There is a quote, much celebrated by activists, cynics, and political science students the world over, that I think could use a second look:
“It is no measure of good health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” ~Jiddu Krishnamurti
I like Krishnamurti, and I think he’s being misunderstood here, but I’ll get to that. Taken at face value, I disagree.
Activists, particularly those who nurture a general dislike for humankind at large, prize this snarky quote because it seems to validate the notion that only others need to change.
If our society is profoundly sick and we should refuse to adapt to it, then what is it that we’re supposed to adapt to? Or perhaps the sneaky insinuation is that some of us are already perfect, and no adjustments are necessary. Indeed, the implication of activism seems to be that it is others who need to correct their course — CEOs of petroleum companies, mindless consumers, fans of Glenn Beck, people who talk during movies or don’t use their turn signals — they are society’s sickness, and if they can be made to shape up, we’ll finally be sitting pretty.
Society does have its problems: crime, poverty, war, pollution, overpopulation and political corruption. It’s no utopia, clearly, but what is the best way to approach these problems?
Misanthropes and other “the-world-has-gone-to-shit” types would have you believe the solution is to identify the groups and individuals responsible for the “sickness” of society, and find a way to disempower them, expose them, or destroy them. With some grassroots support and some elbow grease they can get some new policies in place, install a new breed of political leaders, and usher into fashion a more progressive philosophy about how to govern, do business, and treat your fellow man… and in the mean time, sourly refuse to adapt to the human world as it is now, because that would only encourage the evil corporations and lying politicians who make it so troublesome.
But that won’t work. The “sickness” is not that some nasty people have come into power, but that human beings across the board are still working primarily from their stone-age instincts. The detractors of The Establishment are just as consumed by their own needs for personal power, righteousness, security and social dominance as the people they so proudly hate.
We are so newly removed from our original stomping ground that we are almost completely inexperienced with running civilizations smoothly. We’re much more efficiently wired to orchestrate a successful mammoth hunt than govern a nation intelligently. Civilization is barely out of the package.
Don’t underestimate the sweeping ramifications of this point. We are built for something completely different than what we’re trying to do, so we must embrace adaptation to the society we’ve created — for all its ills — or continue to struggle. Evolution has never been driven by anything but adaptation to the current environment. We can’t cross our arms and wait for the water to become the perfect temperature before we learn to swim.
Global issues are typically characterized as an acute mismanagement of resources and power. This is woefully near-sighted. We haven’t drifted into some unfortunate, short-term imbalance of political power. We’re in the middle of a long-term, species-wide readjustment to bridge the enormous gap between the kind of contentious society our stone-age minds have built us, and the kinder, safer society we’ll have when we’ve outgrown them.
Activism certainly has its place, and can effect worthwhile changes on a smaller scale. I am not arguing against activism per se. But too often it takes the form of one group of humans trying to disempower another — the same old story of human conflict. It will always fail at solving the big global issues, because it does not take into account that the broadest issues are inevitable functions of normal human nature, not simply the messes created by misbehaving individuals. They will not be overcome until human nature changes, and that means adaptation. Evolution.
Right now, conscious adjustment to this “sick society” is the best approach we have. Adaptation is not resignation, it’s a reassessment of the relationship between our behavior and our environment. I’m talking about honest, forgiving examination of ourselves and our own habits, rather than placing the onus on oil companies, incumbent political parties, or The Man himself to stop ruining the world. Blame won’t save us. We must evolve our way out of this one. The mentality that created this mess is not the one that will be able to clean it up.
And the mentality that created today’s smorgasbord of disasters is very, very human. Insecurity, desire, fear, attachment, avoidance of responsibility — all the dubious qualities that cause today’s public messes are completely normal human qualities. They aren’t isolated oversights, as the cynics might have you believe, committed only by an unscrupulous few whom we must round up and hold responsible. They are totally normal, understandable qualities that pervade all of humankind, and which you and I will both embody to some degree as long as we live.
I’m no expert on Krishnamurti, but it’s clear he understood this too, and his quote is being misapplied. He knew it came down to adaptation of individuals. From Wikipedia:
His subject matter included psychological revolution, the nature of the mind, meditation, human relationships, and bringing about positive change in society. He constantly stressed the need for a revolution in the psyche of every human being and emphasized that such revolution cannot be brought about by any external entity, be it religious, political, or social.
By “well-adjusted to a sick society” I suppose he meant “poised to take personal advantage of strife and disharmony.”
Digging one’s heels in and refusing to adjust to this “sick society” only ensures that one continues to misunderstand the cause of humanity’s problems. Nearly every worrisome global issue is the direct result of ordinary, everyday human behavior, clashing with a modern environment that we have not yet adapted to. Civilization has been around less than 10,000 years, yet human instinct has been evolving for nearly 5 million. That means virtually all all of our instinctive behaviors are geared for success in life on the savannah, not in nations and democracies.
The side-effects of this mismatch can be horrific, and conscious adjustment — better described on this scale as conscious evolution — is the only sensible way to respond. Policy changes and other low-level initiatives might buy us some short-term respite from the worst effects of human behavior, but what we are really up against is an unprecedented disparity between our species and its new environment. We need to become better adapted to this new playing field, rather than reject it outright and hold out for one we find perfectly agreeable — as if elections, think-tanks and revolutions could accomplish that anyway.
If your interest is changing the world for the better, your responsibility is to adjust to the imperfect society we find ourselves in — this one that’s happening right now, with all its faults and ugly spots. Rather than shunning “the establishment” and holding out for smarter people to be in power, your greatest possible contribution is to learn to live sanely in this insane, dysfunctional society.
To do that is to understand what makes it tick — with curiosity and love, rather than mistrust; to temper your emotional reactivity to it, to keep yourself calm, to learn to improve your own quality of life, to get over your contempt for others, to make peace with civilization exactly the way it happens to be at this stage of its development, and most of all, to be grateful that it exists at all.
Photo by how will I ever