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The competing existential crises of our time

The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio's Decamero

The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio's "Decamero." The parallel between current times and the Dark Ages is eerie, writes Molineaux.

Molineaux is co-publisher of The Fulcrum and President/CEO of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.

Watching the reactions of different people and groups around the world, one might surmise that humanity is on the verge of extinction. Reactions and the intensity of emotions are at survival levels in at least four areas: political, cultural, economic and climate.

Human survival is often measured by poverty levels around the globe. Reports declare global poverty was at historic lows, prior to the pandemic. Yet our collective survival instincts In the United States were already on high alert when the pandemic hit; centered around things that are not food, safety or shelter, in other words, not really survival level for most working and middle class Americans. At least, not for Euro-Americans.

For more than 10 years, people working in civil society have noted a decline in adherence to social norms and a reduction of volunteers as we've self-sorted into like-minded groups, neighborhoods and media streams. The pandemic exacerbated what was already present — our fear of personal identity and global extinction — despite evidence to the contrary. What is really going on?

Throughout recorded Euro-centric history, humans have turned to conspiracy theories, wars and dehumanization of others during times immediately prior to great cultural, economic and political advances. Think the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. Or more recently the Great Depression and World War II and its depravities, followed by the advancement of civil rights.

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Is it possible that what feels existential is in fact, a sign of growth? If this is the case, how might we use our sense of existential threat and dread to grow as individuals and as a society?

The Dark Ages saw the rise of authoritarian impulses via the Catholic Church. There was a great migration and the Black Death. This parallel seems eerie.

The Great Depression was the aftermath of an economic collapse that was preceded by a pandemic and World War I (or the Great War, as it was then known). Migration was spurred by atrocities of war and hunger. This parallel also seems eerie.

And here we are again.

  • Pandemic.
  • Migration.
  • Economic hardship.

What are the parallels to today so that we might navigate our current existential crisis? And what might this mean for our future in the United States? As in historical times, a way of life is ending. But another way of life is about to be born.

History shows that the advancement of society is never a straight line. We move forward two steps, we move back one step. There is small advancement and then a regression, followed by a big advancement. Then more regression. Society is always changing. And there will always be resistance to change, resistance to the death of what we know. It is part of how we humans are biologically wired.

We humans are also wired to be social creatures. We are stronger in community and weaker in isolation. The pandemic has highlighted our need for community in a period where rugged individualism has reigned supreme.

Like historical times, people are migrating at historic levels, for survival reasons. They flee war zones and famine. Refugees are seeking a better life for their children. The existential crises we feel in the United States seem less about actual survival; there is no war or famine here.

Why are we feeling an existential threat? And what exactly is dying? Some possibilities include our dreams and our expectations about the future. We might assume those seeking a better future for their children will change the United States, and if so, will the United States we know be forever transformed?

From our current view in the middle of competing existential crises, we have options. We can choose to fight or we can choose to create. I hope we choose a new Renaissance. We can co-create it together.

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Podcast: Why conspiracy theories thrive in both democracies and autocracies

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There's something natural and organic about perceiving that the people in power are out to advance their own interests. It's in part because it’s often true. Governments actually do keep secrets from the public. Politicians engage in scandals. There often is corruption at high levels. So, we don't want citizens in a democracy to be too trusting of their politicians. It's healthy to be skeptical of the state and its real abuses and tendencies towards secrecy. The danger is when this distrust gets redirected, not toward the state, but targets innocent people who are not actually responsible for people's problems.

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Your Take:  The Price of Freedom

Your Take: The Price of Freedom

Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

Personally, my price includes service to our nation, too. The price I paid was the loss of my former life, which included a husband, a home and a seemingly secure job to enter the political fray with a message of partisan healing and hope for the future. This work isn’t risking my life, but it’s the price I’ve paid.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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libre de droit/Getty Images

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