Sunday, January 2, 2011

Surviving Modern Life

Freedom is the great blessing of modern life and also our greatest peril. We are free as no other people before to think our own thoughts, choose our own careers, pick a "lifestyle" that suits us, and find our own meaning and purpose. But these things are not always easy to do.

This week David Brooks reviews a book by two academic philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly of Harvard, called All Things Shining. After a tour of the western tradition, Dreyfus and Dorrance look into the problem of life in the age of freedom. Brooks summarizes:
For the past hundred years or so, we have lived in a secular age. That does not mean that people aren’t religious. It means there is no shared set of values we all absorb as preconscious assumptions. In our world, individuals have to find or create their own meaning.

This, Dreyfus and Kelly argue, has led to a pervasive sadness. Individuals are usually not capable of creating their own lives from the ground up. So modern life is marked by frequent feelings of indecision and anxiety. People often lack the foundations upon which to make the most important choices.

As Brooks notes, this ignores the millions of people who still belong to traditional religious sects; one of the phenomena of the modern era has been the rise of hyper-traditional religious forms that go out of their way to reject the freedom modernity affords. But for the secular among us, this is a good summary. I also think Brooks is mistaken to put too much emphasis on the religious side. In a traditional society it is not just a theory of the universe that people receive from their parents, but a way of life: a mode of working, the structure of a typical day, a kind of house and a way of arranging space within it, and so on. Even deeply religious moderns face many more choices than most people did in the ancient world.

Besides the need to make many choices, another problem faced by secular moderns is finding a way to escape from the everyday world. For reasons we cannot yet explain, most humans come equipped with a longing for transcendent experiences. As much as we throw ourselves into daily life we cannot escape the desire for something more, something different, something that lifts us beyond ourselves and makes us feel connected to a greater all. Modern people who do not feel this transcendent belonging in religious ceremonies have gone looking for it in other places. Especially in sports:

Spiritually unmoored, many people nonetheless experience intense elevation during the magical moments that sport often affords. Dreyfus and Kelly mention the mood that swept through the crowd at Yankee Stadium when Lou Gehrig delivered his “Luckiest Man Alive” speech, or the mood that swept through Wimbledon as Roger Federer completed one of his greatest matches.

The most real things in life, they write, well up and take us over. They call this experience “whooshing up.” We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature.

I like this analysis of our sports obsession, which applies equally to rock concerts and the like. It certainly fits into the same paradigm of collective experience as public religious experiences, and "whooshing up" is a nicely neutral description of the high people get from a big victory by a team the identify with. Of course, it is hardly original, but then few good ideas are. I think Brooks is right that sports and music fandom are central to modern life: "The activities often dismissed as mere diversions are actually central." But I think this is too glib:
Real life is more about serial whooshes than coherent meaning.
Moments of transcendence are only part of life, and we need the everyday world of work, family, and friendships just as much. A life that is no more than a string of whooshes would strike most of us as unserious and empty.

I would also say that I am not sure people in past societies were any happier than we are. If they were supported by stronger social structures and more sure of their place in the world, they also had less freedom and much more real physical suffering. For many of them religion was a less important source of ecstatic moments than war or other extreme violence. Every period of human life has its blessings and its torments, and I think is is narcissistic to assume that our problems are worse than other people's.


David said...

Having not read Brooks' article, it seems to me the whole set of ideas sounds rather silly and falsely nostalgic. Pre-modern records are full of clerical complaints about the tepidity of religious feeling, peasants who prefer to talk to each other about their animals rather than listen to the mass, etc. I suspect the truth is that, in small-scale communities with little privacy, plenty of gossip, and few second chances, people kept to themselves the sort of answerless doubts and complaints that Brooks et al. are talking about. Plus, in a world where economic activity was mostly strenuous and geared toward supplying necessities, I suspect there was a lot less room for doubt about whether there's more, whether you're doing the right thing at any given moment, etc.

John said...

All of that is true. The interesting question is, why doesn't the great freedom and wealth of modern life make people happy? I think the answer may be that we have lost important things as well.

Alternately, it may be just that happiness is a quality more determined by genetics than circumstance, so for any reasonably well-functioning society the overall level of happiness is pretty much the same.