The Two Wolves

A perspective that informs and inspires this blog is illustrated by a Native American story that expresses at an individual level an existential challenge I believe the human race now faces on a global scale.

An old Grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, “Let me tell you a story. I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times.” He continued, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.

But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.
Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

The boy looked intently into his Grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?” The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”

As this story, our history books and each of our own life experience suggest, the struggle between the two wolves and the challenge of managing our wolf-feeding practices are ongoing ones. While most of us have periods in which the Good Wolf is dominant, many of us also suffer periods in which we get caught in self-reinforcing cycles of Bad Wolf feeding frenzies (in the language of author Eckhart Tolle, these might be described as manifestations of the “pain body“).

The Hatfield–McCoy feud  serves as an iconic example of the latter at a relatively micro level, while our species’ history of wars and genocides is painful testimony to the same tendency at macro levels of society. And, sadly, some political leaders, both past and present, have achieved political success by skillfully feeding and manipulating our individual and collective Bad Wolves.

Wolf-feeding practices in the digital anthropocene

Building on this foundational insight about human behavior and human potential, a central theme of this blog is that we have entered a period of human history that I and others refer to as the digital anthropocene.

In a post on the blog of Michigan State University’s Quello Center, I described key characteristics of this stage in human history as I see it, including:

  • substantial (and currently destructive) impacts of human activities on natural systems, a planetary phase referred to as the Anthropocene;
  • continued and arguably mounting evidence that the status-quo dynamics within our dominant political and economic systems are aggravating rather than reducing inequalities, conflict, degradation of environmental and democratic self-governance systems, and potentially avoidable human suffering;
  • the dramatic expansion in scope, content and functionality of digitally-mediated connectivity among humans and “things” via ever-more-capable information and communication technology (ICT).

In my view, the digital anthropocene represents a crossroads in human history that calls on us—individually and collectively—to do a better job of: 1) leveraging the power of digital technology to more effectively nourish and be guided by our Good Wolves and; 2) constraining the use of these technologies to stimulate, intensify and prolong destructive bouts of Bad Wolf dominance.

If we travel down one road extending from the crossroads, the predominant impact of our ever-more-powerful digital technology will be to feed our Bad Wolves, chronically triggering and amplifying fear, distrust, prejudice, greed, oppression, inequality, tribalism and violence. Observing our world today, it’s not hard to find evidence suggesting we’ve taken at least some preliminary steps down that road.

Though it seems possible (and some might argue likely) that we will continue traveling down this dystopian road, I don’t believe we’ve moved far enough along it to lose sight of a more positive future enabled by digital technology, nor our individual and collective aspiration and ability to realize it. In this more hopeful future, the dominant social, economic, political and institutional dynamics enabled by digital technology will support: 1) the care and feeding of our individual and collective Good Wolves; 2) more broadly shared and sustainable access to well-being (e.g., health, freedom, prosperity) and; 3) an easing rather than intensification of fear, hatred, oppression and violence in human society.