Is There Hope in Thought?

At first glance, it must seem that we, the human civilization, simply no longer think. The evidence is everywhere. Blank and blasé stares into nothing in the subway. Eyes glued to the screen, a flicking thumb. Shopping, to fill the emptiness and not to fulfil our needs. Petty arguments, narrow-minded decisions, mass-media politics, narcissism, littering, hate-crimes. One could say we have lost our imagination. In a truly remarkable time, where it seems like everyone is empowered, we are blinded, and our minds are numbed. This universal ignorance, this complacency and this compromise has infected our society from the inside out, and it is suffering from a fever that is only growing worse. Where are the Hobbes, the Kants, the Kerouacs and the Camus of our generation?

Though I consider myself privileged by every means (I am able to attend university, feed and clothe myself, pursue some hobbies) I am utterly uninspired by everything society sends my way. My classes are dull, and even though I study at (one of) the best universities in Canada, I am extremely underwhelmed. And my biggest frustration is that this is not due to a lack of difficulty – it is due to the fact that university has been so privatized and engineered to spew out ideal citizens that will serve the needs of our cities, schools, governments and hospitals. I can’t even open the books that are the best-sellers. My peers are fearful, my teachers mediocre and the people around me exhibit a slave mentality that would have sent even Nietzsche himself into reverence.

Where have the thinkers gone? Where are the radical ideas, where is the poetry, the lust for life, the undying belief in betterment? Am I simply in the wrong place, or has humanity actually died?

Our denial of what is truly important has escalated to the point of ignorance, and I can no longer place the blame on individuals. How are we to know what is out there when we are raised in the concrete jungle of city high-rises, or in the sheltered suburban sprawl, where the streets twist and turn into themselves in mirror-image cardboard houses, where even the tree stuck into the ground on the front lawn looks identical to the neighbour’s? How are we to see the stars when we can no longer penetrate the orange dust-bowl glow that hovers over our reality? How are we to know the truth when we no longer are taught to see? How can we see the faults in our society when it indoctrinates us with its brevity and its momentary “truths”? How are we to grow when we fight every day for others to accept us, when what we strive to be is the average, to blend in, to be like everyone else? How are we supposed to understand our power when we have been taught nothing but obedience and complacency?

For me, these problems have their origin in the complete failure of a school system we have in Canada. I have attended 9 schools in three countries throughout my life, therefore I deem it appropriate to assume I have a somewhat wider perspective of what education can be. And in Canada, it is depressing, to say the least. I have little to no memory of my elementary school days, apart from the vast expanse of pavement that served as our playground, the dirty tile we sat on, the acrid smell of the gym and the distaste I cultivated for every single one of my teachers. Rebellion grew inside of me, beginning as a small seed, and growing into an almost permanent disposition of protest, absence, and a sense of superiority that had no ground in reality. For almost fifteen years, I refused my education in the most selfish way possible. What could these people teach me that I had not learned outdoors? To me, the lessons that mattered were the practical ones, the ones that I learned when I took a hard fall, when I had to solve a problem. I gained satisfaction from building things, teaching myself a language my sister and I had invented.

It wasn’t until I was seventeen years old that I started to develop an appreciation for formal education. It didn’t take much reflection to realize that this was not a fault on my part – it was the fault of the school system. Only one of the teachers that taught me was a teacher by choice – the rest out of necessity, since their initial plans for their careers had failed. The classrooms were decrepit. We were taught to be conformers, to be socially and politically correct and to accept everything that came our way as truth. There was no room for imagination, for creativity, and anyone that thought differently was assimilated into the oppressive and narrow model. Science was fiction, math was burdensome, english was underwhelming and everything was taught in the most dry manner. The yearning for truth, for knowledge was suppressed, but never even acknowledged. We were not taught to think, we were taught to memorize and to spew out. The subjects were dead and inanimate, I could hardly distinguish them from one another. My years in school blurred into a single dull sensation.

Why must we each ignite the spark manually, in an exasperated attempt for any kind of inspiration, when a match can simply be held to us, bursting into a wildfire that cannot be contained? It took me 18 years to wake up when it should have been an integral part of my education.

To think, it is to be different. And to be different is dangerous, because you are an outcast. How dare you divert your attention from what demands it? And I catch myself falling into complacency, sometimes even for days. When I think again, I feel that I have awakened from a long and arduous slumber. I am filled with fear – how long until I awake again? The constant bombardment of visual stimulation numbs me to the point where I sleepwalk through the majority of my life, wasting away the days of my youth that are starting to be numbered.

 

Our Materialist Culture

The inherent materialistic tendencies of our society are probably our biggest collective hypocrisy. It strikes me again and again how much we know, but how little we think about it. In the case of materialist culture I firmly believe that the crisis emerges from the clash between a capitalist economy along, an economic fallacy, along with its the techniques used to insure its effectiveness, and the general education of our children and youth. And in the case of my generation, consumerist psychology is winning. The stuff we surround ourselves with is a symptom of our illness, however it is also a byproduct of our systematic distraction.

