In Garret Hardin’s 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” he asserts that shared resources needed to sustain the life and livelihoods of a group have always been undermined—even to the point of elimination—by individuals acting in their own self-interest. Hardin’s premise is drawn from an 1833 pamphlet on medieval land usage which surmises that “the commons” provide plenty of grazable land for each farmer’s cows, unless—or inevitably, until—each farmer decides to add a few more, and a few more still, each choosing his own gain over the clear loss to the whole, and ultimately destroying the life-giving land and grass that once sustained them all. His assertions have been correlated to a wide range of theories—economic, ecological, social, evolutionary—but rarely, if ever, to sin.
The wisdom that sin hurts the life of the whole community was once as obvious to pagans and philosophers as it was to the children of God. In the highly multicultural and pluralistic Mediterranean world of the 1st century, people were united by a common understanding that “all things come from God/gods.” This included rain, food, love, family, and ultimately, life. “Sinners were [considered] deviants who jeopardized” everyone’s shot at, not only a good life, but any life at all. The wisdom of Greek philosophy seemed to lead to the same conclusion. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates makes the case that so great is the torture of unpunished sin (punishment being the corrective influence of the group), that a wise man—knowing he has acted unjustly or has done harm to another—will “run to the judge, as he would to the physician, in order that the disease of injustice may not be rendered chronic.” For Ancient Jews, “sin was largely communal; the Jewish community believed that united they would stand and divided they would fall.”
That had once been the promise and commitment of America. Today, we live as if we’re “free to do what we want, any old time,” regardless of our impact on “the commons.” Even Christians have lost their way, opting now to think of sin “as something more personal: the idea [isn’t] so much to save your community as to save yourself.” This radical individualism is now undermining exponentially the foundation of the freedom that made it possible.
The American project . . . consists of the continuing effort, begun with the founding, to demonstrate that human beings can be left free as individuals and families to live their lives as they see fit, coming together voluntarily to solve their joint problems. The polity based on that idea led to a civic culture that was seen as exceptional by all the world. That culture was so widely shared among Americans that it amounted to a civil religion. . . . That culture is unraveling. (Charles Murray, Coming Apart)
Such is the price of our relentless inward turn. “When individualism is taken to an extreme, individuals become its ironic casualties.” (David G. Myers, The American Paradox). And so it is that we have allowed the rich to get richer at the expense of the “ninety-nine” (Matthew 18:12) left behind—the sin of greed killing dreams, dignity, and hope. We have watched as creatures, both animal and human, have been sickened by toxic waste—death through the sin of hubris, greed, or neglect. We have shrugged as a media culture killed off our children’s innocence and choked our common lives with sex, scandal, and violence. Until, in the final weeks of 2012, the murder of 26 young children and their teachers, and the mother of a troubled boy, made it clear that something is terribly wrong in America and getting worse: of the twelve deadliest shootings in U.S. history, half have been in the past five years. By the time this thesis is presented, we will know more about what sort of corrective, first-use-of-the-law actions the United States might take as a result of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary and others. The response may be helpful, but it will not be curative. Because underneath all that has gone so terribly wrong is still that single, most objectionable word: sin. While “unfathomable” events may prompt us to consider how the actions of “they” and “them” can hurt us all, we are not quite so willing to look at how the actions of “I” and “me” contribute to this collective evil.
