Living in an Era of Crisis

On CNN last night I saw part of an interview with the famous “Dr. Phil,” who noted that there may be an upside to the economic crisis.  “Instead of going to Disney land, a family may throw a ball around in the front yard,” and perhaps people will start re-connecting as families rather than seeking gratification and excitement through shopping or expensive activities.

At one level, that could be taken as incredibly insensitive.  People are losing jobs, houses are being foreclosed and the level of anxiety and stress is rising rapidly around the country.   For a wealthy media personality to say this might be “good for us” seems thoughtless.  Yet I think he’s right, and in fact learning to live in an era of crisis will be key to helping us work towards a sustainable future.

Last summer I compared consumerism to fascism.   That was an early theme in my blog, even before the financial meltdown in September.    When Obama (who I have supported) planned a major stadium speech for his convention, I found eeiry connections with Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of Will, and in general found that consumerism had overtaken electoral politics with the selling of the President.   I connected with a perceived spiritual dehydration of our culture, directly related to material saturation.

You can read those old posts if you want more substance to the argument, but in essence the point is that we as a culture have become so materialistic that we seek meaning and satisfaction not from each other or our experience of life, but from the stuff we can collect, buy, and use.   And, given that material possessions can offer no truly satisfying long term sense of meaning, we’re driven to constantly want to get more stuff, expand our material possessions, go shopping when down, and look for something to make us feel that life is worth it.

The cultural malody is both cause and consequence of the current economic crisis.   In a nutshell, here’s the problem.  Modernism created a culture where humans no longer had meaning given to them in the form of a pre-existing religion or sense of strong community.  Instead we had to form individual identities and make sense of the world without there being a clear answer key.   The hope was that reason and rational thought would provide a clear path to liberation and understanding, but as tools to manipulate reality they are themselves unable to provide meaning.  Indeed, as noted earlier this week, reason can be turned on itself and destroy any claim about meaning and value built with reason alone.    Moreover, reason deals in the observable, material world we can manipulate.  This means that idealism, religion, and spiritualism are distrusted at best, or dismissed as irrelevant superstition at worst.

So as individuals and a culture we seek to find meaning in the material.   Enter the cunning politician or advertiser.  They understand human psychology, and they know that meaning does not come from matter or even reason, but it’s from emotion, and our sense of well being.   If you can connect a political program or a object for sale with that kind of psychological sense, it can be sold as providing meaning to the consumer.   For awhile this works; the purchase creates an emotion that connects people with some message or sense of worth, but that wears off quickly.   The sophisticated vodka that James Bond drinks may feel classy at first, but it’s just vodka.  The new car may have an air of sexy sophistication, but in a few years its just another car needing maintanence.

So there is a need to purchase something else.  Keep the emotion going.   Even other avenues of trying to find meaning through “distractions” become marketed.   Can you be a sports fan getting meaning from throwing yourself into following your team without having to purchase the paraphenalia to show that you are a fan, and go to games that are extremely expensive?   Television provides free entertainment, so long as the marketers can try to manipulate you during commercials.   You may throw yourselves into the escapist world of “Desperate Housewives,” but also have the need for the latest fashion stoked by the advertising.

Living through this crisis requires one major change: to disconnect meaning from material items, even from material prosperity.    We need to break the myth that self-worth is related to ones’ bottom line, and that success at providing for ones’ family or success in ones’ career is a primary source for judging ones’ worth and the meaning in ones’ life.    Even the hardest working and most responsible employee might get fired.  If life depends on your job status and material prosperity, you are giving “the world” power over your ability to experience and enjoy life.   That is a power each individual needs to take control over.

The good news is that we can.   When people are forced through divorce, health problems of children or grandchildren, severe injury or a mixture of the above (in the case of one person I know) they can recognize that what they thought gave their life meaning was illusonary and transcient.   That forces people to look inside, connect with others, and take stock of what really makes this life worth living.   One can have a smaller house or apartment, lose the nice car, not be able to buy the latest fasions, and work at a job that doesn’t seem to provide outward status and success, and still find meaning.  One can be out of work, and still find ways to make each day matter.

