Waiting at red lights often causes me to lapse into philosophical reverie about how fine the lines are that keep civilization in check. One red light makes us all wait, patiently or im-, in the face of no actual traffic. I find it funny. And I think a red light means stop all around the world, wherever automobile traffic is controlled by lights. Think about it. There is very little else we can all agree on.
Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin might see that as a sign of what he predicted in his writings of the ’40s and ’50s, that is, the coming together of humankind. I’m picking my way through his The Phenomenon of Man, posthumously published in 1959 but that seems to be the culmination of his ideas. He believed that humans were evolving toward greater unity, and would ultimately evolve to a great Omega with all things and creatures of the earth as one.
Contemporary author Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, casts a more jaundiced view on both history and the future, but also sees humankind evolving in the direction of unity, pointing to, for example, the worldwide worship of money. I haven’t finished Sapiens yet, but I’m not thinking that Harari is heading toward a vision of peaceful Omega, but something a bit less high concept, with a good dose of or-we-could-blow-ourselves-up.
But a Big View of human development does show a move toward more unity. True, we’ve had vast civilizations fall and rise and rise and fall and fall and fall, but overall the movement is toward shared information, ideas, and maybe, maybe sensibilities (I try to catch the eye of the guy waiting across the quiet intersection. He’s checking his phone.) Teilhard’s ideas were shaped by his faith, but also by his occupation: a paleontologist, he studied the ancient precursors to the species that would become us. Harari is a historian. His review of a range of work on the history of humankind indicates that much of what keeps us moving together is exactly the kind of faith that informed Teilhard — the shared belief in ideas (we could call them myths) that have no reality except that a large number of us accept them and build our behaviors, lives, monetary systems, families, governments around them.
We in the US, for example, are perpetually in a tug-of-war over the rights of the individual and the rights of society, with mud on the faces of both sides, but those yellowing and much argued over documents, the Declaration and the Constitution, circumscribe a generally accepted standard of generally agreed upon behavior (and a range of opinions about whether an entity called God has something to do with them or us).
It stuns me that for all the violence and hatred in the world, the vast majority of we human beings wait patiently at our red lights. Could we really come together to reduce that violence and hatred (actually, continue to reduce, as the world is, believe it or not, a more peaceful place than it’s ever been)? I don’t know. I share Harari’s skepticism, even as I admire Teilhard’s vision.
The light turns green. Other guy and I proceed across our mutual intersection. I do not suddenly swerve into his path, do not jump up on the curb to take out some innocent shrubbery, do not suddenly accelerate in reverse, nor even stop entirely to leap out and dance around in the street. I am staid, puposeful, obedient of the behavior expected of me. And again feel bemused by it all, and grateful. But I check the rearview mirror, and look both ways.