Symptoms of Something

While I think it’s probably too simplistic to think that most of the big issues we’re facing today can be traced back to one source, I do think that there is a lot more interconnectedness than we would like to admit. What are the big issues we’re facing, what are the symptoms of the malaise that has no name yet?

Here are some I could think of:

  • Global warming
  • Overconsumption
  • Increasing debt both consumer and national
  • Decrease in marriage rate/increase in divorce rate
  • Increase in depression
  • Depletion of natural resources
  • Contamination of soil, water, and air
  • Overpopulation
  • Increase in work hours

Of course these are interrelated, you’ll say. Because we consume so much, we’re depleting our resources, contaminating everything, and create global warming! Yes, that’s true. I would like to step back a bit further, though, and ask why: why are we consuming so much? What need(s) are being met here? Certainly marketing and advertising have something to do with it but again, I don’t quite buy the story of need-creation. I don’t think marketers can create a need out of thin air. I do think that they can take a need and redefine it so that it will be met only if you buy a certain product. And I think there are some very fundamental needs that our modern society does not meet in the most direct way. The two fundamental needs that are not being met well are belonging and meaning.

We want to belong, be a part of something. This need used to be filled by the family clan, by the community, by church or synagogue. With the increasing emphasis on the nuclear family, which began about 200 years ago, the family clan became less important. The reason for marriage shifted from political and/or economic to romantic with the idea of a male breadwinner and a female homekeeper, which was economically feasible only beginning in the 1950s (I am reading Stephanie Coontz’ fascinating book “Marriage, A History” – more on this topic once I’ve finished the book). The emphasis now is on the unit of two partners (with some rather unrealistic expectations thrown in). Friendships and community have become less important because of this emphasis on partnership, which is supposed to meet all of our belonging needs. With this shift in emphasis, communities started to fall apart, people became more mobile, and slowly the communities largely disappeared. Additionally, churches and synagogues became less influential in our lives. Science has answered many of the questions religion used to answer. Thus the domain of religion is continuously shrinking and with that the importance of the religious community. I suspect that some of the fundamentalist backlash we’re seeing is driven by a desperate attempt to maintain this source of belonging. It is strongly intertwined with meaning as well.

Victor Frankl wrote about the existential vacuum more and more of us are experiencing. He is not the only one who has observed that we are searching desperately for meaning, for purpose in our lives. Again, the traditional fillers of this need are disappearing, most importantly religion. When it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain theistic beliefs against the overwhelming evidence against the existence of an almighty, omnipotent god, it is also problematic to claim that we’re fulfilling god’s purpose on earth. Admitting this to ourselves, we quickly slide into a meaning crises, which, according to Eric Maisel, might be the reason behind a lot of depression. The increasing popularity of spirituality and New Age religions is probably a direct result of this meaning crisis. And that might be one of the healthier ways of filling this vacuum…

So, these fundamental needs are not being met because the traditional ways of filling them are no longer existing or are falling apart. And, of course, this has been going on for at least a couple hundred years now: while the non-commercial ways of meeting the needs are falling away, commercial ways are increasing. With that comes overconsumption and the destruction of the earth. There are other factors playing into this (for example, part of the reason for overpopulation is the condemnation of birth control; the unequal distribution of wealth is certainly behind a lot of this as well). Yet, could it be that strong drivers behind the symptoms I listed above are our (desperate) search for meaning and belonging?

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Symptoms of Something — 7 Comments

  1. Pingback: Rachel’s Musings » Marital Happiness Myth

  2. Pingback: Rachel’s Musings » Consumerism as an Addiction

  3. I am not expecting any rescue from a god because I don’t think one exists. (And, yes, I was referring to the biblical stories).

    I like what you say in the last two paragraphs about needing to lay “responsibility of systemic issues at our feet – personally.” And we probably need a bottom up & a top down approach, though I see more inherent dangers in the top down approach. I am, admittedly, somewhat at a loss of what needs to be done. There are people who are chopping away at some of the symptoms, so hopefully, we’ll get somewhere with that.

    Thanks for your input, BC, and sorry it took me so long to respond!