From RECLAIMING THE WISDOM OF HOMO INCURVATUS IN SE: “MAN TURNED IN ON HIMSELF” AS AN ENTRY POINT FOR THE DISCUSSION OF SIN IN 21ST-CENTURY AMERICA by Heather Choate Davis
Our Disordered Relationship to Technology
…This idea of technology being better than nothing—and then somehow, better than anything—which has developed incrementally from television to the internet to gaming to social media is now leading to the widespread integration of robots into daily life. “The idea of sociable robots suggests that we might navigate intimacy by skirting it. People seem comforted by the belief that if we alienate or fail each other, robots will be there, programmed to provide simulations of love.” As Americans are having children later and later, and the baby boomers move into old age, robots will become a viable option for tending to kids, to old people, or to anyone we simply don’t have the energy for. Many may feel this sounds like science fiction or something only the very young might live to see, but the future has arrived, and 1st-world cultures—especially the most individualistic of them all—seem to be more relieved than concerned:
A forty-four year old woman says, ‘After all, we never know how another person feels. People put on a good face. Robots would be safer.’ A thirty-year-old man remarks, ‘I’d rather talk to a robot. Friends can be exhausting. The robot will always be there for me. And whenever I’m done, I can walk away.’. . . In a complicated world, robots seem a simple salvation.
At the heart of this new trend is the fact that technology creates the illusion of having our needs met without having to be beholden to other people to do it. Why negotiate over which show to watch when each family member can simply go to his own screen? Why get involved with some clumsy community effort when one can practice world domination online? Why make oneself vulnerable to another person by asking for help or advice when a computer can do a better job—and with no risk of exposure?
During the mid-70s’ launch of ELIZA, the first significant companion robot, Sherry Turkle observed that although the test students knew full well that ELIZA had been trained to respond to strings of words with various restatements and had no comprehension of anything they were saying, nonetheless they wanted to chat with it. More than this, they wanted to be alone with it. They wanted to tell it their secrets. Faced with a program that makes the smallest gesture suggesting it can empathize, people want to say something true. . . . Most commonly they begin with ‘How are you today?’ . . . but four or five interchanges later, many are on to ‘My girlfriend left me,’ ‘I am worried that I might fail organic chemistry,’ or ‘My sister died.’
Over the past several decades, our progressive baby steps in turning towards technology for succor have led us to prefer confidantes who won’t judge us and have no needs of their own. We, like infants, want all the focus on ourselves, and the robotics movement is happy to oblige. What began with children’s toys such as Furby and Zhu Zhu has now given rise to the “huggable, baby seal robot Paro” being aggressively marketed as a companion for the elderly. Whereas real pets are a proven source of comfort and meaning for often-isolated seniors, these robotic companions pose serious questions. Trained to echo their owners’ moods, a tender touch will cause Paro to turn sympathetically and simulate concern. An old woman appears comforted by this, but how many “generations” removed is this from the real love she once knew from her own parents, gave to her own children, heard about in the promises of a loving God. Paro is not the grown son she longs to have visit her in the senior center, or even a warm-blooded pet that might actually fall into a depression after her death. Her robotic companion is a façade of love, the next best thing, her only remaining option. Experts have begun to recognize that “our willingness to engage with the inanimate does not depend on being deceived but on wanting to fill in the blanks.” And our societal willingness to allow machines to do the work of loving and caring for those in the human family is a reflection of the very real sin of apathy.
