One may feel inclined to avoid the obvious, but most thinking readers and writers will say that the defining factor of our century is fundamentalism. And yet, there is something that goes hand-in-hand with fundamentalism: the material savage that is raging around our planet. Wasn’t it always, one way or another, about God versus Mammon? It is hardly surprising that we should connect the strife as we know it today with money. “Of course,” the citizen in the street will say, “it is all about oil.” But is oil the real cause? As a tongue-in-cheek proposition, one might say that right now the cause could be solar panels—or more likely, the capacity to build electric- or solar-driven automobiles. As far as America and the West in general is concerned, it will be, and probably already is, all about energy independence. But perhaps personal independence for the citizen on the street could be approached in a different and more appropriate manner.
The German-speaking world, which gave us the likes of Freud and Adler and Jung, has also given us a word that expresses it all so neatly, so precisely. It was what National Socialism was founded on. Existenzangst is the explanation for most things deplorable within the human frame and is ultimately the forming factor of the human condition. Feelings of insecurity and fear are obviously not to be desired, and people will fight to avoid or subdue them. It is noticeable that panic fostered by poverty demonstrably leads to fanaticism—but that only according to the level of so-called civilized sophistication and through manipulative politics. In the developing world, where poverty is usually the given norm, apathy rules until parties with an interest start to exercise pressure. Apathy in the West, however, has never been seen when a nation hits a bad patch in its collective history; that nation gets up and fights. The extreme exaggerations of the fundamentalists today are financed—but by whom or what, is often not known. But they are financed to the point where warfare is an easily accessed option and the general public are coerced, often unwittingly, into taking part.
Money makes the world go round! How awful to be obliged to admit it. But the human psyche would have it so. Many years ago, an astute social observer was reported to have maintained that the hippy movement of the 1960s was made possible because the kids, supported by their perfectly solvent parents, were financially able to drop out. America was enjoying an upturn in fiscal endeavor. Things were going swimmingly. What to do? Well, the kids didn’t really rebel against materialism; they rebelled against a vague stirring within themselves. It was a stirring, a burgeoning feeling of frustration. They wished for freedom and were looking for the same through a medium that had not made them captive. Most never found that medium. To put it bluntly, they were—we are—very much of this world.
It means that when a certain material level has been achieved and sufficient outlets have been provided for disposing of one’s wealth, restlessness sets in. Restlessness among the young is no great novelty, and, one way or another, every generation pushes past the frontiers of convention. New standards are set, and old regimes are torn down.
It has always been so. The terrorists of today have been recorded in dismal similarity at regular intervals throughout what we are pleased to call human history. But why? What was really behind the so-called Protestant versus Catholic conflict in Ireland, or the war in Vietnam, or the mass-murder of Jews in World War II? What makes humans so inhuman? Is it simply a lack of money? Is it desperation to maintain a few bits of inconsequential civilization? Perhaps, even, the need to “be something,” or someone?
Physical attack admittedly requires defense, but for all else, one does have the option of simply turning away. “Brushing the dust from one’s heels,” so to speak. One finds the word “perverse” perfectly apt for describing the world’s ills, as perpetrated by the world’s troublemakers. My dictionary offers: wayward or contrary; obstinate; cantankerous as an explanation for perversity. It is all the stuff of self-will, and that sometimes to the point of madness. If one points out to world leaders that their policies and actions are costing the lives of women and children (men, too, of course), they seem incapable or resolutely contrary, nay oblivious, to what would be seen as being truly human. Our technological advance has apparently gone hand in glove with our decline as humans. One remembers Albert Einstein and his famous words after splitting the atom for us; “My God, what have we done?” Well, two steps forward, one step back really does seem to be the mode.
The age of connections. Rebirth of faith. Clash of civilizations. Age of the Internet. Rise of fundamentalism. Interstellar travel. Gender equality. Human trafficking. WWIII. Artificial intelligence. Genetics. Cooperation. Competition. Spiritual revolution. Secularism. Values and Ethics…
All will loom large in public awareness in the 21st century. Nevertheless, the last theme on the list, Ethics, will possibly be our only hope if we wish to manage all of the rest in the future. An ethical approach is, of course, paramount for dealing with what will be our lot as we continue to flounder in our sea of uncertainty. Mr. and Mrs. Average, people like you and me, will be made subject to matters far beyond our control. It will be this lack of control—having everything out of our hands—that could foster frustration anew. This is where ethics will be of the essence.
