When my children were young, I looked to many sources of wisdom for guidance. Some of my favorites came from Rudolf Steiner, philosopher king of the Waldorf tradition where children only use wooden toys and screens are forbidden. I appreciated Steiner’s focus on a holistic world, deeply grounded in nature and the turning of the seasons. His embrace of the interconnected nature of change and growth was deeply comforting, particularly on those endless days or nights where it felt as though a fussy child would never settle.
The shred of Steiner wisdom that feels particularly relevant right now is his belief that a fever often precedes a period of swift growth. It is as if the young body needs to retreat and build its immune system, growing strength and capacity for what lies ahead. Fever prepares us for the rapid growth of bones, the stretching of mind and spirit and the further integration of self into a wider world.
A high fever precedes rapid growth.
This notion helps me right now as I struggle to make sense of what is happening on a global level. We are witnessing a shocking decline in the larger progressive project that embraces diversity, civil liberties, free expression and a shared, global experience. In too many parts of the world, including in our own rather large corner, we are seeing a backlash against cosmopolitan values and globalization. This is scary to say the least and, for many of us, feels like a deep cut at the very foundations of what we have believed to be true and immutable. The proverbial rug feels like it has been pulled out.
Yes, of course, we should have seen it coming. We know that those of us able to adapt to technological change, those of us with educations that prepare us to be critical thinkers, those of us with a deep belief in our own agency on a global stage – we know we have thrived. And we must have known somewhere in our hearts that this thriving was not fully shared. We saw the rising Gini coefficients signaling huge growth in income inequality, in many corners of the world. We know that we live in a country with very deep, unresolved wounds around race. Somehow this knowledge didn’t rise to the surface and create widespread action equal to the task.
For me personally, the global moment we find ourselves in is a profound challenge to my faith. I have believed for many years that human consciousness is the leading edge of evolution. It is our collective capacity to imagine and create that is leading the world forward. The proverbial center of gravity of evolution is no longer in the geologic or even the biological – it is in consciousness.
So what then does it mean that our collective imagination is ushering onto the world stage nationalist, xenophobic, misogynist, fear-based agendas? Is this the last gasp of the old? The darkness before the dawn?
A high fever precedes rapid growth.
When one is sick, where do we turn for health and healing? As children, we rely on our parents when we are in need and our inner resources are taxed.
This brings me to another set of insights that I find helpful in my reflections.
It begins with the work of Berkeley cognitive linguist, George Lakoff. In the 1990s, Lakoff began a project that viewed political viewpoints as essentially embedded in our understanding of family. This year, reflecting on that work, he wrote, “The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).”
At the same time Lakoff was unpacking his theory, Sydney Feldman, a political scientist in New York created a simple and ingenious test to determine our capacity to embrace authoritarianism, also based on family dynamics. As this long and good read from Vox.com pointed out last March, Feldman designed four simple questions to determine whether or not one has what he called an “authoritarian personality.” They are:
Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?
Long story short, Vox took these questions and conducted a national survey of voters, which determined that authoritarians were much more likely to support Trump than any other personality type. In fact, the authoritarian personality was the primary commonality among all Trump supporters, more important and income or even educational levels.
We seem to be in a moment where the comfort of the strict father is appealing to enough of us, around the world, to bring far right wing parties and ideologies into prominence.
Why does it feel like we are turning to the strict father and not the nurturing mother in a time of global fever?
Well, in fact, about half of us are turning to the father and the other half are turning to the mother. The truth is that we need both to be whole. We need independence and respect for authority. We need to be self-reliant and obedient to shared social norms. We need to be considerate and well behaved. We need to find balance and common ground with each other.
We are in the throes of a high fever.
Our collective body is working hard to develop immunities that will make us stronger and better able to meet the demands of our next phase of growth. Our resources are at a low point and we are depleted. Let’s remember that part of our opportunity, in this depleted state, is to see with new eyes. Fever dreams can hold shreds of truth.
When the fever passes, and it will, let’s hope we will be ready to grow and meet the world in a new way. And while we will certainly struggle with other illnesses in the future, we will have developed immunity to this particular fever.
Here’s to a happy and healthy 2017, where we all find ways to heal and gain strength for what lies ahead.