Modernity and the Sickness of the Soul

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“No one any longer knows who will live in this steel-hard casing and whether entirely new prophets or a mighty rebirth of ancient ideas and ideals will stand at the end of this prodigious development. Or, however, if neither, whether a mechanized ossification, embellished with a sort of rigidly compelled sense of self-importance, will arise. Then, indeed, if ossification appears, the saying might be true for the ‘last humans’ in this long civilizational development: narrow specialists without mind, pleasure-seekers without heart; in its conceit, this nothingness imagines it has climbed to a level of humanity never before attained.”

I imagine that if you look around you and are not merely disheartened by what you see, but are actually sickened by it then the above quote by Weber, from his “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” resonates with you in the same way that it does with me; on a deep, soul level.

This isn’t how we were meant to live. We know that, we feel it instinctively. Something is wrong with our societies, our lifestyles, our lives. At the risk of making a pedantic observation most of us spend the great majority of our time per week doing something that we hate or, at best, tolerate, for the sake of being able to pay rent, bills, buy food, clothes and provide for ourselves and our families and loved ones.

But it doesn’t stop there. The “Protestant Ethic” that Weber so masterfully dissected and deconstructed is, quite literally, making us hate ourselves and is killing us.

Those of us who have grown up and lived most of our lives in the West have been completely indoctrinated with this “Protestant work ethic,” “keep your nose to the grindstone,” “work is its own reward” mentality. It’s not all hogwash and I’m not here to make a case for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A culture that idealizes hard work and a strong work ethic is also a culture that will go further in the world than others; particularly if that same culture is the one laying down the parameters for how the whole world operates.

The real problem arises when “The Protestant Ethic” meets the following things:

 

  1. Post-industrial/deindustrialized society

 

  1. Imposed austerity

 

  1. Anglo-Saxon Hyper-individualization / “Bootstraps” Culture

 

  1. The Reign of Finance Capital

 

The neuroses that arises when one lives in a society where work and the ability to be able to stand on one’s two feet are valued over just about everything else, and yet good-paying jobs that actually allow anyone to be able to “stand on their own two feet” are scarce outside of highly specialized segments of the economy that are almost always tied in to the government in some way, shape or form eat away and tear at our souls and foster deep-seated feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing which almost always leads to depression.

Even the things that we have been conditioned to believe are fundamentally good, decent and progressive, like “pluralism,” contribute to this sickness:

“…the pluralizing effects of modernity lead to “relativism” (Berger 1973; 1992), because co-existing belief systems challenge each others’ credibility. Berger states: “The world view that until now was taken for granted is opened up, very slightly at first, to a glimmer of doubt. This opening has a way of expanding rapidly. The end point may then be a pervasive relativism” (1992, 39). Berger goes on to  argue that relativism is a consequence of “cognitive contamination,” which is fueled by pluralism (1992). Put differently, the process of pluralization divides the social world into little sectors. It places individuals into situations in which they have to admit or accept unfamiliar or different people, practices, or beliefs.

Pluralization, then, pushes the individual more and more out of the familiar world, to depart into and journey across a fragmented world. Roughly speaking, the modern man continuously alternates temporally, spatially or cognitively through diverse sectors (Berger 1973, 184). Once on this journey, the individual begins to reflect on his familiar world. That is the first step towards suspicion, which leads individuals to begin questioning the familiar world. Pluralism, as Berger and Luckmann nicely sum up, “encourages both skepticism and innovation and is thus inherently subversive of the taken-for-granted reality of the traditional status quo ” (1966, 125).

Because his journey never ends, modern man is doomed to recurring suspicion. This is the very same phenomenon which the German sociologist Helmut Schelsky calls “Dauerreflektion” (permanent reflectiveness) (Zijderveld 1979) and which Anthony Giddens speaks of as “wholesale reflexivity” or “widespread scepticism” (1991, 27). With  suspicion, the things (or worlds) taken for granted are put into question, and their ontological status becomes shaken, and then blurred. In other words, pluralism “undermines all certainties” (Berger 1992, 211). What this means can be put quite simply; the pluralized world is filled with discrepancies and lacks all consistency, which is a necessary precondition for certainty. Modernity leads the modern man into a pluralized world characterized by “a multiplicity of  incongruencies” (Berger 1997, 202).

