In every age there have been tumultuous times where it felt as if the world was coming to an end. Is our time any different? I don't subscribe to any apocalyptic beliefs, but it does seem to me that the collective paradigm through which we have been living for a long time is collapsing on a global scale. It is doing so through a kind of convergence on disintegration where different aspects of our everyday reality are paralleling each other and speeding toward a single, convergent point of collapse, a singularity of sorts.
There are paradoxes everywhere that hint at this disintegration. In a world where we are instantly connected to each other through technology, it seems that we are more alienated than ever. In an age of convenience and modern comforts, we are increasingly restless and have less free time than ever. In the Information Age, very few are really tuned in to what's happening. At a time when we are told that we are freer than ever with endless possibilities and choices, we feel trapped by our economic situation, our jobs, our familial responsibilities, social obligations, taboos or even our own boredom.
While we are redoubling our efforts to eat healthily, our food has deteriorated to a synthetic reproduction of the real thing, pumped up with hormones, chemicals and artificial "flavor enhancers." We are also tethered to our plethora of medication at a time when our medical knowledge has grown immensely. Depression, fear, obesity, poverty, hunger, and environmental disasters abound at a time when we proudly tout our freedom, courage and access to health, happiness, knowledge, excitement and wealth. In its search for maximum comfort and pleasure, the world has lost something so vital, so important that it cannot be anything else but the loss of the soul of a people. How and why did we get to this point?
It all began with a story, but the way in which it was told was even more important than the story itself. Storytelling, which is the tradition of passing on stories orally and face-to-face, was an essential part of most if not all ancient, vibrant cultures such as that of the American Indians. Storytelling, along with rituals and other ancient traditions, preserved the soul of a culture and brought it forth to dance in daily life. It allowed people to move in relationship to a rhythm that was much bigger than themselves, thereby retaining a healthy and sane mind. These stories were not based around gossip or mind-numbing entertainment or some practical information on how to build a house or get into heaven. Rather authentic storytelling was first and foremost a face-to-face exchange between human beings. It took the listener on an adventure into his or her own imagination, often touching the subconscious mind. As mentioned earlier, the manner of expression may have been more vital than the content. Myths and traditions of a culture were passed down and preserved in this way. These myths were the lifeblood of the culture and through them, people maintained a connection to each other, to their environment and the Universe. They were in some way magical, turning the environment, of which the individual is a part, into a living web of relationships to be experienced and honored. Sitting around a fire, for example, and listening to the elders tell these stories were a way to tie people together and strengthen those bonds. There was an exchange of glances and energy between people that one cannot get over email or through a text message or a movie. Time slowed down and an entirely different dimension opened up. On the surface, these multi-dimensional stories were entertaining but on another level, they were informing the people of their own mystery and depths. Storytelling somehow brought about a certain alignment not only among the group but also an alignment within oneself. It is also important to note that storytelling flourished at a time when people had little private or personal possessions and lived mostly through sharing and communal property.
Our current "civilized" world is filled with more private property than ever, including homes, cars, telephones, music players, clothing, etc. Along with private property, our world is now filled with an enormous amount of information and very few stories in the old context of storytelling. Cultures that once thrived, such as that of the American Indians, have long been pacified and assimilated, written off the map or killed off entirely along with their symbols and mythological tales. Everything is now being captured, recorded, documented and crystallized in some form or another. The old Biblical myth of Adam and Eve, for example, was probably passed on orally for centuries before it was written down. The story was meant to make sense of the beginning of the world through metaphorical means. Once the story was put down in writing, it became a piece of information, free from the mythical inflection and energy that is only possible through oral transmission; it was no longer a jumping off point into a mythic, dynamic realm. It became literally true, much like other portions of the Bible. With the act of pinning down life to a graven image and trapping it in form, a certain type of killing or death takes place. The subject is no longer a dynamic, breathing process but a thing to be put under the microscope, studied, dissected and analyzed. It has now become a virtual representation of the real thing, a fixed idea, just information. But with that sin, with that capture and killing, the captor or killer becomes also the enslaved sinner. The captor must become a piece of information in order to relate to and study what was captured. In turn, his or her life becomes a virtual representation of the real thing. Moreover, the proliferation of information creates a certain anxiety and disconnection. People feel as if they are drowning in a sea of data including news, crime statistics, passwords, account numbers, history, shopping lists, nutrition labels and a host of other tidbits. As a result, people try to shield themselves from the overwhelming nature of this information by withdrawing into a private, insulated space. Naturally then, society disintegrates into fragments of alienated individuals.
