The Ship of Civilization is Sinking

Although many still deny it, more and more people are recognizing that there is something seriously wrong with the world in which we live. We continue to be reminded that the climate crisis is real, that our economic system of consumption is unsustainable, that we are still on the brink of wiping ourselves out in a nuclear war, and we are so polarized that half the country will be terrified and enraged no matter who is elected President in November. It’s enough to cause us to despair. Yet, I am hopeful. Not just the blind hope of the eternal optimist, but the intuitive-rational hope of someone who has seen the future and it looks, in the words of my colleague Charles Eisenstein, like “the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible.”

I first caught a glimpse of this world in 1995. I was attending a men’s conference in Indianapolis, Indiana and I sat with thirty other men in the fourth round of a sweat-lodge ceremony, when I was transported into a vision:

We are all on a huge ocean liner. It is the Ship of Civilization. Everything that we know and have ever known is on the ship. People are born and die. Goods and services are created, wars are fought, and elections are held.  Species come into being and face extinction. The Ship steams on and on and there is no doubt that it will continue on its present course forever.

There are many decks on the ship starting way down in the boiler room where the poorest and grimiest toil to keep the ship going. As you ascend the decks, things get lighter and easier. The people who run the ship have suites on the very top deck. Their job, as they see it, is to keep the ship going and keep those on the lower decks in their proper places. Since they are at the top they are sure that they deserve to have the best that the ship has to offer.  

Everyone on the lower decks aspires to get up to the next deck and hungers to get to the very top. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it has always been. That’s the way it will always be.  

However, there are a few people who realize that something very strange is happening. What they come to know is that the Ship of Civilization is sinking. At first, like everyone else, they can’t believe it. The Ship has been afloat since time before time. It is the best of the best. That it could sink is unthinkable. Nonetheless, they are sure the Ship is sinking.  

They try and warn the people, but few believe them. The Ship cannot be sinking and anyone who thinks so must be out of their mind. When they persist in trying to warn the people of what they are facing, those in charge of the Ship silence them and lock them up. The Ship’s media keep grinding out news stories describing how wonderful the future will be and technology will solve all our problems.

The Captains of the Ship smile and wave and promise prosperity for all. But water is beginning to seep in from below. The higher the water rises, the more frightened the people become and the more frantic they scramble to get to the upper decks. Some believe it is the end of the world and actually welcome the prospect of the destruction of life as we know it. They believe it is the fulfillment of religious prophecy. Others become more and more irritable, angry, and depressed and use alcohol, drugs, and other forms of self-medication to escape the pain. 

But as the water rises, those who have been issuing the warnings can no longer be silenced. More and more escape confinement and lead the people towards the lifeboats. Though there are boats enough for all, many people are reluctant to leave the Ship of Civilization. “Things may look bad now, but surely they will get better soon,” they say to each other. 

Nevertheless, the Ship is sinking. Many people go over the side to the boats. As they do so they are puzzled to see lettering on the side of the ship, T-I-T-A-N-I-C.  When they reach the lifeboats, many are frightened and look for someone who looks like they know what to do. They’d like to ride with those people.  

However, they find that each person must get in their own boat and row away from the Ship in their own direction. If they don’t get away from the Ship as soon as possible they will be pulled under with it. Though each person must row their own boat, they must stay connected to others. As people row away from the Ship, they connect with each other in a new, yet ancient, network. A new way of life is created that is much better than the Ship of Civilization which continues to sink. 

I later shared the vision with those at the conference. Since 1995, I have been trying to figure out what it means to leave the Ship of Civilization and how we can engage the promise of a new life beyond civilization. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way:

1. “Civilization” is a misnomer. Its proper name is the “Dominator culture.” 

As long as we buy the myth that “civilization” is the best humans can aspire to achieve, we are doomed to go down with the ship. In The Chalice & the Blade: Our History Our Future first published in 1987, internationally acclaimed scholar and futurist, Riane Eisler first introduced us to our long, ancient heritage as a Partnership Culture and our more recent Dominator Culture, which has come to be called “Civilization.” In her recent book, Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future, written with peace activist Douglas P. Fry, they offer real guidance for creating a world based on partnership.

