In the first Democratic Debate a question which differentiated the candidates was this: What do you view as the greatest danger facing the next presidency?
China! the Middle East! Global Warming! No, trumped Hillary: “it’s nuclear material getting into the wrong hands!” I get it. Fear is a powerful tool in the hands of politicians. Though it would never win a campaign, I say that the greatest danger of our time is existential schizophrenia: the danger that humanity will lose its bearings and self-destruct! How? The craziness might take many forms. It can begin with paranoia, or simple ignorance, stirred by rhetoric that ignores the whole truth while madly fixating on isolated facts.
The existential philosopher, Martin Heidegger coined the term “existential schizophrenia” to describe a general cultural morass already in the early 20th Century when crazy-making, repetitive factory work and the madness of war had already set in. The symptoms are clear: modern people are more than ever capable of thinking one thing, feeling another and then doing things which are entirely disconnected from their thoughts and feelings…this can be dangerous and self-destructive. Ultimately the greatest danger is that society will not stop to consider the impact of over-reactive policies and self-destructive behaviors.
These behaviors may range from the seeming harmlessness of mindless consumerism that in fact consumes the planet, to a proliferation of weapons supposedly to make us safer but instead multiplying the violence. As Heidegger put it: “The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” Humor can easily jump on ignorance, like this video that went viral.
Long before suicide bombs were common, the a capella singing group, The Bob’s, characterized the nihilism of consumerism with morbid humor in their classic piece Spontaneous Human Combustion where instead of terrorists, shoppers in a crowded mall blow up spontaneously when they hear “buy one get one free!” Nowadays a kind of confusing disconnectedness is spreading even to the most thoughtful among us, pointing more credibly than ever to planetary self-destruction.
In last years’ annual Christmas greeting to the governing body of the Vatican, Pope Francis defined one of the 15 Diseases of the so-called Roman Curia as “Existential schizophrenia: the sickness of those who live a double life, fruit of the hypocrisy typical of the mediocre …. They create a parallel world of their own, where they set aside everything they teach with severity to others and live a hidden, often dissolute life.”
In a world that is disjointed, strong leaders can prevail when acting out in ways that their followers would never dare.
The electorate’s fear of political correctness can be dramatically trumped by politicians’ inflammatory statements that may be secretly harbored by voters in a confused world. Hopelessness fuels this flame and may lead to horrific decisions and violent acts such as a young woman who is willing to blow herself up, or a captain of commerce who knowingly pollutes our planet for profit. Neither can credibly integrate their thoughts and feelings with their actions. Both are destructive and deadly. Both may inspire others with their audacious acts of violence. Both may be pitied because they are caught in a destructive trap, though one may be materially impoverished and the other wealthy beyond belief. Both believe they’re right.
As a culture we have reached an existential crisis, a crisis in meaning when suicide is becoming acceptable. Suicide used to be an unthinkable act and now kills more soldiers than war. Every day 22 American soldiers take their own life.
Premature deaths are often caused by decisions that are dis-integrated from healthy thoughts and feelings. Deciding to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol, is an example. My purpose is to highlight our global responsibility as stewards, not to destroy our world prematurely with war and pollution and to take care of each other. One day the Earth may come to its natural end, but surely not now, not yet. And the macro-responsibility to save the planet from self-destruction is reflected in the micro: many suicides, including some acts of terrorism, might not occur given a healthy community of support. Romanticizing the loss of young peoples’ lives as martyrs for any cause, or even condemning them as murderous, may be glossing over the real causes of death. Whether the pain of hopelessness in this world, or the illness of a mental imbalance, lives might have been saved by the kindness of a sane, compassionate world.
A great candidate would face what others ignore, boldly illuminating any self-destructive agenda that fosters investments that are driven by short-term greed, and proliferates terrorism and war based on fear. They would call for compassion and model confidence that humanity can find a course toward mutual benefit. A true leader could prevail against existential schizophrenia with a holistic approach: for example, the ideals of the French Revolution fostering a culture of Liberty rather than repression, political Equality, and Fraternity in relation to the production and distribution of goods and services. Imagine: one integrated world.