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Weekly Commentary - MAY 18, 2020

We always live near Lethe river and keep drinking its water

One way to know how much we have forgotten about the past is to see how many monuments were erected to remember important events for those was who lived at that time. For example, with the exception of small monuments in Colorado and Australia, practically nothing was built to remember the pandemic that struck the world after 1918.

In fact, it is said that despite the millions of deaths worldwide from the so-called "Spanish flu" around 1925, the case had been practically forgotten and that forgetfulness seems to have been one of the reasons why the world, when facing a new plague (another on a millennial list), appears to be poorly prepared.

But the problem is not just forgetting an important historical fact. That in itself is already risky because history, like life, has its many twists and, therefore, forgetting the past is perpetuating and repeating it.

Our forgetfulness goes beyond dates, politicians, and statistics. It is such a deep forgetfulness that it becomes unrecognizable: we have forgotten ourselves. Even worse, we forgot that we have forgotten.

Therefore, not only do we not erect monuments to remember the past, but we also do not erect monuments (write books, create art) to communicate with our own future. Since we already forgot being ourselves, we also do not know what we can become, and we do not even try to communicate with our future self.

Plato, in his typical way, described it with a myth at the end of The Republic. And although much is said these days about the famous myth of the Cave (also in The Republic), the Myth of Er is more interesting to me, both for the story itself and for its immense philosophical, theological, psychological, and literary impact for the next 2400 years.

Those interested can read the Myth of Er in book 10 of The Republic or can easily find it online. In his most basic element, Er dies in battle and then comes back to life and tells the story of what he saw "on the other side." And what Er tells us is that each one of us, before being born, drinks the water of the Lethe river, the river of Oblivion (Forgetfulness).

In other words, we are born having forgotten who we are and not knowing that we have forgotten. That is why, during life, we continue to drink from the river of Oblivion over and over again (we call it amusement, education, religion, or whatever other name), deepening our existential oblivion to the point of no return.

Then, every once in a while, something happens that shakes us and shakes the very structure of our world, our culture and our society. That “something” (a pandemic, for example), by revealing our vulnerability and fragility, our nothingness, can potentially make us think that we are forgetting something and lead us to recover what has been forgotten.

In fact, for the Greeks, learning was remembering. And the opposite of Lethe is aletheia, that is, truth.

We are back inside the cave, too soon and to overconfident in ourselves

We already returned to the cave, too fast and too confident that this was the only and best option. Or, if you prefer, we returned to Egypt because we prefer what is already known (even if it was bad) to the responsibility of building our own future. The hope for a virus to teach us something about ourselves was short-lived. Neither viruses nor gods can do it.

We left the cave (we call it "normal life") for just a few moments and the sun blinded us, but instead of waiting for our eyes to get used to the new light and for our minds to reevaluate the old reality, we ran back to the shadows that, although illusory, are the shadows that we have always known.

For a moment, the illusion cracked, but before it completely collapsed. we fell into the worst illusion of all, to believe that we had overcome the illusion. We force ourselves to believe, with the deepest self-deception, that the best thing was "to return to normality", even if that "normality" was a life in chains looking at shadows on a screen.

We went out into the desert and when we saw no roads (or food) we returned to the known roads, where slavery guarantees that, as slaves, they will feed us (but only, obviously, to a certain extent.)

We were so seduced by the security and stability of slavery (in Greek, “doulos” means both “slave” and “employee”) that prevented us from assuming our individual and collective freedom to march to a promised future, where there are no roads, there are no guarantees, and there are many enemies. 

We prefer to be part of somebody else’s future instead of being part of our own future. 

The stupefying screen was stronger than the bright sun. The image of the pharaoh on duty was more than the impulse to allow our own being to be born. The message of returning to normality (that is, perpetuating the past) caught us as the siren's song would. In fact, we were captivated in every sense of the word: we are held captive by our own captivity.

The sun shone, the sea split, thunder spoke, and the future summoned us. But we, childish, narcissistic adults with closed minds, prefer darkness, closed-mindlessness, anti-dialogue, and existential failure to opening our mind, heart, spirit, and will to our own multidimensionality.

For a moment, for just an instant, a virus (or the divinity, or the Universe, or all of them together) showed us a butterfly and we caterpillars did not see ourselves in the butterfly. We didn't recognize ourselves. We didn’t know that the butterfly was ourselves. The quarantine locked us in a small world, so small that it gave us no escape.

