Wednesday, December 28, 2016

5 Toxic Byproducts of Civilization (and a Parable)

This post is going to take some imagination. It's going to take some pondering. But that's okay because I know you're both imaginative and ponderous. Oops, scratch that last one. You're not ponderous, but rather have the ability to ponder. And away we go.

Let me make a prediction: You're miserable. It isn't really a prediction, though, so much as it is a glaring reality. I know because I'm miserable too. Everyone is. Sure, we can pancake over our inherent agony with all manner of sticky sweetness. Sports. Sex. Cinema. Booze. Drugs. Video games. Religion. Hell, a good spy novel takes the edge off.

But it's always temporary. It always wears off and that ugly misery resurfaces.

You ever see some fool in the comments section of a Yahoo article begin a rant with "The problem with this world is . . . " before going of on some half-cocked and wholly inane argument about gas prices or schools quashing the Pledge of Allegiance?

I'm here to tell you what the real problem with this world is. The singular root of all evil. (Spoiler Alert! It's not money.) Ready? Here goes.

We live in a society deliberately designed to make us as miserable as possible for as long as possible. Ah, I can almost hear the sound of all the keyboard warriors heading straight for the comments to dispute what they know, in the darkest and most secret chamber of their essence, to be certainty. But as I am the one making the claim, I bear the burden of providing evidence to support it. Here are five terrible byproducts of civilization:

1) Labor. How many of you love your day job? Truly, unabashedly, full-on love it? Like, if you won $564 gazillion dollars in the Gonzo Megabux Lottery, you'd keep your job because that's how much you can't get enough of the place you spend 40+ hours every week? None of you. Good. How many of you lament (often loudly and with generous profanity) about the horrible conditions under which you toil and still insist everyone must work? Homeless people simply need to "get a job" and "pull themselves up by their bootstraps," right? If you can't see the sheer contradictory madness in this, I fear you are beyond saving.

2) Wealth. Money. Moolah. Bread. Greenbacks. Strips of germ-ridden fibrous papers are what we've collectively determined hold value in our sick society. Let that sink in. Take as long as you need. The thing we've assigned the most value to is literally one of the filthiest. You can cut the irony with a butter knife. A suitcase full of these bills is worth more than your life to some people (I first wrote "most people," but revised because I haven't quite lost that much hope in humanity yet). There are people walking around right now, probably in your city, maybe even in your neighborhood, who would happily take your life for a suitcase full of paper rectangles bearing the faces of our forefathers and, no doubt, traces of Colombian cocaine. The idea of grimy paper worth more than human life is utterly alien to a healthy mind. Or at least it ought to be.

3) Power. A civilization--especially one with a capitalist base, such as we've inherited--is constructed as a hierarchy. Those with the greatest wealth have the ability to attain the greatest power, or at least have greater control over how much power they wield. That's why some folks wouldn't blink twice at gunning a fellow human being down for a suitcase full of cash: They seek power. Easiest way path to power is, say it with me, wealth. I often wonder, though, what happens after someone GETS ALL THE POWER. Then what? Look for more power, of course. When does seeking power just get boring? I can only answer for me: It already has. Power is boring. It's imprisoning. It's false and it's damning. I pity those who resort to extremes in order to attain it or who even go looking for it in the first place.

4) Demeanor. Observe human interactions. Watch the way films and television bitterly imitate life. What do you see? You see people berating others. Shaming them. Laughing at someone else's expense. Gordon Ramsay bellowing into some sorry sous chef's face rather than sweetly coaxing confidence out of her. Know why? Because when you're miserable, you feel better when you can make someone else feel worse. It's so intrinsic to the nature of civilization that most of us fail to see it. Nine out of ten TV ads feature such behavior; everyone is always so angry at someone else, or degrading them, or laughing at them. That's what you do, though, when you live in constant wretchedness: You hurt others to feel better. It's why kids bully--to feel better about their shitty little lives. You could even make the argument that it's some sick perversion of empathy. YOU SHALL FEEL MY AGONY, WORM! YOU SHALL KNOW MY PAIN.

5) Speaking of pain, what about depression and anxiety? Okay, technically, these are separate byproducts, but they seem to go together like buggy whips and buggies, so they're addressed here simultaneously. What causes them? People just love to use the classic "chemical imbalance" as a fallback. Of course, some cases of anxiety and depression are undoubtedly caused by chemical imbalances, but give it a longer look. People who live in a state of constant stress are bound to be anxious and depressed. Cause and effect.

