It is hard for me to maintain perspective in life. In the news and entertainment cycle I immerse myself into, I become extremely near-sighted. It becomes easy to think of all that matters and is important in the world as having only been extant for a few generations at most. The idea that our civilization could collapse completely is a popular one, but the concept of it stagnating for hundreds of years before it starts to thrive again is an alien concept. The sense we have of evolution is irrationally strong in all of us. This resistance to future generations who prove that we are not the end-all, be-all is a product of the destruction of that sense of having been the apex or vanguard of all human progress–which in turn comes from simply growing old and seeing another generation grow up after us.
Which is to say that there is very little in the news that excites or frightens me, once I start to dive into more of history and become grounded in a completely different sort of paradigm. In some areas of our culture, it could be argued that we are completely atrophied. We no longer embrace aspects of art, literature and music that now seem to most of us to be too wordy or flowery. And yet, those same qualities of past art indicate a clear superiority in attention to detail and craftsmanship that is not to be found in what is presently celebrated by those who claim to be the true custodians of fine art and culture.
In other areas of our culture we are indeed and obviously superior. It probably goes without saying what these are. I wouldn’t want to live in another era prior to polio and smallpox vaccinations. I could probably be happy in the 60s-90s, but I doubt I would enjoy any time period prior to those decades once the novelty of being in that “then” wore off. Frankly, I could live without the Internet and being able to communicate my thoughts using a digital medium, but I don’t think I would want to live in times where women, minorities and gays had fewer rights and opportunities in our culture than they do now. And to be for sure, we could be doing even better about treating other people who are different than us more decently and equally, but we are certainly doing better than we did in most previous times and places.
The question of whether or not the rest of the world outside of Western culture is doing better than it previously had is highly debatable. Indigenous populations, uprooted from their hunter/gatherer/farmer lifestyles and given modern weapons technology without many other modern creature comforts are probably worse off than they were before civilization completely got to them. But, they are progressing, albeit slowly, toward something much better in many areas.
But, perhaps the most important thing to not lose sight of here is the fact that things do not always just get better or worse across the board, and there is little linear progression or regression involved at the macro level when it comes to human beings.
To spend a lot of time asking whether the U.S. is going to regain its focus and become the clear leading country, or if it will completely implode and become a third world country is terribly short-sighted and doesn’t properly consider enough other variables.
Consider all of us who were convinced that Bush was going to declare martial law after 9/11 and become a petty dictator. He and his friends had a lot of the signs about them that they were interested in being fascists who imposed regressive cultural restrictions on U.S. citizens while taking away our liberties using grand laws like the Patriot Act that were rushed through before anyone could read the contents of the law. As terrible as Bush was, he turned out to have fairly mediocre goals about what he ultimately wanted to accomplish. Now think about all of the people who have been convinced from day one of the Obama presidency that Obama would do very much the same–declare himself dictator after imposing a martial law, take away all of our guns, send in U.N. troops and make the U.S. a petty satellite to some global caliphate.
But, Obama has turned out to be surprisingly mediocre and tepid as well, and both his supporters and detractors have given him way too much credit.
Meanwhile, the question of whether the U.S. can remain the #1 economic superpower until at least 2050 remains highly debated. Some say China will overtake us at any minute. Some say they already have. Others point out that China is on the verge of imploding under the weight of its own success, and cannot sustain the kind of growth at has enjoyed while remaining a Communist state that suppresses many basic civil liberties. You have other people who are convinced that ISIS will come riding across the Mexico border any day now, and many who believe a human-manufactured disease akin to Ebola will be unleashed upon the population, causing chaos until we are all willing and ready pawns for the Antichrist who ascends through the machinations of the Illuminati.
Everywhere you look, you can find hundreds of examples to confirm your suspicions and dismiss counterexamples as lies propagated by a complicit media. Few people bother to be devil’s advocates of what they believe to be the truth.
