I’ve spent most of my adult life chasing a kind of certainty : the belief that people are susceptible to beauty, emotion and compassion. I want to believe that even the most callous, cruel and indifferent people in the world have cracks – weaknesses in their armor that can be exploited for their rehabilitation into the land of the empathic and reasonable.
Fundamental to this belief is what the French call existential engagement. Whenever I read or watch something, I take it seriously. If I read a text in philosophy or ethics, I’ll consider whether it is something I should take on board in my own life. Routinely, I read things that reshape my world view, demolishing my old life, making me rebuild it from the rubble. The most recent example is 19th century German romanticism, which helped me consider various different ways of romanticizing the world, bringing back a colour to things I didn’t know I had lost. It is rare for me to have a reaction of ‘that’s nice’ to an artwork or film, or a passive numbness to my experiences.
This kind of existential engagement is an imperative, for to live is to perceive. But I have recently been made aware of how rare this line of thinking is in my generation. I recently watched “The Florida Project” with a friend, a confronting film about poverty and drug abuse in the shadow of America’s Disneyland. Immediately afterwards, while I was still digesting the implications of the film, he switched on another equally confronting film. “That was a good film,” he said, before doing so. The detachment was staggering – as if human suffering is just another thing to be binge-watched.
There is a disconnect here which is at the heart of modern experience. What does it mean to be so emotionally numb and immune to the suffering of others?
If I value existential engagement, then most of the imperative of modern life seems to diverge in the opposite direction, towards existential detachment. The vogue of Marcus Aurelius and the stoics has created a state of intentional detachment, where people justify their lack of reaction to things by reference to the fact that almost everything is beyond their control. Poverty, homelessness and war appear to be intractable, impossible problems under this paradigm. However, they are only impossible problems if everyone maintains this existential detachment – the detachment is the cement that reinforces the problem. The problem is us.
Far from being compelled to engage in the problems of the world, their community or their neighbors, the modern imperative is to simply engage with the self. It is fashionable to talk of personal responsibility, of resumes, of personal milestones and individual achievement.
What this modern imperative misses is the interconnectedness of things. The romantics wrote of how each tree in nature is connected to every other tree through the ecosystem and natural environment: so too are humans. The suffering of others is our own suffering. “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
It is possible that my belief system is incorrect. Perhaps the callous cannot be made empathetic. Perhaps the cruel have no susceptible cracks in their armor.
Certainly, beauty and art seem weak against the forces of de-personalized consumption and oppression. Certainly, a kind of psycopathy is rewarded in modern companies.
Again and again, I have seen my generation turned away from community service, away from charity and away from others. This process seems irreversible and even permanent. People are quick to give up existential engagement as too difficult, irrelevant or unprofitable.
To some extent, this is because it so often entails personal sacrifice. And today, sacrifice is only made in one direction. It is okay to sacrifice hours in a day, your youth, your dignity and your mental health, for the sake of wealth. It is not okay to sacrifice anything for the sake of personal enlightenment or community engagement. Anything that helps someone else is quickly reframed as a waste of time. Anything unprofitable is almost shameful, as if love and art were vices. Then what, I ask, are our virtues?
It would be a natural conclusion here to give up all hope, had I not so often seen the cracks for myself. My generation is flailing and searching for answers. Far from fulfilling us and making us happy, existential detachment has led us into mental illness and disease. We pretend not to care, eventually we do not care but then our brains hold a riot, telling us that something is profoundly wrong.
There is hope here, that we might become engaged once more.
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