Those of us who are students of history, and others of us who are walking around with our eyes wide open and something resembling a long view, can clearly see what is happening all around us right now. The crumbling of empire; the excruciating death-throes of a centuries-old cultural mythology. So it’s not very original of me to say that we’re in a time of crisis. Crisis in one of the original meanings of the word: from the Latinised form of the Greek word krisis, meaning ‘the turning point in a disease’. The point at which the sick person could get better or worse. It’s a critical moment, a choice point. And that’s where it feels we are now: at a turning point in the disease of modern Western civilisation.
A turning point, rather than an end point. The apocalypse isn’t now. That isn’t to say there won’t be a reckoning, but difficult as the times might be, we’re not quite there yet. Right now we’re caught between the old world, trying desperately to salvage its family jewels and heirlooms as the house burns down around it, and the faint glimmer of hopeful light on the far horizon that might point to the new. The dice haven’t yet fallen; there’s everything to play for.
Which is where we come in.
The oldest recorded European philosophies and cosmologies – dating back at least two and a half thousand years to Ancient Greece, for example – offer up a view of human potential and of our place in the world which is both beautiful and compelling.
We’re not here to be safe, those texts tell us, but to risk everything. We didn’t come here for the purpose which contemporary Western society seems to want us to believe we’re here for: to aspire to accumulating sufficient wealth so that we can ‘retire’ at the age of 60 or thereabouts, to a nice house in a nice safe neighbourhood, to stop work and play golf or go on round-the-world cruises, to stop being useful and wait to die. It’s not that we shouldn’t hope for safety and pleasure in our lives – but these things shouldn’t be our primary motivation. We’re here to risk everything to fulfil our calling, to walk wholeheartedly along the path which leads us there, even if that path sometimes is dangerous, or hard.
Plato most clearly expressed this idea in his ‘Myth of Er’. He suggested that before each of us is born, our soul selects a purpose for us to fulfil during our time on Earth. Each soul must pass under the throne of the goddess Ananke (‘Necessity’) – the mother of the Fates, and the one who, Plato said, helps establish what is necessary for each soul to do or to be before it enters the world. After what we intend to accomplish has been agreed, we travel to the Plain of Oblivion where Lethe, the river of forgetfulness flows; once we’ve drunk from its waters, we emerge into life completely ignorant of the fate we’ve chosen. But we’re not abandoned by the gods: we’re accompanied into this life by a ‘daimon’ – a spiritual companion who acts as a ‘carrier of our destiny’, and helps to remind us to fulfil it.
And so, these old ancestral beliefs tell us, we bring into this world, and carry inside us, a unique, innate vision – a kind of concealed invisible potential – which we are intended to express during the course of our lives. We came here to bring to this world a unique gift that only we can express in this world, in this place, at this time. That agreement which we made with Necessity – the mother of the three Fates whose spinnings and weavings and snippings keep the world in balance – is our link back to the Divine, the Beloved, the Source.
That gift isn’t just about the unfolding and growth of our own individual soul – it’s about serving the unfolding of the cosmos, and participating in its journey of becoming. It’s the source of our unique capacity to transform the world, to become an eager participant in its becoming.
At turning points like this, the soul’s purpose is not about survival. It’s not about playing it safe. I repeat: it’s about risking everything. It’s why we chose to come – every one of us – to this world, in this place, at this time. We’re living in alchemical times – each one of us immersed in a crucible designed for the forging of souls. And in true alchemical fashion, by the application of heat, a strange kind of transformation occurs. A purification. If we can hold still there in the face of the fire, we become more essentially who we always meant to be. The dross is burned away. It’s time now to let ourselves be forged, even if the flames sometimes hurt and the blaze feeds a longing for which there’s no cure.
The first thing we have to do, to allow this process to unfold, is to stop all this despair. Stop writing the world off. Stop writing ourselves off. That’s hubris. Because we know nothing about what is going on here – other than the necessity of going on. As Samuel Beckett writes at the end of his novel The Unnameable: ‘where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’ But in order to go on, we have to wake up.
So it’s time for each one of us to evaluate how we can step forward now, and step up to the challenges of the times. Those of us who have been more comfortable, or who have felt safer, hiding in the shadows. Those of us who have hogged the light for all the wrong reasons. Those of us who have been lost and haven’t known which way to go. All the exiles, the edge-dwellers, the non-belongers. The world needs us now; it’s why we chose to be here. Haven’t you always known it somehow, all along? Somewhere on the edge of a myth; somewhere in the deep forest of a story, somewhere in the drowning pool of a dream?
We have to become the tradition-bearers for a changing world. And the beauty of it is our diversity. There is no single way to do this; no dogma, no One True Path. My way is no better than yours, any more than your way is better than mine; it just settles more easily into the heart-chambers of a different group of souls. This isn’t a competition. Competition – and dogma – got us into the mess we’re in now.
For some of us, stepping forward will take courage. We might wonder if we’re ready, if we know enough. We probably don’t, and I’ve always believed that a little honest humility is everything. None of us has all the answers. But we each have a little piece of the puzzle, and together we can make a whole. Because we can’t do this alone – even those of us who are natural loners. No matter how difficult it might be, we have to build alliances, create community – focus on feeding friendships and not defeating foes.
We are – each one of us – a necessary part of this world’s becoming; we were intended to be here, and now. But we’re not here to coast. We’re here to show up. It’s what, quite literally, we were born to do.