Baby Boomers: We Are Not As Cool As We Think

By Larry Sherber

Normally I take pride in myself for having original thoughts in a society that seems to be more interested in its members doing the "in" thing rather than the "original" thing. But not today, because most of the ideas you will hear from me this morning should be credited to an American philosopher named Ken Wilber, whose books and concepts have inspired this talk. I will quote him, paraphrase him, explain his principles, express his opinions, steal his secrets, and invade his deepest thoughts; stopping short at imitating his voice and wearing his pajamas. It is still appropriate to praise my style and wit in introducing someone else's thinking; it just means I wasn't bright enough to come up with the ideas myself. So put on your thinking caps because this presentation isn't as entertaining as it is informative. I must warn you that there will be a pop quiz at the end; so 'listen up' to avoid the embarrassment of a low grade. I am going to use the term 'baby boomer' in this discussion because Wilber pays particular attention to those born from 1946 to 1964 in his writings. But, in reality, the boomers he is addressing are just part of a larger group of liberal thinkers in our society who are also included as part of today's subject matter.

I don't know about you, but being a liberal thinker and a baby boomer sometimes gives me a feeling of moral and intellectual superiority, accompanied by more than just a little attitude. After all, my generation didn't just sit on our butts and complain - we actually did something to prove our moral supremacy. We invented free love, love-ins, and love beads. We protested, burned our bras and draft cards, and took over university administration buildings. We were the first to do mind expanding drugs which led to psychedelic music and psychedelic tye-dye t-shirts and long hair. We are identified with Woodstock, the single greatest American expression of rebellion since the Boston Tea Party. We are the generation that proudly proclaims the inherent equal worth of all beings in the universe. We coined the term 'cool' and we were cool, and still are cool…or so we think. Well fellow liberals and baby boomers, I'm here this morning to shock you out of your shorts, because…we are not as cool as we think.

For those of you who consider this statement irrational and a sacrilege, hear me out. I sense your anger, and to quote a fellow liberal "I feel your pain." Why a few months ago if someone had questioned the standing of liberals and baby boomers in the moral universe I would have drawn my sword of self-delusion and defended our honor to the death. But recently, in the inner recesses of my heart and soul I have sensed that something in my own liberal philosophy didn't feel right. I questioned my anger when I heard any utterance that was right of center. Now this may have occurred because I had become sensitized by the fact that this entire country had shifted to the right of center. But it was more than that. I heard myself constantly demanding justice in an unjust world, but half the time I couldn't define what real justice was. I found myself defending both sides in debates over capital punishment. There was a void that needed filling but I didn't know how to fill it. I was proud of my liberal thinking and my history as a baby boomer, yet I kept wondering if this was as good as it was going to get. I couldn't sleep well, and, as I get from time to time, I was intellectually and morally restless and more than a little confused. Once again I found myself asking "What's it all about Alfie?", a phrase now understood by the young as well as us seniors since the remaking of the movie "Alfie."

Luckily for me, a few months ago, James Leites loaned me a book by Ken Wilber entitled "A Theory of Everything." That book, and 10 CD's of interviews with Mr. Wilber, solved most of my problems and answered most of my questions, at least for now. It's not that I have reached the end of my quest for the meaning of life, but I now have a comprehensive view of human consciousness and where I fit into the big picture. In my intellectual and spiritual pursuits I have asked questions knowing they'd never be fully answered; the gratification existing in the search itself. But during life's explorations it really helps to have a way to understand my relationship with the kosmos; not 'cosmos' with a 'c', which pertains only to the physical universe, but the Greek word 'kosmos' with a 'k' that includes the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realms.

I have read Wilber's book twice and have spent months studying his Theory of Everything, which is based on what he calls an integral model; one that is comprehensive and all inclusive, using science and spirituality, Eastern and Western thought. According to Wilber, this model includes matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit as they appear in self, culture, and nature. Get it? Neither did I, at first. Just think of it as a complete map of humanity that is balanced and all-embracing. Everyone contributes and participates; everyone gets to join the party. Wilber's explanation of this theory is sophisticated and complex and, like any important vision, it takes work and effort to understand it. But let's just look at one part and try to simplify it to give you a little insight into what I'm talking about.

