We are the patient-zero generation for a lot of things that were, safe to say, uncommon practices even a decade and a half ago. When Walt Whitman said, “The future is no more uncertain than the present”, he implied that while what is to come is hard to tell, it is equally hard to understand the consequences of our current actions.
Our bodies are not hard-wired for lifelong usage of modern affordances – mobile phones, motorised vehicles, things as simple as escalators and office chairs. I am not begrudging the existence of amenities. I thoroughly appreciate the advances humanity has made and how our overall wellbeing has significantly improved as a species across energy, food security, healthcare, education etc. I will not trade these individually or in its entirety. Sure, we can do with fewer to no tanning beds amongst other pointless human inventions, but you know the category of useful advances I am referring to.
What makes me uncomfortable is how we are using the gifts of these advancements as ‘adult pacifiers’ without being deliberate or discerning about it. I remember asking a friend roundabout a year ago about how long he thinks an average human spends looking for his phone in their homes or immediate vicinity over a lifetime. I am sure you would get a sense of the magnitude I am talking about regardless of how many seconds/ minutes you estimated for yourself on a daily basis and did the math for over a lifetime.
The second-order effects of everything that comes with the way our modern lives are playing out are what concern me the most.
The best of humanity always came through during times of deprivation and we have consistently led ourselves and others through that towards better times. Humanity is genetically coded to thrive and innovate in such situations.
Kierkegaard spoke about the importance of constraints quite clearly –
The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.
We have come a long way through strife and turmoil to get to a point where we are fantastically unfamiliar with what to do with our time and attention, and the aggregate of the two, our lives. This is the first time when large sections of humanity find themselves living in abundance and affluence.
I am going to have to rely on two quotes from Kierkegaard (again) to explain this better –
One is weary of living in the country and moves to the city; one is weary of one’s native land and goes abroad; one is [weary of Europe] and goes to America etc.; one indulges in the fanatical hope of an endless journey from star to star. […] One is weary of eating on porcelain and eats on silver; wearying of that, one eats on gold;
…and how most of us today would fit his unconventional definition of ‘nobility’ during his lifetime in 19th Century Denmark –
The word “boring” can designate just as well a person who bores others as someone who bores himself. Those who bore others are the plebeians, the crowd, the endless train of humanity in general; those who bore themselves are the chosen ones, the nobility.
I read somewhere that said something to the effect of how deprivation gives rise to leadership and abundance, to power. Regardless of the context, I think there is a certain amount of general truth to that. The difference between leadership and power is in how one focuses on others, while the other puts oneself at the centre.
What’s worse is this current wave of abundance that focuses on maximising self-centred priorities only furthers the gap from the ones living in deprivation. A simple example of that playing out in our lives is the cycle of hyper consumption. Hyper consumption directly affects the lives of people in countries different from the ones consuming the products – right from indiscriminate extraction and utilisation of resources all the way to how refuse ends up in landfills exported to countries that aren’t developed enough or possess the ability to manage them safely. And this is a perpetual cycle, with changing end-destinations. Rinse and repeat.
I was reading Marina Abramovic’s wonderfully powerful memoir Walk Through Walls (highly recommend!) where she speaks about her childhood in erstwhile-Yugoslavia. She acknowledges that she was born into privilege, being the daughter of two war heroes who fought against the Nazis. Her life wasn’t one of deprivation that was rampant in Yugoslavia during those years. It is not fair to default to say it was easy and that is why the following stood out to me.
Here is a short excerpt from the book –
I knew from the age of six or seven that I wanted to be an artist. Though my mother punished me for many things, she encouraged me in this one way. Art was holy to her. So in our big apartment I not only had my own bedroom, but my own painting studio. And while the rest of the flat was crammed with paintings and books and furniture, from a very early age I kept both my rooms spartak—Spartan. As empty as possible. In my bedroom, just the bed, one chair, and a table. In my studio, just the easel and my paints.Walk Through Walls, Marina Abramovic
There is something innately powerful that comes from drawing constraints and the modern-day definition of drawing constraints means being deliberate with our time and attention. I wrote about this earlier in Returning Attention to its Rightful Owners.
It is our responsibility to ourselves and to others, to create the space to discern within this abundance that we have created.
It is imperative that we do so to find a way to temper its relentlessness.