Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Culture of Dependence

These days it is impossible to avoid some topics that at first blush might not seem to have much in common. Here are a few, in no particular order:

— the obesity epidemic
— the death of Christianity in the West
— binge drinking, alcoholism and alcohol-related problems
— the end of monasticism and religious life
— the failure to do anything about climate change and the degradation of the environment
— preoccupation with the body and with sexuality far out of proportion to their role in what makes a human person

What they all have in common is that they arise from a culture that demands that people become increasingly dependent and infantilized, one which encourages passivity and inertia. Integrity is a word that is rarely mentioned, and a notion few care to think about or understand. Present cultural pressures are inimical to it.

— Alcohol related problems and food/gambling/sexual and other behavioural addictions have dependence as a core issue, not only dependence on the particular substance or behaviour in question, but as a dynamic that pervades every aspect of their lives and distorts every relationship.

— Multinationals don't want us to think; they want us to be dependent on advertising, and shopping as a drug; they want us to feel that we need to be told what we need and what we want. They want us not to mind that most of the world's wealth is in the hands of a very few, while billions live in unspeakable conditions of poverty, anxiety, and degradation.

— Technology makes us increasingly dependent on processes most of us cannot understand and over which there is no control. It strips away the wholeness of life, reducing it to two-dimensions. 'Friend' has become a verb and a commodity; people are increasingly dependent on what others think. Privacy is considered antiquated. Any gift, talent or discipline that does not make the practitioner a lot of money is considered useless, and their exercise is dependent on those who have lots of money and no discernment.

— Governments have created whole classes of dependent people who live in blighted areas where there are no jobs and where people have been unemployed for generations. The despair this engenders is unimaginably expensive, not only in human lives, but also in the costs of health care, benefits (if they exist) and social anarchy. Parents who are themselves children cannot raise mature, responsible offspring.

— Over-specialization makes people dependent on others when they could probably do a better job themselves if they were not discouraged or even actively prevented from doing the work and the research. Many certifications are worthless, including doctorates, as well as those more obviously suspect. The self-help movement has contributed to people's low anthropology: its message is that there's always something else wrong with you so that you will feel you have to buy another self-help book to try to fix yourself up to a Procrustean template.

— Preparing people to pass exams is not education. It trains them to say what they think others (or the computer) want to hear, rather than engaging in critical thinking, and searching for and speaking the truth. Multiple choice, essays corrected by computer, force the subtleties of creative thinking into black-and-white banalities. Academic systems are somewhat like religions in that they tend to spawn their own doctrines and hierarchies that become oblivious to what in fact is true, and prevent people from challenging the status quo, or changing methodologies that are inimical to the content of the research. It is no accident that both Iain McGilchrist and Margaret Barker—two of today's most innovative and world-changing thinkers— are independent scholars.

— Encouraging self-esteem at the expense of self-respect means that many young people live lives based on fantasy rather than fruits, on projection rather than considered, well-discerned action that arises from interior strength. Their lives are based on hollow, narcissistic ephemera rather than grounded in an outwardly-focused integrity. Actions that appear to encourage short-term self-esteem can be extremely damaging to self-respect over the long term. It is yet another way in which people are encouraged to make themselves feel better by consuming, and by dependence on others' opinions. In fact, consumption will only make them feel worse, whereas plunging into a cause that demands all their attention and commitment will, by means of self-forgetfulness, bring a deep fulfillment.

The life of war correspondent Marie Colvin, who died in Homs this past week, is celebrated by Jenny McCartney in today's Telegraph. '...She never wanted to be the story: her unrelenting determination was instead to tell the stories of other people, particularly those who were otherwise voiceless in accursed places that all those with a strong interest in self-preservation would naturally avoid. That is of course, precisely what Colvin was doing in Homs—a place so dangerous that most other war reporters had chosen to stay away. Her last broadcast had a specific practical purpose: it strongly refuted Syrian government propaganda to state unequivocally that "the Syrian army is shelling a city of cold, starving civilians" who had been left with no way out.' She was targeted for this broadcast, but her standing up to the Syrian government has raised the awareness of the West to the immediacy and depth of the Syrian crisis as nothing else could have done.

