The busy façade of modern life, with its endless flurry of cell phones, sports updates, emails, and celebrity news, covers over an emptiness that no-one wants to feel.
Louis C.K., an American comedian and urban sage, explained in a prime time interview in 2013 that he had taken his daughter’s mobile phone away from her because he thought it was harmful. Punctuated by rapturous applause and knowing laughter from the audience, he delivered a bleak vision of modern existential emptiness:
Underneath everything else in your life, there’s that thing – that forever empty – you know what I’m talking about? . . . That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re all alone.
You know, it’s down there, and sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car and you start going, “Oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone. . . .” Like it starts to visit on you. . . . That’s why we text and drive. . . . People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own, because they don’t want to be alone for a second, because it’s so hard. . . .
The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with the phone. . . . You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kind of satisfied with your products, and then you die.
Many of us in the modern world, captivated by our gadgets, know what he’s referring to, and can laugh along with the rest of his audience. However, the implications, both for humanity and the natural world, are anything but funny.
There exists, in the words of cultural historian Thomas Berry, “a deep hidden rage against the human condition, an unwillingness to accept life under the conditions that life is granted us, a feeling of oppression by the normal human condition, a feeling that the pains of life and ultimately death are something that should not be, something that must be defeated.” A fetish for perpetual economic growth
The Western dualistic tradition has inexorably separated humanity from a sense of connection with the rest of the world, leaving an underlying sense of meaninglessness.
The modern form of cognition has been called “the Cartesian mode” by Fritjof Capra, who reflects that people functioning exclusively in this mode “may be free from manifest symptoms but cannot be considered mentally healthy. . . . For people whose existence is dominated by this mode of experience no level of wealth, power, or fame will bring genuine satisfaction, and thus they become infused with a sense of meaninglessness, futility, and even absurdity that no amount of external success can dispel.”
As Louis C.K. pointed out, this loss of meaning is papered over by the pursuit of ever more material possessions. It is a quest that takes place, not just at the individual level, but in the structure of our political and economic systems.
The imperative for perpetual economic growth, incessantly fortified by the messages of our popular media, has been aptly described as a fetish: the worship of an inanimate object believed to have magical powers.
The consequences of this go beyond the sense of emptiness experienced by the privileged minority who are able to afford the newest gadgets. It has created a vast and increasing gap between the wealthy elite and the rest of the world’s population, and is responsible for the unsustainable consumption of the world’s resources that is threatening to drive our civilization towards a precipice.
Selected references: Interview between Conan and Louis C. K., September 20, 2013. Thomas Berry, "Ethics and Ecology," paper presented at Harvard Seminar on Environmental Ethics (Harvard University: 1996). Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture (New York: Bantam Books, 1988)