10. OUR TIMES, GOOD TIMES AND TIMES TO COME
Our Four-Part Illness Syndrome
I identify four endemic cultural pathologies. I call them successomania, consumerism, addiction and juvenile arrest. They break the rhythms of nature, get in the way of our turning points and corrupt our values. The double bind is that after blocking the way to real love and wisdom, they palliate for the losses with addictive commercial substitutions. A brief description of the pathologies follows.
1. Successomania. In the absence of any other ethic that really holds, and lacking strength of character that keeps us sensitive, gentle and intact, we make success the chief aim of life. Success is measured outwardly because we do not have the empathy or imagination to get to each other’s inwardness. Because of our outwardness, we rely on appearances. We gauge success by competition. We want to be winners—or at least look like winners. And winning is measured in salaries, property, esteem, access and membership, but not in happiness because happiness is an internal condition and cannot be quantified and scored competitively. Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer, philosopher and environmentalist wrote in 1990,”The ideal of competition always implies, and in fact requires, that any community must be divided into a class of winners and a class of losers.”8
Money has become the measure of all things and many of us pursue it devotedly, with religious fervor. We worship money. Money is our God. Money is our lingua franca. With it we work transubstantiation: we exchange it for anything. It is the universal solvent. It makes everything possible. Success with money lets us conjure up the feeling of belonging out of thin air. We can buy it. Our purchase of member-hips reinforces our sense of place and gives us status. It brings with it more than the illusion of access and position. Big spending brings the reality. Making money is our real territory, our central dominance contest. Our prestige, our protection against the accelerating intensity of change comes with it, an acceleration supercharged by the electronic money exchanges via satellite uplinks and computer networks, that instantly transfer assets while maintaining the illusion of a closing date two days hence, a legal “kiting” of funds producing as yet unknown effects in the ongoing planetary financial crisis.
2.Consumerism. We base our sense of identity increasingly on the products we buy. Our suppliers and intermediaries see us as “markets” and “demographics”. Executives decree the fashion seasons. Fads come and go and our corporate suppliers very deftly create needs where none were before, with the aggressive motive of improving their bottom line. They manage the ritual calendar and drive us into seasonal buying frenzies that falsify all celebrations and turn holidays into twisted, Disneyfied buying opportunities no longer performed to align ourselves with nature or seasons or stages of life. With this aggressive corralling of consumption, we get the impression that our options are always increasing, while what is really increasing is our range of petty choices. The more circumstances overmaster us, the more trivial and more cosmetic our choices become. It is as if we are driven to find our freedom somewhere, no matter in how inconsequential a place. And we’re likely to let ourselves be persuaded of anything for a while. The fad itself is an acknowledgment of our existential deadness. So we buy useless products and tantalize ourselves with empty hopes.
But when freedom is pushed out, the real drama of life fades and we piddle away our energy for intensification and reversal. Who we are becomes conflated with what we buy, and when that happens, we lose the transformational power to make our future different from our past—to make life memorable. Instead, we take an inflated view of character. Personality is everything. At first glance, it makes sense to see the capacity for action coming from strong character, until you realize the compensatory grandiosity in it. The conceit is that to live fully you need to live like a character in a soap opera. It makes us ‘celebrity conscious’. We want to believe that great deeds come from great people and great people are rich, beautiful, and famous. They’re “somebodies” not “nobodies.” How long can life on the shopping mall keep its fascination?
At bottom, the consumption game depends on our poor judgment. Corporate management and governmental bureaucracies encourage it. But at the same time, they do not want their board members to be afflicted by it. Nevertheless, they are. The acceleration and grandiosity that go with corporate growth predispose the most ambitious executives to consumption manias of their own, sometimes directed to financial instruments, derivatives and leveraged buyouts. They fly like Icarus on the poor judgment Daedalus decried.
3. Addiction. Looked at closely, advertisers represent all the products we buy (and not just psychotropic medications) as shortcuts to states of mind. They are promoted in such a way as to encourage dependency, and this is done with clear aggressive intent. A few years ago, advertising campaigns on TV extended the allergy season to all year round. This year they’re pushing “new allergies” and new diseases like restless leg syndrome. To make us believe we are sick when we are not has malicious motivation behind it.
We’re told we need these products. We are taught to feel that our lives will be deprived, deficient, and empty without them. “Feel empty?” Now you know why, you lack something attainable. Just get the money. Buy it on your credit card. Significant sectors of our economy are held together by the pursuit of substitute gratifications for experiences missing from our lives.
But substitute gratification is a principal root of addiction. When you cannot feel good in real life, you get to feel good from a little pill. The pill substitutes for the real life changes. Behavioral addictions work the same way. Gambling, shopping, excessive aerobic exercise, compulsive pornography aren’t substance based, but they can be just as addictive when used to substitute for gratifications no longer coming from the main thrust of real life. Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Indian gaming, the state lotteries are all run with aggressive if not actual criminal intent.