The cocoon is also a form of confinement, but the chrysalis is not there to go back to the past, but to transform its body and mind for a new future. Others in other places will fly. We, Kundera said, are still beginners.

Every piece of a puzzle not yet finished is still valuable

Let's do this thought experiment: Suppose for some reason every day we get a piece of a puzzle. We don’t know how many pieces the puzzle has. and we don’t know how the final image looks like. So, the question arises: what do we do with the pieces of the puzzle that we already have?

There are obviously several options. For example, we can keep them until we have enough pieces to start trying to put something together. Or we can ignore all those pieces, as we don't know if we will ever receive the final piece and it would be ridiculous to spend time on an impossible task.

One thing is certain: with each new piece the chances increase that we can begin to build at least part of the image and, for that very reason, the chances that one day, under the right conditions, we will solve the puzzle also increase. But if we discard all the pieces, we will never solve the puzzle.

We have to decide, then, if each piece is valuable in itself, even if we do not see that value immediately, or if, precisely because we do not see any value immediately, the pieces of the puzzle are worth nothing, and in fact, the puzzle itself is worth nothing.

If we accept the first option, we will order and reorder (that is the key) the pieces that we already have, not to adjust them to what we see in them, but so that they show us what they want to show us. 

If, on the contrary, we accept the second option and discard all the pieces, then there are no pieces left and there will be no puzzles to solve. Each new piece will be as meaningless as all those that preceded it and all that will follow it.

But what if at some point, by some kind of mysterious circumstance, we realize that, although the pieces came one by one, we always had with us and in us all the pieces of the puzzle? Maybe we were so focused on the new piece that we didn't understand that we already had all the pieces.

This mental exercise, well understood and taken to the extreme, should indicate that we don’t see the future because we do not want to see it.

"We are being confronted by something so completely out of our collective experience that we don't really see it, even when the evidence is overwhelming," wrote Ed Ayers. But Ayers didn’t write that observation now, nor did he refer to the pandemic or coronavirus. He did this in his book The Last Offer of God in 1999.

Why Ayers could see the future and we could not? Because, Ayers said, "Threatened human society becomes more blindered as it falls." And the blindness (ignorance) is so great that we are not aware that we can’t see. We already have all the pieces of the puzzle together and in order, and we don't see them. 

If we are no longer evolving, who or what is still evolving?

One of the theories that, although certainly not new, is repeated quite frequently in the context of the current pandemic is the idea that human evolution stopped, not in a positive sense (believing we reached the peak of evolution) or in a hopeful sense (believing transhumans are about to arrive), but in a negative sense: we humans are the worst enemies of the future of humanity.

It seems somewhat hard to believe it, because this is not the first occasion humanity faces natural or man-made disasters, and yet we are still here. But recent examples that I personally witnessed led me to think that perhaps there is some truth to the idea that we stopped evolution.

Einstein is said to have said (surely, he did not) that there are only two infinite things: the universe and human stupidity, and that he was unsure about the infinity of the universe. And Asimov once wrote that even the gods themselves fight in vain against human stupidity.

And just a few days ago, Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari emphasized again that what will destroy humanity is not a virus or a pandemic, but humanity itself, due to its stupidity (that is the word Harari used).

Why do we make these references to the undeniable human stupidity? Because we have witnessed it in all levels of society and in many different situations and places. 

For example, a few days ago I went to a supermarket and the person who was in line before me to pay had all the possible personal protection, including a solid mask and long gloves.

But when it was his turn to pay, this person took off his mask and used his teeth to remove the glove from his right hand, and then, with his bare fingers, pressed the corresponding keys to enter the PIN of his debit card. After paying, he used his teeth again to put on his glove and then adjusted his mask,

I kept thinking what’s the point for that person to protect himself as he did if precisely at the moment when he most needs protection he not only removes his protection, but he does it in the most reckless way possible. Asimov was right: even the gods are powerless against such a level of stupidity.

And a well-known community organization in Denver had to suspend the distribution of food boxes to people in need because those interested could not comply with two simple rules: make an appointment and arrive at the assigned time, and go alone to pick up the food.

On the contrary, people began to arrive at any time and accompanied by their entire family, including children, without any consideration for personal protection or social distancing. Even worse, they discarded foods they did not like in the parking lot.

So perhaps it is true that evolution ended with us. If so, who is evolving? Apes are believed to be in their own Stone Age. But that is another story. Literally. 