Think of human development as consisting of many levels or stages, from a lower order to a higher order, each with its own worldview. These are not distinct levels, but overlap each other; each enfolding or enveloping its predecessors. For example, in the physical realm, from atoms to molecules to cells to organisms. Or culturally, from caveman survival instincts, to strict principles of law and order, to sensitivity and caring for earth and all its inhabitants. Or individually, from egocentric (just caring about oneself) to ethnocentric (caring about your family, group, or nation) to worldcentric (what's right and fair for all peoples regardless of race, religion, gender, creed, or sexual orientation). I see some of you ex-hippies nodding your heads: "Yeah, that's me man. I'm sensitive to earth and all its inhabitants; I want what's fair and right for everyone; I must have evolved to the highest order of human consciousness, right man?" Well, not exactly. Let's look at 3 characteristics of baby boomers that keep us from evolving to the next higher stage of human consciousness which Wilber has entitled the integrative level. Here differences and pluralities can be integrated and egalitarianism is complemented with natural degrees of ranking and excellence. The goal is better cooperation and understanding. In the timeless words of Martin Luther King Jr.: "Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools."

First, as baby boomers we have evolved to a high level of idealism, which Wilber calls the sensitive self. We believe in the rights of the individual, as long as others are not harmed. We believe in egalitarianism, multiculturalism, and pluralism. Every person and every group has a right to find their own values: "You do your thing, I do mine." Everything is subjective; the mention of universal laws or truths could marginalize someone or some group, risking arrest by the politically correct thought police. All this sounds great, so what was it that didn't seem right to me- why was I feeling discomfort and doubt? Because this way of thinking doesn't always work in the real world. Let's use one of Wilber's examples. There are 10 people in a boat, Mother Teresa and 9 Hell's Angels, and 3 have to go overboard to save the other 7. Who goes? A true egalitarian would have all 10 draw straws. Myself, I would keep mother Teresa and let the Hell's Angels draw straws; no guilt, no hesitation. It has become clear to me that sometimes justice requires a hierarchy of moral worth.

Baby boomers, as a group, don't like hierarchies because they sometimes produce marginalization; someone or some group dominates another. Here is where Wilber makes an important distinction between growth hierarchies and dominator hierarchies. Growth hierarchies are those that naturally occur in the universe. Darwin's theory of evolution and Wilber's theory of the development of human consciousness exemplify this group. They differ in substance from socially oppressive dominator hierarchies such as caste systems, favoring heredity and privilege, and from racial rankings, with their inevitable prejudice and discrimination. But the biggest difference between the two is that the growth hierarchies carry no judgement; it's just the way things are. All the stages are a necessary part of human development. The level of consciousness that we have reached as liberal thinkers is a product of each and every stage of development below us. They are part of us and we could not exist if they were not there first. We need to identify with those who are in lower levels than ourselves and accept them as they are, not as we want them to be. What would human beings look like if primates were skipped during evolution? Without them we wouldn't be here in our present form today. We don't see primates as being in the same stage as humans, but we don't judge them for it. Unfortunately, the baby boomers rejection of hierarchies and opposition to rankings blocks our movement up to the higher integrative level.

Second, the boomers' pluralistic tendencies provide an environment for our narcissistic identity: "The me generation." Think about it; pluralism, a laudable concept, also encourages everyone to do their own thing, promoting an egocentric environment of narcissism. This combination of the high state of pluralism with the low state of narcissism is called "boomeritis" by Wilber and I, personally, had contracted a serious case of the disease. A look at the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations will help to characterize another facet of this pathology. In our protests, the peace-minded boomers of the 60's claimed the moral high ground. Of course these actions were also encouraged by our "question all authority" attitude. One study, conducted at Berkeley and confirmed by other similar research, showed that even though the students claimed they were acting because of high ethical standards, in reality, the vast majority were more interested in fighting against the system than against the actual war itself. Our cries were: "Nobody tells me what to do! So take your war and shove it!" When I think about it, if I'm honest with myself, my immature egocentrism was the driving force behind my position. It was mostly about me, not morality. With its lack of true conviction and real substance, it's no wonder my hippie generation disappeared into mainstream society. To sum it up, pluralism tends to encourage diversity and discourage the sharing of commonalities. Both pluralism and the egocentric stance of narcissism are segregating, not integrating forces. So, boomeritis is the second characteristic to prevent my generation from embracing the integral philosophy.

