Could Humans Be Like Starlings in 2021?

Lissa Rankin, MD
5 min readJan 9, 2021


“Beauty, grief, death, the struggle with our own mortality, the search for a life of meaning, love, the capacity for transformation- those forces are ones that make us stop and become introspective and think and look within ourselves to see who we are and where we’re going. And that’s what any totalitarian state seeks to crush… And yet, we have kind of blissfully checked out.”

These are the words that begin the incredible short film American Psychosis: The United States of Narcissism begins. Based on a clip from Pulitizer Prize-winning American journalist and Presbyterian minister Chris Hedges, this film made by Amanda Zackem highlights the telltale signs of a civilization on the brink of collapse. After a career spent living in and studying civilizations that have collapsed, the United States is apparently right on that edge, poised to fall apart any minute now.

As an expert in totalitarian systems — how they work and how they fall apart — Hedges calls out our collective psychosis in 2020, warning us that all signs point towards an inevitable crumbling of American civilization as we know it. All empires fall. From his point of view, our country’s fall is imminent, and we need to deal with the reality of this, rather than doubling down on false optimism or delusional grasps for the nostalgia of past glory from the empire’s peak, a peak which was built upon unsustainable, self-destructing systems, most notably, capitalism, systemic racism, and exploitation of natural resources and marginalized people.

He points to the collective delusion of life in America right now, how a vast swath of Americans have been brainwashed into a collective hallucination that is so out of touch with reality that it borders on psychosis. That people don’t even realize they’re believing a delusion is the scariest part. When half of your countrymates support your delusion and you can protect yourself inside internet echo chambers, this mass psychosis becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Sadly, we as a species may not survive the consequences of the reality that implodes while others get lost in the hallucination. I get why this happens — it makes sense psychologically, through a trauma-informed lens — but it also makes me feel very sad for the planet my daughter will inherit, the consequences of which she is already suffering now.

As 2020 comes to a blessed close and 2021 dawns, I sincerely pray that we can wake up from the illusion and face reality with sober maturity, no longer rebelling against reality like two-year-olds having a tantrum, but like responsible adults who are willing to admit our mistakes, make apologies, make amends, and make haste to make things right. I am not particularly optimistic that this will happen, but I do believe in miracles — not magical thinking, not utopian fantasies, but real miracles of transformation, real openings of the collective heart.

Hedges says:

“The nature of illusion is that it’s designed, at least at the moment, to make you feel good, about yourself, about your country, about where you’re going. In that sense, it functions like a drug. Those who question that illusion are challenged, not so much for the veracity of what they say, but for puncturing those feelings. Attempt to get up and question where we’re going and who we are, and the critique will be that you’re such a pessimist, that you’re such a cynic, that you’re not an optimist, Optimism becomes a kind of disease…you plow forward based on an optimism that is no longer rooted in reality. If hope becomes something you express through illusion, then it’s not hope; it’s fantasy.”

He talks about how totalitarian cultures — a leadership style Trump has sought to replicate — are hyper-masculine cultures and seek to banish empathy. Totalitarian regimes not only ignore the vulnerable and weak; they ridicule them and persecute them. What is celebrated is domination, force, strength, and police state violence, something we’ve seen far too much of this past four years. Empathy is seen as a sign of weakness, while consumerism is lauded to the point of pedestalizing unadulterated hedonism. 2020 has made this glaringly obvious. Even many in the wellness industry, yoga community, and New Age or neo-Advaita spiritual circles seem to have lost their capacity for empathy, hijacked as they’ve been by QAnon and Q-adjacent conspiracy delusions.

Yet the fever dream rages unchecked. As I ponder the dawning of the New Year, I am touched by the first words in this film — “Beauty, grief, death, the struggle with our own mortality, the search for a life of meaning, love, the capacity for transformation- those forces are ones that make us stop and become introspective and think and look within ourselves to see who we are and where we’re going.” This is what gives me true hope, not the false optimism of toxic positivity, but the real, grounded capacity for spiritual and collective transformation. Even out of control capitalism and a threatening totalitarian dictatorial leader cannot strip us of beauty, grief, death, the struggle with our own mortality, the search for a life of meaning, love, and the capacity for transformation. 2020 has given us the raw material for all of this, almost as if the planet has its own immune system and this is its last hurrah to try to save us.

It’s easy to grow hopeless, but every day, I see signs of hope, like little stirrings of beauty and opening hearts and kindness pushing like new green buds through New York sidewalk cracks. Last night, I bore witness to a New Years miracle, a flock of starlings that danced their murmuration as they came home to roost at sunset in a tree near my home. I watched for a full hour with my daughter, craning our necks and exclaiming with delight, glee, awe, and wonder. We felt stoned on ecstatsy as the last bird landed on the tree under the light of the full moon, and the church bells rang good night.

If only humans could work together to create beauty and collective harmony the way starlings do. Every year, I choose a word to represent the New Year, a kind of annual intention. My word this year is STARLING.

Please enjoy this video I took last night:

May we humans be starlings in 2021.

Blessed New Year,




Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.