Monday, February 28, 2011

Romanticizing and Dis-ease

A few days ago, I wrote a post that mostly lamented the level of alienation present in our society, which is at least somewhat linked to how we are using new technologies. This interview digs into that theme even more. Here is the beginning of it:

Brooke Jarvis: When did you start thinking about the connection between economics and happiness?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: Thirty-five years ago, I had the great privilege of living and working in Ladakh, or Little Tibet. People there seemed happier than any people I had ever met. To me, this seemed to come from a self-esteem so high that it was almost as though the self wasn't an issue. Even among young people, there wasn't a need to show off, to act “cool.” I remember being impressed that a thirteen-year-old boy wouldn’t feel embarrassed to coo over a little baby or to hold hands with his grandmother.

But as Western-style development came to Ladakh, so did the message that the people there were primitive and backward. They were suddenly comparing themselves to romanticized, glamorized role models in the media—images of perfection and wealth that no one can compete with. You began to see young people using dangerous chemicals to lighten their skin. In Ladakh, there is now a suicide a month, mainly among young people. Not that long ago, suicide was basically unknown—there would have been one in a lifetime. That’s a really, really clear indicator that something is really wrong—and the dominant economic model is what had changed.

In countries around the world, in fact, there is an epidemic of depression and suicides and eating disorders. With this film, we’re trying to show that, when you look at the big picture, these social issues—as well as our environmental problems—are linked to an economic system that promotes endless consumerism. Fundamental to that system are trade policies that promote the expansion of giant multinational corporations.

I found these lines particularly interesting:

People there seemed happier than any people I had ever met. To me, this seemed to come from a self-esteem so high that it was almost as though the self wasn't an issue.

It's dangerous upon reading something like the account above to romanticize the past, and long for the simpler life that people like those in Ladakh possibly had. However, just as they can't go back to what was, neither can any of us. So, now what?

Our minds are really good at hyper-focusing on what we perceive to be negative. What seems wrong. What we don't like. Anything that causes dis-ease.

That's true on an individual level, but it's also true collectively. In my opinion, the vast majority of our global economy is built on the intertwining of our collective dis-ease. In addition, I'd argue that the hyper-focus on "the economy and economics" itself is a product of this. That the majority of humans spend much of their lives these days swirling around issues of money, "gainful" employment, material possessions, profits, and the rest points to how far down the dis-ease rabbit hole we have gone.

One of the main points of the interview cited above is that locally-driven economics is tied to greater levels of happiness. I think this is true, but let's move a little further.

Why are things like community gardens so popular? Because people literally become re-in touch with the earth, with their neighbors, with the food they grow. And in doing so, are back in touch with themselves. Sometimes to the point where the "self" is forgotten.

Sounds great, right? Well, this can be romanticized as well.

One of the reasons I think people in the "digital age" struggle both with the damage the consumer culture has done, but also with sustaining more healthy, vibrant alternatives to that culture is that really touching the earth, touching one's self means embodying it all.

With great joy often comes great fear riding in right after. And then all the games people play trying to avoid or act upon that fear.

The individual who took a risk by leaving their corporate job, downsizing their life, and disappearing for awhile to attend meditation and yoga retreats begins to see a new way of being, feels profound joy, and then is bombarded with fear - inside and out - and chooses to cut off the budding vision, or to only maintain that which is socially acceptable, at least to some degree.

The group that took a risk by abandoning the established models of approaching life's big and little questions, big and little issues, begins to embody a new way of being, which challenges the status quo, brings threats and other difficulties, and suddenly the mechanisms of power and control appear, steering the group in another direction, either out of deference to establishment or in defiance of it. And either way, something vital is lost.

It seems to me that whatever any of us end up doing, individually or as a group, in response to dis-ease - it absolutely has to be grounded in teaching ourselves and others to stop believing in romanticized stories about anything. And at the same time, to learn how to vision and imagine far beyond what we think we see in the world and in our own lives.

Sounds contradictory almost. However, I don't think so.

Even though I've never been suicidal, I'm not all that different from those young folks in Ladakh. Just as they have romanticized something being imported into their homeland, which itself is already romanticized, I'm given to longing for some place where life is simpler. Just as they have failed to look beyond what's being presented to them, and how they "don't have that," I often find myself languishing in the many manifestations of "dis-ease" around me, unable to imagine steps towards a more joyful, liberated life.

Like anything else, there's a duality at work that most of us fail to see. Simplicity and Complexity. Some of those youth in Ladakh are probably really drawn to the complexity of modern technology, business economics, and science. Some of us in the U.S. are really drawn to the simplicity of doing dishes mindfully, owning a lot less stuff, and Zen haiku. Both, however, are forgetting that it's all functioning together, that simplicity and complexity can't be fully separated. This is how romanticizing gets humans in trouble.

So, let's get real. And at the same time, imagine what isn't currently real, but might be in the future. Let's do it together. Even when it's difficult.

*Image: "National Romantic Painting" - Hans Gude, 1847

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