“[This] is all too recognizable in the United States, where the term ‘granny dumping’ is used to define the practice of anonymously depositing our elderly on the doorsteps of nursing homes, and where urban hospitals have been known to abandon indigent patients on skid row, some still in their hospital gowns and with IVs in their arms. But even as such outrages are exposed, we are beset by a curious silence; the more that society’s ills surface in such evil ways, the less able we are, it seems to detect any evil within ourselves, let alone work effectively together to fix what is wrong. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre finds that while our ‘present age is perhaps no more evil than a number of preceding periods . . . it is evil in one special way at least, namely the extent to which we have obliterated . . . [our] consciousness of evil.” (Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me)
If evil is systemic, cultural, and pervasive, then sin is the intimate response to that evil perpetrated by an individual in a specific and human way. Often times it appears more tragic—even pitiful— than nefarious. Let us close out the chapter with the example of Howard. Like every teenage boy or girl, fifteen-year old Howard longs for advice about navigating the social challenges of adolescence. He doesn’t consider talking to his father because, as he sees it, his father “has knowledge of basic things, but not enough about high school.” Although this is merely a restatement of the timeless and universal teenage cry, “You wouldn’t understand,” Howard feels certain that true wisdom is possible through artificial intelligence. After all, a robot—which modern children describe as being “alive enough” for their purposes—could monitor all of their e-mails, calls, Web searches, and messages. This machine could supplement its knowledge with its own searches and retain a nearly infinite amount of data. . . . Such search and storage and artificial intelligence . . . might tune itself to their exact needs . . . as Howard puts it, ‘how different social choices have worked out.’ Having knowledge and your best interest at heart, ‘it would be good to talk to . . . about romantic matters. And problems of friendship.’ (Sherry Turkle, Alone Together)
If given a chance to talk with a companion robot, Howard claims that he would first ask “about happiness and exactly what that is, how do you gain it?” He would then seek understanding about human fallibility, and if he could learn to avoid making mistakes. These used to be the lessons we learned in families, in communities, in church. In our desire to mediate the challenges of relationships, we have triangulated, putting technology in the driver’s seat between two humans, and removing God from the picture entirely. The more society encourages flesh and blood needs to be met by inanimate objects, the more uncomfortable we’ll become with other people—their needs, mess, weakness, yes, but so, too, their warmth, wisdom, grace, and love.
When young Howard is asked about other ways robots might be useful in the future, there is a tender and telling note of altruism. He hopes that they “might be specially trained to take care of ‘the elderly and children,’ something he doesn’t see the people around him as much interested in. It is a truth so glaring that even religious skeptics must confess that we’ve taken a wrong turn. “Religious conviction is largely beneficent,” says biologist E.O. Wilson. “Religion . . . nourishes love, devotion, and above all, hope.” Psychologist William Damon adds, “Children will not thrive . . . unless they acquire a living sense of what some religious traditions have called transcendence: a faith in, and devotion to, concerns that are considered larger than the self.” In other words, the dark truths of homo incurvatus in se in the 21st century are apparent not only to Christians but to anyone who cares to notice.
From RECLAIMING THE WISDOM OF HOMO INCURVATUS IN SE: “MAN TURNED IN ON HIMSELF” AS AN ENTRY POINT FOR THE DISCUSSION OF SIN IN 21ST-CENTURY AMERICA by Heather Choate Davis
Martin Luther, who struggled mightily with anxiety, believed that one cannot deal with life’s daily fears without first making peace with life’s ultimate fear—death. If Luther is right, then America is not getting any closer to the target. “In today’s narcissistic culture, man seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find meaning in life . . . The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being.” (Marc Galanter, MD)
As long as Americans continue to pursue that well-being without turning back to God, anxiety will continue to metastasize. Businesses seem to be banking on it. In the fall of 2012, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America issued a report touting the many new drugs being developed for mental illness. Twenty-six of them were for anxiety.
“The society that we believed we understood and in which we felt secure during the 1950s has become incomprehensible and threatening in the 21st century. Our level of trust of authority, from religion through medicine to politics, has declined dramatically. . . . Though much of our trust in the past was misplaced, our more accurate view of society has lead to what some call “the gravest sort of anxiety.” Such anxiety results from a sense that we have lost our foundations and that chaos reigns. Chaos and its resultant anxiety cannot be tolerated for long, and depression, a signal to withdraw, is perhaps a natural adaptation to these feelings.” (Dan G. Blazer)
Anxiety and depression are “fraternal twins.” Close to 50% of those who suffer from anxiety disorder will develop major depression within five years. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the global burden of disease. Many experts feel it has reached a state of epidemic. Twenty years ago, about 1.5% of the U.S. population had a level of depression that required treatment; today, as many as 50% can expect to experience depression’s symptoms.
