Published by Erik Rittenberry
“It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity.”
— Richard Yates
It’s quiet here in the early dawn and no one’s around. Just the way I like it. I’m sitting on a bench, sipping black coffee on an old dock looking out over the ancient lake. I watch with an incredible sense of serenity as the fog dies out with the rising sun. There’s a peculiar stillness here this morning.
The sky grows lighter and lighter. A subtle breeze makes small ripples on the water. The fish jump and splash and the birds chirp and flutter and everything seems joyous and harmonious. The great hum of life.
Behind me, the world is not so joyous and harmonious.
Behind me is a society teetering on the edge of all-out madness; a society of half-asleep people completely entangled in a web of false narratives and social fictions. A semiconscious society of disenfranchised people at war with each other over manufactured illusions and irrational beliefs — people completely alienated from each other, from themselves, from the TRUTH.
“Every realm of society is permeated with falsity and falsification,” as the great Henry Miller reminded us so many years ago. He’s still right. Probably more today than ever.
As the morning unfolds the commotion begins much like the day before. Alarm clocks fire off. The TV’s flick-on and the news prompts us as to what we should be afraid of today. Antagonizing headlines heave us into a partisan frenzy before we even step foot in the shower. No one cares too much about the TRUTH because our minds are already made up.
This is the modern world.
The water splashes the face. The coffee is brewed. The social media is checked and updated and the emails are read over breakfast. Tired and heavily medicated souls make their way onto the billboard-littered highway to inch along in bumper-to-bumper traffic to a job they despise.
The kids are dropped off at their prison-like education camps where they are segregated by age and forced to submit to an outdated national curriculum concocted up by some inept bureaucratic process. And it’s here, where the inherent curiosities of little unique individuals are smashed out, and their little minds are molded and standardized and taught the “virtue” of conformity and obedience.
They become much like ourselves — well-adjusted disciples of the status quo. A society of well-fed, inwardly starving folks who’ve become dissimulated by this thing we call “culture.”
I sit here in complete solitude as the freshly born sun seeps into my eyes. The morning chill dissipates along with the warmth of my coffee. A cardinal sings on the wood railing of the old dock. I breathe in the pure air of a new day.
I read somewhere recently that more than 99 percent of all organisms that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. And yet, here I am, alive, and it’s good to be alive. I think. But so many of us take it for granted — this miracle of breath, this accidental thing we call LIFE.
Sitting here I can’t help but look up at the skies and ask — what the hell is happening to us as a species?
Prayers haven’t worked out all too well. Most of the big cities are uninhabitable. Our communities have all but disintegrated as the pockets of our overlords have fattened. The vast array of self-help books that fly off the shelves daily haven’t helped us. Money and an abundance of toys and possessions haven’t made us happy. The filters on our posing faces can’t keep out the truth.
Everyone is afraid of everyone else. This once beautiful land is now a land of dread. Something is ending. We are at the precipice of something none of us understand.
How did we get here?
How did we arrive at a point in the United States where unbridled consumerism, endless war, vast surveillance, conformity, obesity, illiteracy, loneliness, victimhood, bitterness, infinite division, mindless entertainment, and an insatiable appetite for OUTRAGE came to be the defining characteristics of American civilization?
Looking around you can’t help but feel this grave, disquieting anxiety slithering all through our culture. A recent article revealed that a third of adults right now in the US are walking around in a concussion-like daze due to stress and lack of sleep.
More than three in five Americans are feeling lonelier than ever before. Suicide is one of the most persistent causes of death among young people. Obesity, depression, and anxiety rule our days. Chronic disease is rampant along with various kinds of addictions. 44% of older millennials already have a chronic health condition. Nearly 70 percent of Americans are taking at least one prescribed medication and half are taking more than one.
As Richard Yates wrote in his brilliantly intense mid-20th century novel, Revolutionary Road, “You’re painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture.” Indeed, we are.
Look at us.
Woven nicely into the fabric of a sick society, plagued with an aching sense of emptiness and self-entitlement, passions snuffed out by the nine-to-five or no work at all, no time for voyages and adventure, too timid and afraid to live creatively and authentically — just good folks splashing around in the shallows as the pills are gulped down and the lights slowly dim.
Author, journalist, and one of the most fiercely lyrical, no-nonsense writers of our time, the late great Charles Bowden, had his finger on the pulse of our whimpering nation when he wrote:
We are an exceptional model of the human race.
We no longer know how to produce food.
We no longer can heal ourselves.
We no longer raise our young.
We have forgotten the names of the stars, fail to notice the phases of the moon.
We do not know the plants and they no longer protect us.
We tell ourselves we are the most powerful specimens of our kind who have ever lived. But when the lights are off we are helpless.
We cannot move without traffic signals.
