(For a change of pace, I’ll avoid politics today)
“…Groping in the darkness, searching for a way
To fill the empty space inside and between us all
Stranger in a strange land, what’s a man supposed to do…”
– Rik Emmett, Triumph, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” from Thunder Seven
In thinking about consumerism in recent weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that living in the modern world is a challenge. Given that most of us have our material needs taken care of, and thus pursue unnecessary wants (though they often feel like needs), one would think that we have it easy. We live in the lap of luxury, surrounded by conveniences and opportunities unimaginable in the past. Yet people are suffering record levels of depression, stress, and anxiety. What gives?
I believe that all humans at base have a fundamental need beyond material concerns: humans all need to have a sense of emotional connection, fulfillment and meaning to feel like we are living a worthwhile and joyful life. I would call this a kind of ‘spiritual core,’ something which stabilizes the individual in a world full of uncertainties and challenges. If this core is not filled, it becomes a void, a yearning for meaning that people try to fill, often self-destructively. It is the “empty space inside and between us all” that Rik Emmett mentions.
The void can be a subconscious point of despair and desire, as people sense they are lacking something, that life is boring, and the daily routine is suffocating the sense of self. People respond to this in various ways. Some people go into depression, and see no point in living day to day. It’s all the same, old, unfulfilling and monotonous routine. One feels unappreciated, unimportant, and unsatisfied. Others turn to alcohol and drugs to escape. Most people focus on short term distractions — hence the power of consumerism (‘I’m bored, gotta go shopping’), parties, and adventurism where people need a thrill to have that sense of being alive. And, of course, there’s television, video games, and losing oneself in the hectic world of instant messaging, facebook and chat rooms.
These distractions can’t fill the void, they just numb it. But the void is there, driving behaviors, causing everything from eating disorders to promiscuity or road rage. Some focus on career and “moving up,” trying to fill the void with external success. Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson seem to have had that kind of approach, and it can lead to worldly fame, though even that seems fleeting. Michael Jackson tried everything he could to fill the void — even creepy relationships with children — but despite wealth and being top of the charts, he seemed unable to do it. O.J. Simpson was a wealthy movie star former athlete who was one of the best running backs in modern history, yet his success could not fill the void either.
Religion, of course, used to provide the spiritual core that filled the void. It provided community, a sense of meaning, and a chance for introspection and reflection. In that sense, it was a very effective way of giving people both joy and satisfaction, the two things that the void prevents one from achieving if it remains unfilled. Alas, religion has lost that capacity for most of us, thanks to the enlightenment and our modern rational minds. Sure, some can still feel quite at home with their faith, but for people like me, who have learned to be skeptical and rational, there’s no way I can buy a pre-packaged faith and simply believe. The evidence suggests its just tradition and myth, and intellectual honesty prevents me from simply giving in. Moreover, I think that’s true more and more as modernity increases its grip on the human mind. That’s why I argued awhile back that we need a new ‘axial age’ to find a different way to accomplish what religion used to do for us.
So what do we do about this “void”? First, acknowledge that we are not just machines, but we have a need for a sense of meaning, connection, fulfillment and purpose. That way if we find ourselves addicted to video games, reaching for too much drugs and alcohol, immersing ourselves in distractions like porn, consumerism, or whatever, we’re seeking to fill an emotional, even spiritual, need. And while these distractions can create a short term rush, they aren’t really enough to provide meaning; life will constantly seem to be missing something if we simply try to distract ourselves from coming face to face with the ‘void.’ Even romance and love don’t cut it; unless ones’ spiritual core is filled it will be hard to move past the romance stage to the commitment necessary for a long term relationship, and instead people will become bitter that the rush of early love has faded, and either cheat on their spouse, seek divorce so they can try to find that rush again, or just feel miserable and seek other distractions.
I don’t think it’s possible to fill the void without looking inside, so I think the second step is harsh personal honesty. We need examine our actions, and not be afraid to say “that was really stupid,” or “I must have done that because I was insecure and felt threatened.” Most of the time we lie to ourselves, we are so afraid of the void and our own weaknesses that we rationalize our negative behavior and blame others. That leads to a third point: in order to truly be honest with oneself one has to really love and respect oneself. If one is convinced he or she is a good person, admitting weakness and error is simply a method of self-improvement, not a reason for self-loathing.
That creates a catch-22. Without a spiritual core, it’s hard to love oneself, and thus hard to be honest with oneself. It takes work to look inside and get to know oneself and really confront the need for meaning. It’s so much easier to go for external distractions. In such cases, I think people need to think about what is “out there” that helps address the needs of ‘the void.’ That includes family, friendship, nature, and the arts (literature, music, etc.) Honest, deep discussions with family and friends — as well as light hearted fun — create a sense of connection, which the void needs. Nature touches us spiritually, I believe. We sense at a deep level that there is sense to the world, and we are part of something with meaning, something fundamentally beautiful. The arts are sparks of creativity, which reflect that aspect of human spirit which the void needs — creative expression is, I believe, one of the most enduring ways to fill the void. Exploration, learning and travel are also helpful — it stimulates the mind to look beyond the mundane every day drab existence. In essence, filling the void is best done when one develops perspective, the ability to view things from different angles, and understand why those different angles can be seen to make sense. We also shouldn’t be afraid of accepting that there may be a spiritual side to our existence, even if our world seems wholly defined by the material.
Of course, many people already have a spiritual core, and thus seem to be able to take life and all its stresses without losing their sense of joy. They may find their religious faith sufficient, their sense of family and nature could be strong, or they are naturally introspective and creative. Perhaps it’s upbringing, something genetic, or maybe the experience of many lives.
The challenge of modern life is find a way to fill ones’ own void, to find ones’ own spiritual core in a world where religion is mistrusted, families are scattered, and nature is seen as something to be controlled. In a world where materialism is king, spiritualism is distrusted, and creativity embraced primarily if it sells, our entire culture seems to work to keep our core unfilled. The void and its distractions are good for business. Somehow we have the courage to look inside and really know ourselves, take responsibility for our own lives, treat each day as something precious to create in the way we want to, and live a creative and expressive life, connecting with nature and others in a manner that fosters joy. Only if we can do that can we really enjoy the material delights of the modern era, and truly understand and empathize with those on the planet who suffer from war, famine, slavery and other problems. The problems of this world cannot be solved by people suffering “the void.” Such people are so self-absorbed, they don’t see the world clearly, or understand their place in it. And, lest I sound too preachy, I see in myself the constant challenge to nurture the spiritual core and fight against the power of a culture based very much on greed and materialism.