Any discussion of depression in the context of religion—particularly in the context of sin—is potentially volatile. Within the religious community there is dissension about the relationship between depression and faith. Many struggle to understand why God would allow depression in the first place while others chide—much like Job’s friends—that the depressed Christian must be doing something wrong. Some insist it’s a sin to use medication to treat depression—that only Christ can heal what is, in effect, a spiritual problem—others that it’s a sin not to use medication when tangible help is available. After all, “Jesus told his disciples that he had come to Earth so that they should have more joy and have it completely.” Twelfth-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, contended, “At the moment when Adam disobeyed the divine law, at that exact instant, melancholy coagulated in his blood.” Contemporary writer and Christian, Kathleen Norris, takes a peacemaker’s role. “Depression has many causes: genetic disposition and chemical imbalance in the brain, as well as unwelcome change, notably loss in all its forms. Can we agree that there are many treatments as well?”
Because the landscape is so vast, for the purposes of this short section the focus will be on 1) how the acceleration in cases of major depression parallels the trend in modern psychiatry away from a consideration of social context to a purely individualistic model; and 2) the individual’s experience of depression and how it relates to their connection to God. Let’s begin with a view from 10,000 feet.
Over the past 50 years, those tasked as healers in the field of depression have abandoned examination of society’s role and placed the focus wholly on the individual, both in cause and solution. Since this might leave the individual stigmatized, depression was then re-envisioned as a one-size-fits-many disease for which the person is not responsible. The cure is a pill, and, for the most part, the pill works —problem solved—which makes it less likely that experts will ever go back to looking for the social causes behind the problem. The arc is eerily similar to the pattern we’ve followed in removing “sin” from the public square. First we made it an individual act (as opposed to a condition that applied to all mankind). Then, so that the sinner is not stigmatized, we decided that this act or that was no longer a sin—problem solved—and that, really, sin doesn’t even exist anymore. We’ve conquered it. And yet our sickness grows….
From RECLAIMING THE WISDOM OF HOMO INCURVATUS IN SE: “MAN TURNED IN ON HIMSELF” AS AN ENTRY POINT FOR THE DISCUSSION OF SIN IN 21ST-CENTURY AMERICA by Heather Choate Davis
The DSM-IV criteria for anxiety disorder includes “at least six months of excessive worry,” “tension, fatigue, trouble concentrating, sleeplessness,” and “clinically significant distress functioning in daily life.” Merriam Webster includes in the definition for anxiety, “doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat and . . . self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.” Soren Kierkegaard—whose existential philosophy focuses on how one lives as a “single individual” —uses metaphor to express the truths of anxiety:
“Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit . . . looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs in this dizziness.”
Pastor Robert W. Kellemen, by contrast, claims that anxiety is simply “fear without faith.” Each of these definitions provides insight into this alarming trend in American mental illness. Since 1980, reported anxiety disorders in the U.S. have increased 1,200%. A 1994 study, which asked a random sample of thousands of Americans about their mental health, revealed 15% who’d suffered from anxiety disorders. Fifteen years later, a similar study found nearly half of the sample—as many as 117 million U.S. adults—had experienced at some point anxiety severe enough to meet the standards for a disorder. Of particular concern for the nation’s future well-being are several studies that reveal “a significant increase in anxiety levels in children and college students.” This is compared to the emotional well-being of kids, teens, and young adults fifty years ago. “If progress is measured in the mental health and happiness of young people, then we have been going backward at least since the early 1950s.”
