By the time this is in your hands, the tolling of the new year’s bells will have long faded; the new year will already be old. Have we found even an ember of newness that remains aglow, that promises returns of an unprecedented kind? Have we reconsidered a dearly-held belief and found it wanting?
If, as the great English writer Walter Pater insists, success is the failure to form habits, how successful have the first weeks of the new year been? What if we called it Now Year, and pledged to live more in the present moment, seeing and experiencing with fresh senses—to burn, as Pater prompts us, “with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy”? What if we pledged to believe in the possibility of change, to banish fatalism and take risks that would initiate new ways of being in the world?
To what extent is newness possible, desirable? Are we bound to repeat the same archetypal patterns, as individuals, as a species, caught in our family dramas, our evolutionary programming, our socialized assumptions about how to live? Is it impossible to acknowledge facts that support something we already “know” we don’t want to believe in? Is it impossible to learn something new and change our ingrained assumptions? Or do we, despite certain bonds and certain instinctual urges, indeed have the power to break out, to imagine new values, new ways of seeing and living?
Yuval Noah Harari, in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, argues that one reason modern Western Homo Sapiens were able to conquer the world (wreaking havoc, creating wonders) is because, beginning in the 17th century, the advent of the Scientific Revolution, people began to realize that they did not know everything. Truth was not something come down as Scripture from an infallible God, but something to be sought out, discovered, unearthed. This search for truth also led modern humans to believe that they could improve their lives, that progress was possible. Harari is skeptical about whether progress has made people happier, but he is certain that we will keep on searching, exploring, inventing, and changing. And he is also just as aware that people have a tendency to become dogmatists for new “religions”—liberalism, fascism, capitalism—ideologies which come, in time, to stand for new unexamined “truths”.
We have, then, two opposing tendencies: the tendency to stick to old ways and old assumptions, and the tendency to change and grow. We are creatures of habit, and we have developed (individually and socially) out of very real and complex material circumstances, which shape who we are as people, as cultures; but part of who we are is people and cultures that change, take risks, reinvigorate stale, old forms. In another book mentioned a few months ago, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, I read about a scientist studying the differences between Neanderthal and Sapiens DNA. He proposed that the reason Sapiens were able to either out-compete or annihilate the Neanderthals is because of something he calls “the madness gene,” a gene that has made all Homo Sapiens—not just civilized westerners—curious, risk-taking, exploring beings, with crazy ideas like sailing a piece of wood out onto the water, or attempting to turn lead into gold. Thus, what is often maligned as a grasping, reckless trait of “western civilization”—opposed to the supposedly peaceable, satisfied, non-competitive non-civilized ‘primitive’ peoples—is possibly a universal trait, and one which has brought us much good along with the bad.
How do we change and how do we take care that the changes are for the better, not for the worse? Habits, comfort zones, the accumulation of received ideas, ossified into things we believe are facts, established practices that sort of seem to work, at least for some people, practices often built up on top of generations of errors, too complex to unravel. Imagine your junk drawer: a few skeins of yarn tangled with wires, screws, scissors, but a whole world like this, jerry-rigged to itself, and sensate, attached emotionally to its strange entanglements, scared of being set free, possibly alone, unprotected by the knots that tie, the adhesives that stick? What would happen, were we to cut ourselves free of the mess? How long would it take for it all to get tangled again? Would it all get tangled in pretty much the same way?
Let us have the patience for nuanced discourse and analysis, beyond dogmatic moralizing, realizing that some of the traits that are under attack by modern reformers actually may be traits that bring us things we love and treasure—what would the world be without curiosity, without desire, without wild beauty, complex works of art, unfettered by thought police or trigger warnings? Dare to be curious, dare to be hungry, dare to be a Homo Sapiens. Happy Now Year.