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Our Species At a Crossroads And Wisdom Must Prevail

“With so many things coming back in style, I can’t wait until morals, respect and intelligence become a trend again.” – Actor Denzel Washington.

I have commented more than once about the decline in these traits among the American people defining the period between Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. in 1963 and the “Greed is Good” speech of the main character in the 1987 movie, “Wall Street.”

Both speeches reflected the prevailing mores of their era, and the contrast between the short two dozen years between 1963 and the rise of the civil rights movement and what had become the dominant national sentiment was by 1987, nearing the completion of Reagan’s second term, was stunning.

As one with seminary training, graduating cum laude from the Pacific School of Religion in 1969, and by virtue of being gay when it was still a huge stigma but at the same time a great challenge as defined by Dr. King, being marginalized in many ways, I had a unique vantage point and perspective from which, on a day to day basis, to witness first hand this national descent from high-minded idealism to crude selfishness.

America was built on the former, and has seen its very existence threatened by the latter. Denzel Washington is right, Unless there is a reversion to morals, respect and intelligence in this period just ahead, we will not make it, either as a democracy, as a nation or as a species.

I am sure that as our exploration of the wider universe of which we are a part proceeds, among the many shocking things we will find are planets that once hosted intelligent life, but that for one reason or another, saw that life fail.

I contend that we will find it was not just one issue, like an inability to respond to the challenge of climate change, for example, that was responsible, but the failure of an overall disposition of a social order to step up and push forward the very essential features of socialization in the face of rising pressures to fracture it in the name of self-centered greed and avarice.

In his important 2020 book, “Wiser, the Scientific Roots of Wisdom, Compassion and What Makes Us Good,” author Dilip Jeste writes on the value of wisdom over mere intelligence or the pursuit of happiness. “We all know wise people,” he writes. “They’re smart. Intelligence is an integral part of wisdom. But they are also warmhearted and compassionate.

“They are sophisticated, not simply or only in terms of academics or business, but in the ways of the world and of people. They are open-minded. They listen and make others feel heard. They are reflective, unselfish, and problem focused. They are willing to act on on their beliefs and convictions, to do what is right, first or alone.

“Wise people become trusted advisers because they possess characteristic sagacity, happiness and a calm demeanor we can rely on. They seem to instinctively know how to handle the personal problems that others find overwhelming. Wise people stand still and resolute amid chaos and uncertainty. They are different. And the rest of us would like to be more like them.

“Many of the wise people you know are probably old or at least older. Wisdom and advanced age seem synonymous. Consider the great works of legend and literature: Moses, Helen Keller and Toni Morrison, Gandalf, Aubus Dumbledore and Yoda (who undoubtedly picked up a few things over his 900 year life).”
While for some this is grounds for refuting the notion that age, in itself, is a disqualifier, whether it is President Biden or any number of octogenarian rock stars from the 1960s or 1970s, or, as I wrote last week, grandmothers.

With the wild contrast today between the audacious self-serving immorality of Trump, on the one hand, and the challenges the Webb telescope implies for us as a species, on the other, our very survival depends on making the right decisions on which vector we will choose to take on the ride into our shared future. So, all aboard!