We can know the future, but nobody taught us how to recognize it

I am tired of being told that the future doesn’t exist or can’t be known, or that, because it is unknown, we shouldn’t think about it. The fact that we have become addicted to the past and that we confuse the present with “normality” and, therefore, that we have become blind to the future, doesn’t mean that the future can’t be known.

I say that the future can be "known," not "guessed," "visualized," or "prophesied" (in the worst sense of “prophecy”).

The future will remain unknown to us unless we grow intellectually and mentally. As children, we knew little about the past. Only later, after years of growth and many years of study, do we begin to become aware of a long human history that precedes us.

To see the future, we must solve what we don’t know based on what we already know: we know the present and the past (if we have studied them adequately). Goethe was right: we need to know 3000 years of history to avoid wandering aimlessly through life.

For example, if two apples and one banana cost four coins and one apple and four bananas cost nine coins, how much do each apple and each banana cost? In other words, from what we already know (how many coins are needed in each purchase) we can deduce the unknown (the cost of each fruit per unit).

But they have not taught us to think about the future as an element that we have not yet resolved. In fact, they have not taught us to see the future at all. Since we don’t see it, we believe that it doesn’t exist and that it can’t be known. Unfortunately, we don't see it even if the future is before our eyes.

When the first planes were introduced to the United States Army more than a century ago, the official response was that the armed forces didn’t need those "toys." In the middle of the last century, IBM calculated that worldwide there was a need for only five computers.

One more example: In the 1980s, businessmen from the United States traveled to Japan to visit car production plants, but they came back disappointed because, they said, the Japanese didn’t take them to the car factories, but rather deceived them, taking them to clean, almost empty places where robots built the vehicles.

We could share many other similar examples, including situations in our own lives, where we didn’t see the future even when the future was already present. Someone would say, how can we see the future? This short column is not the place to answer that question.

We will only say that, paraphrasing Hegel and following Zizek, we must reintroduce in the past the openness towards the future to understand what is becoming, what is emerging, that is, to see the process of co-creating our best future to connect with that future and bring it to the present. The future is real for those who open their eyes.

The opposite of education is not ignorance, but poverty

It has been said, and quite rightly, that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. The reason is clear: both love and hate are in a relationship, be it positive (love) or negative (hate). But in the case of indifference, there is no relationship, and there is no attempt to connect, even negatively, with the other person.

In the same way, the opposite of education is not ignorance, but poverty. The reason, again, is clear: both education and ignorance have a relationship with knowledge, positive or negative. But poverty (understood in the broadest sense of this idea) eliminates all relationship with knowledge because (as it is obvious) its existential urgencies are different.

That is why Gandhi said that poverty is the greatest act of violence that a human being can impose on another. Poverty takes away the dignity of a human being and reduces it to a mere living thing, without a past or a future, immersed in an endless present of suffering.

In another context (but at the same time), the American anthropologist Oscar Lewis (1914-1970) defined "poverty" not as the lack of material resources, but as the inability of one generation to prepare the next generation for the future of that next generation.

In other words, for Lewis, poverty is the highest intergenerational failure and, in fact, the maximum intergenerational indifference for not being able or not wanting for the next generation to have its own future, being unprepared to response to the challenges of that future.

But if indifference is the hostile and conscious lack of relationship between people, what relationship is lost due to poverty or, better still, due to poor education? What are we indifferent to as a result of impoverished education?

We are indifferent to history and, therefore, we live trying to return to a non-existent past and to escape from an overwhelming present.

If we manage to break out of the predicament we have now entered into and which we have built ourselves, it remains to be seen whether current education (worse than the banking education fiercely combated by Freire) has succeeded in preparing the next generation for challenges unthinkable greater than a virus.

Ignorance of the past means that, in the midst of the pandemic, people nonsensically repeat that "Something like this has never happened before", when plagues and pestilence have plagued humanity for countless millennia. And ignoring the present leads to ignoring the warnings of those who, by paying close attention to the present, can already see the future.

If education is not education for the future, then it is not education at all, but rather it is indoctrination, a mental and emotional closure that makes us believe that we are free only because we have the Internet and social networks.

Young people already know that they have no future. Now the "educators" should learn it. Perhaps they will if they abandon their indifference, that, if they stop preparing students for a test and begin preparing them for life. 

There is no going back to normal if the Damocles’ sword hangs over our heads

Over and over again I heard these days the phrase "I hope this will soon be over so we can return to our normal lives." Although that phrase reflects a well-intentioned feeling, it seems to forget something important: there is no normality or return to normality when Damocles' sword hangs from a hair above our heads.