There might be any number of explanations for why America’s youth might find the world more overwhelming than in the “good ‘ol days.” Before we succumb to the rose-colored lens of nostalgia, consider this: rates of anxiety and depression in young people were far lower during The Great Depression, World War II, The Cold War, and the tumultuous periods of social change of the 1960s and early 70s than they are today. Closer examination reveals that America’s increasingly anxious young people are not the by-product of “realistic dangers and uncertainties” in a global society, nor do they correlate with economic cycles, wars, or life-changing world events. The clearest evidence seems to suggest that children and college-aged students are more anxious than ever because they have lost the essential belief that they are in control of their own destinies. Dr. Jean Twenge observes that “Generation Me”—those born in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s —may be “tolerant, confident, open-minded, and ambitious” but they are also “cynical, depressed, lonely, and anxious.” Growing up in the mall, and in a “bling-saturated” media culture, they could not help but develop a disordered desire for “stuff.” Coming to terms with just how much the latest “stuff” costs, as well as being on the receiving end of relentless messaging about the type of education and career success that is expected of them, has created a seismic undercurrent for anxiety. Perhaps that’s why, during the coming-of-age periods for these generations, there was a marked shift from intrinsic to extrinsic goals:
“Intrinsic goals are those that have to do with one’s own development as a person—such as becoming competent in endeavors of one’s choosing and developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals . . . are those that have to do with material rewards and other people’s judgments. They include goals of high income, status, and good looks . . . young people today are, on average, more oriented toward extrinsic goals and less oriented toward intrinsic goals than they were in the past.”
How is it that focusing on extrinsic goals has made young people feel less in control and more anxious? Twenge suggests this line of thinking: “To the extent that my emotional sense of satisfaction comes from progress toward intrinsic goals I can control my emotional well-being. To the extent that my satisfaction comes from others’ judgments and rewards, I have much less control over my emotional state.”
In the language of homo incurvatus in se we would say that a disordered desire for admiration, power, wealth, success or desirability—extrinsic goals— leads one to “turn in” on a warped path of self. Although the term “intrinsic goal” may sound more like the action of turning inward, what it actually represents is turning one’s ear toward an understanding of who one is and what one believes, namely, to focus one’s development such that he “will know the truth and the truth will set them free” (John 7: 32 NRSV). This process of coming to know one’s true self rarely follows the strict “test-taking, GPA-boosting, resume-building timetable” that extrinsic benchmarks require. Time spent with friends relaxing means time not spent cramming for an AP exam. Taking up an activity such as skateboarding or hiking or gardening—without the “admissions bump” of being the president of the club or including underprivileged kids in the mix—becomes a luxury for the truly goal-oriented young adult.
But ambition is nothing new. Why then would 21st-century Americans—young and old alike—find it bringing them to such an anxious state? The answer would appear to be two-fold.
1) We’ve come to equate our extrinsic goals with the pursuit of happiness:
“As soon as an American baby is born, its parents enter into an implicit contractual obligation to answer any question about their hopes for their tiny offspring’s future with the words: “I don’t care, as long as he’s happy” (the mental suffix “at Harvard” must remain unspoken). Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.” (Ruth Whippman, NY Times)
Part of the blame can be placed on the self-esteem movement that swept the nation in the final years of the 20th century, creating whole households chanting the mantra, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” —based on no evidence whatsoever. Where once a child who was underachieving, unpopular, unruly, or obnoxious faced painful, instructive, real-time consequences, the remedy of choice for modern children was a booster shot of self-esteem. Referring to the 2010 PISA results, which assess 15-year olds worldwide, Paul E. Peterson, director of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance noted that in mathematics, “the U.S. ranks number 1 in self-esteem and number 32 in performance.” Faced with a zero-sum college or job market, “specialness” is sorely tested. When it is finally revealed that a grown child is lacking in the skills, attributes, or wherewithal to be The Best (and the parents’ raison d’etre has not turned out as spectacularly as they had hoped), anxiety is inevitable:
“This obsessive, driven, relentless pursuit [of happiness] is a characteristically American struggle—the exhausting daily application of the Declaration of Independence. . . . Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious. . . . America’s precocious levels of anxiety are not just happening in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also perhaps, because of it.” (Whippman)
2) We’ve taken God out of the equation
In doing so, we have robbed ourselves and our children of the security of knowing our place in the world. Kierkegaard, the father of “existential angst,” often uses the words from the Gospel of Matthew 16:26: “‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lost his own soul?’ To lose ourselves is to wound our soul . . . That which we forget [or lose] is precisely that which anxiety reveals: that we are a self with the task of becoming ourselves.”