Because the modern individual continuously alternates between highly fragmented and discrepant social sectors, he comes to feel that he is hanging around on the outskirts of the world. This feeling results from a lack of attachment. To put this in a different way, in modern society the individual more and more feels he is relegated to a marginal region of the world, inhabiting borderlines between segmented social contexts. Due to his suspicion and continuous migration, modern man finds no place to anchor himself anymore, and he wanders here and there, prone to distance himself from societies, social sectors, and individuals.”

 

In other words, “alienation;” the feeling of never truly belonging anywhere, of never belonging to anything more or greater than oneself, no matter how much one bounces from job to job, moves from one city or town to another, or even resettles in some corner of the world where life for the indigenous population is relatively laid back and the cost of living is, comparatively speaking, very low. This also is part of Modern Man’s condition, part of what contributes to depression, lack of self-worth, lack of meaning.

And it’s not just the U.S. nor even just the West where we’re seeing all this play out:

 

“In nations as diverse as Taiwan, Lebanon and New Zealand each successive generation is growing more vulnerable to the malady. Although rates of depression rise with age, the study found increases among young people. In some countries the likelihood that people born after 1955 will suffer a major depression — not just sadness, but a paralyzing listlessness, dejection and self-deprecation, as well as an overwhelming sense of hopelessness — at some point in life is more than three times greater than for their grandparents’ generation.”

[…]

“There’s been a tremendous erosion of the nuclear family — a doubling of the divorce rate, a drop in parents’ time available to children and an increase in mobility” in this country, with similar changes in other developed nations, Dr. Goodwin added. “You don’t grow up knowing your extended family anymore. The losses of these stable sources of self-identification mean a greater susceptibility to depression.”

The loss of family stability can lead to depression in several ways. “With the spread of industrialization after World War II, in a sense, nobody was home anymore,” said Dr. David Kupfer, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and chairman of a research network on depression sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. “In more and more families there has been growing parental indifference to children’s needs as they grow up. This is not a direct cause of depression, but it sets up a vulnerability in later life. Early emotional stressors may affect neuron development, which can lead to a depression when you are under great stress decades later.”

[…]

“For the last 30 or 40 years we’ve seen the ascendance of individualism and a waning of larger beliefs in religion, and in supports from the community and the extended family,” said Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “That means a loss of resources that can buffer you against setbacks and failures.”

One cause of depression is a tendency to magnify the effects of setbacks, Dr. Seligman said. “To the extent you see a failure as something that is lasting and which you magnify to taint everything in your life, you are prone to let a momentary defeat become a lasting sense of hopelessness,” he said. “But if you have a larger perspective, like a belief in God and an afterlife, and you lose your job, it’s just a temporary defeat. You know that justice will prevail in the long run and you don’t plummet into depression.”

 

What all this means is that the societal glues that many of us grew up believing to be oppressive and backwards institutions that were only holding us back from achieving our true potential: our families, our religious beliefs and institutions, actually served to stabilize us, anchor us, and help us realize that small setbacks are not the end of our world but merely a slight misstep on the path that we’ve chosen to tread and that has been chosen for us.

Furthermore, as at least one important study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders indicates, our bodies haven’t evolutionarily caught up to the changes in our environment, diet, work habits, decreased sleep patterns, decreased physical socialization, etc.

We’re literally killing ourselves to live while simultaneously allowing ourselves to believe that we live in mankind’s greatest golden age and the very pinnacle of history and civilization.

We need to return to the source, as it were — physically, spiritually, economically, in every way imaginable — if we’re to survive as a species, and if we don’t intend on destroying all of our habitats in the name of “progress.”

But I’m not a guide, I’m a seeker like all of you, and I can’t give you hard and fast answers as to what to do. The one suggestion I have is to look at yourself and see what you can do to improve your life, to make yourself more satisfied and fulfilled and then branch out from there — if you don’t know your neighbors get to know them, knock on their doors, introduce yourself, invite them over, form mutual support networks with the people in your immediate vicinity if at all possible, and if not broaden your circle outward incrementally.

And cultivate friendships with like-minded folks, if you haven’t already. The modern world has a tendency to make those of us who don’t belong in it and don’t fit in feel as though we’re “crazy.” Isolation only exacerbates this. Build with like-minded groups and individuals wherever you are and then expand outward.

Have faith in yourself, in your community and in something greater than yourself. Remember that every religious and historical tradition has talked about this age and its dominant dogmas, ideologies and forces and every one of them has foretold an ignominious end for all of these forces. Stay strong.

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