Yet, somehow, none of the events prophesied by the great fear mongers ever seem to happen. People find jobs. People who really want to work will pick up and travel to find work in other parts of the country. People who really want to do something different seem to be able to. China doesn’t own the U.S. Mexican immigrants haven’t destroyed the U.S. Gays haven’t wrecked our families and the military. Just about everything a previous generation railed against — women’s lib, peace movement, civil rights, Communism, television, Hollywood, rock n’ roll, etc — has not destroyed our country. Some of those things have noticeably altered the landscape of what we think of when we think of high culture, and plenty of people have witnessed themselves going nowhere as they tried to be rock and movie stars instead of engineers and accountants, but the U.S. doesn’t appear to have sustained permanent damage from cultural revolutions that took place in the 60s and 70s.
So, why have the worst doom and gloom prophesies never come to fruition? Are the powers that be patiently ratcheting up the heat a notch each generation until it really does explode? Or, do people who predict the end of the world simply have lousy perspective on how the world really works, who is really in charge of things, and most importantly, the basic decency of human beings?
Perhaps the focus should be shifted to attempting to understand the underlying causes of the Cassandra mentality.
You have certain radio hosts and conspiracy nuts who have predicted for twenty years or longer that the global elites are on the verge of creating another world war that will usher in the kind of instability that sees America welcoming UN troops and the Mark of the Beast. Every event in the geopolitical realm is cause to confirm that in the next few months, we will see a major economic crisis and call for martial law and reinstating of the draft. This has gone on at least since the time of the Soviet Union, because I can remember watching the 700 Club with my mom and hearing Pat Robertson say he was convinced that the Soviet Union was the “army of the north” that was to meet Israel on the Plains of Megiddo in the last days, and Gorbachev was the Anti-Christ. I’ve heard Alex Jones give countless prophesies about what was going to happen in Iraq that never came true, but the slightest indication that something did happen like he said it would was cause for him to trumpet his rightness endlessly across subsequent episodes.
Clearly, the person who profits from advertising and faithful donors has a mercenary motive to continue to predict that the End Times are almost upon us. But, I would argue that most of these fanatics genuinely believe what they are saying for reasons that go beyond mere profit. Someone who delights in stirring the pot with purely antagonistic words, like a Rush Limbaugh, is likely a simple entertainer profiting from people’s gullibility. But, a person who feels the need to construct a grand theory of the world, and expose hidden truths and lesser known items reported in the news, is motivated by a more primal force. He or she is probably to some degree possessed of the same mental disturbances that prophets of old carried in their heads. And, clearly, we all still have at least a small need to listen to a person who lays claim to some knowledge that is above and beyond the common knowledge of the day.
More of us have turned to the mysterious black box of science for this kind of knowledge, but many find it unsatisfying. We have an inherent gut feeling that something just isn’t right, and simple phenomena as explained by science don’t get the job done.
All humans yearn for something more than what they have. Any human who says they are completely content is lying to you and probably to himself or herself.
Depending on how we’ve been conditioned to be satisfied, we may attempt to fulfill that yearning materially or psychically, but we never stop trying to fill that sense of a gap until the day we die.
I am suddenly recalling a story I read in the New York Times some years ago about a woman who started her adult life at Brown University, got mixed up in drugs, suffered some kind of illness related to her use of heroin, and became convinced that there was a spot on her head that itched even after the illness was treated. She continued to scratch her head through the skull until brain matter oozed out, and she had to have a piece of plastic put on her skull and she had to be stuck in protective gloves.
My newborn son has the constant urge to eat. He doesn’t feel fulfilled unless he is eating most of the time, and he complains loudly if he is not eating or sleeping. This is hopefully rather common, and something he will grow out of, and I would suspect that it is a basic survival mechanism.
In ways that nobody seems to quite comprehend, we all fail to have all of our needs met completely by the time we become adults. Most of us understand how to keep our hunger hidden, or project it onto socially acceptable pursuits for wealth, fame, things, power, etc. But, I don’t think anyone really completely meets that Maslow Hierarchy we learn about in Psych 101.