Finally, the baby boomers ongoing battle with conservative ideas has become a "boomer bummer." Wilber contends that every group, every philosophy, every theory, and every level contributes something important and positive to the overall development of human consciousness; no one can be 100% wrong. For instance, conservatives tend to blame human suffering and social problems on interior causes, while liberals tend to blame them on exterior origins. For conservatives, if a person is poor, it's because they are lazy. Liberals see the poor as victims of an oppressive society. Where conservatives fix the problem by instilling a work ethic, family values, and personal responsibility, liberals redistribute wealth and change laws and social institutions. Integral theory uses some internal and some external forces in the political realm. Make sense? It does to me; and it did to Bill Clinton when he changed the welfare system to include personal responsibility; legislation which I enthusiastically supported.

Last fall , when George Bush was elected for a second term, I was at an emotional low. I gave a sermon entitled "Don't Worry, Its Coming," discussing the inevitability of gay rights eventually becoming a reality in our society, in spite of our political decisions. It helped, but I was still angry. For a person who claims never to hate, I was getting perilously close whenever I heard the president or right wing Republicans speak. I could not accept any opinions that were outside my liberal framework. In the past I always rejected traditional religions because each one was convinced that their beliefs were right and everyone else's were wrong. Yet here I was in my self-righteous tower declaring that I was one of the chosen few in the universe to have access to the only true belief system- talk about hypocrisy. Now I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to implement liberal laws and promote liberal ideas in the education system. And I'm not trying to discourage protests against injustices such as the Iraqi War or anything else we feel is immoral, as long as our motives are worldcentric and not ethnocentric or egocentric. But I am saying that we should learn to respect people at all levels of consciousness, not just our own. Yes, Ken Wilber places liberal thinkers in a higher state of consciousness than conservative thinkers. But he doesn't look down upon them with disdain. He believes that everyone is at least partially right. He recognizes and accepts where people are and tries to integrate any positive contributions they can make to the overall well being of human consciousness.

According to Wilber, we are all born at square one. As babies we are totally egocentric; only the "I" exists. As we grow older the "we" begins to form. We become ethnocentric, able to see the world through the eyes of others: our family, our race, our ethnicity, our country. Some of us move on to a more worldcentric view and others don't. But each of us passes through all the stages below us to get where we are. Criticizing others for being at levels that we ourselves once occupied doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Until we are ready and willing to really listen, and until we drop our air of moral superiority, we will never understand the beauty of an integral vision. As baby boomers we have come to a good place, but there is so much more out there for us; a better place, and then a better place after that. Stagnation is our enemy. If we keep our minds and our hearts open, the sky's the limit.

As a footnote, one of the reasons I have been attracted to Ken Wilber and his thinking is the man himself. He is a terrific storyteller and repeatedly denies his own brilliance. Wilber has what I call the 3 "Hs": humanity, humility, and humor. He is down to earth, cusses, and laughs a lot. He never claims to have all the answers. He sees his work as an ongoing process and is sure his theory of everything will be obsolete in the future. Wilber quotes one of his professors who defined a good theory as "one that lasts long enough to get you to a better one." His hope is that people will use some of his ideas in their own search for answers and meaning, and he challenges everyone to advance his theory or create one of their own. Minds like his don't come along very often, and I feel lucky to be exposed to his ideas at this time in my life.

I'm sure I have confused some of you, irritated and angered others, and given some a chance to catch up on their sleep. But whether this talk has had any direct effect on you is not as important as the reminder that meaningful intellectual and spiritual experiences occur only rarely for most of us. We have to be in the right place at the right time for them to have any significant influence on the way we think. Those who try to make sense of our existence in this crazy universe must remain patient and open minded. Regardless of which belief system is right for each of us, according to Ken Wilber our goal should always be to exercise consciousness, care, and compassion. I wish us all luck in this endeavor. As for me, I still don't sleep too well, but it's not because of restlessness or confusion. It's because I'm excited and energized and I can't keep my mind from exploring this new vision that makes me feel so comfortable and at home.