Saturday, March 21, 2015

What kind of information do we most need, 'spiritually'?

A common complaint about the increasing availability of information and the speed at which it travels is that our minds cannot hold it all. Three decades ago, Jeremy Rifkin wrote:

Strangely enough, it seems that the more information that is made available to us, the less well informed we become. Decisions become harder to make, and our world appears more confusing than ever. Psychologists refer to this sate of affairs as "information overload," a neat clinical phrase behind which sits the Entropy Law. As more and more information is beamed at us, less and less of it can be absorbed, retained, and exploited. The rest accumulates as dissipated energy or waste. The buildup of this dissipated energy is really just social pollution, and it takes its toll in the increase in mental disorders of all kinds, just as physical waste eats away at our physical well-being.

The sharp rise in mental illness in this country has paralleled the information revolution. That's not to suggest that the increase in mental illness is due solely to information overload. Other contributing factors include such things as genetics, spatial crowding, increased dislocation and migration of populations, and the stresses of environmental pollution.

Part of what we need to do is to decide what information is important. This includes our own cultural and family history, and building culture by participating actively in it. Starhawk, in 1987:

To be disconnected from our past, our history, is to be disempowered. In consumer culture, we consume time and forget what has gone before. We do not value the stories, the experiences, of the elders. But when we devalue their lives, we devalue our own, for at best, we can hope to someday become old. The elders may offer us perspectives we need in times of change.
* * *
A life-loving culture that escaped the repression of the Censor would be expressive, erotic, alive with art, music, poetry, dance, and ritual; diverse, not monolithic, drawing on many rhythms, many languages; active, not passive. Entertainment would cease to be a spectacle we consume, and become what we do for each other and ourselves; the stories we tell, the rituals we create, our own songs and our own laughter.

Something else important is what some call "spirit," "sacred," or "enchantment." From a more secular perspective, this is related to the urge to pursue one's passions girded by one's core beliefs and to experience life in a state of wonder, joyful awe, and calm resignation. Information overload can take us away from this center of who we really are and what we really want to do while we are here. Rabbi Michael Lerner, in 2006:

We live in a world in which a technocratic rationality has replaced an awareness of spirit, flattening the way we experience nature and each other. * * * Most of us have learned to accommodate to a world that has been flattened, made one-dimensional, disenchanted, despiritualized. And yet, we feel an abiding hunger because human beings are theotropic – they turn toward the sacred – and that dimension in us cannot be fully extinguished.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in 2010, reflected on the decision to choose to commit herself romantically to just one man. We often feel pressured to maximize our happiness, she mused. And how do we know what to choose, since we cannot choose everything?

...I had always been taught that the pursuit of happiness was my natural (even national) birthright. It is the emotional trademark of my culture to seek happiness. Not just any kind of happiness, either, but profound happiness, even soaring happiness. And what could possibly bring a person more soaring happiness than romantic love?
* * *
The problem, simply put, is that we cannot choose everything simultaneously. So we live in danger of becoming paralyzed by indecision, terrified that every choice might be the wrong choice. (I have a friend who second-guesses herself so compulsively that her husband jokes her autobiography will someday be titled I Should've Had the Scampi.) Equally disquieting are the times when we do make a choice, only to later feel as though we have murdered some other aspect of our being by settling on one single concrete decision. By choosing Door Number Three, we fear we have killed off a different – but equally critical – piece of our soul that could only have been made manifest by walking through Door Number One or Door Number Two.

Umair Haque blogged in 2011 that true happiness, profound contentment, is probably not found in the more-is-better, passive consumption model of "hedonic opulence" that the advertising economy presses upon us, but rather in a more active appreciation of smaller, more meaningful things.

In short, I see an outcomes gap: a yawning chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between what our economy produces and what you might call a meaningfully well-lived life, what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia.

The economy we have today will let you chow down on a supersize McBurger, check derivative prices on your latest smartphone, and drive your giant SUV down the block to buy a McMansion on hypercredit. It's a vision of the good life that I call (a tiny gnat standing on the shoulders of the great Amartya Sen) hedonic opulence. And it's a conception built in and for the industrial age: about having more. Now consider a different vision: maybe crafting a fine meal, to be accompanied by local, award-winning microbrewed beer your friends have brought over, and then walking back to the studio where you're designing a building whose goal is nothing less than rivaling the Sagrada Familia. That's an alternate vision, one I call eudaimonic prosperity, and it's about living meaningfully well. Its purpose is not merely passive, slack-jawed "consuming" but living: doing, achieving, fulfilling, becoming, inspiring, transcending, creating, accomplishing – all the stuff that matters the most. See the difference? Opulence is Donald Trump. Eudaimonia is the Declaration of Independence.

Yesterday, pundits and talking heads believed this crisis was just a garden-variety, workaday crash. Today, people like Tyler Cowen and I have called it a Great Stagnation. But here's what I believe it might just be called tomorrow, when the history books have been written, and the debates concluded: a Eudaimonic Revolution. A sweeping, historic transformation in what we imagine a good life to be, and how, why, where, and when we pursue it.


Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard. Entropy: A New Worldview. London: Paladin Books, 1985. p. 187.
Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery. New York: Harper Collins, 1987. pp. 125, 327-328.
Michael Lerner. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. p. 1-2. Elizabeth Gilbert. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. New York: Viking, 2010. p. 43, 45-46.
"Is a Well-Lived Life Worth Anything?" Umair Haque. HBR [Harvard Business Review] Blog Network. May 12, 2011.

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