Contra Progress: We have made the modern world, but the modern world is not made for us


IMG_0039The United States is a place full of oddities and contradictions, much like the rest of the world. Our greatest contradictions exist within the workplace. We leave a house that we hope to sell (in order to move into a bigger one), drive in traffic that we hate onto the way to a job that we deplore, take orders from a boss we despise, and spend 7-8 hours (on average) in a building we’re working to eventually escape, only to fight that same hated traffic on the way home. By the time we get home we’re drained, we have no creativity or energy left, and what’s worse is we must wake up and repeat the process all over. Our only respite is the weekends, but even then we must fight crowds and face the reality that the eternal return of the same shall stare us down beginning Sunday night into Monday morning.

The angst of modern man is quite different from his ancestors. Existential angst has always been a part of human existence, the crisis of realizing that we exist, but truly understanding why we exist is at the core of many philosophical discussions. It is a question that spans across both Eastern and Western philosophies; both Socrates and Buddha, both Christianity and Taoism, and everything in between attempt to explain the crisis of existence. Even into the 1960s when hippies weren’t tripping off LSD, they were questioning why we’re here. These hippies eventually became the yuppies; the counter-culture warriors of the 60s became the consumerist capitalists of the 80s. Today, the question of “Why am I here” is answered in a myriad of commercials: “To produce and consume.”

Whereas the term “progressive” is commonly used to refer to someone who is liberal or even socialist, the greatest irony is that modern capitalism is truly progressive. Imagine a CEO coming out tomorrow and saying, “Our corporation has made a huge profit this year. We really don’t need a bigger profit at this point, so we’re going to give any extra profit to our workers.” That, of course, isn’t really progressive because it limits the growth of the company. Modern capitalism wants a world where satisfaction and contentment are dirty words, not signs of maturity. Some might say that this is really consumerism, to which I’d say that consumerism is a logical conclusion of capitalism.

We’re stuck in wage jobs where our entire existence depends not on our work or creativity, but on the effective management of the company for which we work (in previous ages this was called slavery, just of a higher degree than non-wage slavery). “If you work hard enough, you can make it.” I’m sure many people who were laid off or “downsized” work incredibly hard; but their labor was owned by another, and their owner mismanaged the fruits of the labor. If you want that new car, that new TV, that new boat, that new house, that new whatever, then you need to keep working. But ultimately, what are we working for? All these things will gather dust and eventually gain nothing. They are not wrong to have, but to pursue, to make them your goal in life? To seek a new model in a few years? We’re told our purpose in life is to consume, to consume things we don’t need, to consume things that will lose value within our own lifetimes; and if we reflect on that, even for a millisecond, when we think of how many hours of work we put into buying a new TV, we can’t help but feel the angst and disgust.

In pursuing progress in all things financial, we’ve stopped asking why we were created. But such a cessation of questioning is only harmful and has created nasty side effects. Just 100 years ago the majority of Americans lived in small towns where they were no more than a few minutes walk from the world as it was. While we might not have had an answer as to why we existed, we could at least walk within a natural environment and, even without knowledge, feel at home. Today, because we’ve stopped asking why we are here we have lost our connection with our first home. The sounds of nature, of birds chirping, of the wind rustling the leaves of a tree, of the beautiful silence of a forest during a winter snow are often interrupted or drowned out by bustling cars, honking horns, or the “progress” of construction. The incessant clamor of the modern world was born out of the silencing of the big questions.

How odd that modern man has moved his home away from nature when he is only home when closer to nature. In seeking to master the world, we have become slaves to our progress; in seeking to move our homes into the modern era, we have become homeless. We’ve struggled to create a fantastic world, a utopia, only to discover that it is so fantastic and so utopian that we don’t belong to our own creation. We have no frame of reference for our existence and so we stumble forward, blindly into a dark abyss, until we hit the age of 45 and go, “What the hell is all of this for?” To which the car salesmen sells us the new sports car, we leave our family for someone new, everyone chalks it up to a midlife crisis, and we still lead empty and mundane lives, just filled with new stuff.

Marriages aren’t falling apart because we’ve lost religion or because “the gays” can get married. Adultery doesn’t occur because we live in a post-sexual revolution world. Family values haven’t decreased because of Democrats (or Republicans). Society isn’t falling apart because of some liberal or conservative conspiracy theory. Rather, we’ve created a world that isn’t suited for humans and all we see are merely the conclusions of such a world. Just like our bodies will die when placed into an environment not conducive for bodies, so too will our souls die in an environment not conducive to the soul. Our modern world, the one that places our existence on our ability to produce and consume, one that seeks to work us and work us until our company can progress in its profits, is a world that is not only unfavorable to souls, but in many instances kills the soul.

Humans are not meant for the busy life. We’re not meant for 8 hour work days, five days a week (and that’s if you’re lucky; more and more we’re working a clocked 56 hours a week, not to mention the emails and calls at home). We’re not meant to sit in traffic driving metallic cows herded from one area to another. We’re not meant to be “producers” or “consumers,” at least not as our primary function. We’re not meant to remain busy, busy to the point that we lose who we are or worse, never discover what we could be. We’re not meant to look for the next big useless thing and then slave away so we can pay for that big useless thing. We’re not meant to be cut off from nature, not to the degree in which we’re separated, for ultimately we are still a part of nature. We’re not meant to live in isolation amidst our crowded cities. We’re not meant for the modern world.

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