  4. Interested by your comment, ‘I certainly don’t think that god will come to our rescue after all that has never happened before (despite the stories, there is no evidence for god’s interference in earthly events)’.
    What sort of rescue would you expect god to effect? What sort of evidence would you expect if god did ‘interfer’ in earthly events? Which ‘reality’ do you claim we should cling to, to step away from the destructive forces (such as religion) that have shaped our contemporary crisis? Do I correctly presume the stories you refer to is the Bible, and you may reckon is unreliable?
    The ‘reality’ of which we have some idea, has been developed by a reference framework that enables us to categorise stuff. Although there is nothing wrong in using such a logic (as science does), it would be a fair to say that anything that is verified or proven by that framework, in fact, becomes, as a proven thing, subservient to that framework. And this is the problem we have with our ‘reality’ in relation to being able to prove that a god exists. If a god is the God that is creator of this universe, but not a product or by nature of this universe (the Biblical God), then any reference framework we have, would have to extend beyond God. So when it comes to proving a god exists with our western mind with its scientific construct, it is not going to be able to prove God within such a framework.
    However, outside this framework we find that there are areas of real life that we know are there but don’t fit, and they niggle away at us. One of these is most likely this ‘symptoms of something’, which you have expressed so well, in an attempt to scratch where we really itch.
    Systemic problems and their solutions pivot on personal perceptions of all participants in society. To a degree they are a product of the way we are wired as humans, for they resonate universally. Over time humanity has devised ways of overcoming any obvious destructive bias by use of law and religion. But by no means is all destructive bias under control and even within these controls (as you have pointed out) there are substantial deficiencies. From this derives continuing disparities such as in the distribution of political power and wealth. This in turn embeds the problem of injustice further.
    We feel that such systemic issues are so overwhelming, it creates in each of us the idea that we can’t make a difference. And even if it is demonstrated that we should and can, we often renege on our responsibility to do so.
    Clearly history is scattered throughout with life stories of those who have ‘changed’ the course of history – for better or worse. Some of those who did were inspired by various intuitions. It is in this area that much of what we label religious occurs. Undoubtedly it occurs in other areas – art, music and even politics and science. Overall, this lays the responsibility of systemic issues at our feet – personally.
    Two directions may evolve from this. Either we feel things should be solved by sorting the systemic issue so people can grasp the justice or efficacy of a solution before participating fully (top down scenario), or the systemic issues are tackled from a personal basis (bottom up). However, if history teaches us anything, all the ‘isms’, political or otherwise, using either methodology, have invariably come to grief.

  5. BC: Thank you for your comment! One of the points I was trying to make, though, was that it is not very feasible for most of us to run into the arms of god – as you seem to suggest – because we have too many doubts about his/her/its existence. I certainly don’t think that god will come to our rescue after all that has never happened before (despite the stories, there is no evidence for god’s interference in earthly events). And realizing the existential vacuum of this doubt reality is a first step toward finding better, non-destructive ways of filling the void. Those ways cannot include religion since that’s one of the factors that created the vacuum in the first place!

    Although I do think that there is a very personal dimension underlying the symptoms, I also think that there are more systemic issues that have to be addressed, which I did not touch on in my post. I will touch on this in a future post…

  6. Rachel, what a great piece on the real issues underpinning (or undermining) our contemporary age. Of course, some would say that you’re a doom-merchant, and would say that ‘there will be and answer, let it be, let it be’.
    However, your no-nonsense assessment, beginning with in your shortlist of issues, brings to the fore, the fact that there really is an interconnected something, underlying these symptoms of a global malaise.
    Dylan’s song, ‘High Water Rising’, from ‘Love and Theft’, seems to speak to the malaise to which you refer, as something foreboding, totally encompassing and unavoidable.
    Many of the symptoms running through the decline in western civilisation, were present throughout other civilisations. Philosophies and religions were reactions to these underlying issues.
    It seems difficult to get away from the fact that these issues are products of our personal attitudes and behaviour. They tend to seem irrelevant when layered in terms of science, religion, politics, pollution or war.
    Some would say that the issues are much bigger than personal distress. But the proposal that this personal distress and dis-ease is, in fact, the cause and not the product of the big issues, is something that should be considered.
    This is where religion has submerged the issue, of personal dislocation and responsibility to those that generated such a complex and vitally powerful universe, with structured and institutionalised solutions which, in the case of Christianity, don’t really marry up with the foundational kernel of truth encased within the Bible.
    This encasement is prevalent in other religions too, which to some extent were broken down through reforms, such as Hinduism to Buddhism, the emergence of Baha’i and a myriad of others over the centuries.
    Some will rightly laugh at the Roman Catholic Church’s latest proposal to label contemporary issues as sins. But those issues only reiterate that these are symptoms of a globally felt, personal malaise, to which each of us may or may not be honest enough to admit.
    This is the crux. There is a need to repent, not as some ecstatic religious experience or a reneging of personal responsibility, but as a Biblical principal of a mind and heart changing process.
    This process does not have any pat answers, but for those who do take their first steps, it should put them in touch with the One who has responsibly taking action to restore them, within the scheme of things, to His first intent. There are, naturally, a plethora of issues and questions that come to bear on such a proposal, but essentially the Biblical description seems most accurate when the religiosity is swept aside, and the deeper issue of ‘symptoms of something’ is considered in its light.

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