The so-called Information Age has been a long time coming, where any type of data can now be at our fingertips in seconds through the marvel of such inventions as the Internet. News, gossip, stock quotes, pornography, religious texts, conspiracy theories, how-to books and countless other forms of information are available for the taking - at a price. If there are any real stories out there, most are transformed into packaged, neutralized, sanitized or sterilized information to be consumed. We now have informational stories that lead us to fear terrorism, cholesterol, nuclear war, child abductions, wrinkled skin, etc, while others entice us to fall in love with an idea such as a fast car, bigger breasts, leather trim, sexual virility and glamorous clothing. There are also stories that are designed to entertain and drive away boredom. In any case, these "stories" are designed to deliver information in such a way as to embed a certain indelible image in our minds. The purpose for this has no reverence for the individual or the culture or the environment in which the individual lives. We could say that the purpose is to make a profit, often at any cost, but that would be oversimplifying it or limiting it to the economic domain. Although one of the outcomes is turning the laborer into a slave, that is only a symptom and not the cause. No, this is not about socialism, capitalism, communism or any other -ism. This phenomenon touches on something quite profound that lies in the human mind or psyche. It is an imbalance of sorts that transforms the human being from an interdependent living process into a stand-alone thing, a virtual representation of that human being. It is nothing less than the flattening out of a three-dimensional, living creature into a two-dimensional, static image. If we cannot identify this and see this for what it is, then it will continue to turn everything in its path into a piece of information, a product to be dissected, analyzed, packaged and consumed. Even those things that were once the hallmark of humanity and rich and vibrant societies like medicine, music and religion, have become monetized and prostituted. In this process, the human being has become a pacified consumer of an ideology, a piece of machinery, indistinguishable from the next, and a product to be used and devoured for the preservation of this self-serving, self-consuming system. No one is immune. From the executive to the priest, from the activist to the politician, from the philosopher to the saint, we are all hypnotized and held by some idea or ideal. Some are fighting against "the system" while others are trying to change or preserve it. In either case, we acknowledge and strengthen its presence whether through its acceptance or resistance. This is our modern myth and we are deeply entangled in it.
There are some stories out there now that still touch on that mystery and deeper dimension but they are relatively few. You can find authentic stories or myths in movies, books and other types of media; however, there is very little storytelling going on in the traditional sense. Our experience today is more or less private. Whether we are reading a book, listening to music, or watching television or a movie in a theater, we are not having a communal, dynamic exchange but a private experience. People certainly do talk about what they read, hear and see but the primary experience happens in a secluded space, already crystallized by predetermined forms and images. The story is already defined for us, leaving very little to the imagination. Books to some degree are an exception but then again, a very small minority of the population reads books. In fact, those who do read are more interested in magazines that provide information or gossip. So we slip into our private bubble to become isolated fragments in an increasingly shrinking world. Space can now be traversed in a fraction of the time that was required in the recent past. Time also has collapsed with the introduction of modern conveniences. Where before it took several months to deliver a message across the globe, now it only takes a split second to deliver the same message via email. One would think that, with the ability to execute a job in a fraction of the time and space that it took only decades ago, one would have more time to relax or enjoy life. On the contrary, we fill that time with more tasks dedicated to work and leave very little time to ourselves. Our biology cannot process all that our technology is demanding of us. How many passwords can you remember? We get the sense that we have very little time and feel as if we are being squeezed into a box, into a tiny space. We live in huge homes and yet we feel very confined within ourselves. We have modern and timesaving conveniences, such as washing machines, microwave ovens, etc, and yet we complain that we have no time at all. We feel that we are drowning and cannot sleep, so we turn to medication to relieve the stress, anxiety and depression. But we are only masking the problem, which is a lack of inner space and time. There is no room for that neglected but vital part of ourselves to breathe, to roam freely. Storytelling lifted up that part of us, along with rituals, rites of passage and other sacred or vital experiences. With that loss, time and space have been encroaching upon us while a split or psychological gap, within ourselves and between us as human beings, has grown to reveal a desolate abyss.