The key is to understand that meaning comes from inside, and is fostered by ones’ connections with others.   All that we accomplish in life and experience perishes.   Though we may remember now the names of Galileo and Newton, most people who have graced this planet are gone without a trace, no matter how magnificent their accomplishments in their time.  Go back over 5000 years and there are really no records.  Yet, of course, all those actions combine to give us the world we have.   All that remains from all our efforts is the world as we leave it, altered slightly or greatly by our hands, in combination with the actions of everyone else.

To live through an era of crisis it is important to recognize the futility of ones’ material pursuits with a sense of relief and joy rather than despair.   It doesn’t matter if one achieves external success, what matters is ones’ character, effort, and connection with others.  Meaning comes from living a life of integrity, not a life requiring external validation.  If one lives a life of integrity the validation will come from the connections one has with family, friends and community, as will the satisfaction.

Moreover, if we get off the consumerist maze, recognize our place not only in our communities but also in nature (see it as a treasure, rather than something to be manipulated for material gain), then meaning comes naturally.   We know who we are, we have a sense of purpose, we do not need to fill the void with some kind of momentary rush, a little glimmer of satisfaction before giving way to the dull monotony and apparent futility of the modern world.  Alienation gives way to creativity and inspiration.

Dr. Phil’s example — the family throwing a ball around rather than going to Disneyland — is perfect.  At Disneyland the family is together, but the value of the activity becomes defined as the ability to experience a fantasy created by someone else for a price.   When a family plays together, they are connecting on their own and working together, creating their own meaning and value.   Nothing against Disneyland, it’s worth visiting.  But in terms of building a strong family and enjoying life it’s far more important to play together, and maybe throw a ball around.

  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on March 18, 2009 - 14:51

    Very interesting article. As I get older, I tend to find myself growing more “old-fashioned”. I know that souns weird coming form a guy who is still over a month from turning 30.
    I prefer old movies (the ones that might’ve been new for my parents and grandparents), I prefer the old cartoons of my childhood (bugs bunny, felix the cat, the flintstones, etc), not this new anime and superhero looney tunes character stuff (the animation used to speak for itself almost entirely, like in Tom & Jerry). I yearn for the time when I was little that all the adults watched out over you. If you got into trouble in front of them, they’d set you straight and then when you got home, Mom or Dad would “set you straight” again.
    We would have family reunions every year, and early on, lots of people came, but as the years went on, less and less people came. It was always either due to their work, or they had scheduled their own separate vacation for exactly that time, or just didnt feel like it. As some of the older generation died off, the glue that held the family together was lost, and a lot of relatives stopped communicating as much. And the younger generation who was put in charge of things, tended to let such things slip their mind, and things were put together haphazardly at what seemed like the last minute, ensuring less of the family would be able to make the time to show up.

    Add in technology, like cell phones and the internet. (Yes I realize the irony of me complaining about the internet while using it). Sold as newer and better ways to keep in touch, they seem to be the tools that give you the freedom to stay “in-contact” with people without ever actually venturing out into the world to see the people, or meet new ones (or for that matter avoid the people you dont feel like talking too).

    I grew up in a small town, but now I live in “the city” (if you can call Des Moines a real city) thanks to my wife. And for all the crowding of people in a small area, there seems to be a greater sense of disconnect amongst people, even your neighbors next door. you can work with someone for years and not even know them other than the occasional passing by, and then find out later they lived 2 doors down or across the street…that is before they moved away. I enjoythe amenities that the city provides like being able to score a Big Mac at 230am, or grab much needed groceries or gas in the middle of the night, but the sense of community and connectedness to your fellow citizens seems a lot stronger in the more rural areas. At least until twitter pervades those environments as well.

  2. #2 by Lee on March 21, 2009 - 00:49

    There are aspects of the economic crisis that obviously impact our family. Yet my wife and I were saying the other day that in many ways we seem to be less impacted than other people. Our one issue is credit card debt and we have a plan in effect for that. That debt was not the result of routine overspending but a one time, gigantic expense that came at a time truly unexpected! However, our normal day to day living is really low key. We are vegetarians so our food bill is lower than others because we don’t have to buy meat.