We must attend classes in order to learn by rote numbered steps toward love or how to breast-feed our baby.
We justify anything, anything at all by the need to maintain our way of life.
And then we go to the doctor and tell the professionals we have no life.
We have a simple test for making decisions: our way of life, which we cleverly call our standard of living, must not change except to grow yet more grand.
We have a simple reality we live with each and every day: our way of life is killing us.
Is this life? — this apathetic mode of existence that we’ve created for ourselves? Living at odds with nature, at odds with our natural instincts, unable to cultivate a connection with our own spirit, forever in exile from our own being?
Is this it?
To live in a kind of forgetful fog while being dominated and pushed around by the whims of these institutional-minded bigwigs and so-called experts?
To keep buying and consuming our way toward this phantom idea of happiness? To work soul-sickening jobs to keep up the illusion of success? To be given the miracle of breath only to become life-long servants to the myriad of rules and dictates imposed from the outside?
Is it any wonder why so many of us live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau noticed?
Are we the society that George Orwell warned about so many decades ago? A society “marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting — three hundred million people all with the same face.”
Seems we’re mighty close. All the ingredients are there — rampant fear, anger, ignorance, blind obedience, laziness, and immense resentment.
We are people who have turned the elemental emotions that make us human beings — fear, anxiety, sadness — into “illnesses” and “disorders” that must be “managed” and “treated” by an ocean of pharmaceuticals rather than taking the necessary measures to get down to the root of it. As Dr. Gabor Maté once reminded us, “The attempt to escape from pain, is what creates more pain.”
You can’t help but see it in the eyes and hear it in the voices — the despair, the fear, the animosity. A society of weaklings walking on eggshells, afraid to speak, afraid to offend, afraid to live. A society of indignant complainers and fraudulent do-gooders and sanctimonious political hacks strapped with a fanatical biased worldview constantly projecting their inner shortcomings onto the fruitful.
Somehow this is the world we’ve created for ourselves — it’s our way of life.
We all see it. We know something is severely off in today’s overly managed society. Everyone is angry and divided and everything is politicized and no one seems to care too much about the insidious narrative that has been fed to us as “reality.”
We’ve lost the appetite for LIFE long ago. We’ve forgotten how to belch out that big ol’ fucking YES to life.
Instead, we’re eaten alive by our own self-righteous concepts. And because so many of us have neglected our inner life, we’ve become deluded slaves to our surroundings, blindly giving allegiance to the fear-soaked narratives of our “drugged and dying culture.”
“… we are all on a train and it is racing toward a bridge that is out but no one on the train cares because they are busy arguing about train security measures or who gets to sit in which car or whether the train is only for people or whether the train is only for one sex or the other or maybe the train should be divided up according to race or language or religion and still the train races toward the bridge that is gone, races toward some chasm that will shatter it and so the people argue and do not care that their behavior means that they can never reach the future.”
Now what? What do we have to do to “break the mold”, as they say? Is there an escape hatch or are we all destined towards the looming chasm?
That’s the question I sure as hell haven’t found the full answer to yet. Perhaps there is no answer. Or maybe it’s too late. I don’t know.
One thing is pretty clear, though — there’s no Department of “whatever”, or a coalition, or some half-smiling partisan handshake coming to set things right. No one is coming to save you or the world you inhabit. No one is responsible for the affirmation of your life. Only YOU. YOU. YOU.
It’s on each of us to untangle ourselves from the fear-ridden narratives of our deathbed culture. It’s on us to live beyond our limited, fragmentary selves— the job, the labels, the nation, the race, the sexuality, the politics, etc — and in full possession of our inner drives, the fire within.
And I know nobody wants to hear that. We seem to need labels and categories to function in this society. And we need other people or some irrelevant institution to tell us how to live — the politician, the law, some guru, the preacher. Nobody wants to take on the responsibility of their own consciousness, their own brief, miraculous existence on this godforsaken planet.
But it’s the only way.
As the French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre reminded us:
“Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.”
We must awaken and deepen our understanding of the world we live in. The essential task is to provoke a radical sense of self-awareness and to transform our passions into action. To live LIFE directed by our own real interests as unique human beings rather than becoming a subject of external causes who never possess the “true acquiescence” of our spirit, as Spinoza put it.
Becoming free, or at least as free within the contingencies of our finitude, is the result of intense awareness, effort, and extreme courage. Erich Fromm explained that “in order to achieve this freedom man must become aware of those forces which act behind his back and determine him…If you remain blind and do not make the utmost efforts, you will lose your freedom.”
I want to end once again with the inquiring words of the great Charles Bowden:
“Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can effect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness…Imagine that the problem is not that we are powerless or that we are victims but that we have lost the fire and belief and courage to act.”