Chapter 4: Sourceless
“The way is empty,
used, but not used up.
Deep, yes! ancestral
to the ten thousand things.
Quiet, yes, and likely to endure.
Whose child? born
before the gods.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
Reread the passage, but this time substitute “the earth” for “the way.”
We are accustomed to imagining the earth as Gaia, the Great Mother of all life. We are less prone to picture it as a child, but in the scope of cosmic time, the earth is a newborn.
One of the articles of faith of the environmental movement is that humanity is destroying mother earth. The inconvenient truth for such apocalyptic environmentalists, however, is that the earth will be just fine. The earth is not a living thing, not a “super-organism,” and ironically, it is human hubris to think that our actions could cripple or kill it. Decimate animal species, disrupt the climate, and erode the conditions for our own survival? Yes. Destroy the world? No, that’s gods’ territory. But even in the great myths, the gods’ destruction of the world was only ever the destruction of the human world. The cosmos quietly endures, and the earth may be a young child of the universe, but it was around billions of years before us and our gods. Gods are the children of men.
Stewart Brand is correct to conclude that we are as gods, and may as well get good at it. But getting good at playing god means raising our gods well. If it is not a matter of being gods or humans, but of what sort of gods we wish to be, then we have to figure out how to stop being childish gods.
There is no greater mark of modernity than the abstraction of the ancestral. Our ancestors are foreign and strange to us, sealed off and separated by oceans, language, and revolutions political, cultural, and technological, as though they were from another planet. The “ancestor worship” of today’s indigenous holdouts present to us as superstition, perhaps more respectable than YouTube conspiracism but cut from the same spiritual cloth.
But just as the ancestral ethos was the backbone of hunter-gatherer society—i.e., the vast majority of our species’ life—ancestor worship may be the key to surviving our technological adolescence and saving our civilization.
Every ancestor was once a child, and every child is an ancestor in waiting. The presentism of our culture, the short-term mindset of the quarter in our economics and the election in our politics, the on-demand character of our consumer culture, even the retirement planning that governs our careers—these are all powerful temporal headwinds that make it hard for us to see the fullness of time. Children are raised to be achievers in the short game of the economy, not ancestors in the long game of civilization.
There is no shortage of critiques of how today’s “intensive parenting” involves a neurotic over-involvement with children that turns them into little cult objects. But maybe it stems from an unconscious recognition of the great task before us—not to get our children into Harvard, but to raise what philosopher Roman Krznaric calls “good ancestors.” Our words for culture and cult derive from the Latin cultus, which means worship. As David Foster Wallace reminds us, there is no such thing as not worshipping. We worship what we pay attention to. Every family is a kind of cult. The only question is what sort of cult it wishes to be.
The advantage our ancestors had was that life didn’t change all that much from one generation to the next, so by paying attention to the present, you were paying attention to the past and the future. Our problem is that, starting 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution, increasingly with the industrial revolution 300 years ago, and dizzyingly with the informational revolution 30 years ago, there’s been too much change too fast for each generation to make sense. The generation gaps grow as time speeds up, and each generation feels abandoned by the one before it, self-absorbed trying to make sense of its own strange seam of time, and lacking the spiritual, mental, and moral resources to hand things off to the next one. As Joseph Campbell put it, in modernity you can’t have a unifying mythology because before anything new can constellate it gets throw off. And as Zak Stein explains, when the conditions for intergenerational transmission of knowledge—in a word, education—break down, civilization cannot continue.
But the future has begun to encroach on our presentism. As the Boomers begin boarding the ships for the Gray Isles, the last three generations—X, Y, and Z—find themselves abandoned together on this little island of time at the end of history. It’s like a temporal Pale Blue Dot. How we respond is up to us: shrugging in nihilism or shouldering the burden of glorious purpose. The more we pretend we are not ancestors, the less likely we are to have descendants, and if we do, the less likely they are to worship us.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”