The 2016 World Youth Days did not disappoint: two and a half million young people from all over the world singing, making friends, sleeping under the stars, praying with the Pope and celebrating their faith. A unique feature was the high security, with police and army everywhere. Quite a spectacle, but it’s more than that. What did Poland and the Pope make us Westerners see?
When I was nearly back to our lodgings in Krakow after the World Youth Day Mass, a heavy storm overtook me. It started raining, harder and harder. While a WYD poncho protected me from the rain, things started looking bleak when a fierce wind sprang up and big branches torn from nearby trees started flying through the air. The trees themselves began to bend in an alarming way and I sprinted towards a bus, which I thankfully reached unhurt. When the storm died down a few minutes later, I found it had taken my glasses, which were nowhere to be found.
The up-moment of sight
Life without glasses is interesting. Try making your way around an unknown city in public transport. There are signs, but you can’t read them. You can see the object, but not its meaning. Clearly, that is not what sight is all about.
Neuroscientists studying sight have found something remarkable. They say that when a person sees something, an “up-moment” occurs. At this moment, perception, the neuronal electrical signal, the functional connection, and the meaning all coincide in a single instant. The biological processing of the information and the content of the image are instantaneously linked. If you think about it, this finding is immensely significant.
Someone without glasses sees only part of the information he is supposed to see. You see a sign, but not its message. The “up-moment” is partially robbed of its meaning. When the average Westerner looks at World Youth Day, or for that matter, at the people around him, does he not suffer from the same problem? We can all see the materiality of what is happening, but do we read the meaning?
Does money make the world go round?
One threat to clear vision is money. In a Q&A session with Polish bishops, Pope Francis remarked: “But what is the central ideology of today, the one that is the mother of corruption and war? It is the idolatry of money. Men and women are no longer at the apex of creation, [but] replaced by the idol of money, and everything is bought and sold for money. Money at the centre. People exploited.”
A particularly striking confirmation of this comes from Dutch journalist and anthropologist Joris Luyendijk in his book “Dit kan niet waar zijn” (“This can’t be true”) about the London banking scene. The book is written in Dutch, but the blog he bases it on is in English. Based on interviews with insiders, he describes a world where the 10 percent least profitable employees in a year are ruthlessly fired; control mechanisms are undermined by fear in those who have to control; and above all, there is a decoupling of those who carry risks and those who reap benefits. Luyendijk shows that the Western response to the economic crisis has been to create more structures for control. But these are utterly ineffective if the people manning them are gripped by fear. So what does money stop us from seeing?
The focus of meaning
Not long ago, Poland was also gripped by fear, though of a different kind. Its Communist regime created a web of lies, intrigue and mutual mistrust. As Michał Łuczewski describes in his book “Solidarity, Step by Step”, this mutual mistrust was overcome through the inspiration of a Pole, John Paul II, who made people aware of the importance of standing up for one another. The non-violent revolution of Solidarnosc resulted from this inspiration, giving people hope, and eventually resulting in the collapse of Communism.
In Solidarnosc — just as in the “up-moment” of human vision — perception, meaning, and structures all arose simultaneously. Because one woman was unjustly fired from a shipyard, all the shipyard went on strike. Because one shipyard was treated unjustly, many others followed. The “structures” arose from the need of the moment, from its meaning and significance.
Stop Dr Frankenstein and his Zombies: wake up and see!
In its response to the financial crisis, the West has not looked at meaning, and in consequence has acted like Dr Frankenstein: he created a structure, a lifeless body, and tried to give it life. The fearful persons who staff these structures are management zombies: the undead who pursue a single task without looking around themselves much. I’m not blaming them, just ringing an alarm bell: it’s time to wake up from our spiritual sleep!
We’re not all zombies in the West. Authors like Jim Collins show that the greatest and best-performing Western companies all have values that surpass money making alone. And experts like Michael Gerber teach people how to create companies which score high on such values. Still, the temptation to only see others as means to an end is stronger than ever, and we need to battle our inner Frankenstein — who seeks structure more than spirit — and our inner zombie who staggers mindlessly towards a sales target.
How do we do that? It’s not too hard: learn from the Solidarity movement in Poland, to learn from Pope Francis. There is a meaning to life if we start valuing people above money and structures, if we start living solidarity in a loving way. If we start there, we’ll live our personal “up-moment” and see how perception, connection, structure, and meaning all fall into place.
It’s when we start living without needing Dr. Frankenstein and become not undead but living. It’s when we put on our glasses, and see the world sharply again. I had to buy some new glasses, but perhaps we all need new ones. Western world, get up from your couch, think about other people, support them, and wake up to a new day!
Daan van Schalkwijk writes from the Netherlands. He teaches biology at a university in Amsterdam and is the director of Leidenhoven College, a collegiate hall of residence. Visit his blog, Science and Beyond.
José Victor Orón Semper is a researcher in the mind-brain group (ICS) of the University of Navarra, in Spain. He directs an educational platform for emotional education, UpToYou.