Promiscuity, consumerism, obesity, narcissism, apathy, greed—these are just a few of the obvious displays of homo incurvatus in se in 21st-century America. These behaviors—or the consequences of them—are visible and often public. Even apathy is on display by the very lack of people showing up to meet a given need. But from a pastoral or evangelistic perspective, attempting to point to any one of these behaviors as “sin,” quickly becomes a case of “Do not judge someone because they sin differently than you.” One man’s Armani suit is another’s pound of fudge. And besides, the accused will snap, “who is it hurting?” This common deflection reveals what C.S. Lewis began noting as early as 1940: modern man has lost all sense that his sinful behavior is worthy of God’s wrath. That internalized check-and-balance between one’s behavior and the Creator’s response has been phased out by one hundred years where “we have so concentrated on one of the virtues—kindness or mercy—that most of us do not feel anything except kindness to be really good or anything but cruelty to be really bad. . . . The real trouble is that ‘kindness’ is a quality fatally easy to attribute to ourselves on quite inadequate grounds. Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment. Thus a man easily comes to console himself for all his other vices by a conviction that ‘his heart is in the right place’ and ‘he wouldn’t hurt a fly’, though in fact he has never made the slightest sacrifice for a fellow creature.” (From The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis)
As a result of our obliviousness to sin, “Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis—in itself very bad news—before it can win a hearing for the cure.” The diagnosis might be helped along by looking more closely at three of the shockingly common individual— and often hidden— sufferings that plague the modern American in the 21st century: anxiety, depression, and a disordered relationship to technology. Whether alone or in combination, these conditions are often at the heart of—or, in the case of technology, undergirding—the more overt expressions of homo incurvatus in se such as promiscuity, addiction, gluttony, consumerism, and greed.
In the sub-sections to follow, consideration will be given to each of these three conditions and how they relate to homo incurvatus in se in the following ways: 1) Man turns away from God and toward his own desires because he wants to be his own God. Now, if he were the only soul on earth—as his (and our) narcissism often deludes him into thinking— this problem would be manageable. But a world filled with creatures each trying to be his own God quickly leads to chaos: if everyone is in charge, no one is in charge. This ever-mutating, self-created chaos “bounces back” to the modern man in the form of increasing anxiety and depression. 2) Our self-centeredness turns our fellow man into our competition. “If, being cowardly, conceited and slothful, you have never yet done a fellow creature great mischief, that is only because your neighbor’s welfare has not yet happened to conflict with your safety, self-approval, or ease. Every vice leads to cruelty.” (Lewis) This “zero-sum” mentality leads to greater distrust, which, in turn, “justifies” our curving ever more inward. 3) We are social creatures in a world that now feels chaotic and untrustworthy. We therefore create “safe” and undemanding simulations of community for ourselves through technology. Online we can all be our own Gods (we can even imagine we’ve recreated the “bonds of kinship”) as the virtual/digital life pulls us deeper into the “journey homeward to habitual self.” With that, we now look more closely at anxiety, depression, and our disordered relationship to technology.
How The Modern American Turns In On Himself: A Brief Overview
Were Augustine to walk through malls of America he would come face to face with concupiscentia gone amok. Such is our disordered desire for “lower things.” Shoes and purses and berry-scented balms; entertainment systems that overshadow our ordinary lives with escapist fantasies; toys purchased in such abundance that larger homes are needed with playrooms just to store them; the blessings of a day of gratitude scrapped for the frenzy of consumerism known, ironically, as Black Friday. Making good on Tocqueville’s vision of souls glutting on “petty and banal pleasures,” Americans were predicted to spend over $370 million on 2012’s Halloween costumes— for their pets!
