by Edward Reid
There are a multitude of overlapping life stories occurring as I write this. I offer a couple of them. Although the United States is one of the wealthiest countries, it is also one of the loneliest. High expectations for how we are supposed to look, living up to the impossible standards of the celebrities – the influencers can be overwhelming if you follow them. No one can live up to fake photoshopped images – how many of us feel we are supposed to; if we don’t, we somehow feel inferior and ugly?
More than a generation of superficiality and facades have trained Americans that we are not or never will be good enough. This ideology is going to have an impact on our society and already has in many ways. A society that will never feel like they will ever be good enough or be the superstar they imagine they should be.
The dehumanizing and debilitating challenges and effects on humanity are not new. Albert Schweitzer, and Walter Rauschenbusch, among other theologians, intellectuals, and social activists, wrote and spoke about the issues in the early 1900s. Such issues have a long and tragic history.
What is unique today is the speed and complexity of technological change on a truly global scale. The changes take their toll, whether accepted or not.
Social, political, and class divisions are wide throughout the world; Greed, selfishness, and bullying have a long history on individual, and national levels.
“Now there are times when a whole generation is caught. . .between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standards, no security, no simple acquiescence.” Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
Today, children are body-shamed and battle with eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorders because they don’t live up to the perceived standard of how they feel like they should look. Kids are bullied for being overweight or not good-looking enough, and these attacks affect their psyche for the rest of their lives and have for many adults; some of this unrelenting bullying turns to social media, causing suicides.
We are often told to blow it off, suck it up, and be tough, especially as males, but one cruel word can define someone for their life. And now, how many people are in therapy revisiting their childhood to see where things may have gone wrong and what may have caused their core issues? It’s quite apparent when psychology informs us that we will be defined in our youth.
Working in the film industry, I have observed countless numbers of children dream of being actors and singers and believe they will because that’s what they’re told. They hear the mantra, “never give up,” but where does that lead them when the reality of succeeding in Hollywood and on social media as an influencer is practically impossible? When can people accept that maybe they will not “make it,” but they can still “make it” somewhere else and still be good enough and successful and impactful?
We don’t have to hit the “big time” to be “good enough” because we’re already good enough as we are. Children need to be taught that right now, where they are, they are winners even though they may fail to overcome some challenges. We will all face failure, but that doesn’t define us as failures, as we all too often hear in our society. Our modern philosophies are severely flawed in these areas.
And what does this say about us as a society when children’s primary goals or being rap stars and influencers? They want to emulate (you fill in the blank) and live a life of luxury which will ultimately lead to a sense of purposelessness and despair, as can be witnessed by the addiction, depression, and suicide amongst the very people children emulate.
The expectations of Americans to live up to impossible standards is not new. But it’s staggering. How many things do we need? Not just for us but for our children. If our children aren’t up to par, we’re not good enough as parents.
We are a people of intense competition, where the losers are disregarded and forgotten regardless of their effort. Only the best will be appreciated and remembered, and we are indoctrinated with this belief. “Loser” is a derogatory term that is meant to ridicule. Today being called a loser is a form of intense shaming. It doesn’t matter how hard you try; as they say, “2nd place is the first loser.” Isn’t that the nature of capitalism, competition and is filtered through our belief about our so called “exceptionalism?
Graffiti on a subway wall in New York City: Do you have enough likes and followers?
People become products of social media platforms. Our country is divided, as is the world, and our technological platforms and devices to democratize and enhance the divisions. Who has the financial resources to be part of the democratizing “technologies”?
How do we cope? People in all cultures consume pharmaceutical and or illegal drugs to cope and survive, They are willing to try anything to escape their situation. Finding meaning, a healthy outlook, and purpose in life have been written and talked about ad infinitum. It’s knowing what to read to help the person seeking help. How do we survive and thrive in a sick society?
Self-acceptance books, articles and workshops are plentiful. A sick society is not an American phenomenon. To varying degrees, all countries have what Soren Kierkegaard would refer to as a sickness unto death.
“Even despair is only abundance, an onslaught of our being that could be forced in the opposite direction with one single decision of the heart. Where something becomes extremely difficult and unbearable, there we also stand always already quite near its transformation.“ Rainer Marie Rilke
Perhaps we can start by looking back at the past for wisdom and perspective on coping and living. Indeed, we live in a time that many would consider quite unbearable, but those in the past left us clear answers about how to live a meaningful life in times much worse.