If we are unfortunate like the lady who scratched her head open, we create some kind of connection with our infantile minds that we can’t break, and we continue to obsess over things that are absolutely unproductive to ourselves and our fellow humans. If we are lucky, we find most of our happiness in indulging ourselves in unquestioningly enjoying the things life puts in front of us. To enjoy one’s blessings and gifts is certainly to be encouraged, and to carry it forward as thankfulness and having a sense of duty to pass on similar blessings and gifts to others is perfectly noble. But, to never ask whether or not there is more to existence than simple material and sensual pleasures is alien to me. I am not sure whether I think those people who live happily within the confines of their own skin and time and place are the luckiest people or the most deluded.
It is, in my estimation, better to live a life where you accomplish little beyond raising a family and working for 40-50 years, than to be a ragged revolutionary who rails against the man and the system, and never finds anything good about the world around him. There are more pathetic would-be revolutionaries than successful do-nothing’s.
Unfortunately, I came to this conclusion too late in life. I didn’t understand the value of being a solid, good man over being a mediocre man who constantly claws at greatness. It wasn’t until I passed the event horizon of my mortality that I began to think of my purpose on this earth as being something more and part of something much bigger than achieving immediate fame and recognition within the narrow confines of a single generation.
What I call the event horizon of mortality is that time in your life where you finally know in your bones that your time on this earth is limited. Of course, you learn at a very early age about death, and understand that you are mortal in a way that seems sufficient. You romaticize death when you are a teenager and visit grave sites, thinking that it must be cool to be a ghost among men. It must be the greatest experience to look down upon all of your classmates mourning your passing, and see just how many of them regret not being kinder to you.
The attitude of the high school suicide–and I am talking about the one who takes his life for those romantic reasons–is writ larger in the shooting stars we see and often glorify in our current and past few generations. Maybe it has gone on even longer, but the names have been forgotten. Everyone still recalls Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger and Kurt Cobain. But fewer remember Bryan Jones, less can recall Gram Parsons, and even fewer people can tell you who Shannon Hoon was. And, I had to look up the name of Joy Division’s singer, and then I thought of Sid Vicious.
The art of dying young and famous is something you aspire to in your early 20s, and then you survive too many nights that you shouldn’t have survived. Perhaps you survive because God is watching out for you. Or maybe, it’s because you haven’t done enough of anything on this earth that will be worth remembering. Even so, during most of your twenties, you think you are immortal. Sure, you say that you will die someday, probably sooner than later, but you never know death like you know it one day around the time you turn 30.
The timeline you have left to accomplish something goes from being infinite to finite. You appreciate different things, and have different priorities. Maybe it would be a good idea after all to have a kid. Then, if you accomplish nothing else with your life, you at least have someone who you can imprint all of the things you learned and hoped to disseminate into the larger human collective mind.
You start to see the importance of carefully studying one thing for many years, and becoming an expert at doing one thing very well. You stop trying to be great at everything, because you come to realize you are pretty much a talentless hack at painting, music, writing, mathematics, computers, sports, etc.
And, you start to try to find a bigger thread of meaning in everything that has happened in your life, and everything that has happened in human history. History itself becomes hugely important. Battles fought millenia ago mattered. They shaped the world you see today. You want to create a grand theory of everything, to make sense of why there is so much evil in this world. You don’t want the simple, pat answers: There is so much evil because of the devil. There is so much evil because of religion. There is so much evil because we are genetically predisposed to kill each other if we seem to be too different. There is no evil, just a struggle for survival of the fittest gene.
Clearly, the people with the pat answers, who can dismiss thousands of years of beliefs, thinking, living, culture, etc. with the flick of a head and a nod toward what they found under a microscope are not providing you the satisfactory response. The people who claim to have all the answers if you show up at their church seem to be possessed with more willful ignorance than anyone else. In fact, anyone who comes to you selling an easy answer to the world’s problems, neatly packaged in the form of an religion, manifesto or political party is suspect. You aren’t ready to completely discount any of them. They have found something that works for them, and most people are sincerely wanting to help others whom they feel to be still living in the dark. But, just wait until you spend a little more time with them, and see if they are truly tolerant of opposing viewpoints that don’t march lockstep with theirs. It would seem that the more the solution is a panacea, the more likely its adherents are to be blind to it possibly not working and violent toward those who don’t agree with every single thing that they say.