Behavioral addictions sit at the root of consumerism. They do not just create “psychological dependencies,” they grab us physiologically. Just as with a substance addiction to alcohol, in behavioral addictions driven by marketing, when you buy the product the body reacts. The pleasure of the substitute provides some of the biochemical reinforcers of the genuine experience; otherwise, they would not work as substitutes. Once we have the substitutes, whose neurochemical components bind to our natural receptor sites, we stop producing the endogenous biochemicals. Downhill skiing provides the endorphins for heroic accomplishment. Sex on Ecstasy gives the body responses of passion and intimacy. Soccer riots give fans a primitive battlefield experience. The stress of workaholic behavior alters our sugar metabolism. Sugar craving is itself an addictive urge perhaps built into the infant’s attachment to the sweetness of the mother’s milk, standing for nurturance and security and favored by evolutionary selection. So behavioral addictions driven by fashion and consumption cause the craving, withdrawal, dependency and isolation of substance addiction.
For most of us, the body becomes conditioned to the substitutes and this further pulls the rhythmicity out of us. We develop tolerance and need higher doses to get high. We become obese. The induced disruptions to blood sugar regulation eventually make us diabetic. Our pursuit of success itself plunges us into acceleration and acceleration has its own physiological gratifications; it turns the body on. When unchecked by real intimacy and real integrity, the convergence of addictive substitution with the acceleration intrinsic to modern society is drawing us into a manic addictive dependency on the acceleration itself. The “career“ is an exercise in momentum; we go “careening” about. The accelerated pace of life is to some extent supported and even amplified by the addictive rush to activity itself, prodded on by secondary reinforcers, things to buy and consume, the focused attention on gain and loss. Buying and selling are our most widely available substitute gratifications. This makes addiction one of the linchpins holding together the economic system. Behavioral and substance addictions substitute for real joy in life.
Of the four pathologies, behavioral and substance addictions exert the most direct visceral pull. Breaking addictions requires one to turn aggression against the self for the sake of the self. It invokes a higher, reformed aggression very much at odds with the aggression encouraged by capitalist competition and greed. One can only learn this from inwardness in the face of suffering.
Getting clean opens the way to a life of action for some people. It redirects efforts from the substitutes to the real meanings. And concern for meaning often leads to a confrontation with consumerism, successomania (and juvenile arrest, we shall see.) One begins to take back responsibility from the experts; one seeks for real satisfaction and rejects the purchasable outer signs of it as a sham. With this resolution, we can get back our transformational powers.
4. Juvenile Arrest. Despite the emptiness, in fact because of it, we cling tightly to the superficial aspects of personality. Instead of deep penetration, paradox, and uncertainty, we cultivate a cheery indifference. We seek false youth, and crave a life of permanent child’s play. But the play is not childlike. It is childish, phony, pre-structured, commercialized, and blocked from its creative possibilities (which probably depend on our access to random generators in the nervous system that open us to the creative depth of play, even in the face of rough perturbations.) It takes rare fortitude to carry real childlike exuberance into adult life while retaining a sense of responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Our long training in false play has taken the power of playfulness away from us. We’re not tested or called to account for ourselves. We accept the appearance of boldness without the real experience of courage. Our antics are full of busy make-work that is empty of substance. We jump from this to that. We want a Humvee. Where virtuous play is full of risk and freedom, juvenilized play spends its energy in a busy flight from responsibility. Lewis Mumford described it this way:
“With the successive demands of the outside world so frequent and so imperative, without any respect to their real importance, the inner world becomes progressively meager and formless: instead of active selection there is passive absorption ending in a state happily described by Victor Branford as “addled subjectivity.”9
The addled subjectivity of juvenilized play is doubly regressive. It prevents us from knowing what we are doing, and at the same time encourages us to believe that somewhere out there real grown-ups are watching over us (even though, like children, we reserve the right to resist and refuse their parental restrictions.) But where are the grown-ups? Are there any? I’ve heard this absence of mature judgment called “rule by boys.” The main thing to succeed in is success, not in competence, not in recognizing merit in others, not in participatory democracy. The training is in self-aggrandizement smoothed over with reciprocal altruism. We do not want our fears of abandonment awakened. We too are waiting for the real parents to return.
Perhaps that is why so often I see well-meaning people who live with integrity on the long legs fade and fail at turning points. A certain brightness and attunement to the moment is missing in them. The presence and joy in life is clouded over. Some nerve fails, some fear supervenes, some blockage keeps them from dealing with life. They’re obtuse. They reject self-transformation except as it is pushed upon them by aging and circumstances. They lose hold of the adventure of life and its turns of fortune and memorable events elude them and instead they cling to false adventures and photo opportunities and empty meaning. They become Pinteresque characters. Their best intentions come into the world detached from action. They loose their depth of feeling, become sentimental, and live a Soap Opera reality where everything happens but nothing changes, and genuine intimacy is stylized and artificial and love and wisdom fail.
