“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” ~Jiddu Krishnamurti, Indian spiritual teacher, philosopher and writer
What does it look like to be “well adjusted” to modern American society? Does it look like being busy? Does it look like owning too much? Does it secretly look like addiction? We want to belong, to be seen to be successful, and to have the approval of our families and peers, and over time, these very human desires for belonging and for approval cause us to adjust to a society that is, in many respects, “sick.” Often these adjustments happen unconsciously. The pace of Western culture, especially if we are good little conformers, keeps us so busy that we have very little time to think about the choices we make. Virginia Woolf powerfully expresses this in To the Lighthouse with the observation, “Is human life this? Is human life that? One never had time to think about it.”
Yet, the indications that our society is ailing are everywhere. Few would argue with the notion that our culture shows many signs of deterioration and illness. It only takes a few minutes spent on Twitter to observe the anger, the rage, and the rudeness that have become commonplace in our communications. Signs of addiction are everywhere: food, alcohol, drug, social media, sex addiction, gambling, shopping addiction, workaholism. A New York Times headline just last week read, “Middle Aged Adults are Binge Drinking and Using Marjuana at Record Levels.” Normally the province of experimental adolescents and early twenty-somethings, binge drinking and pot use are soaring among older generations. People are turning to substances at record rates to cope with what ails us all. If “the opposite of addiction is connection” (Johann Hari), our society shows massive evidence of disconnection and loneliness, of people feeling alienated from each other and from themselves. Despite us being intensely, intrusively hyper-connected through online media and our ever-present phones, many of us exist with a pervasive sense of disconnectedness and loss. Often we can’t even put our fingers on what we’ve lost or on how we feel disconnected because we think of ourselves, with our vibrating phones and pinging notifications, as tremendously connected.
Outward compliance to a sick society often manifests in addiction. We outwardly comply: we get the jobs we’re supposed to want, own the stuff we’re supposed to have, act in the ways we’re supposed to, live the busy, complex lives demanded of us, and we teach our children to do the same. We go along. We show that we’re capable, that we’re reliable, that we’re normal, that we can keep up. We show that we are adaptable and malleable and strong. But inside, many of us sense that this isn’t how we’re meant to live. It creates a cognitive dissonance that we might or might not realize is there; it might be languishing in the background on a subconscious level. Whether we realize we’re experiencing cognitive dissonance or not, the cognitive dissonance, if not addressed and ameliorated, leaves us ill.
It’s also not terribly surprising that a society in which many of us spend the better part of our lives indoors and shut away from nature, is a society that is causing an ailing earth. The earth has been poisoned by what our consumption and faulty priorities have wrought, from our compulsion for “more,” resulting in overloaded landfills, greenhouse emissions, and overfished oceans. We need not look only at humanity to see evidence of illness. Our very planet is manifesting the symptoms of noxious living.
In addition to not living in sync with the natural world, many of us are not grounded in our bodies while we dwell long hours every day in a virtual world of emails, social media, and texts. We are gorged with information but starved of spiritual substance. We are distracted, our minds always crowded, but we are out of touch with our bodies: our breath shallow, our shoulders tight, our brows furrowed. If we conceive of a higher power or some spiritual force with which we desire a relationship, too many of us find it hard to carve out the time to invest in this relationship with any regularity. Our priorities get jumbled when we have no time for solitude, or realigning and setting intentions. George MacDonald aptly wrote:
“It is hardly to be wondered at that he should lose the finer consciousness of higher powers and deeper feelings, not from any behavior in itself wrong, but from the hurry, noise, and tumult in the streets of life, that, penetrating too deep into the house of life, dazed and stupefied the silent and lonely watcher in the chamber of conscience, far apart. He had no time to think or feel (from Daily Strength for Daily Needs, ed. Mary W. Tileston).”
Recognizing all the signs of infection is not enough. “Okay, our society is messed up, and we’re wrecking the earth,” you might say. “Thanks for the uplifting message today.” But of course we cannot leave it right here. Awareness is only one step towards a solution. We have an awareness of the problem. What can we do about it? We have to start by giving ourselves permission to pursue a course that doesn’t fully align with society’s values. We have to be willing to break with some societal norms and expectations, and it’s going to take courage. Maria Popova puts it powerfully in Figuring, asking, “Where does it live, that place of permission that lets a person chart a new terrain of possibility, that makes her dare to believe she can be something other than what her culture tells her she is […]? How does something emerge from nothing?” Popova then quotes a passage of a Lucielle Clifton poem that captures that free and unconventional sentiment:
‘won’t you celebrate with me
what I have shaped into
a kind of life? I had no model.
