Endless wanting will wreck us and also the world that is our home. By contrast, our economic order and the ostensible health of our society is premised on the generation of insatiable desires, chiefly for consumer goods and services. There is a better way.
As a pediatrician and longtime student of human development, I note that children are born yearning for competence. Toddlers will clap their hands in joy shouting "I did it". Three or four year olds will take a great pride in arranging puzzle pieces or emulating a caregiver or teacher. For most young children the warm smile of a parent or a sense of accomplishment is the greatest reward.
In fact as most developmentalists from Maria Montessori through Erickson and Brazelton have noticed, success as individuals relies on us achieving these Milestones, through practice, taking a step, falling down, picking oneself up and trying again accompanied by the loving gaze of a parent. Telling a joke, throwing a ball what have you...This is complex play and it is the root of our vast acheivements as a species, and our interconnectedness.
I note that it is taken only a couple of generations to disrupt the natural acquisition of skills. Now babies essentially from birth are passive recipients of entertainment and their motor skills amount to swiping a screen. Parents rely on a smart jiggling shushing bed to calm a baby. Teachers are given curricula that incorporate hours of screen time for very young children.
It's one thing for adults to watch screens recreationally or as tools for work for short periods of time when the nervous system has completed development. It is a different thing if the passive viewing of screens supplants time that would be spent in developmental tasks, those that build competence, interdependence and attention.
The natural consequence of loss of competence? Anxiety.
The natural consequence of passive reception of high preference entertainment? Maldevelopment of the mechanisms serving attention and memory
The natural consequence of instant gratification? Maldevelopment of the ability to delay gratification. Addiction.
The natural consequence of loss of interconnectedness? Sociopathy, shootings, rage attacks.
Within a generation or two more I doubt we will be able to consider the questions posed here, as we may have completely lost the neurodevelomental ability to do so.
This is particularly helpful and apt right now. I share your podcasting experience, for starters. And that piece from Lewis played a large role in helping me to decide to write a book about Lewis’ environmental vision. But this is especially apt for me right now as I slowly digest the letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. I really do think that individual change matters.
Illich's "Energy and Equity" is a great follow up to this excellent piece.
There is a lot to think about in this post (and no small amount of conviction, read: me and my Amazon account…)! Some brief thoughts, in no particular order, that are probably obvious:
I've been reading "The Benedict Option" and have been struck by some similarities with the article. In my circles, there's a lot of talk about social issues: their history, speculation on origins, who's who, Marxist influences, and so on. After reading the article, many of the problems in society seem to trace back to a consumeristic mindset, collecting things, seeking pleasure, and being more 'productive.' Maybe these discussions about social issues are a distraction. Perhaps putting more energy into what the scriptures already say is where we should put our energy. I make the following connections with The Benedict Option:
The book speaks of asceticism in monastic life, the need to exercise self-denial, controlling our desires, as the article starts with. One way of doing this is in Sabbath-keeping. Examining how our desires play out on the Sabbath: convenience for a meal, another day for productivity, another day to collect stuff. "Your contentment and mine would wreak havoc on the order of things." I love this quote. If more Christians kept the Sabbath as an expression of contentment in what the Lord has done, would that "wreak havoc on the order of things"? I think it would.
We may not see the fruit of this in our lifetime – we need to be good with that. Again, maybe this speaks to our desires. If I don't see some results, then I'll look for a better solution. I feel more productive when I vote, post a counterargument on social media, etc. but is that really effective? Living into the order of reality (See Graystone podcast "Reformed and Ritual?
Time: Living with the Grain of Reality") that God has established will ultimately be more effective.
Another principle from monastic life is community. What does it look like to live into the above article in community? I don't have any specific thoughts (yet), but being in a community at some level, any level, would be a prerequisite to growing into a more convivial society. How many Christians do their work, come home and watch TV, and just go to a bible study/prayer meeting and Sunday worship? The article speaks to this when it talks about the big houses that we fill with stuff (my basement is a testament to that…). Stuff consumes our time. Stuff makes us feel like we're content – until we need more stuff. What does a counter-cultural Christian community look like over against this?
I really appreciate the article – thanks for taking the time to write and share.
(my first post!)
A thought pops up that if you, or indeed Illich, lived in England, you'd see a different sort of landscape. There's a rather old-fashioned but persistent view still current in these parts, that consumerism, with all its attendant ills, originates from America, but like Coca Cola has found its way everywhere, and cunningly fostering a taste for things that drinkers of Real Ale would revile.
Villages, crafts, small farms: I mean landscape literally as well as metaphorically. Increasingly, we (my wife mostly) buy organic foods, local produce, things designed here and made here too, not in China or Bangladesh. They cost more. We are lucky we can afford these little things, living simply in a downtown district of extinct Victorian factories and rows of tiny workers' cottages, protected as part of a <a href="https://www.wycombe.gov.uk/uploads/public/documents/Planning/Conservation-areas-and-listed-buildings/Leigh-Street-CAA.pdf" rel="nofollow ugc">conservation area</a>
The geography, history and other circumstances of America are so different from ours (despite pre-independence common ground – Benjamin Franklin frequently <a href="https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/benjamin-franklin-at-west-wycombe-park" rel="nofollow ugc">visited our town</a> as the guest of Sir Francis Dashwood); but the influences these days travel across the Pond mainly from West to East. Much wonderful culture, but mostly that which is fuelled by the power of Money, whose effect these days is to impoverish further the lives of those already poor.
How to subdue reality to the wishes of men. The solution technique.' Marlowe's Dr Faustus is I think still relevant. Though it was a long time ago I studied it. Dr Faustus was never satisfied and he wants instant gratification.. Is knowledge sometimes a commodity now? Or has it been reduced? Dr Faustus doesn't want interdependence either. Is it just about power or are there other elements?
. Don't know.
Then there is modern consumerism. Interesting the idea of having what we want materialy 'success' with that but there are non material deprivation such as loneliness. There is a connection between the two.
Michael, what was the podcast conversation you refer in the piece?
Rosa's book which I discovered through your recommendation is very interesting. I also discovered I didn't need an academic background in the area of his study to understand it. He explains things clearly for me.
Many fine insights in this essay. I've been saying for 20 years that if enough people would say, "Hey, I've got enough. I'm satisfied with what I have," the economy would collapse. And then of course there's the constant push to manufacture desire that leads to chronic discontent. It's all quite insane.
You might find some interesting and untrodden territory by looking at Lewis's and Illich's (rather different) interests in the occult or esoteric, in magic for Lewis and in heresy for Illich. Lewis seems to have shared in the late 19thC romantic reaction to modernity that wanted to retain, recover, and hold space for magic and enchantment. Potentially dangerous, derailing stuff, especially for the unattached longing of men of a certain sort that Lewis was until late in life. Illich was not that kind of man — a very unromantic celibate figure but far more legitimately magical. He built up and left behind an archive of folk superstitions, rituals, festivals, and beliefs that he felt were necessarily shaded in the penumbra of institutions and orthodoxies. Lewis would have understood this and its importance into our time, in Andean spirituality for example. The burning of rain forests makes (not so) strange bedfellows. Papas and Pachamama...