The paradox is grotesquely and appropriately highlighted with the proliferation of social networking web sites and organizations. Pick up any popular magazine and you can find several advertisements that offer to outsource your social or romantic life. After all, a busy, working professional has no time for these things. It is now also possible to be instantly connected with others through technology. Log on to certain social networking web sites and you can locate old friends and see their most recent photos, taken perhaps just a few minutes or hours ago. You can also find out what your friends are doing or talking about at this very moment, whether it is feeding the dog, wondering about the outcome of their favorite television show or enduring a toothache. That bit of information can even be sent to your email or mobile phone. While this endless buzz of activity abounds, there is really nothing going on. There is no story. The content is static; it does not breathe. It only refers to itself. It does not point to something dynamic or significant or unique. No authentic connections are being made. While I don't think that every interaction should or can have some deep significance, I am pointing to the fact that authentic connections or relationships, which are vital to sustaining a healthy society, are almost nonexistent or feeble at best. There are now only sterilized, fragmented pieces of information or fixed images.
Everything in our society revolves around reaching for and maintaining an image. And people will do almost anything to get it, from extreme dieting to criminal activity. Through their zealous efforts, people often hurt themselves and others. If anyone requires any proof of this insanity, one has only to look at the headlines of our newspapers to read about the proliferation of anxiety and depression medication. We read about the increasing rate of divorce, obesity, anorexia and violent crime. We are bored enough to read the latest gossip about some washed up celebrity who has attempted suicide. We find that plastic surgery is more popular than ever and it is becoming increasingly fashionable among teenagers. We, as dynamic and breathing beings or processes and as extensions of the Universe, are trying to fit into a fixed or static image projected to us from some outside source. In some way or another, we are all attempting to project some kind of image whether it is of wealth, of beauty, of intellect, of success, of health, of spirituality, of activism, of rebellion, etc. In short, we have fallen in lust with the idea as a replacement or substitute for reality, for what actually is. One example, of which I must admit guilt on more than one occasion, is the way travelers at times fall in love with the idea of travel to a destination but actually have little interest in being there. They can always be spotted. They are more concerned with capturing the perfect photo and anxiously moving on than actually immersing themselves in the environment. The photo becomes a prized possession, a record to share with others back home for having visited a certain famous site. The photo proves that we were there. We got a piece of the action! We're on the map! Projecting an image becomes more important or valuable than the experience of being there. In the end, we are looking for an affirmation of an image we are trying to project. But we all know very well that this image is just an illusion. We are left with a split or conflict between who we are and what we think we are or want to be. Let's look at some more examples!
There are those who have bought into the idea of marriage and a family. While there is nothing wrong with this lifestyle, it may not be the right choice for many who adopt it. They do so out of external pressure or a lack of options for their lives. They are sold on the idea by something or someone other than their own conscience. Often, the same group also subscribes to the suburban lifestyle in a spacious home with an attractive car in the garage. These images are all part of the American Dream, which for many, is actually lived as a hallucination or even worse, a nightmare. Many become trapped under the weight of their own possessions. They were attracted by the idea of owning a large home where they could hold dinner parties and carry on conversations by the illuminated swimming pool and live like those famous people on television. The reality is that homes require maintenance and pools require cleaning and those famous people, as they appear on television, do not really exist. This is not to mention the cost of ownership of a home including the mortgage, taxes, insurance and other related expenses. A certain level of income becomes a necessity to pay off debt and work is no longer something that is chosen for the fulfillment or joy that it could bring. Work often consumes their lives, leaving very few hours for the actual enjoyment of those things for which they are working. For them, weekends and vacations become an escape from the inanity of their workweek existence. Life becomes a colorless dream where tasteless food is quickly consumed, hours and days are wished away and pleasure and relaxation often come through dozing off in front of two-dimensional images, beamed from a box of flickering, synthetic light. A certain pattern of life becomes an imposition. One goes through the motions and habits of a way of life that has no real joy or significance whatsoever to the individual.