I began this post several days ago, but McCartney states the problems I had hoped to address with a stunning clarity that supersedes my own poor prose: 'I hope that Colvin...would forgive me for writing about her this week. But it appears to me that what she stood for is especially important when set against the prevailing cultural current of our times. For although she certainly had an ego—no one could build a career in war zones without one—she seems to have been largely immune to the besetting diseases of narcissism and trivia which have come to devour so much of the modern age, and femininity in particular....things that were meant to add a touch of spice to life have somehow ended up becoming the main nutritional intake, and are proving toxic in higher concentrations... The perspective of the British public—and of those catering to it—has shifted from looking outward to sustained navel-gazing.'

— Sexuality and the body are important elements in life but they are parts, not the whole. Yet, as McCartney notes: '...people have apparently become increasingly preoccupied with their own bodies [another form of dependence]...Young women can scarcely keep up with the incessant grooming demands of hair extensions, nails, tanning and waxing, which they feel they must follow religiously in order not to be judged repellent. Acute self-consciousness is everywhere...young models pouting and posing [in adverts] in an overt, coquettish fashion ... make them look inordinately pleased with themselves, and also very silly.' They are icons of the vapid zeitgeist.

McCartney ends: 'What does this excess of narcissism do? It can never content the narcissist, nor spread any good in the world. Age creeps on regardless, and death comes even to those who stay away from war zones. Marie Colvin bravely realised the importance of providing a window on the wider world, through which individuals might be moved to effect change. The least that her fellow women could do is bother to look through that window, instead of perpetually stumbling between the fridge and the mirror.'

And Patrick Cockburn in today's Independent adds: 'She had no death wish – in fact, I have seldom met any body more in love with life – but, with her high intelligence, she must have known that death was a price that at any moment she might have to pay.'

To do something for its own sake and not to count the cost seems to be a forgotten art.

— Christianity is deeply implicated in this culture of narcissism. It has changed from promoting outward-looking beholding and communion, spiritual maturity and a high anthropology before the 10th century, to a religion that rests on a low anthropology, one that exploits guilt, relies on infantilising people, makes them emotionally and spiritually dependent, and, these days, so despises its constituents that it dumbs down its practices, texts and rituals to the point that they are meaningless—no wonder people are leaving in droves. Seminaries and theological colleges are no longer able to relate the language of doctrine to the referents of real life, and each generation of students, wrapped up in the closed system of theology divorced from practice and dedicated to control and manipulation, makes religious institutions less viable. Church hierarchies—and for that matter current management practice in business—function in the same way as alcoholic constellations. The language of self-emptying vocation is corrupted to bolster self-serving careerism.

— And, from a personal point of view, religious life has for centuries confused obedience with emotional dependence, women's communities being far worse off than men's in this regard. To be accepted and to survive, candidates are required to be dependent. If they are not naturally so, they must fake it; otherwise they are considered not to have the 'spirit of obedience'. In fact, these two are opposite: obedience can be licit only if it is freely given, and if one is dependent, one is not free: one is submitting to emotional blackmail.

The so-called new monasticism is neither new nor monastic. However well intentioned, it appears rather to be yet another extension of the culture of narcissism, smoke and mirrors that strive to have one's cake and eat it too. Communities of narcissists without commitment cannot long endure, and the work they do, however laudatory, and whatever the appearance of 'success' (which should not even figure in the equation), is contaminated because if it is not an overflow of self-forgetful contemplation it is patronising, exploitive, and oppressive, creating yet more dependence—again, an alcoholic constellation.

We need more Marie Colvins in this world; we need to pluck up our courage and follow her example. Whatever her flaws and excesses, however mixed her motivations, she had a vision of life and her role in it, and followed to the end the hope of making the world a better place.

How many of us can say the same?


Anonymous BR said...

God bless you, Maggie. This is the story of my life-- buffeted about by indecision, wanting God to step in and tell me what to do (more dependency).

I've just been reading "Acedia & Me," which touches on similar ground, if not as precisely as you. And languishing in a new graduate school program. Where the teachers can't teach, the classrooms are computers, and the goal's a career.

Thank you for this. It comes by grace at just the right time-- not only because I couldn't sleep.

8:33 am, February 26, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a few other people thinking along similar lines as you re: dependence (and also your earlier post re: dehumanization)

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers

By William Deresiewicz

(you'll probably also like the following essay by the same author):

Solitude and Leadership

If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts

By William Deresiewicz

The lecture below was delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009.

