Working ourselves to death to bore ourselves to death

What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul? –Mark 8:26 (paraphrase)

Over the past several decades, I believe society has convinced itself of an insidious lie: that the goal of life is to work and save and build wealth and assets until such time as one believes one can retire and “enjoy life.” This lie came into its own in the 1960s with the advent of modern Social Security. At that moment, Americans institutionalized the idea that it was a right to stop producing at some point and live off the fat of the land.

Yet the irony in that institution is that many, if not most, people define themselves by what they do. They are their work, whether they love that work or not, and when they have no more work to do, their lives tend to become vacuous and boring. It’s no wonder that part of the dramatic increase in recent years of the prescription of powerful antidepressants has happened in the over 65 age demographic.

Further, most Americans never anticipated the consequences of this institution. While in the 1960s, the median lifespan in the mid 60s, by 2010, it had reached 78, and for the generations who will retire during the 21st century, the median age may well reach over 100. This means that the period defined by retirement, 10 years in the 1960s, will quickly stretch into 30 to 40 years before the end of this century. The amount of resources it is necessary for someone to possess to do nothing for that long is staggering to consider.

What has happened to allow this lie to take hold, I believe, is the demise of the idea that life should transition from one kind of thing to another. Our society no longer has rites of passage defined by taking on new, different, and defined responsibilities as one’s capacities and age dictate.

I blame this failing on the demise of once time-honored traditions like the cohesive extended family, the family business as the primary employer, the community as the center of everyday life, and the trend to average everyone at the national level. As these ideas and institutions have failed us, the rite of passage they naturally created have faded and died.

The circumstances of the 21st century, I believe, will demand we tackle this problem head on. Our society simply does not have the resources available to support a rapidly aging population that could foreseeably spend a third of its life not producing and, therefore, not supporting itself. This problem will be exacerbated by the incredible upheavals that resource scarcity will inevitably bring and by the fact that, at least in the US, the so-called working age population is and will continue to shrink.

And the solutions are relatively simple, actually, as long as people are willing to accept their necessity. Individuals will have to work longer, likely in a variety of jobs. They will have to change how they spend and save over the course of their lifetimes. As a society, we will have to stop focusing on accumulating stuff and start focusing on taking care of ourselves. We will have to build or rebuild social structures that allow us to share the burden of the cost of living among larger groups of people. We will have to redefine what we expect of ourselves as we inevitably pass from one age and capacity to the next.

Unfortunately, I do not believe these solutions will happen because people suddenly think they are a great idea. Instead, I believe they will come as the inevitable result of the scarcity and want the future promises to hold. But, for those who care to pay attention, their is the benefit of being able to prepare now, before things become desperate.

What must happen, though, is that we must start preparing now. These changes will be hard. They will be dramatic. They well may be controversial. But they are also necessary and will save us in the long run.

DLH

UPDATE: Edited “rights of passage” to “rites of passage”. See the discussion below.

Knowing one’s place

It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realise you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert. — Jacques Cousteau

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. –1 Corinthians 12:12-13 (ESV)

Western society lives with a strange legacy born out of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution: we have come to believe in the idea of the solitary genius and to believe that only those who fit that category a deserving of success and admiration.

Consider, for instance, the strange popularity contest the American presidential election has become. We invest such hope into our chosen candidates, as if we were electing a monarch or a dictator rather than a chief executive working for a board of 200 million shareholders. And, we are always disappointed in the person we have chosen because, being human, that person could never have lived up to the expectations we had.

Now, I am not suggesting that anyone should give up on the idea of excellence, but even the most excellent among us can only exist as one of us. No one has ever succeeded alone, nor will anyone.

To me, what remains is that we must do two things. First, we must figure out where we fit into the complex web of interactions and relationships we call life. Then, we must figure out how to fit into that place in the most excellent way.

If we succeed, then we will have done more than most have ever done.

DLH

Finding your own way

It has been an interesting experience for me over the past couple of years as I have come to realize that the place and undertakings I have arrived at seem to have been somehow intended for me all along. This may seem like a grandiose thing to say, but I can assure you that my two-year-so-far-adventure into things as diverse as farming and coffee roasting fulfill me more than my entire twenty year career as an IT professional.