This breakdown is reflected in those features that once defined the virility of a society, like art and music. Once upon a time, music was composed like a story. It was significant of something, although that something could never be put explicitly into words. Moreover, there were as many interpretations of the music as there were listeners. The music was vibrant and dynamic. Even in the fairly recent past, mainstream popular music had a melody, a bridge, and a chorus. The lyrics also often told a story and had a certain energy that could not be defined or packaged. Now and more than ever, popular music has become disposable, a product to be consumed and replaced rather quickly by more of the same formula-driven drivel. There is hardly ever a melody or at the least something unique and defining. Musically, there is no story. There is only repetition to the nth degree. Some of our music now is just a repetition of a one or two-measure sequence. There is very little space in this music, just as there is very little space in the modern individual's life. The lyrics, when present, are hollow, mundane and deliberately devoid of any creative energy. They amount to nothing more than a string of clichés and tired sound bites. Film and video also follow the same pattern. We are constantly bombarded with images of beautiful people who seem to have all the wealth and toys that they could ever want. They dance around on the screen with their seemingly perfect bodies, glistening under the most flattering light. But the reality behind the screen is entirely different, literally supported by smoke and mirrors. Then there are the situation comedies that are mind-numbingly bad, complete with a laugh track in the background to signal to the viewer the appropriate timing for laughter, a supposedly spontaneous human reaction. Millions and millions of people across the globe watch these charades daily. This is their entertainment. Many would argue that we have all become mere reproductions of each other because we are unknowingly held hostage by the imposturous images fed to us through a virtual screen that mimics reality, namely the television. No, television is not the culprit and destroying it would not solve the problem. Rather, the television is a symptom or better yet, an outward expression or symbol for our profound infirmity. The phenomenon of television evolved as a perfect medium and reflection of our state of mind. We, as three-dimensional, dynamic human beings have become flattened out like the two-dimensional images that are static reproductions of reality on a virtual screen.
We now have become collectively disconnected from the real world, from the natural world, to which each of us as a real individual belongs. The plug has been pulled, so to speak, while the image is still flickering on the screen. If television is a symbol of the alienated state of mind of the individual, money may be the primary symbol of the deranged relationships we have with each other as a society. Those who have money lead comfortable lives while those who lack it suffer from hunger oftentimes leading to death. But it is fitting for money to be a symbol for the structure of our society, because after all it is an idea. Money has no inherent value but is an idea that is powered by people's belief in its value. It represents competition, success and power over another human being. In its pure form, money is only printed pieces of paper or a collection of minted coins. I find it fascinating that a one hundred dollar bill and a one dollar bill are printed on the same type of paper. Only the number representing their value is different. Now, take away the value given to these pieces of paper and they become worthless, having only the value of the bartering power of the paper on which they are printed. No one can eat a one hundred dollar bill to satisfy hunger and most certainly no one can drink it to satiate thirst. But the vast majority of people are in love with the idea of having lots of money, even though in and of itself, it is only a piece of paper. Many cheat, lie, steal, and kill for it.
In the process of chasing after the same idea, such as money, a certain uniformity arises. Whether secretly or openly, almost everyone desires to have the biggest house possible, the most attractive car and the perfect body, like those celebrities or those rich neighbors. In their endeavor to be what they currently are not, people begin to look alike, to act alike and to live the same stylized lives. One only has to look at the endless rows of homes, each more or less essentially identical to the other, dotting the suburban landscape. They are a symbol of this uniformity and the people inside are no less alike in the image they are trying to project. The unique story of each individual has been subverted by the idea or an image that is projected on that virtual screen of life. Only that image remains such as the successful businessperson, the loving and beautiful mate or the glamorous and generous and jet-setting friend. But beneath this veneer of a person, there is often a sad, lonely, withered and stressed-out human being trapped by his or her own image.
