Gaining the World but Losing our Souls

Poor ol’ David Duchovny

There is no arguing the fact that freedom, democracy, and human rights have made enormous advances around the world in recent decades. Technology, medicine, and science have also improved the lives of humanity in general. We live longer and more comfortably due to abundant entertainment, futuristic medical care, and food options that a king in any other century would kill for. A blue-collar family in Missouri, by most measures, lives better than Caesar. If Caesar could hop on a Harley, ride home to a Thanksgiving dinner of eating and watching football, he would no doubt do it in a second. Although, he might miss his concubines.

Even the third-world has made incredible progress. China and India, after mostly ending their socialist experiments, have pulled literally hundreds of millions of people out of the subsistence lifestyle that had limited them in previous centuries. A lot of work is left to be done to create global prosperity for all, but as Francis Fukuyama said, it looks like “the end of history.” Poverty will gradually reduce as technology and global trade allows us to use our resources more wisely and efficiently to humanity’s benefit. What could there possibly be to complain about?

Well, now that many in the developed-world have their basic needs met, and it looks as if the rest of the world is quickly catching up, what now? We’ve been fighting nature just to stay alive since our species came into existence, but if that struggle is destined to ease dramatically, what is this life we’ve been struggling to keep really all about?

The human experience used to revolve around being part of a family, which was part of a greater community, that participated in a local culture, that was informed by a greater worldview or religion. Family, Community, Culture, and Faith were the glue that held us together, and what mostly defined our identity, but each are being challenged, changed, or just discarded for this new life.

It seems ironic that to achieve this mastery over the elements it has taken abandoning some of the things that have made life worth living. In order to get people to where their labor is most needed at any particular moment, we now have to be mobile. If a job requires you to leave everything you ever knew for a city across the country, you have to be willing to make that sacrifice so that you and the economy can operate at peak efficiency. This has caused global transfers of population like never seen before. People from all over the world are moving to cities, moving to North America and Europe, and just moving in general, abandoning cultures and ways of life that had developed over centuries.

In addition, our means of entertainment is no longer dependent on culture, but is globalizing and being commercialized. If modern luxuries like television, the internet, and video games keep getting better and better, who would want to sit and learn life lessons or their family history from an old grandpa? If globalization is bringing more and more different religious perspectives to our cities and towns, why should one just accept and live the teachings of the religion we just happened to be born into? If the modern man can get the benefits of companionship and sex without ever settling down and dealing with the hard work of raising noisy, smelly children, why would he?

At one level, it seems like we have gained the world, and are enjoying all the fruits of human progress, but at another, it seems we are losing our souls by giving up the most basic essence of what it means to be human. Are we willing to exchange a home-cooked meal while laughing and telling stories with family and friends, for a fast-food dinner alone sitting in front of a big-screen TV? As Louie CK (most of whose comedy I think contributes to our degraded culture) points out, this stuff isn’t really making us happy anyway.

Is it the inevitable march of progress that we become more rich, comfortable, isolated, and miserable, or can we continue to cling to what makes us human while somehow still embracing the benefits of modern living? This is a big topic. It involves way more than a blog entry can address and I don’t pretend to have the answers to the questions I’ve asked, but it is definitely worth thinking about.

Many accept the modern world, good and bad, with little thought, while others seem very disturbed by the pace of change we are experiencing. Traditionalists, whether fighting against the crumbling of the family structure, the blending and erosion of many cultures, or the march of secularism, feel very insecure about their identity. There is a comfort in knowing who you are by these old definitions. If these are not what defines us, then what?

Can you be a global citizen who enjoys and participates in all cultures without having the suspicion you don’t really belong to any of them? Can you be a Unitarian relativist, learning from many conflicting teachings without coming to the conclusion, you really don’t believe in anything yourself? Can you be a globe-trotting cosmopolitan chasing a career from town to town, without the realization that you really are at home nowhere? Can you enjoy the company of partner after partner, without the feeling that you have never experienced the depth of real love? From observing many disoriented “modern” people, it seems they are asking, “Where is my family and my city? What is my culture, and my faith?”