2. There is a better world, beyond civilization.

When I was given the book Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, I got a clear sense of the two worlds that are competing for our attention: A world where hierarchy and dominance rule (Quinn calls it the world of the Takers) and a world where equality and connection rule (Quinn calls it the world of the Leavers). In his many books Quinn offers the clear contrast in world-views. He begins the book, Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure, with a fable which offers a significant new perspective:

Once upon a time life evolved on a certain planet, bringing forth many different social organizations—packs, pods, flocks, troops, herds, and so on. One species whose members were unusually intelligent developed a unique social organization called a tribe: Tribalism worked well for them for millions of years, but there came a time when they decided to experiment with a new social organization (called civilization) that was hierarchal rather than tribal. 

Before long, those at the top of the hierarchy were living in great luxury, enjoying perfect leisure and having the best of everything. A larger class of people below them lived very well and had nothing to complain about. But the masses living at the bottom of the hierarchy didn’t like it at all. They worked and lived like pack animals, struggling just to stay alive.

“This isn’t working,” the masses said. “The tribal way was better. We should return to that way.” But the ruler of the hierarchy told them, “We’ve put that primitive life behind us forever. We can’t go back to it.” The masses replied, “If we can’t go back, then let’s go forward—on to something different.” The ruler said, “That’s can’t be done because nothing different is possible. Nothing can be beyond civilization. Civilization is a final, unsurpassable invention.”

“But no invention is ever unsurpassable. The steam engine was surpassed by the gas engine. The radio was surpassed by television. The calculator was surpassed by the computer. Why should civilization be different?”

“I don’t know why it’s different,” the ruler said, “it just is.”

But the masses didn’t believe this—and neither do I.

I’ve learned, over the years, that even those in the middle class and even some in the ruling class recognize that what we call civilization is coming to an end and there is a better choice for our future, but it takes courage to break with civilization and seek a new way. Until we do, we will be forever anxious, worried, scared, confused, and unable to solve the problems we face

3. Do not lose heart. We were made for these times.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run with the Wolves, wrote this inspiring letter to all of us who are concerned about the future. She said, in part:

I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world right now. Abject disregard of what the soul finds most precious and irreplaceable and the corruption of principled ideals have become, in some large societal arenas, “the new normal,” the grotesquerie of the week.

You are right in your assessments. The luster and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is – we were made for these times.

I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.

I would like to take your hands for a moment and assure you that you are built well for these times. Despite your stints of doubt, your frustrations in righting all that needs change right now, or even feeling you have lost the map entirely, you are not without resource, you are not alone.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. In your deepest bones, you have always known this is so. Even though your veneers may shiver from every wave in this stormy roil, I assure you that the long timbers composing your prow and rudder come from a forest greater. 

One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair – thereby accidentally contributing to the swale and the swirl. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.

One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.

The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, cause proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both — are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.

In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for. This comes with much love and prayer that you remember Who you came from, and why you came to this beautiful, needful Earth

4. Find your Tribe outside the confines of civilization.

The rulers of civilization would have us believe that even if the Ship is sinking, we might as well go down with it because there really are no better choices. That is the big lie of civilization. As my vision showed me, there are millions of alternatives and more and more lifeboats in the water every day, but you won’t learn about them in the corporate-controlled media. Paul Hawken gave a sense of breadth and depth of this movement in his book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming.

I’m personally connected to a number of people in this movement including Bill Kauth and Zoe Alowan Kauth who created the organization Time for Tribe and wrote the book, We Need Each Other. I’ve known Bill and Zoe for many years and recommend their upcoming program“Calling in Your Tribe: Creating Your Own Heart-to-Heart Personal Community.”

My own, Diamond-Tribe Community is also open to new membership. If you’re interested drop me a note, [email protected] and put “Diamond Tribe” in the subject line. You can also learn more about my other articles on my blog. I look forward to connecting with you.

Originally published on Men Alive

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