Today we are living an inverted picture of the ancient, storytelling cultures. In the old days, the story was formed out of the impulse or intelligence of nature's energy, which is also in one's body. Storytelling was a communal activity but relied on the individual's imagination and personal energies to support the vision of the community or culture. Each time a story or myth was told, it was like a performance. It was told with the interpretation or inflection of the personal energies of the storyteller. As such, there was always something unique and dynamic about the story. The same holds true for a musical composition. While a musician or group of musicians may perform the same piece of music, no two performances are ever alike. The performances and hence the compositions reflect the energy, experience, chemistry and passion of the players. Nowadays, the stories do not come from the private, unique and dynamic energies of the individual; rather, they are static, served up from an analyzed and studied "communal place", from our society and they generally come through the television set or the movie screen. But the interaction with those images is private, whether we are listening to our MP3 players, watching television or reading a book. The story is shaped not by the individual's unique energies but by some outside force. It is a fixed image that everyone is made to desire.
Our present time is most interesting because the idea itself seems to be disintegrating: the idea of democracy, the idea of capitalism or communism, the idea of financial security, the idea of a heavenly destiny or spiritual purification or enlightenment. Even as I write this, there is a global economic crises underway that is destroying the lives of ordinary citizens and on the verge of bringing down presidents, global corporations and even countries. It is the breakdown of the monetary system that has been held up for so long and built on debt, competition, exploitation and corruption. It is nothing less than the unprecedented collapse of the symbol itself that runs the world. As a result, all those things that are supported by the idea or symbol as a substitute for reality are converging in their collapse. On a personal level, this is expressed in the virtual or synthetic quality of our lives, which is getting exposed or amplified through depression, anxiety, and a host of other negatives. Interestingly enough, that symbol itself, the television, is becoming grotesquely exaggerated. People more than ever are buying large-screen televisions or installing "mini-theaters" in their homes. It is no longer sufficient to watch the virtual representation of life on a 25-inch or 30-inch screen. Now we enlarge the image as much as possible in order to feel closer to the action. Much like a drug, we consistently need more of it with every dose. The same applies to almost every material possession or luxury available. Even our food is being super-sized, not only at the order counters of restaurants. Our cows now are injected with growth hormones and our fruits and vegetables are genetically modified to grow faster and more abundantly. And yet paradoxically, we are losing our taste for what we have and are demanding more, bigger and better. Sadly or fortunately - depending on your perspective - no authentic story can be found in this endeavor. With all of this buzzing activity and with all of the flashy, fast-moving images on the screen and the intense flavor enhancers in our food, there is still nothing happening here. It is all without taste. While there is abundant wealth of sorts, we are left utterly poor. We have lost the story, our story.
In this way then, we can say that the end of the world has already taken place. The story has already ended. Only fragments of it remain amidst the zombie-like humans clawing at the best mask they can afford. If there are any today who live in the silent glory of the authentic story, they will not be found in any of the images that are projected and marketed to us. These individuals are neither famous nor infamous. In fact, we don't know their names. They live among us, looking no different than any ordinary citizen, and they come and go like the wind. Their stories are dynamic and unique and supported by nothing less than the entire energy of the Universe. In ancient cultures, they were the poets, artists, musicians or shamans. But not today. By and large, today's celebrated, so-called artists, poets and musicians, who are recognized by our society to be so great, are in fact as fake, ill and alienated as society itself. They are also a static image that society applauds and rewards because they are of its own kind, of its own creation. They reflect the illness and insanity of society and hold them up as a mirror while these impostors take a bow on the world stage and are showered with praise. No, they are not the real thing. The real thing is the individual, that dynamic, living human spirit dormant in all of us, each with its own unique story.
We must then ask if we have truly reached the end of the human being, of the human story. Well, the answer depends on each individual. There is a paradox here, as in everything else that is real. While I have discussed the loss of the vitality of society and the unique essence of the individual, that loss may be part of a bigger story that is still unfolding. It may be that we have to lose ourselves entirely to find ourselves. And the greater the loss, the greater the find. As such, the human drama may be the greatest story ever told, but that depends on you and me.