Part Nine: Transcendence

By |2020-10-19T15:58:45-07:00May 22, 2020|

During this pandemic, everyone is properly worried about making sure that people’s physical needs are met. But our research in Peace Literacy shows that people have many non-physical needs that are as important, if not more important, than their physical needs, especially during times of crisis. We’ve put together this series to discuss what these non-physical needs are, how people can meet them (and help others meet them) in healthy ways, how people during a crisis can become more vulnerable to tangles of trauma such as mistrust, rage, alienation, and helplessness, and how we can deal with trauma constructively rather than destructively. Each entry in this series will focus on one of humanity’s non-physical needs, along with practical ideas to help us create stronger relationships and communities as we navigate through this struggle together.


To make progress in the journey to heal my severe childhood trauma, I had to find healthy ways to feed the non-physical needs that we have discussed so far in this series: purpose and meaning, nurturing relationships, explanations, expression, inspiration, belonging, self-worth, and challenge. Feeding these non-physical needs in healthy ways also strengthens our capacity to confront the root causes of problems in our society, navigate crises by voyaging in directions that lead to a more peaceful and just future, and contribute toward healing the broader societal trauma that can result from any crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

To make progress in the journey to heal my severe childhood trauma, I also had to find healthy ways to feed my non-physical need for transcendence. To understand our non-physical need for transcendence, we can explore the Iliad, which was written nearly three thousand years ago. In the Iliad, there is a scene where Zeus, king of the gods, looks upon humanity and says, “There is nothing alive more agonized than man of all that breathe and crawl across the earth.”

This quote shows us that nearly three thousand years ago, people realized that no other species on the planet has the range of psychological problems that humanity has, and they expressed this insight in early literature. This ancient insight is as true today as it was back then. For example, no other species on the planet is capable of having such severe struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, descending into violent religious extremism, or becoming a mass shooter who ends a massacre by committing suicide. No other species on the planet, as far as we know, looks in the mirror and says, “Oh no, I have a gray hair,” or “I don’t like how these pants make me look.”

To further explore what Zeus’s words mean, we must discuss humanity’s difficult relationship with time. As classics professor Elizabeth Vandiver discusses in her lectures, according to ancient Greek understanding there were three different kinds of sentient beings in the cosmos, and each had a different relationship with time, aging, and death. Aging and death are ripples of time. The first kind of sentient beings were the Greek gods, who were fully aware of aging and death, but were incapable of growing old and dying. In the Iliad, the Greek gods are often called the “athanatoi” – the deathless ones. When movies and video games depict Greek gods being killed, this does not accurately reflect Greek mythology. In Greek mythology, the gods were completely immune to death. No other god could kill them, and they were incapable of killing themselves, which is why they end up being imprisoned rather than killed by their adversaries.

The second kind of sentient beings in ancient Greek understanding were animals. Animals age and die, but they don’t seem to experience the high degree of existential anxiety about aging and dying that is so common in human beings. The third kind of sentient beings in ancient Greek understanding were humans. We inhabit the worst of both worlds, because like animals we must age and die, but like the Greek gods we are fully aware of aging and death, since the powerful human imagination gives us the ability to vividly imagine our own death, the deaths of all those we love, and even the extinction of all humans and all life on Earth. The powerful human imagination also gives us the ability to create technologies that can make the extinction of humanity and countless other species a reality.

Elephants and many other animals seem to have an awareness of death and can mourn for their deceased loved ones. But these animals don’t seem to have the heightened awareness of aging and death that is possible within the human imagination, which allows people to develop an obsessive desire to look younger, seek eternal life through religion or science, or imagine what others will say about them at their funeral. Humanity’s potential to feel existential anxiety over the inevitability of aging and death was reflected in a question that someone asked me after one of my lectures. The person asked, “You often discuss childhood trauma, war trauma, and racial trauma, but is it traumatic to simply be human?”

I replied, “Many people in the ancient world seemed to think so, because ancient religions acknowledge that there is something deeply troubling about simply being human. To offer a few examples, when we look at Hindu and Buddhist reflections on human suffering, the Old Testament’s portrayal of Adam and Eve being painfully cast out of the Garden of Eden, and the Iliad’s recognition that no other species on the planet has the range of psychological problems that humans have, we can notice an awareness in ancient religions that there is something deeply troubling, yet also potentially noble and magnificent, about simply being human.”

