the while being of service to a bigger – but not overwhelmingly so – cause. We need to be more self-aware, more truthful about ourselves, embrace our imperfections, and understand that challenge and risk are part of life, that suffering is not to be invented nor to be run away from, but to be experienced as a natural part of life. Safety, convenience, and efficiency is a trifecta that sounds distinctly soulless. I have otherwise cast this pervasive problem as the avatar trap, which I discussed in my last book, Heartificial Empathy, where we are caught up in representing an image of ourselves that is not just misaligned with who we really are but is also basically unattainable. We must stop chasing illusions and relish the challenge of our gritty, messy and imperfect lives. We must appreciate the digital but remember our manual history. If we type quicker and more efficiently with a keyboard, new studies (see in ScienceDaily and Neuroscience) have shown that handwriting is more effective in notetaking, committing to memory and learning. As Johann Hari encouraged in his book, Lost Connections, we would do well to reconnect with our deeper humanity, walk in nature, touch the earth, and do meaningful work. To be sure, I’m not promoting to jettison technology and return to an archaically simple life. We must embrace the changes, but not without forgetting ourselves and our deepest truths.