Religion. The mob. Capitalism. Fundamentalism. Bad parenting. Racism. Materialism. Youth unemployment. Poverty. Thugs. Multiculturalism. Rich vs poor …
Take your pick; even add to the list, as we collectively grapple to decipher the root causes of the violence and the mental illness that pervades our world – be it terrorism, random shootings, war, suicide.
‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ shakes us to the core. We start to question what it means to be human. We apportion blame. We want answers. ‘Gosh’, we ask, ‘what just happened?’
While much has been said and written, with still plenty more to come, dare we posit yet another possible contributor: ‘boredom’ – that deep sense of emptiness and disquiet that leaves us bereft and unsettled. It is little wonder, for instance, that Australia is now the second-highest prescriber of anti-depressant medications in the OECD.
We might well ask, then: “Is western civilisation being eroded by a pervasive boredom?”
There are two particularly powerful narratives; you might even say movements, holding sway in Australia (and western civilisation) at the moment: rampant materialism and aggressive secularism cum atheism. The latter is enjoying a kind of post-Enlightenment renaissance thanks, in no small way, to church scandals, the flourishing from within the ranks of the baptised of a passive and lukewarm Christianity, the articulate musings of high profile atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens; and, within the Australian context, the overt secular agenda of the Greens who, among other things, would like to sideline religion from the marketplace – certainly from public education. Mind you, the kind of zealous social conservatism of the likes of the Rev Fred Nile gives plenty of ammunition to those wary of believers.
As for rampant materialism: well, like Adam and Eve’s apple, it has always dangled seductively, menacingly, and within reach. But there does seem to be a noticeable upping of the ante at the moment; perhaps because its preachers have far greater reach and power thanks to the emotive immediacy of social media which has, among other things, helped nurture the “globalisation of superficiality”.
Indeed, so infused are we with the opiate of materialism that we have been lulled into thinking that it is quite acceptable, even the done thing, to outsource human love; to hand-over some of our most fundamental human responsibilities.
A case in point is the readiness of good people to entrust the care of their children to paid strangers in institutions: no, not orphanages – we got rid of them way back, thank god. No, these are called Childcare Centres, and they are big business. One can but wonder at the long-term implications of infants being dropped-off in the wee hours in order to protect a double income and maintain lifestyle aspirations.
Similarly, care for those at the other end of the age spectrum – our grandparents, our parents – has also tended to be outsourced: handed over to an under resourced, under-funded, under performing aged care sector. That said, it must be noted that, for some, nursing home and child care placements are not only sensible, necessary, and caring options, but the best and only options.
Alas, for too many others, these homes and centres have become convenient dumping grounds for those who don’t want their lifestyles compromised or inconvenienced. Never mind the plight of people with disabilities and mental illness.
While many lament ‘How can this be so in such a prosperous society’; really, it is this very prosperity that spawns neglect and indifference and violence.
After all, a prosperous society relies on its citizens being money-centred, self-centred, competitive, productive, and very busy. One of the consequences of this pressured backdrop is a tired and distracted society with little energy left-over to look after those who may hinder our progress, or retard our competitiveness, or beckon us to slow down.
So distracted are we with lifestyle-and-competition-and-acquisition-and-things, that we are oblivious to the yearnings of our young, our aged, our marginalised. We have left love behind. We are leaving our very selves behind. Our capacity to reflect is lost as reacting becomes the norm. The Christian mystic Thomas Merton put it well in his piece, The Waters of Siloe:
The one love that always grows weary of its object and is never satiated with anything
and is always looking for something different and new is the love of ourselves.
It is the source of all boredom and all restlessness
and all unquiet and all misery and all unhappiness –
ultimately, it is hell.
Rampant materialism does ‘violence’ to us all, especially to those who cannot compete. It demands our full attention as it promises much, yet leaves us floundering in a marinade of emptiness and dissatisfaction: boredom.
And, as alluded to earlier, exacerbating matters is the advancing prominence of an aggressive secularism cum atheism which promotes, among other things, non-belief or, more aptly, a narrative of ‘absence’. This narrative leaves communities vulnerable because it has neither the depth, nor the framework, nor the imagination to adequately critique and address the vacuum left by destructive forces such as rampant materialism. Indeed, one might conclude that such materialism is the progeny of a gospel that preaches ‘absence’; that reduces existence to physical matter only; to the empirical, to the two-dimensional-now.
And while people like Hawkins and Hitchens rightly criticise religious indoctrination and fundamentalism – and rightly critique the silly, childish images of God that abound; they themselves exhibit fundamentalist traits by aggressively preaching an uncompromising ideology that seeks to bully and shout down alternative narratives and voices. Thus, like all fundamentalists, they polarise. There is no room for compromise, and certainly no room for respectful, humble listening and cooperation. It is us versus them, and everything them holds dear becomes a target.
That said, secularism, unlike rampart materialism, does have an upside: it reins-in some of the potentially destructive and mindless elements of religion advocated by fundamentalists, zealots, and the misguided. Hence the importance of that wonderful pillar of western civilisation: the separation of church and state.
The combination of rampant materialism and aggressive secularism, however, perpetuates a sort of meaningless one-night-stand approach to life: it’s there, take it, enjoy it, and move on; ‘cause, really, there’s nothing else. Human beings become human doings imprisoned within a lifeless, two dimensional narrative. We are left bored and empty.
No wonder the violence. No wonder the broken minds and hearts.
Peter Day is a Catholic Priest in Canberra.