Apocalypticism, the belief if not outright desire for the end of the world in a dramatic and violent way, has existed in every culture because suffering and the desire to end suffering is universal. Apocalypticism as a tumultuous cleansing of perceived evil is, however, a violent projection of the self and the group, and wishes vengeance and havoc on a world already suffering.
Apocalypticism is a special temptation to the would-be hermit and solitary because it justifies the life style of aloneness and aloofness, presenting itself as a cure for alienation and despondency. But it slips quickly into a misanthropy and despair. The individual assumes that he or she alone suffers. Isn’t this a popular explanation for why someone becomes a hermit or recluse: the death of a beloved, unrequited love, disappointments, abuses, worldly failure?
But apocalypticism goes a step further in wanting to punish others for one’s own suffering, by making others suffer too. Suffering is universal. Our suffering is always less than that of so many others. The path of solitude is a path of knowledge, awareness, and compassion, not resentment.
Dystopia is the word often used for literary depictions of utopias gone wrong. It is no coincidence that these depictions are classed as science fiction, though they are essentially political novels: for example, Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or even Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. For what has gone wrong in these fictional scenarios is not only the authoritarian powers but technology (hence the “science”). Indeed, technology is what enables authority to consolidate and extend its power to a precise and scientific level of cultural control. Technology has long failed the sense of culture that nourishes individual potential. Technology reduces economics to materialism, consumption to greed, and labor to dependence. The ancient Chinese recluses and the desert fathers of the Roman Empire successfully escaped authoritarian power but, as importantly, they escaped technology itself, and that is what allowed them to function freely. They functioned freely not because technology did not yet exist to a sophisticated degree but rather because technology was not so sophisticated as to abet the extension of political power. The silence and simplicity of their era and their natural settings fostered their successful life of solitude and autonomy. The destruction of nature and of the values of the spirit today remind us that the benefits of modern technology are the irrelevant byproducts of dystopia.
Reluctant mid-morning chore: weeding among mosquitoes. But outside the door is a cloud of hovering dragonflies, maybe thirty or more, hovering delicately about five or six feet off the ground. The yellow-brown dragonflies are small and therefore recent hatchlings. I had never seen so many little ones like this assembly, and they are a delight to behold. The weeding goes on perfunctorily, perhaps unaffected by the presence of the dragonflies. But I like to imagine that the mosquitoes were just a little more cautious all morning.
A model microcosm of society is a group of people arguing. We may recommend a certain openness, tolerance, or mindfulness to them, but it is likely that most people will not want to accept that because it suggests a dilution of their moral principles or suggests the wrongness not of their behavior in arguing but of their point of view, especially if the argument involves specific actions defended, advocated, or planned.
If we extrapolate this scenario to society itself, as a macrocosm, we see that the issue is not the bringing of tolerance or mindfulness to one set of people or the other (or to multiple sets) but rather the issue is power and authority. Everyone accepts some source of authority — be it mere convention and ignorant conformity –in that everyone claims a guiding principle to their outlook and actions. But different people accept different authorities, and these authorities or sources of authority conflict and oppose one another, contradict and make war on one another, regardless of whether the authority has been empowered by material means or not. Nonviolent resolutions are proposed to a group of people arguing because the resolutions reduce the negativity of certain points of view or actions, but as long as certain points of view or advocated actions exist and are empowered with authority, is it possible to say that mindfulness will defuse them? Are we trying to defuse the behavior or the idea behind the behavior? Are they intrinsically linked? And what about the equivalent conflicts on the scale of macrocosm?
These reflections have great importance to the solitary and the hermit who, regardless of education or awareness, has instinctively grasped the fact that society deals not with relationships in the neutral sense but with power and authority relationships. To accommodate others, it is necessary for all to renounce authority and power. But with this renunciation, we renounce moral authority and the power or energy of good as we may see it. To go beyond good (and evil) is essentially mystical and will not work universally, with all peoples or in every circumstance. Society — which is power and authority that contradicts the higher instincts of human enlightenment — cannot coexist with renunciation of power and rejection of contrived rather than natural authority.
This is why the solitary and hermit will not get involved with society. This is why the hermit or solitary is often the better candidate for a life empowered by mysticism or its particular spiritual or insightful equivalent.
The utopia that conforms to the way of the hermit and solitary can be found in the short tale of Tao Chien called “Cherry Blossom Spring.” In this story, a traveler lost in a forest comes to a cave entrance and follows it, emerging on the other side into an ideal place where people work, rest, and coexist without violence, power, or rank, a place where food is plentiful, disease unknown, and wants reduced to the patterns of nature. The traveler is delighted and tells the people of this hidden valley that he must return at once to announce his wonderful discovery to the world. No, protest the people, don’t tell anyone, for unworthy people with unworthy motives will come and their society and values will corrupt and ruin them. But the traveler will not listen. In a moment he has retreated through the cave and back to the forest, eventually finding his way to the city and his compatriots. A troop of the curious quickly forms and they go straight to the forest. But after a long and futile search, the cave cannot be found. They give up, wondering if they have been duped by the traveler.
Such a society is Tao Chien’s own mountain village, an ancient Chinese hamlet that welcomed hermits and recluses without prejudice. Tao Chien, in reclusion from government service, a farmer with his family, imagined his village — and, perhaps, his eremitic life — in a perpetual cherry blossom springtime, the most beautiful season of the year.