    We like to hike and aside from our membership as part of Mass Audubon, that is essentially free. I play at the park with the kids each night in good weather. We walk there, or I pull the gang in the wagon if the small fries are tired.

    Vacations we go camping. We did splurge a few yrs back on a pop up camper so I sort of don’t feel like I am truly camping but I sure like it if it rains!

    Essentially the only thing that I purchase that one could say is a luxury are the music classes the kids have. And the arts are very important, so it would be hard to cut them out if the need arose. However, I am sure I could creatively cobble together a substitute should the need arise.

    Actually what i have always worried about is that there isn’t a lot to “cut” in the way we live. We don’t eat out for instance or go to the movies.

    A great deal of our frugality is because we wanted my wife to be home full time with the kids and we are a family of 6. But we didn’t have a lot of bells and whistles when I was growing up either, and we still had a lot of fun.

  3. #3 by henitsirk on March 21, 2009 - 04:37

    Scott, I will have to find some quotes to back this up (it’s 10:30 pm and I’m just not up for searching right now) but it is striking me very funny how close what you are saying matches with much of what Rudolf Steiner said about modern culture. That the material world has true value, but it is not of the highest value. That what is human is more important than the mechanical or financial. That we are now free to choose (as we were once compelled by society or religion) but that with that freedom we have allowed ourselves to sink too far into materialism and have forgotten the simple pleasures and spiritual food of human interaction and meaningful labors.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on March 21, 2009 - 12:22

    Mike — I like living in a rural area, and find I don’t miss the big city as much now, especially with family. When I moved to rural Maine from Minneapolis, I really missed the cultural life, Rainbow foods open 24 hours a day, the diversity of restaurants, and the like. But there is something nice about a community, though I still tend to have that big city isolation problem (stick to ourselves). You’re right about how easy it is not to know people in crowded situations, it’s almost like a reaction to the idea that somehow one has to know all ones’ neighbors — people isolate themselves! There is a sense that Maine is 20 years behind the times, despite the internet and cell phones!

    Lee, good for you! We’re still struggling with cutting the unnecessary spending, and I’m afraid we do too much of it (having two incomes and all). But nature is the cheap way for family fun, and we plan on doing that (plus here we have things like a ski slope that has cheap family passes and the like — a bit of an indulgence, but we can ski the season for the cost of all of us to go to a big mountain for one day!)

    Henitsirk, I’m starting a major research project that looks into modernism and the current state of our society. Not being at a publish or perish institution, I’m going to take my time and focus on the issue that interests me, connecting it to the economy, war/foreign policy, politics, and society. I must read Steiner, it does sound like the views are similar. I will go order some books through interlibrary loan this week!

  5. #5 by henitsirk on March 22, 2009 - 20:04

    You might be particularly interested in Steiner’s “Threefold Social Order”, which talks about his ideas of how to manage the three social spheres of rights, culture, and money in a healthy way. Otherwise I’m not sure what else to recommend, as what I commented before appears throughout his works. And I will warn you, he’s pretty esoteric and out there, but I find kernels of truth every time.

  6. #6 by Scott Erb on March 22, 2009 - 22:34

    So, I drifted on over to Wikipedia to read about Steiner, and now will definitely read his work. I’m pretty “esoteric and out there” too, and I identified with a lot of what seemed to be attributed to him. In general, I believe reality is a unified whole, we experience it as separate and discrete because we view it from different perspectives, and that is where I believe ethics comes from. “Do unto others as you would do unto yourself” is for me not a moral aspiration, but actually a law of nature — what you do to others you are doing to a part of yourself. In any event, it sounds very intriguing I’m going to read more.

    (I also note that he is a Pisces like me, and we fish are supposed to be pretty spiritual minded!)

    I’ve gone into my esoteric side in my attempt at fiction (“Dreams”), but in my blog usually only hint at it. Maybe my post about the possibility the world is a hologram:
    Or on love:
    Or on the axial age:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: