The heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Over Soul
Reaction, Fear, and the Emotional Crisis Blocking Mutual Acceptance of Existential Risk
Prophets appear in a society when the time arrives for a recalibration of a culture’s understanding of the requirements for its survival and the survival of its members. These recalibrations tend to come in waves, where some form or other of annihilation is threatened, the prophetic response calls people, in effect, to enlarge their hearts and extend the radius of their circle of selfhood — in order to survive the otherwise inevitable annihilation.
As with technology, there is an adoption curve. Some people get it sooner, and others later. But gradually, different groups of people within the culture respond to the prophetic message, and those responses ripple outward, causing more people to adopt the response. Once the response is fully installed in the society, there is a sort of shift of momentum, like the crashing of a wave. At the moment of peak power, the wave crashing against the rocks loses its power and begins to recede. The push becomes pull in an instant.
Once incorporated into a culture, prophetic messages start to become corrupted, and then there emerges some battle of interpretations ex post facto. “No, the prophet meant it this way,” the argument will begin, and then there will be an endless back and forth about it until the end of time. Gradually the underlying message will be completely lost, its practice shelved due to engineering advances that seem to offer faster and cheaper solutions to the individual’s problems.
In this way, there is an ebb and flow between faith in our Nature and confidence in our Nurture. The prophets of Nature appear when we have gotten lost in our own narcissistic reflection, and the hubris of belief that we can engineer our way out of any problem. The engineers of Nurture appear whenever we have given up on improving life through ingenuity and resigned ourselves to the fates and coping mechanisms.
Although I have compared it to a wave, and described it in terms of its ebb and flow, this does not quite capture the heart-enlarging quality of the phenomenon. Each directional shift pushes further each time, awakening new awareness of the extent of our interconnectedness — a process that I believe we can see at least as far back as the transition from unicellular to multicellular organisms. It is perhaps even the animating principle of life itself.
In the messages of both prophet and engineer, we always find a single unifying theme: there is more than meets the eye.