Move along to the mall’s Food Court, and one is faced with three separate manifestations of homo incurvatus in se in relationship to the basic human need to eat. 1) Obesity. America is by far the most obese nation in the world. In 2012, 35.7% of adults and 16.5% of children were considered obese. Defenses about genetics, medical conditions, and poor neighborhood options will only go so far until one is left with the simple truth: many in the United States have a disordered desire for food. 2) Eating Disorders. While some can’t seem to eat enough, 10 million plus American women—mainly teenagers— are starving themselves in the hopes of creating a body more like the media ideal, a body that will look better in the tight jeans they see at the mall. This disordered desire for an idealized physical perfection perpetually turns people in on their own obsession and away from the simple pleasures of enjoying food with family and friends. 3) Hunger. While many have the option of eating too much or too little, nearly 15% of U.S. households were food insecure at least some time during the year. This may or may not reflect any sort of incurvature of their own, but it clearly reflects a society that has curved away from its weaker members. “If liberals underestimate the motivating power of self-interest, conservatives underestimate sin—the selfishness that curbs the altruism needed to care for the poor.” This selfishness is an offshoot of the disordered desire for wealth and creature comforts—better known as greed—which fuels and is then refueled by greedy social structures e.g. “tax laws that favor large corporations” and “the breathtaking salaries of CEOs.” As disordered desire knows no limits—and if society refuses to set them—“unseemly” displays become the new standard:
“Unseemliness is television producer Aaron Spelling building a house of 56,500 square feet and 123 rooms. Unseemliness is Henry McKinnell, the CEO of Pfizer, getting a $99 million golden parachute and an $82 million pension after a tenure that saw Pfizer’s share price plunge. They did nothing illegal. . . . But the outcomes were inappropriate for time or place, not suited to the circumstances.”
“The heart wants what the heart wants,” Americans shrug, as if desire is its own entitlement. And how could they not? In the 1990s, there was little talk of the common good or being “thy brother’s keeper” in the public space. Rather, individualistic psychologists had begun classifying people who nurtured troubled friends or family members as having the psychological disorder of being co-dependent and encouraged Americans to value their own needs, desires, and personal interests over all else —these were the keys to high self-esteem and a happy, successful life.
For many, it seems, their greatest desire was for sex—unrestricted and consequence-free. Where our earliest forefathers would have started the day with The Lord’s Prayer, by 1969—the end of the decade that launched The Pill —the “cult prayer” of America was this
I do my thing, and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you and I am I,
And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
“Claiming to be wise, they became fools”(Romans 1:22 NRSV). “For this reason, God gave them up to degrading passions” (Romans 1:26 NRSV). And so the era of “if it feels good, do it” gave birth to a new generation. Unprepared to pass on any abiding wisdom about love, sex, or commitment, these “free love” adults went on to raise children without the cultural norms of “waiting for marriage” or what “good girls don’t” do. Their children then grew and had kids of their own, the lessons of accepted and enforced Judeo-Christian morality now two generations removed from the common culture. The country founded on religious freedom was now a place where people had no choice but to live in a world of their own curved-in creation—a world where people did what they pleased and lived in “terrifying isolation.” If some remnant of an individual’s God-given nature began to tug at him with pangs of shame or whispers of Original truth—one that included responsibility, morality, and the greater good—pop psychology quickly assuaged him: Don’t worry, be happy!*
*Not surprisingly, we even took this pop phrase out of its original spiritual context. The quote is taken from the Indian mystic, Meher Baba, whose full expression included both personal responsibility and a divine master—“Do your best. Then, don’t worry; be happy in My love. I will help you.”
From RECLAIMING THE WISDOM OF HOMO INCURVATUS IN SE:“MAN TURNED IN ON HIMSELF” AS AN ENTRY POINT FOR THE DISCUSSION OF SIN IN 21ST-CENTURY AMERICA by Heather Choate Davis