Can We Survive If “The Center” Is Gone?

We are all defined by our life experiences.

Wherever we grow up, whatever individual circumstances shape our lives, and whomever we interact with all combine to form our perceptions of ourselves and the world in which we live. Moreover, understanding and sharing our life stories can instruct—and sometimes inspire—others. To forget the influences that made us who we are is to, in a sense, forget ourselves, and our personal narratives also help to enhance our understanding of history by giving it a human face. This all makes it important to collect, preserve, and celebrate our life stories and the life stories of those around us.

For example, when I was growing up, one of my favorite books was Reach For The Sky by Paul Brickhill. This account of the life of Douglas Bader, a Royal Air Force pilot who lost both of his legs in an airplane crash, was forced to leave the service on disability—and yet persevered to return the R.A.F. and become one of Britain’s greatest military leaders and fighter aces during World War II—is an amazing tribute to both personal bravery and resilience under the most difficult of life circumstances. It certainly put whatever adolescent concerns I might have had about a stray pimple in its proper perspective and taught me a valuable lesson about never giving up no matter what obstacles life or fate might throw in your path.

Globally speaking, personal narratives—or at least the illusion of them—have been both entertainment and moral instruction since the dawn of civilization. The Iliad and The Odyssey, Mahabharata, The Holy Bible, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, Le Morte D’Arthur, and so manyothers have taught countless generations right from wrong, honor from disgrace, and good from evil. These narratives and others like them, whether sacred text or epic tale, have served as the essential glue binding together societies, nations, continents, and our entire planet by both transmitting shared values and creating institutions that have served as the foundations of governance and justice up until the present day. To put it plainly, without the many life lessons gleaned from these texts and our reactions to them, who we are today would simply not exist.

Today we live in the golden age of the personal narrative, and the advent of powerful and omnipresent technology now allows us to share our stories with a worldwide audience. For perhaps the first time in human history all voices can be heard, all stories shared, and all lives celebrated via an iPhone or an Internet connection. What an amazing world it is.

However, the downside of this multiplicity of voices and viewpoints is that our common cultures and shared values are being rapidly obliterated by the combined opinions of an entire planet of individuals who are all asserting the primacy and correctness of their particular needs and wants. Now more people than ever—especially those who live in our large urban media centers—essentially curate their own idiosyncratic set of personal values from all that is available. Given the infinite possibilities inherent in the cafeteria-style morality now available via Google, that which separates or unites many people is less dependent that ever on national boundaries, traditional cultural beliefs, or religious institutions. There is instead a new globalized system in their places bypassing and supplanting that which bound us to our immediate neighbors for many, many previous centuries.

Given that traditions and institutions that once acted as arbiters and guidelines regarding taste and social norms have now been discarded in favor of what could—with perhaps a trace of irony—be called “crowdsourced individuality”, we find that those most comfortable with the norms of this fluid and ever-changing milieu—actors, entertainers, and media personalities—are now most often called upon to pronounce judgment on the issues facing us. What is truly remarkable about the world we live in today is that celebrities are routinely asked to offer opinions on matters of war and peace, the stewardship of resources, international diplomacy, immigration policy, and a host of other issues—and their opinions are dutifully reported as actual news on front pages around the globe. Think carefully for a moment: Do you recall anyone checking with Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn before we declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbor? Did President Kennedy worry whether Elvis was on his side during the Cuban Missile Crisis? That which, if you stop a moment to think, is utterly bizarre is now quite commonplace.

Unsurprisingly, some find shrugging off the societal shackles of the many millennia incredibly liberating—and insist that we all celebrate their personal paths toward whatever lifestyles or experiences will maximize their happiness. However, others obviously find the erasure of long-held cultural and moral norms to be either stressful or troubling. Nonetheless, ditching all that created a common humanity so a relative few can pursue their personal journeys does not seem a concern for the media elites that now drive our national conversations. Considering the matter broadly, we could question whether we are living a wonderful moment in human history or acting as the avatars of the end of national, cultural, and societal cohesion—but few seem to care to inquire further regarding this.

So this is where we are today. Our personal narratives and individual judgments have now become the unassailable—and sole—guides to how to live life for an ever growing portion of our global population. Therefore, conversations about what is right or wrong, honorable or disgraceful, and good or evil have become impossible. In fact, merely to assert that some behavior is right, wrong, honorable, disgraceful, good, or evil is to make a judgement about someone else’s idiosyncratic curation of their values that is often considered insulting or intolerant, which makes reasoned discussions about any issue or concern very, very difficult indeed.

I am not against embracing our personal narratives or pursuing personal self-fulfillment; I am, however, concerned that our zeal for elevating the needs of the individual over that of the group is a prescription for the unending paralysis of direction and purpose—at a time when definitive and perhaps painful actions are needed to meet a host of challenges. There will, given the enormity and complexity of the problems facing our nation and world, be a time in the very near future when cooperative sacrifices will be necessary for the common good, and I am not at all certain we are going to be able to muster up anything beyond endless bickering about the solutions—if we can even manage to agree on the problems. With apologies to William Butler Yeats, no civilization can continue to exist unless a boring, stable—and perhaps to some slightly judgmental—center is allowed to hold.

Is it really a problem that we are fixated with individual stories and personal dramas that grab our attention rather than national and global matters that will assuredly impact our country? Perhaps some comparisons will prove instructive. Think just a moment, for example, about the time wasted on news articles about the age disparity between the new President of France and his wife versus the coverage of the pension crisis right here in the United States. Have you heard more about recent—and ominous—test firings of ballistic missiles by North Korea or the marital or financial woes of any one of a dozen Hollywood stars? Would it, sad to say, be easier for most Americans to name the nine starters on their favorite baseball team or the nine Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court?

We might be able to muddle along wrapped in our oblivious self-absorption a bit longer, but I fear a day of reckoning is at hand that we are wholly unprepared to meet because many of us can see no further than the tips of our own lovely noses. This will be too bad for us—and for the generations to follow who will likely be stuck with cleaning up the many problems we happily ignored while updating our Facebook pages.

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