Answer to Apathy
|January 4, 2014||Posted by Robert W Cely under Cely Blog, The Blog|
I know this is rather long for a blog, but after posting a work called The Age of Apathy, a challenge came up to offer answers to the question of apathy. How did we get this way? What can we do about it? Here is my brief (somewhat) offering on the subject of apathy. Or rather, it is my answer to apathy.
I have always held that most of our problems end up being theological or philosophical ones. In other words, it’s our viewpoint that gets us in trouble. There is something about the way we see the world, God, mankind and his destiny that leads us to the chronic problems that plague us. Much of our apathy ultimately stems from the ideas that have become entrenched in us, mind and soul. So much so that they have become background ideas that we are hardly aware of, things accepted as a matter of course.
Without going into too much historical detail, it seems that two main ideas have led us to this current Age of Apathy, where in the midst of great abundance, we have lost our concern and care for life (The book to read more on this is Jacque Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence. Eight-hundred pages, but I guarantee every single one of them is fascinating). These are the mechanistic view of the universe, and the progressive view of civilization.
For about 500 years, man has ridden a great wave of technological success, increasing his ability to shape the world as he sees fit. This is coupled with a philosophical quest for utopianism. We see the universe as a great machine, and as civilization progresses, so does man’s ability to shape this machine. Together, these give us the idea that not only can we make a perfect world, but that we ought to make such a world.
If the world really is a machine-like entity and it isn’t working right then we obviously haven’t given it the right tweaks. We haven’t elected the right politicians, instituted the right programs, invented the right technologies. Everyday we are promised such a tomorrow. This accounts for much of the heyday science fiction enjoyed in the fifties and the sixties. Technology and science would deliver our long sought after paradise. Just give them enough time.
What we are slowly coming to realize is that technology and science are not able to deliver us utopia. This is a fact that concerns all sciences. Medicine will not wipe out disease. Psychology will not eradicate depression. Sociology will not rid the world of crime. Economics will not make us all rich.
As we have made incredible advances in these areas of life, we have also come to realize that they will not deliver us to the promised land. Instead, they have made us more miserable. We have made ourselves slaves to the machines built to give us a better tomorrow. Emerson wrote that “things ride mankind” long before the invention of television, internet and cell phone. If he were to see us today he would correctly surmise that things no longer ride mankind, they own him.
For so long we have submitted to one form of machine after another until today we don’t even question whether or not we should. And this is not only technology, but systems and laws and processes and endless bureaucracies. They too are the children of a mechanistic worldview. The nation, the state, the city, the corporation are all alike machines. To run smoothly they must be organized into proper systems and work as a functioning whole. So today we are all just pieces in one great, grim machine.
To make matters even worse our quest for utopia was extremely shallow-sighted. Because we also looked at the universe as a purely physical phenomenon, an approach known as Materialism, our idea of the perfect world didn’t go any further than safety, comfort and pleasure. It cannot without any spiritual elements to draw men deeper. And the best way to deliver safety, comfort and happiness is better technology and the money for everyone to afford it. Mostly, it means money.
And so we have found ourselves here in this apathetic place today. We have made ourselves slaves to a machine that promised to bring us safety, pleasure and comfort in the throes of a perfect world. Though we have plenty of all these things, we have also become shallow, selfish and greedy. We have given up so many liberties for so long that we have forgotten we even had them. And as a final insult to this grievous injury, we are supremely unhappy, spiritually lost and apathetic, desperately wondering how we ever got this way and what we can possibly do about it.
First off, we should dismiss this idea that we can create a perfect world. We should even dismiss the idea that we were meant to create a perfect world. We could even go so far as to come to understand that the perfect world, as we would create it, might be the worst possible world for us to live in.
Perhaps what we need to do is stop trying to create a perfect world, and instead strive to build a good one.
So much of what we do, perhaps all of what we do, is intended to keep us safe, comfortable, rich and entertained.
