So, what exactly are these unmet needs, and how can we discover and satisfy them? A multiplicity of basic human needs go chronically, tragically unmet in modern society. These include the need to express one’s gifts and do meaningful work, the need to love and be loved, the need to be truly seen and heard, and to see and hear other people, the need for connection to nature, the need to play, explore, and have adventures, the need for emotional intimacy, the need to serve something larger than oneself, and the need sometimes to do absolutely nothing and just be.
An unmet need hurts, and fulfilling a need feels good. Here lies the connection between need, pleasure, pain, and desire. The deeper the unmet need, the greater the pain we feel, the stronger the desire it generates, and the greater the pleasure in meeting it. Pain and pleasure are the doorways through which we discover what we really want and really need.
One thing that we discover as we enter the space between stories is that we do not want what we thought we wanted, and we do not like what we thought we liked. We look within and question: What do I really want? Why am I here? What makes me feel alive? Because our deeper unmet needs were mostly invisible to us, and because they have been unmet for so long, our physical and mental systems have adapted around them so that the pain becomes subconscious, diffuse, latent. That makes it hard sometimes to identify what the unmet need is. During life transitions, the obscuring stories break down and what’s missing in life becomes clearer. We begin to ask ourselves, “What hurts?” and to discover answers. These answers orient us toward meeting our true needs for connection, service, play, and so on. As we do so, we find that our experience of joy and well-being deepens, and that we far prefer this feeling to the pleasures that we now recognize were mere substitutes for it.
Actually, that isn’t quite true. Our addictions and superficial pleasures aren’t only substitutes for something else—they are also glimpses of that something, promises. Shopping does give many people a fleeting experience of abundance or connection. Sugar does give many people a feeling of loving themselves. Cocaine offers a moment of knowing oneself as a capable, powerful being. Heroin offers a brief surcease from the pain that one had experienced as omnipresent. A soap opera produces the feeling of belonging, which properly comes from being enmeshed in the stories of the people one sees every day. All of these things are palliative medicines that make the state of Separation a bit easier to maintain, but also contain the seeds of Separation’s undoing: first, because they sow discontent by contrasting the momentary experience of well-being or connection or animation with the default state of aching, lonely dullness; second, because their effects rend the fabric of life, wealth, and health, hastening the unraveling of the old story. Over time, their palliative efficacy diminishes while their destructive side effects grow. The drug stops working. We up the dose. Eventually that doesn’t work either.
The same dynamic currently afflicts our civilization. We constantly up the dose of technology, of laws and regulations, of social controls, of medical interventions. In the beginning, it seemed, these measures brought great improvements, but now they barely suffice to maintain normality and keep the pain at bay. The first pharmaceutical prescriptions vastly improved health; now, when more than four billion prescriptions are written for Americans every year, endless new pills are necessary even to keep people functioning. The first machines vastly increased the productivity and leisure of the people who adopted them; today, people buy one high-tech device after another and still feel unable to keep up with the accelerating pace of life. The first chemical fertilizers brought dramatic increases in crop yields; now, agrochemical companies can barely keep up with declining soil health, pesticide resistance, and other problems. In the early days of science, the reduction of the complexity of observed phenomena to a few elegant laws bestowed upon us an astonishing ability to predict and control reality; today, we find more complexity and more unpredictability as we endlessly elaborate what were once simple laws in a futile quest for the Theory of Everything; meanwhile, the spiraling ecological calamity puts the lie to our pretensions of control.
I could make similar points about military interventions, government bureaucracies, lies and cover-ups, trying to control teenagers, and many other situations where a control-based quick fix brings dramatic short-term results. The kid is shut in his room. The dictator is deposed. Let’s do something to feel better. Let’s have a drink.
In both cases, the personal and collective, the fix masks an underlying malady. In both cases, when the fix stops working, the underlying condition comes to the surface, and there is no choice but to confront it. That is what is happening to our society today. As I wrote above, the obscuring stories are breaking down, what’s missing becomes clearer, and we begin to ask ourselves, What hurts?
In describing personal transformative work, I advocate giving full attention to the pain that arises with the breakdown of an addiction and the story that embeds it. (The “addiction” can be something subtle, a self-image, for example, or thoughts about how ethical or successful one is.) Just as it feels good to meet a need, an unmet need hurts. Pain is its call for attention. When all the substitutes for meeting that need are exhausted, when all the palliatives stop working, finally the pain that had been diffuse and latent leads us to the need.
The same is happening on a collective level. What is the equivalent of attention in a mass social sphere? It is the sharing of stories about what is really happening on our planet. Of course, there have always been activists sharing these stories, trying to make society aware of the human cost of war and civilization, commerce and empire. But the obscuring narratives of progress and growth were too thick. We had not the ears to hear.
That is changing now. The immune system of the old story—all the mechanisms that keep inconvenient truths outside of view—is deteriorating. Each contradictory data point that comes in weakens that story, allowing the ingress of still more in a self-reinforcing process.
Just as attention, by itself, has a power to heal beyond any remedial action one might take, so also does telling the truth about what is happening on Earth have a power to alter the course of events. Again, it is not that no action will result. It is that when we digest the information, who we are changes, and therefore what we do.
We are only able to continue our ravaging of the planet under the cover of pretense. How is it that we as a society take no action, when the awful artifacts of our way of life on this planet lay strewn all around us? How is it that we continue to hurtle toward an obvious abyss? It is only because we have been rendered blind and insensate. Underneath their numbers games, the banks and hedge funds are stripping wealth away from the masses and the planet. Behind every profit statement, behind every executive bonus, is a trail of wreckage: strip mines, debt slaves, pension cuts, hungry children, ruined lives, and ruined places. We all participate in this system, but can do so willingly only to the extent we do not feel, see, or know. To conduct a revolution of love, we must reconnect with the reality of our system and its victims. When we tear away the ideologies, the labels, and the rationalizations, we show ourselves the truth of what we are doing, and conscience awakens. Bearing witness, then, is not a mere tactic; it is indispensable in a revolution of love. If love is the expansion of self to include another, then whatever reveals our connections has the potential to foster love. You cannot love what you do not know.
One role of the changemaker is to be the eyes and ears of the world. Recall the power of the videos taken of police brutality during the Occupy movement. Just as nearly everyone who saw passively seated protesters pepper-sprayed in the face was sickened by what they saw, so also, everyone who sees behind the veil of numbers is sickened by what our financial system is doing to the world. By being antennae for the collective attention, we can tear away the veil. Even if some of the perpetrators retreat more deeply into rationalization and denial, others will have a change of heart. More and more police will refuse to shoot, more and more authority figures will counsel restraint, more and more functionaries of power will quit their jobs, blow the whistle, or try to reform their institutions from the inside.
What is power, after all? Every one of the power elite’s overwhelming advantages—military forces, surveillance systems, crowd control technology, control over the media, and nearly all the money in the world—depends on having people obeying orders and executing their assigned role. This obedience is a matter of shared ideologies, institutional culture, and the legitimacy of the systems in which we play roles. Legitimacy is a matter of collective perception, and we have the power to change people’s perceptions.