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Boomeritis & Me

Not Just a Book Review
by Elizabeth Debold


by Ken Wilber

I am a boomer. Blooming right in the middle of the boomer era—born in 1955—and still booming strong. I have been part of one paradigm-busting, revolutionary movement after another since I came of age in the early seventies.(I even coauthored a book called Mother Daughter Revolution, about how mothers can change the future by changing the way they raise girls.) I know that whatever I'm involved in has the potential to entirely transform the world as we know it, to free us from the untold horrors of, well, you name it—patriarchy, racism, class oppression. Why? Because I'm a boomer, and boomers are going to change the world. And isn't it just perfect boomer style that I've also found a spiritual path that is evolutionary, revolutionary, and designed to change the world? Of course, I never really thought of myself as a boomer until I read Ken Wilber's Boomeritis (Shambhala Publications, 2002), his scathing and often hilarious indictment of boomer hubris. (That's probably another sign of being a boomer—being too unique to be part of something as mundane as a generation.) Reading Boomeritis brought me face-to-face with the inheritance of my generation, with my own boomeritis. Boomeritis is not only, as Wilber makes clear, a barrier to our collective cultural evolution but, like an ebola virus of consciousness, it kills the possibility of any real individual spiritual transformation from the inside out. And I know something up close and personal about boomeritis: I have quite a case.

So, what is boomeritis? First of all, it isn't just something for those of us born during the boomer years, 1946-1964. According to Wilber, "Boomeritis is simply pluralism infected with narcissism." Sounds relatively harmless. Pluralism, simply defined, is our current social reality, where diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups mix within one culture. However, Wilber is referring to something more specific—the intellectual capacity that emerges from that social reality: the ability to appreciate differences, to understand the ways that diverse cultures construct reality, and to fashion an identity, or self, that goes beyond one's family and culture of origin. Boomers do happen to have a particular and, of course, unique historical role in this development. As he writes, "The Boomers, to their great credit, were the first major generation in history to develop [this capacity]. That's a very important point....The Boomers moved beyond the [previous cultural stages of] traditionalism and ... scientific modernism ... and pioneered a postmodern, pluralistic, multicultural understanding.... And that is exactly why the Boomers spearheaded civil rights, ecological concerns, feminism, and multicultural diversity. That is the 'high' part of the mixture, the truly impressive part of the Boomer generation and the explosive revolutions of the sixties...." These revolutions, as partial as they have been, changed forever our sense of human possibility and refashioned the contours of human identity.

And the low part? The narcissism, naturally. Wilber is certainly not the only one who has noticed—how could one not?!—that the boomer generation, which unself-consciously and even proudly wears the appellation "the Me generation," is more than a bit stuck on itself—and has left something sticky on the generations that have followed. Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism and Robert Bellah and colleagues' Habits of the Heart have beautifully and poignantly documented how self-involved and isolated we are. Concerned critics have despaired at how this inflated self-involvement has ripped the social fabric and, grasping to bring order to the chaos created by this unparalleled selfishness, they have often, futilely, called for a return to traditional values. Yet these problems can never be solved by looking backward. The world is changing at warp speed. There is no way back nor is there a "back" to go to. Wilber does what no other critic of the cultural scene has done: he not only elaborates in agonizing detail the corrosive effects of "that strange mixture of very high cognitive capacity... infected with rather low emotional narcissism," but he places it within an evolutionary context and, in so doing, points to a possibility for humanity beyond boomeritis. The solution to boomer narcissism cannot come from looking to the past but only in realizing the demand of the future. Wilber confronts us with how critical the present moment actually is—because beyond the social fragmentation aggravated by boomer self-absorption is the potential for a more holistic, integral future.

Beyond boomeritis, Wilber shows us, is a quantum leap in consciousness that the boomer generation and its irony-clad children, Gen X and Y, are preventing. Using Don Beck and Christopher Cowan's spiral of development [see page 108] as an evolutionary blueprint, Wilber shows us what this leap is all about and why it is so critical that boomers get over themselves. All of cultural development up to this point has been fundamentally concerned with survival, starting hundreds of thousands of years ago with our most meager physical survival. Through the course of human history, human consciousness has developed more sophisticated strategies for survival—both internally (psychologically) and externally (technologically). Up until now, Beck and Cowan explain, human consciousness development has been about the elaboration of different, and increasingly complex, strategies for protecting an increasingly complex self within an increasingly complex world. In other words, human development has been about one form of narcissism after another, one way to keep the self intact after another. The utter perniciousness of boomer narcissism lies in its insidious sophistication—and the fact that right beyond it lies the possibility of a radically different relationship to life that is not driven by physical or psychological survival fears. Taking this leap will give us a new way to respond to the persistent problems that have plagued humanity and have brought us to the edge of destruction—the degradation of the biosphere, incessant warring between different human tribes, overpopulation, and starvation, to name a few. In the brilliant light of what is possible, boomeritis is aggressively anti-evolutionary.

This leap beyond boomeritis is clearly no mean feat. The context, consequences, and cost are enormous—which is what is inspiring about this unique moment in the human drama. We actually have the choice to participate in evolution: which do we trust more, our survival-conditioned minds or the evolutionary flow of life itself? This choice is essential, spiritual, because it concerns our deepest understanding of who we are and what life is about. Wilber documents all of the devious ways that boomers have placed our own narcissism-driven minds at the center of the universe—choosing self-preservation through an unrelenting hubris rather than taking the risk to align ourselves with evolution. Narcissism, as Wilber explains, is a multifaceted survival strategy designed to preserve the psychological self in its separation from the rest of life:
The dictionary definition of narcissism is "excessive interest in one's own self, importance, grandeur, abilities; egocentrism." The inner state of narcissism, clinicians tell us, is often that of an empty or fragmented self, which desperately attempts to fill the void by inflating the self and deflating others. The emotional mood is, "Nobody tells me what to do!"
Boomeritis divides the soul: a desperately narcissistic reliance on the sophistication and comprehension of one's mind over the force of life that animates our hearts. And this division destroys the possibility of the spiritual transformation that our collective evolution demands.

"Very interesting, so true of many others, but not me—why, I'm a very spiritual person!" would be a classic "I'm-a-special-case" boomer response to all of this. (Well, at the risk of being boomeritisly self-referential, look at me: I am even an editor of this well-known spiritual magazine, but, boy, do I have boomeritis.) Boomeritis is bigger and runs deeper than one can imagine. In fact, separating out the spiritual from "other" aspects of life and fashioning an identity as a "spiritual" person are both classic forms of boomeritis. You see, while boomers have actually sought for something beyond the materialist gains of the Second World War generation, and have done much to revitalize spirituality in the West, the stain of materialism—of wanting to have, to hold on to something for ourselves—has sullied much of boomer spirituality, draining the sacred from the realm of the spirit. Boomeritis is the materialist takeover of the spiritual for the sake of narcissistic gratification. In the following pages, I want to share with you what I've learned about just how deeply boomeritis works as a force against the evolutionary call from the future and how it has infected so much of the contemporary spiritual world.


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This article is from
Our Transformation Issue