I usually repost this every year around Black Friday, but it seems a good companion to yesterday’s essay. It’s not just the media that’s to blame for our situation:
When asked if the news of the day surprised him anymore, the poet Joseph Brodsky—who grew up in Soviet Russia and came to America in his early thirties—said in part,
It certainly doesn’t surprise me. I think the world is capable of only one thing basically—proliferating its evils. That’s what time seems to be for…. The only thing that surprises me is the frequency, under the present circumstances, of instances of human decency, of sophistication, if you will. Because basically the situation—on the whole—is extremely uncongenial for being decent or right.[i]
Or, as it was said more than a millennia earlier: “It has gotten to the point where there is nowhere that the ugliness of opportunism does not exist.”[ii]
And even earlier: “I have also noted that all labor and skillful enterprise come from men’s envy of each other—another futility and pursuit of wind!”[iii]
Every now and then it is worth reminding ourselves of this: how the worst of politics and bureaucracy and technology and culture have combined to make decency to ourselves or others barely possible, and that, by and large, this has always been so. And it is worth noting that, as a result, most people are sad and miserable.
This may sound melodramatic, but this is only because such a realization is so huge and so unlikely to change, its tentacles so ubiquitous. But for all that, it is no less true, or tragic. As it has been said about another event, where the numbers of victims is so large it can destroy our ability to empathize:
a single Anne Frank excites more emotion than the myriads who suffered as she did but whose image has remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is necessary that it can be so. If we had to and were able to suffer the sufferings of everyone, we could not live.[iv]
Yet we must find some way to live with the knowledge of all of this suffering.
Consider how many people don’t make a living doing something they love. Consider how many people spend eight or more hours a day doing what they would rather not do, or doing what doesn’t even get them by, merely to live the remaining hours of the day, many of which are taken up by sleep. Day in, day out, for months, years, and decades.
And even more: the jobs we have in corporate or cultural fields, or technology and education or retail, only feed into the supposed importance and need for what all of these things are selling, even though they do not satisfy. The money we earn is given away to pay for movies and music and TV and the internet, whose purveyors do not aspire to improve our lives, but simply to keep us watching, listening, clicking, and buying; or we pay for “food” from companies who do not want us to be healthy, just to continue to eat and eat. And to pay for these things, even more of our money goes to credit card companies and banks that are more profitable the more in debt we are. And to help all of this along are advertisers, who again have no desire to improve our lives, but actually to make them worse, to create new needs and desires where previously there were none.
There is hardly anything we encounter every day that does not encourage either envy for what we want (or want to be), or hatred for what we don’t want (or don’t want to be). There is only selling and being sold: day in, day out, for months, years, and decades.
We sacrifice and compromise our youth and middle- and old-age for the sake of things we are told to crave, but none of them truly enrich, cultivate, develop, or assuage, mostly because they are not made to. Instead, their creators peddle fear alongside desire—which only amplifies our own egos and sense of self—and finally exploit to perfection our loneliness and need to belong.
And worst of all, one of the most powerful things that could encourage selflessness, introspection, doubt, humility, and decency in the face of uncertainty—namely, religion—only adds to all of it, only becomes obsessed with its own corporate ego, its own certainties, its own opinions dressed up as dogmas. Like culture, religion can usually only assuage or provide comfort at the expense of proclaiming that everyone else is deficient.
The defensive cultural critic, the theologian, and the conspiracy theorist, are all brothers for wanting to cling blindly to one person or idea, or one huge answer to various answerless questions and problems. And so there is no difference between a church whose sign out front proclaims that “We are all born broken,” and an ad for a department store, since both encourage us at every moment to expand our egos—or that of our group—but also to admit that we are worthless and empty without the perpetual consumption of whatever is being sold. After cosmetics and fashion, there is no greater salesman for self-hatred than the religions we’ve allowed ourselves to create.
The other side of this, of course, is that corporations are so good at enabling our addictions to what we do not need only because we aren’t very good at resisting them; and that politics and bureaucracy and technology and culture have made decency to ourselves and others so hard only because we have allowed this to happen.