Could there be a better way to live life? As humans awaken and walk forward into their day, their global difficulties will continue to flow towards them. For many a “heads down” approach will be all that is left to them. Heads down and somehow struggle or barge through. It may be well to remember Ernest Hemmingway’s admonition to “not confuse movement with action.” This will, for many, and especially our opinion makers, go against the intellectual grain. Listening to any of the news and discussion programs one must be aware that the name of the game is action and counteraction, which is obviously and commonly known as treating the symptom and not the cause.
Since ethics are sometimes to be first sought, one could find it useful to simply stand still. It could mean a neat sidestep from the shenanigans of what we may be forced to countenance. To make light for a moment of a serious matter, a sort of olé response could be adopted to counteract the obvious perversity that rushes, bull-like, at us. Imagine an elegant stance, a numbing of the thinking mind, a quietening of the jabbering mental voice. There would be no hectic rush when the body and mind are in accord. A mind slowly fading into its own background noise—almost you might say, a mind being modest. A modest mind would be quite an innovation. But standing still, reflecting a little, taking it easy, will give us time to really understand what is going on around us. After all, a headlong rush into the fray will usually only add fire to an already raging inferno.
Our children—my wife and I have four—are already pulling back, withdrawing their time, their money, and their energies from a world that is no longer governed by ethics. In their own small way they are refusing to be a part of the global materialism that is being thrust at them. They do not leap to buy the latest technology, do not need to have, come what may, the latest gadget or carefully construed merchandise. Perhaps the children of the 1960s were not so wrong in principle after all. But now could be the time to not only drop out in an endeavor to attain freedom from the advertised life; we may now be able to see freedom in a different light.
We can say “no” because it is our right and privilege. This may well imply division between the warring classes and the pacifists, but the division is already becoming a reality. To recap on the theme of perversity, one should try to understand that there is no way to counter it. This is a given fact. As obvious as it may be, a person or party bent on action that defies all reason will be beyond their capacity to be reasoned with. There are hard-headed policies to contend with; they tell of a need to somehow “win” at all costs. Escape from the round of win-and-lose could be seen in the sophist’s claim: “I cannot be beaten by you because I have no wish to win.”
Ethics must prevail or all else will be lost. In the end we may be able to become responsible for our ideas, endeavors and attitudes, and above all our feelings. “Live and let live” must sooner or later become more than an empty phrase because it is clear that humans are largely unable to leave each other alone. Going one’s own ethical way and proceeding in a quiet and sincere manner seems reasonable, I feel.
I remember reading an observation by a literary light who suggested that there existed a very special club that people can join. There are no badges or insignia, and its members do not know each other, but when they chance to cross paths recognition is instant, although they may never even converse. Perhaps a nod sponsored by a deep awareness may be given. The club, of course, comprises true ladies and gentlemen. They are people of a quiet, even reticent, demeanor. They display no attitude or flair. They are slow to anger, and they are to be encountered at places and in situations that means they are where they are due to purpose and not whim. It is often these people who anonymously sponsor charities and are much involved in giving aid to the world’s poor and oppressed.
Is it too much to ask that we become ladies and gentlemen? The inner world of humans is fraught with desires and feelings that are all too often less than useful. It is by now common knowledge that the real meaning of jihad, a word largely associated with terror, is all about a personal inner battle and not a battle with someone else. One need not be a Muslim to see the possibility of undertaking our own inner battles. One may perhaps not become a superstar, but one does have the chance of becoming truly human.
“Change yourself if you wish to change the world,” is the old adage. I believe it is not even a matter of changing ourselves in the accepted sense (although I for one could discard a few bad habits) but tapping into a long-forgotten birthright. A birthright that is still there but has been overcharged with “needs” that are not really needs.
Personal ethics as the given norm would be a good place to start, for without them all else that is damnable is a foregone conclusion.