At the Surrender 2012 conference, I heard a speaker share his thoughts on our generation, which he compared to the characters in the movie “Rebels without a cause.” One of the things he focussed on was a part of the movie in which the main character is sitting in a planetarium, with a recorded voice explaining the different constellations. At one point the planetarium narrator explains that the universe is growing cold, that one day it will end – and basically indicates that we live in a cold, meaningless universe that has no basic point.
Isn’t that exactly how our society, our generation, views the universe today? Isn’t it so true that we each cling to – in different measures – the belief that the best we can hope for is get as much personal pleasure out of life before we die? The Surrender speaker put forth the observation that this was the birth of consumerism: those who stood to gain from mindless consumption helped to convince us that the only meaning we could hope to find in life was connected to buying things that we want. And they were ready to tell us what we want.
Now, I don’t actually know many people who would deny all of this. It is almost like a point of pride for our generation, that we have broken free from the “God myth” and now live purely for ourselves. Because that is the extent to which we believe that there is nothing for us in life besides a few kicks, the best of what money can buy – we don’t even see the problem in it.
I’ve noticed a bit of a problem. This kind of thinking is fatalistic – we don’t make smart choices, we make choices that will deliver the quick fix of happiness we feel we need. We don’t aim for long-term happiness or joy, because we don’t think it’s actually on the table as something we can attain. We don’t care about other people, because that isn’t always instantly rewarding – or rewarding in the same way – as doing things for ourselves.
So why is it that empathy has not yet been bred out of us?
I read an anecdote in a book yesterday, and I’ll briefly describe it here: A man went to Kolkata (formarly Culcutta) to spend some time serving with Mother Theresa in the House of the Dying. There were many chores to perform each day, but there was one he couldn’t stand, one that made him sick to the stomach: taking the rubbish bin to the local tip to empty it. Each day it would be filled with the most horrendous things: little clay jars given to patients to collect the mucous they coughed up were thrown out when they became full; the pus and maggots scraped from open wounds would go into the bin along with bandages and used syringes; the food that could not be eaten because it had spoiled, thrown in with all that mess. This man avoided taking the big rubbish bin down to the tip because he hated to see what happened when the rubbish was thrown away: people would come – even little children – to pick over the rubbish, searching for a skeric of food amongst the foul waste. He was disgusted, horrified that they could be so desperate as to put into their mouths spoiled food that had sat amongst such waste.
I was moved by this account. I have no doubt that as you read that, your mind recoiled in horror. Did you imagine the little children, distended bellies dragging across the trash heaps? Did you picture the emaciated frames of people, scavenging through medical waste from something with which to sustain themselves?
Did you wish you could make it stop?
Now stop, imagine you are there, amongst the rubbish. Imagine that you see a child – just one child, desperately gnawing on a mango pip, huddled amongst the flies and syringes and rotten sludge. Imagine that you approach that child, and offer them a new life with you – one where their basic needs are met, where they have a loving home and food to eat and a community to share in. Imagine what it would mean to that child. Or to that young woman. Or to that old man. Imagine the difference it would make.
Got it? Is it there in your head?
There are so many people in the world who live out this reality of eating rubbish, so many for whom life is truly not fair. How can there not be meaning to this world? Because if you imagined helping that hungry person and felt the glow of humanity, there is something worth living for. There is something worth caring about. There is something worth giving up the greedy demands of self for.
Society tells us there is nothing to live for. But we are human beings, created for something more, and there is something peculiarly human which laments when we give in to this lie. Something that makes us sad – which ultimately drives us further into the consumerism trap, unless someone shines the light on the true path of happiness. It might seem hard to give up our creature comforts, but looking at how unhappy, how dissatisfied with life we have become as a generation – a generation where getting smashed is the highlight of our week – I would say it’s harder to continue in the same way.