Although people in the ancient world would not have used the word “trauma,” and we do not want to overuse this word today, there is an understanding in ancient religions and indigenous spiritual traditions that human beings need help coping with being human. We can cope with the vast, complex, and beautiful subterranean world of our humanity in a wide variety of healthy and unhealthy ways. Coping with being human can take the form of religion, philosophy, spirituality, therapy, self-help books, meditation, listening to music, artistic expression, seeking life advice from a friend, escapism, anti-depressants, a worldview that gives us purpose and meaning in life, going on vacation, alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, or heroin, just to mention a few examples. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs misrepresents sex by depicting it merely as a physical need for human beings. On the contrary, people can use sex primarily for non-physical reasons, such as coping with psychological stress, coping with unfulfilled non-physical needs, and coping with the dilemma of being human. Unlike human beings, an oak tree does not need help coping with being an oak tree, and a butterfly does not need help coping with being a butterfly.

There are many examples where animals need help coping with psychological or physical pain, but they do not seem to need help coping with simply being what they are, at least not to the extent that humans need help coping with simply being human. Our non-physical need for transcendence helps us cope with being human, in part by helping us cope with our heightened awareness of time. Transcendence, when I describe it as a non-physical need, means to transcend our sense of time, to feel a sense of timelessness, to touch and taste the eternal. People often think of eternity as “endless time,” but psychologist Erich Fromm said that eternity can also be a sense of “timelessness” that occurs when we become fully absorbed in the present moment.

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to transcend our sense of time, and transcendence can be experienced at varying depths. To mention just a few among the many examples of transcendence, people can transcend their sense of time when playing or listening to music, watching sports, meditating, participating in a religious ritual, spending time in nature, using drugs, having sex, cutting oneself, watching a movie, playing video games, exercising, spending quality time with loved ones, creating art, being completely absorbed in meaningful work, building a legacy that will outlive them, practicing martial arts, dancing, using social media, or joining a violent extremist group that offers a sense of immortality. “Fun” is a common way to transcend our sense of time. As the old saying goes, “Time flies when we’re having fun.” Every example of transcendence that I have listed can feed other non-physical needs, in addition to our non-physical need for transcendence, and can also be an expression of tangles of trauma.

Trauma has a way of trapping our minds in the past. When we are fully absorbed in the present moment through transcendence, our trauma from the past and our anxieties about the future can seem to temporarily vanish. When we aren’t taught how to heal the root causes of our anguish, we can seek transcendence as an escape from the past, the future, and reality itself, leading to various kinds of addictions. A healthy form of transcendence that is not an escape from reality, but a way to journey deeper into reality, involves experiencing wonder and awe. Awe is the highest expression of our muscle of curiosity’s capacity to generate a sense of wonder, adventure, and amazement, but awe is also a compound movement that requires the flexing of many of the muscles of our humanity.

To understand how awe can help us journey deeper into reality, while also helping us become better stewards of reality, let’s explore the marvels of advanced technology. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused our society to become even more reliant on advanced technology in order to communicate and cooperate, but when I talk about the marvels of advanced technology, I am also referring to technology that is often taken for granted. I am referring to technology that many people do not consider to be advanced. I am referring to technology that many people do not even consider to be technology.

For example, glass is advanced technology, yet many people do not consider it to be advanced or even to be “technology” in the modern sense. However, humans have had glass for only a small fraction of our overall history. Humans first developed glass perhaps around five thousand years ago, possibly earlier, but most of that glass was opaque. Clear glass did not become popular until around two thousand years ago, while our ability to transform glass into precise lenses that can be used in eyeglasses, telescopes, and microscopes is less than a thousand years old. Without glass, we would not have eyeglasses (or even contact lenses, since glass enabled the invention of plastics), electricity, or computers. Because the glass in microscopes allows us to study and understand infectious diseases, the COVID-19 pandemic has made human societies even more reliant on the advanced technology of glass in our efforts to combat COVID-19.

Although we often take glass for granted, the book Glass: A World History, written by Alan Macfarlane and Gerry Martin, describes how important glass is to us, and why it is logical to feel wonder and awe toward the marvel that is glass. Imagining a world where glass was never invented, Macfarlane and Martin tell us:

Most of us hardly give glass a thought, but imagine waking in a world where glass has been stripped away or uninvented . . . All objects, technologies and ideas that owe their existence to glass have gone.

