Carl Jung introduced me to a concept I had never heard of before. It is “zeitgeist” which is the general mood, direction, and social climate of a large group of people. In times past we used psychics, witches, prophets, and oracles to divine the zeitgeist and tell us the future. Now we use polls and we analyse groups of people based on various demographic characteristics; we prognosticate and we conduct studies and then we conduct studies of the studies……and then we still get blindsided by something like Donald Trump. It just proves that mankind is its own worst enemy. We spend generations building values and societies and institutions and then we cannibalize them. Life can be distilled down to a great Greek tragedy from which there is a depressing inevitability.
As I’ve looked into different graduate school programs and degrees, I know what I will need to do. I will need to be able to read research studies, evaluate data, and then try to say something about it, hopefully something that will make my professors happy so that I can pay my money, graduate, and get my paper that says I learned something. Science and educational hierarchy is part of the zeitgeist of secular humanism. It’s foundational to the university experience. This zeitgeist is fueled by unseen forces that are poorly understood by us simple mortals who are swept up in its wake. The secular humanism zeitgeist drives the idea that all things can be learned by scientific inquiry and observation. Grants, scholarships, studies, peer reviewed journals, and the entire elaborate structure of what we collectively “know” is fueled mostly by this zeitgeist. As individuals, we jump through the hoops and play the game and squeeze out a place for ourselves among our fellows. We get our degrees, take our place in the social fabric, and even if we are somewhat cynical about the ivory towers of intellectualism, we give them their grudging due. Because, In spite of everything, this zeitgeist has served us fairly well. We have a stable educational system that is largely operated in good faith. We make progress, but this zeitgeist is vulnerable to another powerful zeitgeist; that of right-wing authoritarianism. The right-wing authoritarian zeitgeist hoists itself up by exploiting the inherent instability of man’s wisdom and his tendency to simplify complex things and defy authority based on reason in favor of authority based on raw force. It’s ironic to me that a mere five years after the movie Avatar was released, the exact conflict it explored has played itself out on the political stage; the conflict between the zeitgeist of secular humanism and the zeitgeist of right wing authoritarianism. Art in fiction can reveal important unconscious realities and I think Avatar, Star Wars, and Harry Potter have all captivated our collective consciousness because these epic tales tell us truths about ourselves that we are unable to be fully conscious of as individuals. In this blog post, I want to explore Avatar.
The conflict of the film is personified in two main characters. First, Grace Augustine represents the secular humanist zeitgeist. She is almost comical in her zeal for knowledge while looking in all the wrong places. She takes samples and analyses them and keeps getting the same kind of students from the same places and doing the same things and trying to get different results. She is shut out of the Navi community because of the cruel and foolish decisions of other “jar people,” who are named for the glass masks they must use to breathe on the planet. She is using her method of finding truth, and yet it is painstakingly slow and inefficient. She becomes increasingly frustrated until Jake Sully comes to the research team. Outcast and alone as a former soldier and parapalgic, Sully comes to Pandora, gets a new native body and a new life. He is brimming with energy and impulsivity. He is woefully ignorant and vulnerable, but he becomes the key to unlocking real progress in understanding Pandora and its native populations. When she does finally approach the truth about Ewya, the mysterious force the fuels and connects and provides life and energy to the Navi, she tries to share it with others. She is rejected and mocked by those who have funded and supported her research. They never wanted to know, only to exploit, and to them her knowledge is of no value. Their cruelty and ignorance destroy within days everything she has worked for decades to build. There are obvious parallels here in the time of Trump.
Grace is a cautionary character for us. If Grace is a symbol of the secular humanist zeitgiest of civilized America, what can we learn from her? Grace had two problems. One was, her hubris. She looked down on the security forces on Pandora. She treats Sully with contempt when he arrives and she exhibits the same kind of bigotry she wants to eliminate by studying and connecting with the Pandora natives. It is only when he is able to make the contacts she couldn’t that she begins to soften toward him. As her relationship with Sully improves, she sees that he is not only useful, but a good person with empathy and compassion. If she had put more energy into cultivating meaningful relationships with the “jar clan” as the humans are referred to, she would have been better able to inspire compassion and empathy toward her research and the natives she advocated for. How many soldiers had she despised and disregarded? How many had she labelled and cast aside as being unworthy of her time who may have been good and decent men at heart, or at least had those seeds within them, as Jake Sully did. What might have happened if she had taken the time to build more alliances within the jar clan? She would likely have never been popular with the soldiers, but perhaps enough seeds of doubt and independent thought might have protected them from the destructive and seductive messages of the authoritarian zeitgeist. A revolt within the security force of the jar clan may have prevented much destruction and devastation among the Navi. It may have moderated the leadership of the jar clan and made coexistence more possible.
Grace failed to see the value in people who didn’t hold advanced degrees or have vast stores of knowledge. Every person has a valuable perspective and experience. Most people are capable of empathy and compassion toward other creatures if that empathy is cultivated through human connection. When we dismiss and weed out and form exclusive clubs based on talent or ability, we miss out on the connections we can make that can improve our research and deepen our understanding of the world we live in as well as sow seeds of empathy among diverse groups. The more people we throw away or dismiss as not able to contribute, the more resentment we create and the more we find our vast stores of knowledge are lacking valuable perspectives. Those who are excluded feel angry and afraid, ready to lash out at those who have marginalized them. The authoritarian zeitgeist is extremely seductive to these people.
