This is where I think we are going wrong right now. We lack inspiring, spiritual guidance. I’m going to rant for a bit, and provide some interesting links and reads for you. Then ask you to cite what guides you, with links. Cool?
In the olden days, we had ritual and religion and social morays that guided us as to How to Live, What the Meaning of Life Was, and How to be Decent. We had a guardrail within which we could then exercise our own personal freedom. We all signed up to the rules. We agreed to the boundaries, within which we could dance and expand and play, feeling secure behind the social and moral guardrail.
Thus, we were saved from the dizzying terror of having to find our own chaotic path through the great nebulous eternity of possible rights and wrongs.
But we don’t have religion anymore, nor mythology, nor social guidelines we’re happy to accept. And nothing has stepped in to take their place. So we are lost and floundering, aren’t we.
Frederich Neitzche predicted the existential chaos that would follow the death of religion. Then Joseph Campbell flagged the predicament in the 1980s – we’re moving too fast for appropriate and helpful myths to form around contemporary life, he stated. For Campbell (and Carl Jung), myths are what guide us, bring us the experience of the rapture of life…take us to that “Something Else” (as I call it in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful), that is beyond words. They also provide ethical laws.
For a great insight into all this watch The Power of Myth on Netflix.
So what to do? Campbell argues that, in the absence of a meta framework, we, as individuals, must find a myth that can serve our lives.
Australian philosopher Richard Flanagan wrote on the weekend about the need for Australia to do this as a nation, so that we don’t become undone (I suggest you follow his writings at The Guardian; he is a rare Australian philosopher prepared to go several layers deep on an issue).
“History is once more moving, and it is moving to fragmentation on the basis of concocted differences, toward the destruction of democracy using not coups and guns to entrench autocracies and dictators, but the ballot box and social media….The bonfire of our vanities is fully loaded with the fuel of growing inequality, fear, and division….The world is being undone before us.”
“My warning is this: if we here in Australia do not reimagine ourselves we will be undone too.”
But you know what has happened? You know what has stepped into the dizzying void? Individualism and capitalism. My gosh this breaks my heart because as a framework, a guiding system, a moral code, it takes us in precisely the wrong direction. And it is making us sick and lonely and lost and floundering.
Individualism and capitalism isolates. It kills nuance. It allows Brexit and Trump and Putin. It brings out the worst in us. It imprisons us as rats in a cage (on a treadmill). It puts us at the mercy of our desires and addictions.
I’ve just finished reading Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. He writes that modern society “requires less participation by individuals…Group obligations dropped out; all that’s left is freedom to pursue individualism.” Which makes us so miserable, he says, that war is preferable.
Some of the stuff that has changed since individualism and capitalism stepped in as proxy for proper moral coding:
* We used to have the Sabbath free to rest; now we spend Sundays at a mall* We used to work 9-5, 5 days a week (we could mow the lawn, have a picnic after work); now we are expected to answer emails at 3pm on a Saturday* There used to be a HR department that ensured we were paid for overtime; now we take our phones to dinner* We once had philosophers; now we have black and white
Do you listen to Russell Brand’s podcast Under the Skin?He explores these themes a lot. I loved his chat with Dr Jordan Petersen who provides challenging insights that go to the heart of all this stuff. He says partway through:
“Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.”
True, that.But how do we find a good myth that can guide our lives, that allows freedom but also ensures social cohesion and kindness and nuance? My favourite writer David Brooks explored this “privatisation of meaning” recently in his New York Times column. He points out that the onus placed on us by individualism is just too much.
“Over the decades, that sense of we-ness began to turn into a sense of I-ness or you-ness. You can see it in today’s commencement clichés: Follow your passion, march to the beat of your own drummer, listen to your own heart, you do you.”
But this means…
“You wind up with a society in which the schools, the public culture, even the parents say: It’s not our job to instill a shared morality and worldview from scratch. That’s something you have to do on your own. The practical result, given this impossible task, is that most people wind up without a moral vocabulary, with only scattered shards of values, with no firm foundations for when times get tough.”
To be told he have to go and sort it out for ourselves from scratch?
“That requires a lot of background reading. If your name is Aristotle or Nietzsche, maybe you can do it, but for the rest of us it’s going to be tough. We’re busy!”
I agree. And I don’t think we mere mortals, with our individualistic tendencies are capable of such a grand task. We need moral codes imposed on us (to be good, to be free).
- Russell Brand (his Under the Skin podcast)
- David Brooks
- Pema Chodron
- Dr Jordan Peterson (yes, some of his ideas piss me off, but he digs beneath layers and he gets many of us thinking robustly).
If I think of more, I’ll add to the list.Please add your reads/podcasts/Netflix documentaries that are assisting to steer you to a good life of character. Add links and an explainer if you can. I’ll post this full list for everyone in a few weeks.