I always ask myself where this need for things comes from, and like many others, I have concluded that it must stem from a some kind of a deficit elsewhere. What are we missing, that we so desperately try and replace through thoughtless consumption? Albeit, there is an Existenzminimum of things that we need as a minimum base-line for our existence, however I am constantly in awe of the amount of things many people own. In my hometown, it is not unusual for a family have 5 – 6 cars – often as many as one per family member. They put these cars in massive garages, sometimes bigger than the house itself, which in turn are filled with household items, toys, memorabilia and junk. The terrifying thing is that these people do not realize that these are things they do not need, because we are all conditioned to believe the necessity, and often even urgent of these superfluous purchases. My roommate has three different hair brushes – since one would clearly not suffice for the job, and the most recent being purchased because it was ‘in.’

My biggest personal grievance, however, are unnecessary [plastic] things. (Though this extends to different categories such as packaging as well, for the sake of this post I will stick to items.) I can’t help but tremble with rage when I see store shelves stocked with items, usually decorative, which have absolutely no utility except to temporarily fill that hole with the endorphin-rush that comes with making a purchase. I am in no sense a utilitarian, however I just simply cannot understand how people buy these things and do not realize the environmental and ethical implications of their useless purchase. Why decorate your house with little santa figurines in December, when you can have beautiful plants? Why do you need to purchase cheaply made Halloween decorations that will be thrown out and will still exist, intact, in a landfill somewhere long after your body has decomposed?  When we went our for St. Patrick’s day, my friends insisted on going to the dollar store to buy shiny plastic tiaras and necklaces, and I could barely hold myself back from making bitter comments. However, I could not blame them, because they simply did not understand, or even think twice about it. What use is it to think about the vast amount of fossil fuels and resources put into the production of this one item, purchased for 99 cents, and why should anyone concern themselves with what will happen to it after they throw it out the next morning? This is deeply reflective of our collective unconscious, and our inherent laziness. In this culture of consumerism, the emphasis is on now. And since we live in a world with consistent visual stimulation overload, and are constantly assaulted by this consumerist propaganda, it is very hard to take one’s head out of the clouds and think twice.

I, myself, always insisted that I was not affected by advertising, however the effect it had on me became apparent one day I was in the drug store, buying shampoo. I simply would not buy the products I was unfamiliar with – and that is reflective of the general human psychology. We fear what we do not know, and the companies and logos we are familiar with are what we go for. Over the past years, the pre-eminence of advertising has become increasingly clear to me, especially in the years I lived in Germany, where massive, looming billboards stand in picturesque meadows on the side of the road, ominous and symbolic of what our economies have amounted to.  We are assaulted every day from the streets, from our homes, from our devices and from the items we consume. This culture of advertising enters our subconscious and we often do not even realize its presence. Companies such as Google and Facebook collect data from our search histories, creating algorithms to determine with striking accuracy the ads we would be most likely to respond to. And so many people do not know, or simply write it off. I am not overly concerned with my privacy online, but what scares me the most about these data collection techniques is the extensive effort that is directed toward turning each individual into the ideal consumer, who buys consistently without questioning the necessity or quality of their purchases. Yet we are in denial. We ignore it all. We purchase, silently, obediently, and in the evening retire quietly to our TV shows. No one questions anything anymore, we just believe everything we are told, and it sickens me. I sincerely hope that we will wake up, and realize how little we truly need.

A Plea for Minimalism

An interesting book to read on our ecological footprint is a collection of writings of David Suzuki, a famous Canadian environmentalist. In 1993, he writes, each Canadian left a footprint of 8.8 hectares per year. He makes an interesting case when he discusses the danger of the attempts to assimilate the economies of developing countries, and it only takes simple math to realize that our lifestyles are unsustainable, and should not be implemented anywhere else.

It is so hard to care, it is so hard to own up and admit guilt. And the hardest thing of all – is to change one’s lifestyle. However, each and every single one of us needs to do it.

When I was 17 I started throwing out all of my things. Albeit, this was more due to an existential crisis than for environmental reasons, I firmly believe that we need much less that most of us have. And ever since I have owned less, I feel mysteriously liberated. The things that I do need take on more worth. My apartment is clean, and I live a simple life. I don’t have the urge to buy much at all, and many people comment on how little I own. However, it is logical. Do you really need 15 pairs of shoes? Don’t you already own a black top that is almost identical? Your phone works fine, is it really necessary to upgrade to the 6S? These are the questions that everyone needs to ask themselves, and with a little bit of reflection the answers become clear.

My mother had a funny reaction to this, saying that she feared I was separating myself from my life on earth, almost breaking down in tears. But actually, the reverse is true. Ever since I’ve owned less, I couldn’t be closer to the Earth, since there is less to separate myself and distract me from it. It is true that the act of throwing out my superfluous possessions was my first step in my gradual separation from society, however I do not regret it one bit.

If everyone cut the material aspects of their lives in half, their ecological footprint would be reduced drastically, and their quality of life would improve even more so, because it is not until one transfers the value they place on things onto the aspects of our life on Earth that really matter, that one begins the journey to liberation.