According to history, in the 4th century BC, Damocles so flattered King Dionysius II of Syracuse that the king invited him to change places for a day. Damocles accepted and promptly sat on the throne, only to find a large sword hanging above his head from a single horsehair, with the possibility of the sword falling at any moment.

As Cicero later recounted, Damocles learned his lesson and immediately cast aside any claim to be king, even only for a day. But the one who did not learn his own lesson was Dionysus himself, who remained a tyrant as he always had been, or even worse. 

The current crisis (better said, meta-crisis) created by the pandemic can, metaphorically, be understood as two Damocles’ swords, because, on the one hand, after achieving everything we always wanted (technology, science, capitalism, globalization), now that we are forced to look up, we discover how fragile and vulnerable we are.

And, on the other hand, as South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has already warned, the lessons the virus could teach global leaders and politicians are unlikely to be learned, thus (hopefully not) causing the most dehumanizing and fierce version of capitalism that we have known to emerge. 

That is why we said above that we are not in a crisis, but in a meta-crisis, that is, a crisis where numerous crises simultaneously converge, from what could be considered (from a certain perspective) the first truly global pandemic, to the evident ineptitude of those in charge of responding to the crisis, up to the failure of the global model implemented up to now.

It seems that we like to live with Damocles' sword above our heads because, as children do, we believe that if we close our eyes and don’t see it, that sword will no longer be there. And those who, like Dionysius, got used to living with the sword, continue to do so without amending their lives to dedicate themselves to living virtuous lives, as Cicero asked.

But Damocles' sword is real and it's not just one. As Israeli historian Yuval Harari has indicated on more than one occasion and long before the current crisis, our generation could be the last (or one of the last) before the extinction of humanity (probably to be replaced by intelligence artificial.)

Should we then lose all hope? Of course not! But we should not fall into the temptation of self-deception by believing that it is possible to return to the normality of the past, because there was nothing normal in that normality, as the present makes clear. It is time to co-create a new future, a new beginning, as Bonhoeffer imagined. 

Refusing to see reality does not transform reality: it just hides it

"This is not happening," a friend told me emphatically and full of confidence a few days ago. "This" obviously refers to the global crisis that now affects humanity. But what is not so obvious is what does that mean of "…is not happening", because all the evidence indicates that the crisis, whatever its origin or purpose, is real.

Perhaps feeling my doubts about his expression, my friend repeated "This is not happening", to make me understand that he had not said "This should not be happening" or "This could have been avoided" or "I don’t like at all what we are facing and I'd rather not think about it."

Rather, he clearly proclaimed something absolutely counterfactual: "This is not happening," despite the inevitable conclusion that the crisis is actually happening.

Counterfactual expressions are usually expressed conditionally. "If my grandmother had not died today, she would be alive," my grandmother said every time someone said anything foolish. But, in that case or in similar expressions, the “if” at the beginning of the sentence implies an acknowledgment that the sentence itself, although it goes against the facts, does so intentionally.

But when saying "This is not happening", without any additions (such as "I wish this was not happening" or "I cannot accept that this is happening”) there is no acknowledgment that something totally contrary to reality is being expressed.

In a more direct way: my friend refused to see reality. Obviously, he cannot be accused of anything. In fact, refusing to see reality, to accept adversity, tragedy or challenge, is a clear indication of mourning, that is, of feeling and knowing that something has irretrievably changed and what follows will no longer be the continuity of what it was before.

I sincerely believe that, like my friend, we are all still in a moment of global mourning, of massive disbelief, in which we do not yet accept what is happening to us, because it is painful to recognize and accept our fragility, our mortality. We don’t like receiving the "inconvenient news" that we are ephemeral.

Therefore, we believe that the monster disappears when we close our eyes. Or that it is just a nightmare. Or that someone is hiding something from us. Or that “this” is the same as “that other thing” that has already happened “long ago and in my town”. All those are expressions of denial and mourning, but of self-deception.

And making decisions about a crisis and about the future based on the self-deception of believing that we know everything and that we can do everything is precisely what led us to the crisis.

Meanwhile, the individual and collective mourning continues. We have wasted the past and we have lost the future. And because we know now that the "saviors" (politics, science, technology, money) can no longer save us.

But there is still one more question to be answered: What is the "this" that is “not happening”? Is that “this” something real that we still don’t understand or accept? 

The real crisis is a crisis of personal and collective maturity

Let's be honest: we live in an immature society. It is nothing new: Milan Kundera already proclaimed it decades ago in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Heraclitus already lamented it more than two millennia ago, as his fragmentary writings attest.

