Let’s Get the Ball Rolling – Individuals and Society in an Unstable Equilibrium

20 03 2012

Picture a metaphoric ball resting precariously atop a steep, metaphoric hill. The ball represents our modern society – a “collective mind” of sorts, comprised of all of the basic assumptions we make about ourselves, about others, and about our relationship to the social and natural world we live in; the hill represents progress, specifically the industrialization and technological progress of the last hundred or so years, since the Industrial Revolution, which have brought us further from our roots than almost any other period in human history.

Many paths lead to the bottom of the hill – an infinite number, speaking mathematically, but for our purposes, we’ll say it’s 3 or 4 – and at the bottom of each path lies one of the many traditions, values, and institutions that we have left behind in the name of progress. Among these are the traditional religion and spirituality of our parents and grandparents, the rural and agrarian structure of society, and the tight-knit community, home, and family of our ancestors.

As it would turn out, these paths all ultimately lead to the same place. That is, these ideas, traditions, and values, though distinct in nature, have traditionally complemented one another, and have existed more or less simultaneously throughout much of human history. And thus, it would follow, the paths all point in the same direction: backward. They lead backward, away from the industrialization, capitalization, and technological advancement that have shaped our modern world; against the tides of change, of progress, which, for the sake of its own propagation, has become the perpetual driving force of so many decisions, political and even private, made by our species today.

You may ask, then, why I have chosen a ball perched atop a steep hill to represent the very foundation of contemporary society. I make no claims of any great knowledge in neurology, psychology, anthropology, or sociology, but there is one characteristic of our society that my own observations have repeatedly led me to: this hill, this very foundation, is unstable. At any point, a small amount of force applied in the right direction can start the ball rolling back down, back to stable ground, to the agrarian, community-based economics practiced for so much of human history. A small shift in day-to-day life, or the rediscovery of a older, simpler tradition that, in the hustle and bustle of modern life, we didn’t realize we had forgotten – these little events on a societal or, more likely, personal level, can start the ball rolling. Moreover, if strong enough, they can completely derail all of the artificiality, materialism, and vice which have been forced upon us (by whom?: that is a whole discussion in itself), in order to separate us from our roots and keep us in a state of near-subservience.

So much of our time is spent in front of a computer screen, playing video games, watching TV, or working in a cubicle, and for those who live in some cities, it is often (but not always) impossible to experience the natural world. Yet, as if none of this matters, when a child touches the dirt, chases a butterfly, picks a dandelion, or watches a bird flap around in a tree, her eyes light up – she understands, though in much a transcendental manner, beyond the scope of anything she could possibly comprehend, the fundamental virtue and “rightness” in this interaction with the natural world. When a young boy (this was yours truly) realizes that food comes from plants, and a whole new world opens in front of him, in which “the Outside” means so much more than it did before, something subtle changes in his psyche – one might say, the ball starts a steady roll.

It cannot be denied that there is a connection between us and the world in which we reside. It is much greater than any Industrial Revolution or technological advancement, much more powerful than what, in reality, amounts to a small blip in the history of our species and our Earth. When the very basis of our lives is manufactured and not inherent; when we, without realizing its significance, hope and pray for some basic, real experience that would help to define what it means to be human; when we long for something more – that is because there is something more, some subconscious sense of our natural roots, present because of literally thousands of years of human tradition ingrained in our human instinct, that cannot simply be weeded out (pun intended) by a few generations of corporate, technological power-mongering.

There are two bible verses which I believe summarize everything I have and could possibly say regarding the necessity for this shift in our way of thinking. The first is from Psalm 24, Verses 1 and 2: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,/ the world, and all who live in it…”. The second is from Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, Chapter 4, Verses 11 and 12: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody[emphasis added].”

The next question is: Where do we start? However we try to return to our roots, to remember that which we have unconsciously forgotten, the most important thing we must keep in mind: Just start the ball rolling.

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2 responses

24 03 2012
A

Do you really think it’s possible, in this day and age, to get people to move “backwards?” Or are you taking the approach of each person is one drop of water, but together we are an ocean sort of thing? Also, I think society is the way it is because you have to depend on someone somewhere. No one can make it alone.

25 03 2012
Alex

Your questions intrigue me. I would honestly say, I don’t know if it’s possible. Considering the state of society, at least in the US, we lead what appear to be comfortable lives: we have our cheap food and oil, invisible dependency on big corporations that is almost entirely masked by the facade of laissez faire economics and the free market, and plenty of things (I’d say the “Jersey Shore” show is a prime example) to distract us from the problems in our own country and all around the world.
I do think I am taking it on from the perspective of collective rather than individual action. As unsettling as it is to admit this, my recycling every scrap of paper, growing my own garden, and refusing to eat certain foods is not going to change the world. It will require some more “institutionalized” change, wherever that may come from – be it the federal or more local government, some group of small businesses, or just a large group of citizens “petitioning the government for a redress of grievances”. That being said, something does need to be done. And, in my amateur opinion, it needs to be done sooner rather than later.
You’ve hit the nail on the head with that last part. Notwithstanding our behaviors and mindsets of the past, in our current situation, it seems as though we “grapple” for something on which to be dependent, and that all too often seems to be a big economic entity (call it what you may) that doesn’t really have the peoples’ health, happiness, or freedom in mind. Again, in my personal beliefs, this is exactly the outcome that was intended by the economic system that has brought us to this mess. Devaluing in our society the most important guiding and balancing force we used to have (a centralized family), and stripping us of our ability to take care of ourselves (by defining “work” as that which does not happen on a farm), we were put in the perfect position to become the “good little consumers” of today, not having the ability or, in many cases, the strength to question whether we’re on the right track.

One final note, I would characterize the situation of the current day not as an inevitable absolute, but as the result, direct and indirect, of a series of decisions made over the last 150 to 200 years – a mistake that amounts to what is, in reality, a very small amount of all of human history. A sin that, given enough people who recognize it, we may be able to purge ourselves of.

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