It is a juvenile conceit to think that we grow by accretion, sequentially, in a linear way. Mature people know that achievement does not come from a unidirectional climb up the ladder of success. The desired direction is not always upward, forward and ahead. Sometimes it is backwards and down.
The leading edge of juvenile arrest is a literal quest to end biological aging and extend the period of youthful vigor indefinitely. The juvenile mindset finds the natural stages of life repellent. Baggy eyes, wrinkles, parchment skin, hanging fat no longer reveal character, as if life had no worthwhile tale to tell on the body. The reductio ad absurdum of this goes deeper than cosmetic surgery. It tries to fund and redesign the medical establishment so that it affirms that our real quest is not for the meaning of life or for excellence in living it, but for its preservation and extension, for perpetual youth. We have generated a vast industry into which the ill enter in a state of passive patienthood to do battle with death as an adversary, a strategy that focuses on the fact rather than the content of life. The struggle against illness has substituted for the struggle for meaning.
We cling to the statistics that show that our life spans are increasing, but who is the “us”? Have we factored in the whole planetary population and taken account of the scores of millions of people who die by war and hunger and preventable diseases in childhood? How do the statistics read then? What if we include the health and survival of the animal and plant species we are driving to extinction?
The consequence of juvenile arrest is to make our leaders, who are themselves immature twits, treat us like idiots. You buy a ladder. It’s plastered over with cautions to protect the manufacturers from lawsuits: “these are the rungs; this is the way up, how not to climb a ladder, never climb higher than the next to last rung.” It’s an idiocy that produces a life in which the learning period for competence is indefinitely postponed. Competency belongs to experts alone, and only in their specialized field.
Obviously, a meaningful life requires a cultural world that invites rather than inhibits participation, which encourages not passivity and renunciation, but mature commitments and meaningful action. Rather than treating each other as sentient beings whose inner needs, including the needs for competence and responsibility, are puzzling and important, we have let ourselves become statistical entities. We’re polled, studied, observed, questioned and manipulated. We build a world out of data and think we live in it somehow as discontinuous, digitized, screen-sized, pixilated info-packets. We even try to live up to our ‘demographic’. Moreover, with the mountains of data swirling around us come tribes of specialists to explain us to ourselves, to interpret and manipulate the model and make sense of the statistical tangles they create. But the emphasis on minutiae and detailed quantification reified by expert analysis and interpretation only keeps us from appreciating each other for who we are or who we yearn to become. We hardly know how to judge our deeds or gauge their excellence. The love one can know only by loving we replace with an outward, tendentious understanding of the evolution of reciprocal altruism. And the inwardness of wisdom with its moving drama of withdrawal and return we turn into evolved intelligence based on increased brainpower. And aggression becomes overcrowding, territoriality and dominance. And all of these remain curiously detached from each other in their own specialized niches, guarded over by a priesthood of experts.
Brave New World
No one has dealt with the illness syndrome more imaginatively that Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. If you substitute genetic engineering for the bottled babies in his birthing labs and replace Soma with the full range of mood altering drugs in our pharmacopeia, his forecasts seem prescient.
Huxley’s most important insight was that juvenile arrest debases us by banishing real ethical choice from our lives. People living in The Brave New World were so devoid of real choice in action that they lost the capacity to reflect on themselves as doers of meaningful deeds, and without that, they lost the memorability of their lives. In the Brave New World people became insouciantly frivolous, seemingly happy, but in despair without knowing it. Only when Huxley’s hero, Bernard, stops taking his Soma does he see the civilization for what it is. However, he cannot establish an alternative path for himself because heroic solitude has no place in the Brave New World. There are no routes for withdrawal and return, and there is no support for genuine approach and separation. Absent of love and wisdom, though yearning for them inchoately, Bernard stops consuming. He starts to suffer and make trouble. He’s spotted, watched and eventually weeded out. Even after his arrest and detention, society gives him a fresh start. Mustapha Mond, the World Controller, sends him to his choice of islands where dissidents live according to their own lights.
Mustapha explains , in a strangely kindhearted conversation with Bernard, his friend Helmholtz and the “savage” they brought back from the vacation-land reservation to see civilization, “What’s the point of truth or beauty when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? That was when science first began to be controlled—after the Nine Years’ War. People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness.”10
Mustapha Mond did not get to the Feelies much. He stood apart. He had to keep his perspective clear. He accepted his estrangement and sacrificed the pleasure in his own life in order to protect life for the citizenry. In this sense, he was the one mature person in the Brave New World. The juvenile arrest he promoted was for others. Our pouffed and pomaded experts, by contrast, have thoroughly juvenilized themselves.