To the immaturity typical of a relatively new species in the long history of this planet, we now add our personal and collective immaturity, powered by technological advances that take away our own initiative, by social networks that limit our thinking, and by institutions dedicated to perpetuating the past and continue with the status quo.

Not only do we not think, we don't even think we don't think. It is a double forgetting: we forget to think, and we forget that we have forgotten to think. So, not only does everything become a problem, but everything becomes a big problem. And, since we don't think, we want to solve everything with “things” (money, for example.)

Creative thinking (accustomed, for that reason, to living with the finitude of life) has been removed and replaced by calculating thinking, which does not seek to create, but seeks to obtain results in order to become fictitiously immortal. And in that fiction, we get caught up, telling stories just to appease our ego and massage our narcissism.

The real crisis is not the economy, global pollution, climate change, overpopulation, scarcity of resources, destruction of the planet, educational failure, wars, or pandemics and epidemics. The real crisis is the collective immaturity that perpetuates childish thinking for decades in people's lives.

And it is not an exaggeration. In fact, that’s the reason we have amusement parks that bring fiction "fantasy" to "real life". In these well-known amusement parks, adults enjoy the visit more than children because they never stopped being children. Some researches believe that “maturity” is reached now at 40, twenty years later than a few decades ago. 

It is true that we face great challenges. In a few days we experience more changes than people 200 years ago experienced in their entire lives. And those changes of yesteryear were so slow that sometimes they were not perceived and, because they were slow, people have time to adapt. Today’s changes are sudden, unforeseen, profound, irreversible.

In addition, each day we receive more information than the average person 100 years ago received in their entire lives. And we interact daily with hundreds and sometimes thousands of people almost anywhere in the world, something that until the beginning of the 20th century was considered only science fiction.

And our brain doesn’t know and cannot respond to these challenges. As the American biologist Edward Osborn Wilson said in 2009, we have a paleolithic (prehistoric) brain in a context of medieval institutions and with advanced technology. In other words: we are cavemen and we pretend to be gods. We deceive ourselves to believe we are gods.

In the meantime, nothing is ever solved and, worse still, old solutions to new problems are attempted, a very clear sign of immaturity.

A reduced world of sophisticated science and devalued magic

That little “black mirror” that we have almost constantly in our hands, in front of our eyes, or close to our ears, far from being just an innocent smartphone is, in fact, a world reducer. Every time we use it our world becomes smaller and smaller and, because the reduction is associated with forgetting, we don't notice it.

I hasten to say that I am not against smartphones and I do not intend to return to the time of handwritten letters or clay tablets written in cuneiform. But I am against the fact that it is so easy to reduce our personal world ("world" in an existential, not geographical sense) to only a sliver of the whole human experience.

We not only happily accept that reduction, but we become addicted to it: we can’t pass up but a few minutes before checking the phone to see if we have new messages. And we don't put aside the phone even when driving or when we are with other people next to us.

If the horrifying experience of seeing a driver on the road more interested in looking at the phone than driving his car was not enough proof that the smartphone is an efficient reducer of worlds, then the experience of seeing a young couple sitting next to each other texting instead of speaking should be the definitive proof. 

But why don't we see that reduction in our own world? For the superposition of a twofold self-deception. First, we believe that the smartphone helps us connect when, in fact, it disconnects us. Second, we assume that the only way to access our world is precisely through that smartphone.

The opium of the people has been technologized and it is so addictive that we even grant it magical powers: if the smartphone is not close to us something bad can happen to us. In that way, one of the most advanced technologies the world has ever known is transformed into an amulet, a devalued version of ancient magic.

I think that neither George Orwell nor Gene Roddenberry could have imagined a more unhappy ending for humanity, although both 1984 and Star Trek present suggestions for the narcotic function of technology. At the same time, Arthur C. Clarke already warned that advanced technology leads to this strange fusion of technology and magic.

Nietzsche said that the "last man" only blinks. And that is exactly what we do: we blink at the “black mirror” (and at any other screen) hoping that the next message or a new “Like” will give our life some meaning, or that the next image will make us smile, or that the next “quote” will fill us with wisdom.

As the philosopher Byung Chul Han says, in our time, each one exploits himself/herself and we call that self-exploitation "personal development" or "success". or the name we want to give it. We exploit ourselves and we give magic powers to technology, all meanwhile we live inside a smaller and smaller world. 

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