These old ways are starting not only to be abandoned, but those who cling to them are often seen as backward. You believe the faith that you were raised in? You should really get with the times. You stayed in this little town all your life? You need to broaden your horizons. Well, maybe they should deepen theirs. Instead of spreading oneself thin and wide, they should plant themselves firmly and deeply. Experiencing everything in passing can feel a lot like experiencing nothing in its fullness.

I have a burning envy when I visit a place where people fully live their culture. They share an experience of life that is owned by their place in the world. The music speaks to their souls because it is their music. They are not a tourist getting a taste; it is their lifeblood. These fully living people are viewed almost as beautiful pieces in a museum, but often only paternalistically. The enlightened seem to think culture is great when we can watch the foreign other quaintly participate, but it must be destroyed at home. In the United States, any native cultures that have developed over the past centuries seem to be under enormous pressure to abandon their narrowness and join the great mono-culture.

The term redneck is a great indicator of how they are viewed by the greater culture. It doesn’t matter if someone is from an upper-Midwestern farming town, the Appalachian mountains, or the plains of Texas, if they really live a culture, and refuse to give it up, redneck somehow describes them. Completely different cultures, traditions, and mannerisms, but they share in their backwardness, or more appropriately, their rootedness. So, while culture is quaint and above reproach in the non-Western other, Westerners are supposed to know better, and therefore should be disparaged by their more progressed neighbors. If they’re not careful though, Tim here may “roughtalk ’em” and “run ’em off”!

To make up for this lack of identity that is felt by many people in cities absent of any ties to those around them, recent “sub-cultures” have emerged. They may live thousands of miles away, but similar music, worldviews, manners of speech and dress will bind them together. The fact that many of these trends are being sold to the masses by the companies who produce the records and wardrobes make it seem more like a hollow counterfeit though. It is interesting to view the influence of these sub-cultures and their almost purposeful opposition to positive cultural values.

Real cultures gradually apply lessons learned from centuries of trial, error, and pain. None of the sub-cultures I’m aware of  try to teach much at all in real human values or virtues. Whether it’s heavy-metal, punk-rock, hip-hop, or the rave culture, the messages being transmitted to those participating encourage the opposite of virtue. The lessons instead are senseless violence, consequence-less sex, drug experimentation, and anything else to make the present moment a little better. It is evidence of a sick “culture” that has lost hope. With all one’s material needs met, and void of any real culture, people don’t often have too many other options for this human need to belong, other than identifying with a sub-culture.

There could be some hope in the digital age, however. At the moment, a person often has to be rootless and willing to relocate, but that may not be the case in the future. More and more of people’s day-to-day work is being done online. Flying across country for meetings is even becoming less necessary due to virtual video meetings and online stores like Amazon are taking up a larger part of the market. Maybe in the future we can stay more rooted and still find ways to pursue the careers of our choice.

Who knows where this online trend will lead, but I’m doubtful it will completely reverse the trend of the death of our traditional human structures. It is even possible it could accelerate it since more time will be spent online where all ideas, cultures, and people are equally accessible at any moment. We could turn into one global, digital community where our humanity is further degraded. Online-chat could replace person-to-person contact; virtual sex and porn could replace the real physical act; blogs from virtual gurus could replace listening to the wise old person in your family or town; and corporate-produced pop music could replace listening to live music from the local culture that surrounds you.

Maybe humanity will gradually decide that in our advanced global civilization, it is a positive thing that these old institutions die. Maybe they do more harm than good by reminding us of our old rivalries and differences. To be grounded in place, culture, relationship, and idea is limiting and exclusionary.

But maybe, as research is continuing to confirm, we will find real and lasting relationships and a commitment to one’s values are necessary for human happiness. Whether you think we were created, evolved, or a bit of both, our very humanity seems to demand these things. We want people around us that we can count on. We want a place we can call home, and an organically-grown culture that is ours. Most of all, we want a worldview or faith that we can rely on to give us purpose and meaning. When these are fully gone, we may find it was not such a good trade after-all to gain the world but lose our souls.


Posted on June 11, 2012, in Culture, Politics, Religion. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You might try the new book by Skidelsky, father and son, on the same topic. Here’s their interview with Tom Keene at Bloomberg, today:

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  3. This design is incredible! You certainly know how to keep a reader entertained.
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