[Warning: long and intense post]
I remember growing up as children in middle class India, our only goal was to go to America. To study there, to work there and to get a better life. Nearly all my cousins are in America (seven out of ten). We worshipped America and generally looked at it as a country of great opportunities and as a place where merit was valued. And therefore it pains me when I see America in such a state of decay. How can its own citizens turn into goons and storm the citadel of democracy? Why did this happen?
In these situations, it becomes very easy to point our fingers at Trump and say he instigated such behavior. However, let us take a step back and ask ourselves, why do people allow themselves to be instigated by such men? What explains the ease with which people sway to such extreme views? What explains the fact that ordinary people can give up the power of judgement and reason and get sucked into worshiping such figures.
In these matters, Rollo May, is almost prophetic. He says, in his superlative book ‘Man’s Search for Himself’ that we live in such turbulent times – socially, economically and politically, that is is only comparable to the medieval ages where death, wars and famine were the norm. In fact, he says we might well be living in the ‘Age of Anxiety’. However, the attribution of the cause of this anxiety is not our political leaders, it is us. He says,
It is a mistake to believe that the contemporary wars and [economic] depressions and political threats are the total cause of our anxiety, for anxiety also causes these catastrophes. The anxiety prevalent in our day and the succession of economic and political catastrophes our world has been going through are both symptoms of the same underlying cause, namely the traumatic changes occurring in western society. Fascist and Nazi totalitarianism, for example, do not occur because a Hitler or a Mussolini decide to seize power. When a nation is prey to insupportable economic want and is psychology and spiritually empty, totalitarianism comes in to fill the vacuum and the people sell their freedom as a necessity for getting rid of the anxiety that is too great for them to bear any longer.Rollo May. Man’s Search For Meaning. W.W.Norton & Company. 2009 edition. Page 20
What this means is simply this, what is happening in America is not because of Trump. Trump happened because of what is happening in America. This is a widespread social malaise, that has manifested itself in Trump. He goes on to say,
Authoritarianism in religion and science, let alone in politics, is becoming increasingly accepted, not particularly because so many people explicitly believe in it but because they feel themselves individually powerless and anxious. So what else can one do, except follow the mass political leader or follow the authority of customs, public opinion and social expectations as is the tendency in this country? What is forgotten in such “reasoning” is the fact that the loss of belief in the worth of the person is partly the cause of these mass social and political movements.Rollo May. Man’s Search For Meaning. W.W.Norton & Company. 2009 edition. Page 37
Rollo May attributes this turmoil to the loss of belief in the worth of oneself – the loss of a sense of self. The root cause of this social anxiety is therefore personal anxiety, caused by a loss of a sense of self. Throughout history, society has always had anchors. There was religion, social customs and norms, the family and even nationalism (or patriotism) that helped give purpose and meaning to people. Today, all these pillars of meaning have been pulled from underneath the temples of society, leaving man directionless and aimless. The reason for eliminating these pillars was supposedly to give man freedom. Freedom from bondage in a senseless religion, in meaningless customs and from clearly defined family or gender roles. Yes, this has indeed liberated many of us, but unless, we replace what we have destroyed by alternate forms of meaning, we stare at a society that is soulless. And individuals who are empty.
I think T.S.Eliot has best captured this emptiness of modern man in his poem ‘The Hollow Men’.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,The Hollow Men by T.S.Eliot. Source: https://allpoetry.com/the-hollow-men
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
This poem evokes such poignant emotion. Notice how he says we are ‘stuffed’ and ‘headpiece filled with straw’. But Alas, our words are ‘quiet and meaningless’. Can we not see ourselves and our society – trapped in meaningless conversations on social media? Chattering and reacting to our smart phone alerts – pretending to be busy and occupied – but only exchanging useless gossip.
These pillars of our society, have not been replaced by meaning. They have been replaced by distraction. And the modern capitalistic engine has done this rather effectively. It has employed us in a daily eight hour meaningless, monotonous work akin to a hamster running on a wheel. Then, it has given us some money, which we think we can spend on the things we want. But then, it has given us smartphones, through which it makes us want more than we need, which makes us work harder than we ought to, to buy things and go to places that make us feel more empty. Then it has given us entertainment in the form of endless movies and sitcoms. A perpetual cycle of meaninglessness. And instead of connection, friendship, empathy and deep listening it has given us messenger services and video chats and other apps, that take away the very connection that we so desperately yearn for.
With all the pillars gone, what else remains on which man can base his dignity, his independence and true freedom? Why of course – authoritative leaders! One begins to derive a greater sense of self worth by identifying oneself with mass political and social movements, with sports teams, movie star hysteria and in meaningless nationalism. This is the only thing remaining for man to latch on to. And this is why we see a resurgence of strong political leaders – whether it is America, the U.K., India or in South America.
We need to understand that the nature of politics as practiced today is to divide and rule. Elections, which characterise politics, is designed as a duel. This form of electoral democracy, pits one section of the population against the other. That is the thrill of it. Imagine a football match where both teams cooperate – would that be entertaining in any way? Football matches evoke such strong emotions because the fans derive a greater sense of self through the identification with a larger cause (their team) against the other. The same in politics. People have a desperate urge for meaning. And politicians are masters in exploiting this need of people.
In order to to change things, we must change. You and I. Unless we change, we cannot expect politics or society to change. I quote Rollo May again,
What, then, is the task before us? The implications are clear, we must discover the sources of strength and integrity within ourselves. This goes hand in hand with the discovery and affirmation of values in ourselves and in our society which will serve as the core of unity. But no values are effective unless there exists in the person the capacity to do the valuing, that is the capacity to choose and affirm the values by which he lives. This the individual must do, and in this way, he will help lay the groundwork for the new constructive society which will eventually come out of this disturbed time as the renaissance came out of the middle ages. Finding the centre of strength within ourselves is in the long run the best contribution we can make to our fellow men. One person with indigenous inner strength exercises a great calming effect on panic among people around him. This is what our society needs – not new ideas and inventions, important as these are, and not geniuses and supermen, but persons who can be, that is, persons who have a centre of strength within themselves. It is our task to find the sources of this inner strength.ibid. Page 54.
What more can be said of that? We must, therefore, all learn to ‘be’. To learn who we are, what are our values and learn to affirm these values in our daily lives.