There would be no need to exploit our loneliness and desire to belong; no need to exploit our desire to attach ourselves to famous people or to personalities or to big ideas—religious, political, cultural, historical—and the illusion of large and sweeping answers; and there would be no need to exploit our desire for distraction or our desire for the easiest and cheapest culture or food or technology, if we did not desire these things already, if we did not choose to eat, watch, spend, and live irresponsibly.
The following two statements were written about thirteen hundred years apart, yet could easily have been written today:
This present generation is wretchedly corrupt. It is full of pride and hypocrisy. It works as hard as the Fathers of old, but it has none of their graces. And yet there has been no era so much in need of spiritual gifts as today.[v]
I cannot help but regret that I did not live 50 or 100 years sooner. Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them . . . too many friends to have any real friendships, too many books to know any of them well, and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception, gone before we have time to consider them.[vi]
That every generation has felt this way does not change or dilute the truth of such feelings, or change the essential character of how life is lived now, and in some ways always has been, or make it any less regrettable, the fact that we are own masters, but even more our own slaves.
One way of dealing with this is to become as aware as we can of our wants and needs, and how interconnected they are with the suffering of other people, of how many people stand behind the fulfillment of even the simplest of our desires: for a cellphone, for fast food, for paved roads. I can go to the store, go out to eat, put gas in the car, even buy books, because someone who has to be there is minding the shelves, making the food, printing the books. The simplest awareness is all that’s needed: “Every time I see an automobile going down the street, I wonder whether the person driving it realizes the kind of human sacrifice that has to go into the building of that car.”[vii] Or, as a Rabbi put it:
How much labor Adam must have expended before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, sowed, reaped, piled up the sheaves, threshed, winnowed, selected the ears, sifted the flour, kneaded and baked and after that he ate; whereas I get up in the morning and find all this prepared for me. And how much labor must Adam have expended before he obtained a garment to wear! He sheared, washed the wool, combed, spun, wove, and after that he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up in the morning and find all this prepared for me. All artisans attend and come to the door of my house, and I get up and find all these things before me.[viii]
Another way, quietly or loudly, is to simply refuse to play the game: refuse to be exploited, refuse to be useful. I know of few better stories than these two:
Once on a journey Tzu-ch’i saw a huge tree with strange knots, big enough to shelter a thousand chariots in its shade. Tzu-ch’i said “What kind of tree is this? It must have unusual potential.”
Looking up at its branches, he saw they were too crooked to be used as beams. Looking down at its roots, he saw it was not solid enough to be used as coffins. When he tasted the leaves, his mouth became inflamed; and they had a smell that would madden a person for days.
Tzu-ch’i said, “This is in fact a useless tree. That’s how it got to be this big.”
Yes, this is why the sages cannot be exploited.[ix]
There is a place in the state of Sung where the conditions are right for several varieties of trees known for their straight trunks. Those of a certain size are cut by people looking to make stakes to tie monkeys. Larger ones are cut by people looking for imposing house frames. Yet larger ones are cut by people looking for material to make coffins for nobles and rich merchants. Therefore those trees never fulfill their natural age, but succumb to the ax along the way. This is the trouble with usefulness.[x]
[i] Interviewed in “The Art of Poetry #28,” The Paris Review no. 38, spring 1982; http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3184/the-art-of-poetry-no-28-joseph-brodsky.
[ii] Quoted in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 65.
[iii] Ecclesiastes 4:4.
[iv] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 56.
[v] John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, tr. Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell, 236.
[vi] George F. Kennan, The Kennan Diaries, ed. Frank Costigliola, 43.
[vii] A UAW Officer, quoted in Studs Terkel, Working, xxi.
[viii] Quoted in Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud, 185.
[ix] From Chuang-Tzu, in The Taoist Classics, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 77.
[x] From Chuang-Tzu, in The Taoist Classics, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 77.