We feel for the alarm clock or watch: no clock or watch, however, for miniaturized clocks and watches cannot exist without the protective facing of glass. We grope for the light switch. But there can be no light switch, for there is no glass for the light bulb . . . If we suffer from short sight, we can see clearly for about ten inches. If we have long sight, as we probably do if we are over fifty, we will not be able to read. There are no contact lenses or spectacles to help us . . . There would almost certainly be no electricity, since its first generation depended on gas or steam turbines, which required glass for their development. So there would be no radios, no computers, or email . . . [Without the glass used in microscopes] there would be no understanding of the world of bacteria and viruses, no antibiotics and no revolution of molecular biology from the discovery of DNA . . . [Without the glass used in telescopes] our understanding and control of space would be very limited. We might not even be able to prove that the earth goes around the sun. (Glass: A World History, 1-3)

When we realize that glass is a marvel of advanced technology, we can consider laptops and smartphones to be even greater marvels, which would not be possible without glass and many other advanced technologies. It is logical to experience wonder and awe when thinking deeply about glass, laptops, and smartphones, which is why it is even more logical to experience wonder and awe when thinking deeply about the simplest forms of life.

Smartphones are astonishing tools, but the most advanced smartphone is not as complex or mysterious to us as the simplest forms of life. Human beings can take basic elements and manufacture them into a smartphone from scratch. But we cannot take basic elements and manufacture them into a single-celled organism from scratch. We can manipulate DNA in order to engineer life, but we cannot create life from elements the way that we can create smartphones from elements. The most advanced smartphone in the world is incredible, but is it as incredible as a blueberry, which can have over a million cells?

The most advanced devices that human beings have ever created are not as complex or mysterious to us as a blueberry. Again, we can take basic elements and manufacture the fastest computers in the world from scratch, but we cannot take basic elements and manufacture a fully-formed blueberry from scratch. This is partly because of how the nature of biological life differs from the nature of non-biological tools. Since it is logical to experience wonder and awe when thinking deeply about glass, a laptop, a smartphone, a single-celled organism, or a blueberry, consider the even greater logic of experiencing wonder and awe when thinking deeply about far more complex and mysterious marvels – such as animals and human beings. Wonder and awe allow us to taste flavors of transcendence that increase our capacity to perceive beauty in each other, our world, and ourselves.

When we see with wonder and awe, we can traverse the landscape of life in ways that strengthen our muscle of appreciation, along with our muscle of empathy. By strengthening these muscles of our humanity, we become stronger stewards and protectors of those in our families, workplaces, broader communities, and beyond. To make progress in the journey to heal my severe childhood trauma, I not only had to find healthy ways to feed the non-physical needs that we have discussed in this series, but I also had to find ways to strengthen all of the muscles of my humanity: hope, empathy, appreciation, conscience, reason, discipline, curiosity, imagination, and language (so that I could use peaceful and powerful communication techniques, instead of aggression, to resolve conflict).

As your exercise for this week, you can strengthen some of the muscles of your humanity by contemplating the following five questions:

  1. What causes you to feel wonder and awe? Think of technology, experiences, life, and marvels that people often take for granted.
  2. Where can you find new sources of wonder and awe?
  3. How can these reflections exercise and strengthen your muscles of curiosity, appreciation, and empathy.
  4. How are wonder and awe related to joy?
  5. How do you see people in our society coping with being human?

When we understand that there is nothing alive more agonized than humans “of all that breathe and crawl across the earth,” that people can cope with being human through a wide variety of means that can be healthy, unhealthy, or somewhere in-between, and that our non-physical need for transcendence makes us vulnerable, we can further increase our compassion for others, along with our compassion for ourselves. Peace Literacy gives us practical skills and options for coping with being human, and also for coping with the many kinds of struggle, crisis, and uncertainty that we can encounter in life. But Peace Literacy goes far beyond coping by giving us practical skills and options for unfolding the full power of our humanity, and also for navigating struggle, crisis, and uncertainty in the ways our world so desperately needs right now. The survival of humanity during our uncertain and fragile future, along with our ability to thrive as human beings, will depend on what we do with our non-physical needs, our tangles of trauma, the root causes of our problems, and the epic challenge of being human.

The kind of leadership that is needed in times of crisis, at all levels especially the community level, is leadership that reduces tangles of trauma and helps people meet their non-physical needs in healthy ways.