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay”
~(Lucielle Clifton, quoted in Figuring)
When we grant ourselves permission, we may feel as though we have “no model” in this endeavor to break with some unwell pattern, and we have to know that it is okay if that is true, and we can grant ourselves permission to be mavericks. We also have to know that, in reality, it is very likely that there are guides out there. Once we open ourselves up to charting a new course, it is amazing how suddenly the right people enter our lives who share our values and who are little further along in the transformation than we are. More on connecting with guides later.
So, we begin with awareness. And then we grant ourselves permission and look for guides. And it is best to smart small. If we try to right all of the unhealthy wrongs we see in the world, of course we will feel inadequate to the job, overwhelmed, and will become discouraged. But ask yourself, “where are the sticking points for me? Which of society’s ills hurt my soul the most? Which make me feel the most sickened in my heart, mind and spirit?” And also, “Which do I have some power to change?”
The serenity prayer is useful here because we have to walk the line and find the balance between acceptance and courage. Many of us know people who live their lives perpetually worked up about various societal wrongs: both big and small. They seem to be always espousing a cause, and though this can be admirable, we get the sense that it isn’t doing any favors for their mental health. They are agitated, angry, rageful sometimes even and anxious about how deeply the outside world diverges from their internal vision for how the world should be. They are perpetually distraught about the discord between their idealized vision and the reality.
For example, I have a hard time saying “no” not only to others but more frequently to myself. And I end up over-scheduled and stressed about it. I will have a thought that, even though my schedule is unrelenting and not introvert-friendly, I should set up a social visit with so-and-so because it’s been a long time, and if I don’t, they might get hurt or offended that it has been so long since I made time to visit with them. Even though I know that my schedule currently does not allow an opportunity for this social visit without me feeling anxious and overwrought, I make the appointment anyway. I can’t say “no” to the internal, exacting voice that says, “I know you don’t want to take something else on, and you already feel drained. But what choice do you have? You don’t want to be a bad friend/family member. Suck it up, and make the appointment.” So rather than carve out space in my life to breathe, I overbook yet again. One small thing I could do towards combating this over-scheduling habit (so common in our society today) would be to read or listen to a book on saying “no” and setting healthy boundaries. I might decide to practice saying “no” to myself or to others in situations like these. It will take courage to say “no” to an invitation that internally I know is not in my best interest to accept. It will take courage to risk having someone think I’m unfriendly or aloof or a bad friend or family member when really all I’m doing is ensuring that my schedule is breathable and sane. How does one find that kind of courage? Again, “where is that place of permission?”
Finding guides and mentors who are a little further on the path helps fortify decisions to go against the grain. But more powerful than even a strong guide or mentor is connecting with a benevolent higher power. When you believe in a higher power who cares for you and who knows what you need, you can essentially say, “What my higher power thinks of me is what matters most. What my higher power asks of me is what matters, and my higher power does not ask me to give more than I can sanely bear. My higher wants my higher good and well being.” Whether you believe in God or not, you can connect with a power greater than yourself to find the fortitude to live and move and derive energy within that place of permission. You can more confidently grant yourself permission to say “no” to excessive commitments or maybe to give yourself permission to be seen as a “crazy, left-wing tree-hugger” by refusing to to extend your carbon footprint the way the rest of the society so readily does. Maybe your family won’t understand. Maybe your friends won’t understand why you’re refusing that glass of wine in a culture deeply dedicated to drinking. “It’s only one glass, and it’s Friday night!” You have to draw upon a power greater than yourself to stand your ground in that permissive place where you inhabit the power and agency to chart a different course.
Robert Louis Stevenson stated, “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to to have kept your soul alive.” What is your soul telling you to defy about our current culture? Shakti Gawain warns, “Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness.” No wonder so many of us feel drained, disenfranchised, disillusioned and cut off from our spiritual lifeblood. When we continually disregard the quiet inner voice warning us about what’s bad for us, what’s bad for the earth, what’s bad for humanity, somewhere inside we feel weaker, ineffectual, subject to a moving tide, and a deadening sets in that causes us to float like driftwood through a poisoned sea.
I’d love to hear from you about some of the ways you want to turn against the tide and follow your inner promptings. What do you want to do differently? What aspect of our culture saddens you most? Are you able to take any steps towards changing it? If not, can you accept it as out of your control, entrust the situation to a higher power and look for what you can change? What steps will you take this week to resist adaptation to “a sick society?”