What can be said about 2016 as it winds down? Certainly, something has gone horribly wrong. What could it be?
I believe that ultimately what has broken us apart is a destructive selfishness which has metastasized into a cancer.
For most people, this will be remembered as the year when so many artists and celebrities who shaped our lives passed on. While that is regrettable, it’s worth noting that as Baby Boomers age we can only expect this to accelerate. This is merely a reflection of our own mortality, something which no one ever wants to face eagerly.
That, alone, could be a mirror for understanding our own problem with our “self”.
Politics, as a concept, is nothing more than the art and science of human interaction. Where “politics” is considered a dirty word, “office politics” or “domestic politics” illuminates the meaning of the concept well. A world that is ever closer in so many ways is a world which is more political all the time. We come in contact with people we do not understand and even do not like all the time. The behavior of other people seems alien and possibly hostile. Why do they do the things they do?
Because people are people, but cultures are cultures.
Where we are all individuals who react more or less the same way to the same stimulus, the cultures we come from give us different pressures. Motivation for some behavior is never clear to someone who is not from that culture. This may seem obvious when talking about Islam versus western Liberalism, but it is also true when talking about the gap between American “liberal” versus “conservative”.
It becomes far too easy to ascribe purely evil intent when cultures come into close contact with each other. This is only the start of the retreat into a destructive selfishness, however.
What went terribly wrong in 2016, in my view, is that worldviews in general have collapsed into a singularity. Politics naturally starts with the self and its perspective, but it cannot end there. Through the last year all politics became personal and narrow, all answers became easy and poorly defined. Everything became selfish.
Take, for example, the rise of “fake news”, the crisis of the moment. False stories have been around as along as gossip, which in itself has always been the primary form of news among humans. What is new in this equation is the ability to craft and share these stories in a format which has some formal look of authenticity despite containing none. Yet even that is not the real problem. The process of sharing them involves first believing things which conform to a worldview that is entirely selfish in perspective and then a deep need to force that view on the rest of the world, desperately seeking additional validation.
Fake news is growing in fertile soil. That is the problem.
All of our politics has collapsed in this way. On the right, where selfishness has often been lauded as a virtue, there is nothing left but this. Spirituality, respect, and even decency appear to have fallen away in a world now defined by a desperately narcissistic President-Elect. But the left offers little more as an alternative. A progressive future will not be delivered by a desperate need to blame the mythical “1%” for nearly everything or a belief that a few tweaks to the narrowly defined oligarchy. Both the past and the future have collapsed into a terribly narrow sense of right now, a politics of instant gratification.
The net result is that everyone is a victim. Nevermind that they are victims first and foremost by themselves and their own lack of interest in stepping outside of their own skin for a moment.
What is the way out? This is a nation defined by self, which is to say a populism which commands that all politics must start with people. Our catechism teaches that we are creatures of basic rights first and foremost, and everything goes from there. But how do we define Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Hapiness in a way which allows us to move forward?
Increasingly, I can’t help but break down the concept of Self into something like “chakras”, or basic elements which must work together for good health. At the base there is the belly, which must be full and given proper nutrition. Up from that is the heart, which needs passion to beat vibrantly. Next are the lungs which must breathe deeply as eager arms act to build and create. Above that is the head which has to be focused and clear so that the senses do not overload it and tranquility can rule. Lastly there is the world beyond and above, the greater purpose of any kind which drives it all.
The last year has been full of noise which has dulled and misdirected all of these parts of self. Our politics is not only selfish, it is based on a sense of self with is always buzzy and bizzy and never satisfies the needs of any useful part of self in any way at all.
And so we have passion disconnected from rational thought or even reality itself. We have a greater purpose which serves nothing. We have work which is unfulfilling and unrewarding in every sense. And through it all what we, as a people, do better than anything else is keep shoving things into our bellies and stare in amazement that we have become fat and lazy.
It’s not just that we are selfish. It’s that we have no useful vision of self to start with.
What went terribly wrong in 2016? To say that everything has gone wrong is too easy. But there is little doubt in my mind that there is a deep rot at the core of this reviled thing we call “politics”. What that simply must be, in a nation where the individual as at the defined heart of all politics, is a cancer which has replaced “self” and rendered it utterly dysfunctional.
This cancer has not yet killed us, but it is certainly set to.