Not only has much of the risk been removed from life, our outlook is such that the word doesn’t even belong. We would rather our children grow up safe rather than brave. We prefer the comfortable life over a heroic and glorious life. We want to make things quickly and cheaply rather than beautifully. We demand more goods as opposed to quality goods. Our work is about making money rather than making something we are proud of. We feel that to be important we must reach a lot of people and forget about reaching deeply into the few people we have around us. We have chosen to have a predictable life and turned away from a mysterious life. We have achieved remarkable degrees of organization but left little room for spontaneity. We have given our lives over to machines and given up the wildness and terror of magical living. Our world is one full of pleasure and plenty, but short of wonder.
Is it a surprise then that we have fallen into apathy? How can we muster the love to care when so much of what we do takes out of life all that makes loving so vital and important. We are victims of our own success.
We dreamt of utopia, and that utopia was abundance, long life and safety. Today, we have come closer to achieving that than any civilization in the course of human history. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t fully realized yet. Just see close we have come and its unintended consequences. In some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America, men and women wake up and take medications to get them through the motions of an ordinary day. God forbid we face real stress: famine, plague, invasion, blight, any manner of catastrophe without federal assistance. Hurricane Katrina taught us that we are mere infants in the face of true adversity.
It’s not just that we’ve created a boring world. It’s that we’re on the verge of creating a pointless one. For so long it has been believed that pain and suffering create a meaningless life. Perhaps it is closer to the truth that pain and suffering make meaning possible.
A world of difficulty is a world where we grow strong in overcoming. A world of danger breeds men of courage. Pain delivers hope. Suffering tempers our souls in faith. Deprivation breeds endurance. Longing opens our eyes to beauty. Danger tests the mettle of our souls. Darkness makes the light shine that much brighter.
Walking through all the perils and hardships of life forges a heart of love. And a heart of love cares. A heart of love can feel anything except apathy.
No one, myself included, would ever suggest creating a world full of danger and pain. I don’t suggest that here. What I do propose is that we let ourselves be guided by values other than those of removing all pain, risk and hardship from life. As noble as it may be to want to relieve suffering, and as practical as it may be to avoid hardship, when we elevate these as our highest values, we always end up idealizing the cowardly, greedy and self-centered. And we end loathing the higher virtues and ideals.
What I am certain needs to be done is a reorienting of our values, a renewal of our ideals, and a rediscovery of the deeper and more meaningful reasons for why we do things.
Work should be done to make something we are proud of, something we have poured our very life into. Food should be nutritious and healing. We should craft beauty instead of monotony. Politics should seek to secure justice and freedom instead of seeking to control every facet of life in the name of security. We should seek the good life over the long life. Truth ought to trump fact. Education should shape the individual soul rather than force conformity, teach us how to think instead of what to think. Instead of wanting our children to be happy we should want them to be strong, courageous and virtuous. We need to rediscover a reason for doing things besides comfort, safety and pleasure. We need to stop asking, “Will this get me more stuff?” and start asking, “Is this how life was meant to be lived?”
Our world has brought us to a place where everything is cheap and abundant except for meaning and wonder. It’s time to tear down these worthless idols we have raised up, and restore something more holy in its place. It’s time to step off the safe road and take up a path that may be full of danger, but one that is also full of the magic of living. It is time for our ultimate love to be something other than our own well being, something for which we would sacrifice all that we have.
What it ultimately comes down to is loving something more than ourselves. In our narcissistic, self-centered milieu, we are incapable of this. A heart consumed with self-love has no room to love anything else. At least it cannot love so deeply that it will give up everything for its beloved.
If we were to take up this love, to commit our lives completely and deeply to something other than our own satisfaction, then we would find in ourselves an unquenchable fire, and an undying passion for life and all that living entails, a hope and a faith unshakable. And not only that, we would once again receive confirmation of the gospel that proclaims love as the law of the universe.