Differences Between the First and the Second Shock of Existence

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David J. Temple:

"We distinguish between the first and second shocks of existence. Briefly, the first shock of existence is the fear of death that lives in the individual human being. The second shock of existence is a fear of the self-induced extinction of all human beings, a fear that now lives in every reflective human being , and in humanity at large.

The human being’s initial awareness of their own death is what we refer to as the “first shock of existence,” the moment when the fear of death is born into reality. Collectively, this shock occurred deep in historical time when humans first emerged as distinctly sapient. The shock also occurs during every individual life, when in adolescence (usually but not always) an awareness of finitude and mortality begins to dawn. Historically speaking, the first shock likely happened during what is called the prehistoric period. According to some historians, David Graeber and David Wengrow for example, by the time of early tribes, the religious mediation of the existential fear of death and related advanced processes of culture were already present. We can see this, for example, in early archeological evidence of ornate and clearly ritualized burial practices. There has long been enormous effort put into an engagement with the Denial of Death, as Ernest Becker reminds us.


We generally ignore this fear, even though death is happening all the time around the globe—and currently, millions of people are dying unnecessarily. But we displace this fear, assuming we’ve got another ten, twenty, thirty, maybe forty years left. Enter a widespread biological crisis like Covid, and instantly the fear of death, this first shock of existence, has forcefully entered into all of our homes, demanding a response. This is neither good nor bad. It is simply the psychological truth of what happened."

The First Shock of Existence Activates Our Inner Gnosis

The original first shock of existence activated an inner gnosis, pressing the human being into a profound search, and into the disclosure of meaning. The result was the great traditions of spirit. The result was great art. The result was great music. The result was the great systems of law and other cornerstones of civilization. It is of course true that many of these great revelations and developments were mediated through distorting ethnocentric prisms, resulting in horrific pain inflicted by virtually all the great religious and cultural traditions.

But it is also clear that the fear of death, the encounter with mortality, generated a depth of vision and understanding of human nature that invited us into a larger story and, at least potentially, participation in the field of consciousness—as well as a palpable sense of immortality. In other words, the fear of death focused our attention inside.

And when we accessed our own interiors, the deepest wellsprings of the interior face of Cosmos, this produced some of the most beautiful movements of ethics and spirit and religion—which originally meant religare: to reconnect, to realign, with the nature of reality. The fear of death entering reality generated this explosion of Spirit, these vital new forms of spirituality.

Many of us today—children of modern and post-modern culture—find that while the intuition of immortality is invaluable, the price demanded by religion is still too high. Every historical religion has claimed, in one form or another, that eternity and immortality were available only to its adherents, and only in exchange for various forms of rigid obedience and submission, ranging from the doctrinal, psychological, and theological, to the political and economic. In the West we are the children of Voltaire, who led the liberation from religion’s many shadows of corruption with the battle cry “remember the cruelties.” Those cruelties were often the result of the ethnocentric prisms through which pre-modern religions mediated between human beings and the Infinite. In modernity, however, we threw the baby out with the bathwater. While we wisely rejected forms of religious obedience and submission, the essential primary intuitions— the realization of the first shock of existence, and the vital response to it—remain powerfully resonant and true.

To transcend the fear of death we need to make our life a triumph. It is only the well-lived life that does not fear death. And to make our life a triumph we need a new narrative of value that is committed to making all lives—and indeed life itself—flourish.

The old triumphalist narratives in which a dominator in-group survives and succeeds while the out-groups wither and die is no longer viable. In our globally intermeshed and therefore fragile world space, we must all cooperate together, or we will all perish together. We must not stand against each other as in-groups against out-groups. Rather, we must all stand strong as actors in the same story of value, the same field of value, rooted in First Principles, on the side of love against fear and isolation.

While post-modernity has its many virtues and dignities, it has also savagely and mercilessly deconstructed all previous narratives of the well-lived life, inhibiting the emergence of a new story of value rooted in First Principles and First Values. Indeed, post-modernity claims that the very idea of a well-lived life of intrinsic value is itself a mere social construction of reality, completely unsupported by the universe.

The Second Shock of Existence Is About the Self-Induced Extinction of Our Species

Much of our core infrastructure has become inherently fragile, and it’s seemingly only a matter of time before one or several catastrophic risk scenarios are realized. This started to become visible, to a limited extent, in the financial meltdown of 2008, as well as a dozen or so other less-noticed but equally important recent events. Lately, it has become unmistakable, with the widespread eruption of climate catastrophes such as wildfires and superstorms—and, of course, the first of the long-predicted planetary pandemics.

Some risks are catastrophic, wherein large populations perish; other risks are “existential,” meaning that nothing human survives. The realization of this possibility is precisely what we have called “the second shock of existence,” which has also been recognized by dozens of thinkers who track global trends. Existential risk, or the second shock of existence, means not the death of the individual human being, but awareness of the potential death of humanity.

Catastrophic events such as the Covid pandemic actually raise the specter of a looming existential risk, quite possibly in the next decade, and include: climate change, ecosystem destabilization, rogue weapons, exponentialized destructive technologies, runaway machine learning and AI, methane gas released from the arctic, peak oil and peak phosphorus, resource depletion based on unsustainable extraction models, exponential growth curves based on fractional-reserve banking, the end of Bretton Woods economic structures, and the creation of fragile, complicated essential systems at global scale that are radically vulnerable to myriad forms of attack.

This, of course, is but one list of possible forms of existential risk, or self-induced species extinction events. They are real, potential scenarios, and yet humanity must largely split them off from awareness until some way can be found to adapt culture to the second shock.

The Second Shock of Existence Activates Our Inner Gnosis

The self-awareness of death in the individual human resulted in a new level of value and a new level of meaning in the world, because it pressed us into our own interior realization. Just like the first shock of existence created the first wave of proto-universal visons of value, the second shock of existence now needs to create another wave of genuine universal gnosis and value—this time mediated through a world-centric moral prism. What is the deeper sense-making that seeks to emerge from the second shock of existence? We must allow this moment to spur us, to again press us into our interiors, and to invite awareness of the meta-crisis not in a way that paralyzes us, but in a way that inspires new levels of insight and realization necessary to prevent the death of humanity in both senses.

It is worth noting at the outset—as part our meta-context—that the idea of existential risk, the second shock of existence, is a direct expression of the great traditions who contrasted Armageddon and apocalypse with Metatron and Messianism. These are the utopian visions of a new human and a new humanity, the great flourishing of life in all its dimensions and expressions that virtually all the great traditions, each in their own language, intuited and articulated in their texts of realization and revelation. The “end of days,” Apocalypse, and Armageddon — these dystopian visions—are similarly core to the intuitions of virtually all the great traditions, recorded in their texts of realization and revelation. The great traditions, however, hijacked both the intuitions of utopia and dystopia by weaving them into their own ethnocentric myths.

In modernity, existential risk is disclosed as a scientific reality, a world-centric challenge—not a prophetic intuition but a genuine potential playing out in the immediacy of the present. But the second shock of existence can result in the fulfillment of a dystopian vision, or it can provoke the emergence of a new human and the new humanity—which we discuss below as the evolution of Homo sapiens into Homo amor. We are in a new moment in history because, as discerning eyes can see, plausible paths to dystopia—the genuine death of civilization—are very much real. However, the path to a planetary civilization that can exist in perpetuity within planetary boundaries can also be seen, although walking that path is considerably more difficult. Many bear the great privilege and the great responsibility of having the capacity to see what is unfolding, to take a seat at the table of history, and to act for the sake of every individual human and for humanity at large. This obligation is hard to capture in words. All past generations count on us to complete their unfinished work. The beings currently populating earth turn to us to transform the present to assure their survival. All the countless unborn, possibly trillions, in all possible future generations have only us, right now, to ensure their existence and their well-being.

There is a covenant between generations in which those alive today must work to avert dystopia and extinction on behalf of those yet to come. This is an inescapable and instructively asymmetrical obligation. Today’s work goes on to benefit tomorrow’s people, who cannot benefit us in the present. We today must remember what it means to give of ourselves to tomorrow. It is, actually and finally, the only way there will be a tomorrow."

(Source: CosmoErotic Humanism