I have tried my best to follow this path, not to be swallowed into the abyss of hopelessness and negativity. It doesn’t mean becoming a hermit or a loner, but it means comprehending the situation, knowing who I am, and navigating life the best I can with the help of philosophers and those from the past that offer wisdom. I follow one philosophy that works for me, but many can work for different individuals, and I think we have lost our path here. Philosophy offers a way out, a guide for living, and a way to find purpose in a world full of dead ends.
Many modern philosophies are not healthy or even really philosophies; they’re more like mantras.
For example, one “modern philosophy” and way of thinking, the standard is that we should always “cherish” life and use that as our motivator to “keep going, champ.” Being grateful for being alive. Sometimes, it’s hard for some people to be grateful, considering their situation. Then if you’re not grateful, you are shamed. Of course, some people mean it well, but it can often sound condescending and patronizing to those amid the storm. It often doesn’t help.
One philosophy that viewed gratitude differently was the Stoic philosophy. Stoics often cherished death. Not morbidly or darkly, but in a connective life-affirming way. They thought of their mortality and would use meditation on dying to thrive. This philosophy is a stark contrast to the current narrative.
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.” — Marcus Aurelius
This thinking about death is only about reframing what is vital in life.
Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning “remember you must die.” In the past, individuals would use art or other symbols as a reminder that death was always near. Death was much closer to those in the past due to the high mortality rate. The term originally comes from the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” No matter how you hide, it’s there.
Whenever I travel, I try and visit cemeteries. I find not just the artwork, serenity, and history insightful, but I can sense my mortality and feel gratitude for being alive. Being amongst those that have passed before me can be a very spiritual and particular time to think about my own life.
The Stoic philosophy is just one of many examples from the past that may be useful for some to reconceptualize who they are and society. Opening the door into philosophy is like opening the door into another life. I can read from individuals who felt exactly how I felt and were in the same dilemma and found a solution. Again, the human condition and suffering are universal, and people have always sought ways to overcome that. We have abundant wisdom and theories that address that at our hands.
Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust Survivor, and psychotherapist put his views of living in perspective by saying, “So, live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
Much of life is about perspective and living life as though you are already dead or close to death can be a start to living a different life. The things we hold so dear, our worries, our anxieties, and the depression, the mistakes we’ve made seem so minute compared to when we use this particular philosophy.
Not just this, but what can we do for others? Can we try and release ourselves from the selfishness that binds us to the current thinking of much of today? Can we overcome our envy and try and be content with what we have? A difficult task for anyone, but it can be possible with work.
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” – Epictetus
Famous 19th-century American literary figures influenced by Epictetus, or who openly sang his praises for the way he championed personal liberty, included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The poet Walt Whitman even told a friend that Epictetus was a “universe in himself,” The day Whitman first read Epictetus, he was “born again.”
Finding a philosophy that works for you, whether with your religion or other philosophies, may change your life and outlook.
For several years, lost in depression and despairing about my place in society, I studied different philosophies. I found many to be instrumental combined with my core belief in Christianity. These included existentialism, stoicism, pragmatism, and American transcendentalism. You find what works for you and the philosophies that can guide you in your quest to have a meaningful life. I’m not always happy, but I have something to go to and a foundation I can rely on and guide me.
You can create your own philosophy for life, but you first have to seek it out.
As you go on your journey, maybe you can take the advice of pragmatist and the father of psychology, William James, when he wrote, “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”
Healthy minds can seek and grow personally and spiritually even today, but there are no shortcuts that I am aware of. Studying philosophy takes time and effort, and finding what works for you may not be easy, but hearing those words click is like an epiphany when you find that source of inspiration
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and I find that to be true in my life. At least, due to my condition and my society, I had to examine my life to feel better. I had to find something to alleviate the mental and spiritual pain I felt deeply in my soul, and I could not find that with medication or talk therapy. I had to find it on my journey into history.
Our modern world offers quick fixes for the human soul and overnight remedies for Happiness, but that will never work. I view humans as spiritual beings, unique, that suffer and struggle. Most of us have to find our own way in the universe, but we have guides. We have to find and use them wisely and assist those that don’t have the wherewithal to seek those guides. We’re on Earth together for as long as it lasts.