Create Your Own Meaning From Scratch
This from Andrew Sullivan, in NYMag, and whose great friend Johann Hari is. Sullivan has copped to being pretty down lately, and he certainly seems to have nailed what's been killing me. (*) To my mind, he finds exactly what it is Pinker misses in his hymn to how great things are these days which is what I was on about, fumblingly, by posting the excerpt from Yuval Harari about the cost of modernity.
The World Is Better Than Ever. Why Are We Miserable?The evidence of human progress is irrefutable, but it's been accompanied by a loss of meaning that's harder to quantify.
Earlier this week, I went to a lecture given by Steven Pinker on his latest book, Enlightenment Now. I’m a huge and longtime fan of Pinker’s, and his book The Blank Slate was, for me, a revelation. He’s become a deep and important critic of the visceral hostility to nature and science now so sadly prevalent on the left and right, a defender of reason and the Enlightenment against the “social justice” movements on campus, and his new book is a near-relentless defense of modernity.
I sat there for an hour slowly being buried in a fast-accumulating snowdrift of irrefutable statistics showing human progress: the decline of violence and war, the rise and rise of democracy, the astonishing gains against poverty of the last couple of decades, the rise of tolerance and erosion of cruelty, lengthening lifespans, revolutions in health, huge increases in safety, and on and on. It was one emphatic graph after another that bludgeoned my current depression into a kind of forced rational cheeriness.
But Pinker doesn’t have a way of explaining why there is so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, addiction, and loneliness in the most advanced liberal societies. His general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve”. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.
And, equally odd for an evolutionary psychologist, he sees absolutely no problem that humans in the last 500 years (and most intensely in the last century) have created a world utterly different than the one humans lived in for close to 99 percent of our time on the planet. We are a species built on tribe; yet we live increasingly alone in societies so vast and populous our ancestors would not recognize them; we are a species designed for scarcity and now live with unimaginable plenty; we are a species built on religious ritual to appease our existential angst, and yet we now live in a world where every individual has to create her own meaning from scratch.
As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs.
Incidentally, while speaking at some length with Johann I finally got into one of his readings, and managed to monopolize the (lovely, lovely) man himself for a good 20 minutes we talked about the new Pinker. (Evidently Hari rings up Pinker whenever Chomsky is unable to explain something in linguistics to him in sufficiently human terms. That's quite a rolodex.) Ultimately, via email, I told him that I thought his and Pinker's books were companion pieces: Pinker's a paean to the blessings and blandishments of modernity; his counting the cost.
Sullivan also has this other excellent piece about how Americans are dealing with the crushing lack of meaning by drugging themselves to death.
The Poison We PickThis nation pioneered modern life. Now epic numbers of Americans are killing themselves with opioids to escape it.
More than 2 million Americans are now hooked on some kind of opioid, and drug overdoses from heroin and fentanyl in particular claimed more American lives last year than were lost in the entire Vietnam War. Overdose deaths are higher than in the peak year of AIDS and far higher than fatalities from car crashes: 52,000 Americans this year alone — and up to half a million in the next decade.
Of all the many social indicators flashing red in contemporary America, this is surely the brightest. It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it. It is a story of how the most ancient painkiller known to humanity has emerged to numb the agonies of the world’s most highly evolved liberal democracy.
What has happened in the past few decades is an accelerated waning of all these traditional American supports for a meaningful, collective life, and their replacement with various forms of cheap distraction. Addiction to work, to food, to phones, to TV, to video games, to porn, to news, and to drugs is all around us.
Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness faith, family, community seem to elude so many.
Well, that and, probably, being done with the series. Finishing it was pretty murderous and miserable; but at least I had a reason to get out of bed every morning. (And, also, obviously, the Other Thing I did.)