I would love to form in my mind a beautiful thread of something approaching a Grand Unified Theory that I can say works only for me. It explains why I still feel extremely patriotic and proud when my country’s flag is raised, and why I want to learn about the best and worst parts of U.S. history from the times of the first English colony that didn’t get wiped away to the present. I would like to explain my especial affinity for the history of England, and Rome and why I like reading the writings of a lot of the classical authors, both Roman and Greek, but I don’t feel as strongly connected to Greece as I do to Rome. But, I also feel strong ties to Israel, and the Jewish people, because they are my spiritual ancestors, and no doubt at some point in my family tree there was mingling with Jewish people.
But, I also want to try to understand the histories of other people that I’m not connected with as closely through more recent generations–Russia, China, India.
As I get older, I feel when I am alone that there can be no “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to me and human beings past, present, here or there. This is, of course, easier to profess when I have spent a lot of time alone with books and harder to conceive when I go out and mingle with real people who are different than me. But, I am never able to completely eradicate a strong sense of wanting to end any and all “us vs. them” mentality I might have, with the exception of truly evil souls that will never seek the Light. I don’t want to have an “us vs. them” mentality about other generations older or younger than mine, or swing pathetically in the wrong direction to become someone who seems to love all other people except those of his own immediate cultural heritage. You know the kind of guy or girl–mostly younger and collegiate–who is usually white and raised by Protestants or Catholics, and hates Christianity, white people, wealthy people, Western Culture, etc.
I even try at times to comprehend the strangeness of Islam, which for me is the most foreign of any religions though it shares roots with mine. When you go and read the Koran, and see the Arabic script next to the English words, it has a certain pull to it, a power of the logos that feels like its taking hold on the primitive word-forming parts of my mouth and brain. Clearly, there is a reason that Islam has an appeal to many Westerners beyond simply their sense of alienation from our culture, and Islam’s insistence on a kind of purity of thought. I don’t know that I could ever love Islam the way I’ve found myself loving Hinduism and Buddhism–I think at heart I am always going to be a “big tent” kind of person rather than an exclusive one, and those religions seem to be more inclusive and accepting. But, Islam clearly has a pull and power to it that seems to have great potential to put you into a mystical, reverential state of mind where Christianity often does not.
Christianity at its most mystical and reverential is the most appealing for me, along with its strong history of charity, humility and simplicity. Christianity at its most tacky, loud and lacking in any sense of intellectual curiosity or even self awareness is as terrible as the worst sort of cliched ugly American in a sports bar throwing back Bud Light and screaming for his favorite team.
So, to pick up my original thread again, what I am trying to accomplish in what I read is a way to unify in my mind the disparate things. This is because I have been raised in a world that was full of disparate things that often tended toward complete dichotomies. My mother was a zealous Pentacostal, my father an avowed agnostic who tended toward the atheist. My older brothers were adopted and embraced the military with an anti-intellectual attitude that rejected college. My little brother and I were prepped for college and only encouraged in academic pursuits. Sports weren’t forbidden, but they were never remotely encouraged. I spent the first six years of my life in very diverse neighborhood, and my best friend was black. My family then moved to a small town that ran off any families of color who settled in the town.
I developed an appreciation for the outdoors and rural things, even if my father never took me hunting. But, I also feel deeply in love with the world of the big city once I spent more time living among tall buildings and crowds of people. My father was a baggage handler who went back to school at the age of 40 to get his computer science degree, and so I experienced a lot of the push/pull of growing up both in a blue collar/white collar family.
Maybe my story is not so different from anyone else’s, but for me, it has always seemed as if I’ve been faced with more of a struggle to reconcile those things which stand apart from each other. I’ve never been able to easily accept a black and white world and then choose one or the other for my path. This hasn’t been easy for me, because there are many times where I believe myself to be presenting a very accepting and open attitude to the world, but I end up being the proverbial people pleaser who pleases no one, including himself.