I want you to try something. This is where I want you to use your imagination. Close your eyes, if it helps (but only after you've finished reading!). Ready? Okay, imagine this:


You awaken in a foreign land. You are surrounded by waving grasses, tall trees (oak, you think, or maybe ash), the rocky face of a mountain range, a stream burbling nearby, and maybe a species of yellow bird twittering from above. You don't know where you are, but at least you know its not on an extraterrestrial craterscape or hell's hottest furnace and so you journey in search of answers. (You take your time, though, because once you find your way home, the mortgage needs paying, the boss wants a 12-page report you haven't started yet submitted first thing Monday morning, and both cars could use a wax, so what's the rush, right?)

After hours of hiking you happen upon a village. You are hot, hungry, and exhausted. The villagers greet you with smiles, though they don't speak your language. They offer you strange but delectable fruit and a thoroughly thirst-quenching beverage. They provide you lodging in the grandest chambers of their inn. You try to offset their overhead by doling out bills from your wallet as payment, but these folks don't understand why you're trying to force on them odd, grubby, funny-smelling portraits of old men.

Okay, you think, they're generous. It's kind of them to help a poor, lost stranger in a strange land. But hospitality doesn't solve the larger problem of getting home. I mean, it's not as if they offered you Dorothy's ruby slippers. So what's the next logical step?

You want to speak to their leader, right? Someone in control, someone in command. Someone with connections, who can point you toward the nearest airport and send you back to the land of plenty. After much frustration on your part (your hosts are ever-patient in your constant stumbling over the language barrier--after all, you bear the burden of learning their language), you at last convey the concept of "leader." Or think you did. As it turns out, they have no term for "leader" in their vocabulary. It's a concept utterly foreign to them, just as the absence of a singular leader or a committee of leaders is foreign to you.

How do you govern, then? you manage to ask them at length. Who has the most power?

The power is shared, they tell you (and look at you go! You're starting to pick up the lingo already!) There is no one person or group of people who control everything. Everyone works together for the good of the whole. Every person is vital. No one hordes possessions. Everyone is crucial.

And then it dawns on you. Every person you've met in this village is happy. Not just happy, though. Overjoyed. Thrilled to be alive, to be a part of a greater good. No one scorns anyone else. No one is left languishing in despair because she cannot pay her debts. All are nurtured and loved. Maybe civilization isn't the best, you think. Maybe we aren't as smart or cultured or advanced as we think we are. Maybe there can be something better, where people actually matter more than materialism. It's something you'll have to take time to ponder because you've been conditioned all your life to think otherwise. Yes, time is what it will take.

You ask the villagers if you can stay a few days, which become a few weeks, which become, of course, months and years. You stay forever because you're happy, overjoyed, and thrilled to be alive. You love and are loved. You don't worry any longer about making it home again because, at last, you are home. And, as a cherry on top, you don't have to worry about submitting the damned report to your overbearing boss.


I can practically hear you seething through your screen. Communist! Liberal! Hippie! Tree-hugger! How dare you question the American Dream, the Cradle of Democracy, The Flag of the United States of America and the Republic for Which It Stands? 

Settle down there, chum. Take a deep breath. First, none of those labels apply to me and I'm not questioning America, the flag, or the Republic. I'm simply offering another viewpoint. Because you're miserable and so am I. We all are, everyone. I'm not suggesting we shoot for Utopia because we all know there's no such thing--people are just too different to ever agree on what defines a perfect world. But we can shoot for something better, because it's out there. I know it. You know it, too. It may only take you time and imagination to accept it.

So to those denouncing, denigrating, and/or degrading me right now, it's all right. It's what you've been taught to do. It's not your fault. Say it with me Good Will Hunting style: It's not your fault. It's. Not. Your. Fault.

It only becomes your fault if you are too shortsighted or hardheaded to imagine something else, something better. We can be better. We have to be or we won't be around long enough to have to worry about it. Civilization's lone virtue is that it has produced a creative, intelligent, and imaginative population. Let's use those gifts, not squander them. How can we be prosperous if our default setting is misery?

Love to all and Happy New Year. Let's try to make it the best one yet, shall we?