Thriving in the Crosscurrent:

Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change




Why This Book, Why Now?

Chapter 1

Rhyming Hope and History

Chapter 2

Just Changing . . . or Evolving?

Chapter 3

Four Strong Winds

Chapter 4

Three Crossings

Chapter 5

Modernity: How Can a
Sea Change Go Wrong?

Chapter 6

Who Says It’s
Getting Better?

Chapter 7


Chapter 8

Life in the Renaissance

Chapter 9

The Second Axial Age

Chapter 10

Thriving in the Crosscurrent

Chapter 7

The literature of the sea is replete with tales of turbulent whirlpools whose violent spin and powerful suction carry unwary travelers to their doom. Perhaps the most famous of the real vortices is Norway’s Lofoten Maelstrom, an occasional tidal disturbance so powerful that its name has become a generic term for a particularly violent whirlpool. The Lofoten was the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent Into the Maelstrom.” In Poe’s account, two fishermen are lost but a third returns, as if reborn, to tell a story no one will believe. A recurrent theme in tales of this sort is that one either perishes in the vortex or rides it out and is somehow flung miraculously to safety. Maelstrom narratives draw on several other shared themes: terror, loss of control, swirling confusion and disorientation, death and rebirth. But the most essential character of whirlpools lies in the fact that each is born from the convergence of opposing forces.

The Lofoten Maelstrom offers the best metaphor for our purposes. The maelstrom arises as a result of a dramatic discontinuity in the ocean floor that disturbs the tidal fl ow, allowing a rising tide to begin its inflow well before the preceding tide has ebbed. The consequence, of course, is a confusion of flows, generating a rotary chaos that can escalate dramatically and very rapidly.

Whirlpools, vortices, and maelstroms are all variations on a single, theme: the eddy. As a turbulent gyre emerging from the interference of two or more waves, currents, or tides, the eddy makes an apt metaphor for an anti-evolutionary counterflow. The tide of cultural evolution may be felt long before the failing older value wave has subsided. As a consequence, countless eddies emerge—whirlpools of perplexity and powerlessness. As a temporary but potentially violent pattern of resistance forming at the confluence of the older and newer waves, the cultural eddy is one of the most common and most misunderstood dynamics of human social evolution.


In the usual course of events, resistance to change takes form in a stubborn but relatively benign attachment to familiar ways. But when the change is pronounced, more striking forms of reaction and resistance emerge. When the threatened social transformation seems as dramatic and far reaching as it does in our time, the opposition can lose touch with older values like tolerance and civility and become rootless, angry, and dangerous.

In a period of sea change, a culture is always taken aback by the increasing influence of new ideas and values. In the transition phase, older ideas (e.g., the notion that the Earth is the center of the universe) give way more graciously than do older values and cultural patterns (e.g., the superiority of the male). In each case, however, resistance occurs. Our ideas, values, and cultural behavior patterns have a quality akin to physical inertia (resistance to change in motion). When they are challenged, the interruption of their fl ow generates counterenergies, and eddies can form.

Figure 7.1. Formation of an Eddy

As tempting as it is to see disturbing cultural phenomena, ranging from road rage to identity politics and terrorism, as indications of the likely future course of the world, many of the signature problems of our age need to be understood instead as phenomena of the crossing. These are not manifestations of the declining older wave or unfortunate features of the newer wave. They are temporary but dangerous reactive counterflows—eddies—that can slow but not stem the new tide. The dictionary definition underscores the aptness of the metaphor: 1 a movement in a stream of air, water, or other fluid in which the current doubles back on itself causing a miniature whirlwind or whirlpool; 2 a deviation from or disturbance in the main trend of thought, life, etc., esp. one that is relatively unimportant in the longer term.

When the rhythm of a smoothly flowing stream is disturbed, eddies can emerge, temporary whirlpools that roil the water in their immediate vicinity without really affecting the prevailing flow. The analogy works. In a time of major evolutionary cultural change, when prevailing patterns are challenged and disrupted, individuals and groups can be caught up in an outflow of the familiar and inflow of the new. If the perturbation affects a sufficient number of persons or power centers, a major eddy can form. In culture, as in nature, no change exists without  esistance. Eddies emerge, persist, and dissipate in the course of cultural transitions of every sort. However, the degree of cultural opposition to change increases in direct proportion to the cultural disruption produced by a values shift. Uncertainty, insecurity, alienation, identity crisis, humiliation, and power anxiety determine the force of a cultural whirlpool. Its manifestations may range from minor turbulence and patterns of stubborn refusal to extremely dangerous and potentially violent backwash. Agents of change need to understand what happens when an eddy of cultural resistance becomes a violent reactionary maelstrom.

Order Thriving in
the Crosscurrent

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