Let me get one thing utterly clear, I love the Western culture. Its freedom, industrial might and stability allow me to enjoy an uncommonly fun existence. There is no other culture I would rather be born in or live in. Period.
But… Depression and suicide are at unprecedented levels here in the West, as are obesity and diabetes and detest for one’s work. I look around, and I see a lot of unhealthy and unhappy faces. When I walk the streets late at night, I see the electronic blue glare of television screens pulsing within the silent chambers of the homes I pass. Separate mental patients in their separate cells anaesthetising themselves into their separate comas.
A Gallup poll found that 85% of Americans hate their jobs. 62% of adults in the UK are overweight or obese. In our western democracies, suicide is now more deadly than conflict or murder.
Clearly the Western model isn’t working so well for everyone.
There are nuanced and powerful arguments outlining why so many in our culture aren’t quite making things work. The breakdown of communities, the breakdown of religious values (and therefore the loss of a common meta-narrative), the banality of many occupations, the grotesqueness of the Western diet, the gap between rich and poor and the cramped conditions of our cities are a few arguments I find very persuasive. Others have argued the above well, and I don’t want to explore these here.
Let me offer an idea, although not commonly aired, which ties together the above points. The Western system produces what you want as fast as possible. The Western citizen chooses his own path and finds his own happiness. The problem is… So few people know what they want. People make awful decisions. This brings to mind the tragic cliché of when you get what you want and not what you need – but on plastic-wrapped buy one get one free steroids. You can choose any lifestyle you want, but nearly all of them lead to suffering, and suffering we are.
But it gets worse. There is a great machinery out there to tempt us into the worst natures of ourselves. Countless advertisements fire up mental circuitry which, although well suited to the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, propagates wildly in modernity. Flash cars and houses and clothes grow our pride, pornography grows our lust, the news grows our fear, salty and sugary foods grow our swollen bellies, and so on. Leading the good life is tricky enough, but demagogues and tricksters lurk on every street corner skilfully luring us into emotion-driven traps which make the tricksters wealthy and our own lives garbled.
There is some fairness to this system though, for in the West, you lead yourself into your own personal version of Hell. No one tells you to eat the sweeties or work yourself into misery so you can buy a car flashy enough to feel important. You are led and nudged, but you, ultimately, make the choice. In a perverse sort of way, I find this rather equitable.
Who does the West work for? Not the rich, for they are often mangled by it too. The West works for the wise. If you can make the right decisions to cultivate a mind which resists the various sweeties and tricksters and seeks real growth, then the great machinery of our culture will liberate you. The problem is, most will not – ever.