[another author too long, so will be put in another comment]
lastly, a young lady that's bucking the trend. at age 19, she took a gap year to travel the world and do charity work. then she started an orphanage in nepal and her own NGO about age 20. she turned 25 last nov, is mom to 40 kids in her childrens home, and also started an elementary school teaching 250+ kids. (there's also a steady stream of other volunteers coming thru to help her, as she's inspired many others too.)

a good summary of her story:

Maggie Doyne Builds Orphanage And School For Kids In Nepal

or a short 1min18sec video telling her story:
Maggie Doyne - Do Something Awards Finalist

or, a touching 2-part story of how she got one of her kids. (i liked the "jersey girl moment" comment, and the story of the shoes, both in the second blog entry):


so, perhaps there's some hope for optimism, given that others notice the same sad trends you do. and that at least some young people are bucking the trends of the overall culture.


9:26 am, February 26, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

[the 'too long' excerpts from my prior comment]

the writer John Michael Greer writes about peak oil, and society's response to it. his blog over the last 3 years has turned into several books. he's an engaging writer, well read, and very deft social critic to boot.

recently he's had a couple posts about dependence and machines and dehumanization


The Recovery of the Human

"Power exerted through a machine is defined purely by I-It relationships; the only way to relate to a machine is to compel and control it, and (not, please note, "or") to be compelled and controlled by it.. That defines the direct relation of person to machine, but it also tends to define the indirect relation of person to person when a machine is the medium. The logic here is straightforward: a machine can only transmit those aspects of relationship that require no inner life to communicate, since a machine has none. The more thoroughly an interaction between people is reshaped for machine processing, therefore, the more completely any potential for I-Thou relationship is filtered out of the interaction."


"For most Americans, television has come to represent the experience of collective participation, and yet the flickering lights in the suburban windows serve as a reminder that few activities are more solitary or more isolating. In precisely the same way, the freedom represented by the car moving down the open road is a pathetic illusion; from the immense government programs that build and maintain those open roads, through the gargantuan corporate systems that produce the cars, to the sprawling global network of oilfields, pipelines, refineries, and the rest of the colossal system that transforms fossil hydrocarbons into the gas that keeps the car going, there are few human activities on Earth that depend more completely on the vast and faceless bureaucracies that most Americans think they despise. Isolation packaged as participation, dependence packaged as freedom: there’s much to be learned here about the power of thaumaturgy to twist the meanings of things—but I want to go one step further here.


Everything we do as mature human beings thus falls along a continuum between what philosopher Martin Buber called "I-It" and "I-Thou" relationships—less obscurely, between those interactions in which the individual can simply deal with other things as objects, and those in which he or she must deal with other beings as subjects with their own inner lives and their own capacities for interpretation and choice. [....]

A machine, though, can never be a subject. Machines imitate the actions of persons, but they have no subjectivity, no inner world; they’re always and only objects, and so the only relationship you can have with them is an I-It relationship. [....]

So the role played by machines in the modern industrial world, in large part, is as the primary focus for the very common human craving for power. The fact that the appearance of power is purchased at the cost of total dependence simply makes the irony that much richer; people nowadays cling to their autos and their televisions all the harder because they know perfectly well that the sensation of power as the engine roars is an illusion, and that a community that goes away when you change the channel doesn’t actually meet their needs for participation. Take a hard look at any other technology that has a central role in contemporary culture, and you’ll find the same nexus between an illusion of power, a reality of dependence—and a large and increasing cost.



9:28 am, February 26, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

These are terrific links, SLG, thank you!

3:01 pm, February 26, 2012  
Blogger Ultra Monk said...

There is a significant genetic difference from the Einkorn wheat that God designed and the Dwarf wheat which we all eat now. For very good reasons, even if you are not celiac, some choose to give up wheat.

I'd say there is an analogy to the religion of Christianity. What Jesus proposed is not what we have today. For very good spiritual reasons, some of us choose to quit religion and church.

I'd also say that since getting kicked out of a monastery, several blessings occurred. One, I never rejoined society as in watching TV or doing what the masses do. Two, my spirituality has grown much more than it ever could have in the confines of religion and religious rule. However, the price of not-going-along is a certain friction between me and the people who stay within these structures.

10:20 pm, February 26, 2012  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

Last Satruday our Contemplative Practices Group offered a three hour workshop. Some yoga,some chanting, some silent sitting, and free time to follow ones heart.

No one mentioned God. Not once It was a draught of fresh water in a gone salty sea.

On one on staff attended.

On Sunday there was a church service in the same space. Lots of God talk.

It was as dry as a desert.

7:04 pm, February 27, 2012  

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