“The United States has become a place where entertainers and professional athletes are mistaken for people of importance.” Robert A. Heinlein
There’s no doubt in my mind that the modern world is an ill-fitting cage for its human captives. Basic needs for social interaction, exercise, and a sense of connection to the wider universe are left behind in a mad rush for consumption, mindless pleasure, and false security.
Our lemming-like pursuit of immediate gratification and “convenience” has cut us off from the most basic of human needs. Philosopher and author Romano Guardini identified this self-made disconnect as the source of the gnawing fears and doubts that plague modern existence:
Modern anxiety… arises from man’s deep-seated consciousness that he lacks either a ‘real’ or a symbolic place in reality. In spite of his actual position on earth he is a being without security. The very needs of man’s senses are left unsatisfied, since he has ceased to experience a world which guarantees him a place in the total scheme of existence.
James C. Scott, a political scientist and anthropologist at Yale, argues we’re in an Anthropocene Age, characterized by homo sapiens’ disproportionate influence on nature. That influence, says Scott, is not only harming other species, but our own as well. Scott’s main point is that we got ourselves and our fellow Earthlings in the fix we’re in when we started clustering around cities. Sadly, the comfort and security of cities and the nation-states they spawned was a cruel illusion. The hierarchies that profited from the creation and management of the nation-state increasingly demanded control over lives and property to perpetuate themselves. However, those ruling hierarchies were inherently unstable, often breeding foreign and domestic wars to impose or consolidate their power.
Richard Adrian Reese notes what was lost when hunter-gatherers surrendered to the forces of centralization:
Scott focused on southern Mesopotamia, because it was the birthplace of the earliest genuine states. What are states? They are hierarchical societies, with rulers and tax collectors, rooted in a mix of farming and herding. The primary food of almost every early state was wheat, barley, or rice. Taxes were paid with grain, which was easier to harvest, transport, and store than yams or breadfruit. States often had armies, defensive walls, palaces or ritual centers, slaves, and maybe a king or queen.
What to do? We can re-humanize ourselves by better understanding what our bodies and souls really need, and by modifying our lifestyles to meet those needs. The first step, however, is to open our eyes to the addictions that have enslaved us and realize there is a better way.
What poets and mystics have taught for centuries has been confirmed in a study at Surrey University: We experience deep connections to beloved physical spaces that cannot be replaced by abstractions or symbols. From The Guardian:
The poet WH Auden is credited with first coining the word “topophilia” to describe a strong emotional pull to a special place.
Now scientific research, using cutting-edge brain imaging, suggests Auden was on to something. According to a study commissioned by the National Trust, people experience intense feelings of wellbeing, contentment and belonging from places that evoke positive memories far more than treasured objects such as photographs or wedding rings.
A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study commissioned by the NT set out to “understand this visceral but intangible feeling more deeply”.
The power of special places exerts a magnetic pull on us. What would motivate people to labor for generations to construct Stonehenge, or the Cahokia Indian Mound? What strange fire spurs warriors to defend their homeland against invaders against impossible odds? Even in this age of global mobility, there burns in all of us a need to connect with the sacred and the sentimental. It’s basic to our identity.
Ecology activist and writer Charlene Spretnak has this to say about the vital role natural places play in the human psyche:
Even children who have been schooled in modernity’s radical discontinuity between humans and nature often have a profound engagement with a natural place — a summer camp, a grandparent’s farm, or a hideaway spot near home. Throughout their lives they carry in their minds that sense of place, a place they came to know with a child’s deep capacity for personal response …
In the modern worldview, the sense of place was no longer to be important. After all, modern society lives on top of nature. Modern furniture and modern architecture (the International style) are liberated from any “constraining” references to community, tradition, or place. Yet the importance of place, both for its subtle influences on the human and for its relevance as an ecosocial frame of reference, is now making itself felt. The resurgence of place is also behind hundreds of thousands of community-based alternatives to the dominance of the global economy. p. 27, The Resurgence of the Real
Certain locales acquire meaning from our cherished memories of the people and events of which we were once a part. No wonder we’re able to rediscover contentment, a sense of belonging, and wellbeing from them — those memories are an essential part of who we are. MRI scans reveal that returning to these places affects the same part of the brain that processes deep emotions. This research confirms old truths we have too long denied or ignored.
There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.
Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.
Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:
Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.
All of these benefits require actually reading, which leads to the formation of a philosophy rather than the regurgitation of an agenda, so prevalent in reposts and online trolling. Recognizing the intentions of another human also plays a role in constructing an ideology. Novels are especially well-suited for this task. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology found overlap in brain regions used to comprehend stories and networks dedicated to interactions with others.
The beauty of it all is that when you read, you gain more than just the knowledge contained in the text. The very act of reading builds “white matter” in the brain, thereby boosting the brain’s interconnectivity and ability to function more efficiently.
In the United States — yes, the United States — 1 out of 4 children grow up without learning to read. That’s intolerable. Want to do your part to make the world a better and happier place? Read, and do what you can to help others read.
And if you really get ambitious, and have the nerve to try it, write something beautiful.
SciFan Magazine has published my latest story, “Fate’s Daughters.” It’s available in paperback on Amazon.
The protagonist, Dr. Thomas Lear, delves into Scottish mysticism to master the secrets of da-sheallahd, or second sight, and uses that knowledge to prove the existence of spin-off “daughter” universes, the most profound and disturbing theory in quantum mechanics. Lear discovers how to find and observe alternate versions of his life, and learns what would have happened if he hadn’t made choices he has long regretted.
He also learns all choices, good or bad, have repercussions — and that even what we think are good choices can have shocking consequences.
An instructor leading an improv workshop I attended at Queen City Comedy in Charlotte inspired this story. E.B. urged everyone to “let go” and react honestly to the scenes they were acting out. At one point she said, “We’ve forgotten how to focus! The only thing that matters is happening in the place and moment you’re living in right now.” Her words hit me, and I kept thinking about them after the workshop was done. That advice is just the medicine we need in our distracted age.
BTW, if you want to know more about daughter universes and quantum mechanics, Space.com has this short, helpful article, one of the pieces I read researching the science behind the story.
I am indebted to several beta readers for their invaluable insights as this piece evolved, including the Dark & Stormy Plotters League, which is the sci-fi/fantasy critique group of the Charlotte Writers’ Club. But I want to give special thanks to Cathleen Townsend for her inspired suggestions, all of which I incorporated into the manuscript. I salute l’artista migliore!
“Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances.” – Flannery O’Connor
Sue Vincent at the Daily Echo generously allowed me to guest-post on her blog. “It’s Not A Human!” addresses man’s self-defeating alienation from nature and how literature can restore the connections that make us human.