It also turns out that the things I am undertaking now are among the hardest, most frustrating, and most demanding things I have ever done. Yet, they are worth it because they make me grow, and I have come to realize that if one is not growing, one is dying.

The world sells us a consistent lie: that the object of life’s effort is to accumulate enough so that we can rest on the laurels of what we have already done… and wait to die. What I have discovered over the past two years is how deep and all pervasive this lie turns out to be and how destructive it is to the human soul.

What I have come to realize is how important the Biblical formula of suffering producing character producing hope is to crafting us all as individuals. Without suffering, there is no character, and without character, there is no realization of hope. Yes, life can be damned frustrating and even deeply tragic at times, but every one of those frustrations and tragedies serve to make us into something more than what we were before they happened.

The secret then, I think, is to keep our heads up and to be constantly looking for our way through the things that tend to want to ensnare us at the moment. It will not usually be easy, and sometimes it may be downright crushing, but if we persevere, it will always be worth it.

DLH

The thin blue line

On 1 January, a local sheriff’s deputy was gunned down during a shootout at a local trailer park. The event is a tragedy in any case, but especially when one considers the fact that she left behind two young children.

As a tribute, a friend of mine posted the following explanation of “the thin blue line” on Facebook:

Blue represents the officer and the courage they find deep inside when faced with insurmountable odds.

Black background was designed as a constant reminder of our fallen brother and sister officers.

The Line, the line is what cops protect, the barrier between anarchy and a civilized society, between order and chaos, between respect for decency and lawlessness.

Together they symbolize the camaraderie law enforcement officers all share, a brotherhood like none other.

As with most such statements, and especially because of my own history in the military, I tend to agree with such sentiments. Yet, I could not help but wonder about one of the central premises of this particular one:

The Line, the line is what cops protect, the barrier between anarchy and a civilized society, between order and chaos, between respect for decency and lawlessness.

If that thought is true, it means that most of you reading this post will degenerate into wanton lawlessness in the absence of police to keep you in check. Yet, I suspect that many, if not most, people will see no problem with the idea that it is the police that keep them safe and protected, even from themselves.

I think that the idea that the police, in essence, protect us from our own animal selves is one of the things that helps debase our society. From my point of view, the law (which the police theoretically enforce) is a social contract that we all have agreed to because it is the best way to live, not a restraint to prevent us from doing what we would do without the law. To claim that it is only the police who stand between chaos and order is to claim that chaos is the normal state of affairs.

In my view, then, the police serve to enforce that social contract, but that enforcement only applies to those who break it. The police have no authority over anyone who follow the contract, nor should they, because the contract only exists at all because of those who follow it. Because of that latter fact, it is not the police who stand between order and chaos, but those who agree to abide by the contract.

I am not saying we do not need the police; indeed, their service is indispensable because there will always be some who refuse to obey the social contract that is the law. I am saying, however, that the police are not what makes us follow the law; most of us do that on our own.

DLH

Dubito ergo cogito; cogito ergo sum

I doubt, therefore I think; I think therefore I am. —Rene Descartes.

Philosophy: my pursuit of truth through reason along with faith and empiricism.

Yes, I consider myself a philosopher. Perhaps that is a conceited self-title, but matters of truth, reason, intellect, faith, and science have consumed my thinking for as long as I can remember thinking.

From my point of view, a philosopher is not someone who pursues a degree or has been awarded that title as a result of long study, but is someone who dedicates himself to understanding the reality we inhabit as well as he is able within the confines of his own mind, observations, and experiences. I do that thing, and so I consider myself a philosopher.

Perhaps more correctly, I consider myself a logician, and that is the specific kind of philosophy I have formally studied, particularly deductive logic and a little bit of ethics. My greatest preoccupation is with the idea of internally consistent reasoning, and I spend a lot of time with that subject.

I believe that philosophy is part of a trifecta of thinking that also includes faith (or religion if you prefer) and science (empiricism or the scientific method) and that together make a person’s worldview complete.

My goal in writing about philosophy, however, is not simply to espouse my own observations. Certainly, I will do some of that, but more importantly, I hope to encourage anyone reading this weblog to think in detail and with thoroughness. It is my hope that, with such depth of thought shared among even a few people, the pressing problems of our age will seem less daunting and may even be, if such a thing is possible, solved.

DLH