America and other multicultural western nations, fueled by the secular humanist zeitgeist, have gone to great lengths to include various minorities into the fabric of our cultures and it has improved our racial harmony. Before the rise of Donald Trump, I think we thought the secular humanist zeigeist was leading us to progress and harmony among the different factions. The problem is, we have, as Grace did, neglected to reach out to some people, choosing instead to devalue and dismiss them. These people have fallen prey to the right-wing authoritarian zeitgeist. The problem with living within a group is, you don’t see the people who are not there. Those who feel marginalized and excluded lie in the shadows unseen until they are seen and exploited by an authoritarian zeitgeist spasm of raw destructive power.
In Grace’s defense, she was in a tough position dealing with real issues like funding, equipment, and training researchers, and some of the men she was dealing with were arrogant jerks who lacked the fundamental qualities of empathy and honor. These men always exist in any society. It is only when they are given large amounts of power that it becomes problematic, as it did on Pandora.
The character of Miles Quarich, or simply, the colonel, is a symbol of the right wing authoritarian zeitgiest. He uses tough guy, no nonsense, simplicity to gain power. He is not a complicated man ideologically. He is not burdened by ideals or moral codes. He is ruthlessly pragmatic and values loyalty above all else. His lack of intellectual curiosity and determination to approach problems with the same destructively combative approach is only dangerous because he is enabled by others who provide him with powerful weapons his kind could have never created. Authoritarians and their minions tend to lack imagination or ingenuity. It is squashed out of them. Right wing authoritarianism is a primitive state of mind that is driven by fear and blind tribal loyalty. It is a powerful zeitgiest that has swept up many people in the past decade. Populist nationalism led by authoritarians like Putin, Trump, Erdogan, Ordan, Bolosonaro, Jinping, and others is on the rise. These authoritarians use the tools the secular humanist advances have created to exploit and enslave their creators. It is a difficult zeitgeist to fight. Let’s go back to Grace and see what else we can learn.
The secular humanist zeitgiest has a linear, systematic, and low risk approach to learning. This is demonstrated by Grace when she arrives with Sully in the forest at the first of the film, she immediately begins instructing one of the researchers about a certain plant. She and the other researcher squat down hovering over the plant. This symbolizes to me the scientific silo. Scientists are sometimes so narrowly focused on a small field of study that they fail to see the larger world. Jake Sully, in contrast, impulsively wanders into the forest, taking in everything. He drinks the sights, sounds, and smells in holistically and takes risks to learn more. It almost gets him killed, but his impulsivity and curiosity is rewarded greatly in the end. Ironically, Sully’s approach to life and lack of knowledge make him relatable to the natives. The spiritual leader of the tribe confides her frustration with the jar clan. She says profoundly, “You cannot fill a cup that is already full.” Sully was able to learn much more about the Navi than Grace did until at the very end when at last she sees Eywa as she takes her last breath beneath the tree of souls.
We can learn from the character of Grace as we approach the cataclysmic conflict to come. As the two zeitgiest forces of secular humanism and right wing authoritarianism inevitably collide, like a cold front meets a warm front, the coming storm will be severe. The rational people who want to make peace and serve as a bridge between the two sides will surely be battered and abused by both. Like Sully, we may find ourselves banished and exiled, rejected as traitors by both sides. We may feel despair as we look at the devastation and suffering around us. But if we keep persevering, we can harness the force that will unify us.
In Avatar that force was a powerful spiritual symbol, the Toruk, the majestic flying dragon-like creature. Sully uses his gut instinct and a clever idea to ensnare the beast. Afterward he was able to use this symbolic beast to unite the native clans, expel the invading jar clan along with the destructive authoritarian zeitgeist, and bring peace to the planet. I’m not sure what our unifying force will be. I’m waiting on the Lord to provide what we need when we need it. In the meantime, I am preparing for the storm.
First, I’m trying to cultivate humility. It’s so hard not to take offense when people dismiss my perspective, minimize my pain, and disown me because I am different. I want to return hurt for hurt. I want to cut off and hate because that is my natural reaction. I want to caricature those who hurt me because its harder to see the reality; they aren’t bad people, they just don’t like me and my message. They are valuable human beings, they just don’t understand and they may never understand.
Second, I’m finding Eywa. I’m taking risks and I’m jumping in with both feet. I’m daring to tromp into the forest with eyes, ears, and heart open. I’m climbing those mountains and facing those demons. I know I’m not one of either tribe, but that’s what makes me powerful. That’s what gives me the chance to be the bridge and the peacemaker. With love in my heart for everyone, I can harness the power I need to be who my Savior needs me to be.
I can drain my cup and fill it again. I can re-learn how to trust again. I can re-learn how to reach out and love again. Building up a layer of protective anger, cynicism and hostility will only create more. I can shed the protective layers and reach out again. Maybe not today or tomorrow. The spirit still warns me to protect myself; not with anger and fear, but with prudence. There is a time to speak and a time to listen. A time to reflect and a time to fight. A time to build strength and a time to wield it. The spirit will give me the wisdom to know and I will trust in his endless omniscience.