Back in 1901, the English author William Hale White, writing under the pseudonym of Mark Rutherford, suggested that focusing too much on our own problems and traumas was a bad idea. His early 20th century admonition concerning the dangers of wallowing in our miseries is brief and to the point:
“As a rule, we should be very careful for our own sake not to speak much about what distresses us. Expression is apt to carry with it exaggeration, and this exaggerated form becomes henceforth that under which we represent our miseries to ourselves, so that they are thereby increased. By reserve, on the other hand, they are diminished, for we attach less importance to that which it was not worth while to mention. Secrecy, in fact, may be our salvation.”
Mr. White was writing not only of a world different from our own today but seemingly of an entirely different planet altogether. Trying to explain emotional self-restraint to anyone who has been brought up bewailing their fate on social media every single day is a nearly impossible task.
The old model of emotional moderation cannot be further removed from our current desire to revel in our victimhood—and share our wonderful misery with a worldwide audience. We now live in a social and cultural world that is an odd mutation of 17th century French mathematician René Descartes’ famous aphorism: “I think, therefore I am.” For anyone under the age of 30, the new reality is entirely different: “I am miserable; therefore, I am worthy of your attention.”
One explanation for the difference in how we cope with our troubles today compared to 120 years ago is quite simple: Sigmund Freud and his fellow practitioners of the then-nascent field of psychology had not yet risen to prominence, so we were far less preoccupied with the egocentric understanding of self that is now ingrained in our lives and culture. However, I do not believe this is the entire story.
Freudian self-absorption has, sadly for us all, paralleled an incredible rise in personal alienation driven by both the incredible shrinkage of religious faith in Western society and the equally incredible growth of the industrial and bureaucratic state. Fewer are now anchored to a spiritual community—or any community at all, for that matter. Modern economic life has turned us into modern day hunter-gatherers who go from place to place in search of education, work, and career, and this reality has accelerated a breakdown of social norms and family connections while offering only the thin gruel of Freudian psychobabble as a replacement for the love and life purpose that we have lost.
Karl Marx might well have had a point when he surmised that modern economic reality is dehumanizing, but he missed the boat entirely by assuming that the faithless and fantasy-ridden Communist hive mind would be an adequate replacement for the connections and comforts of hearth, home, neighborhood, God, and freedom of thought. The inherently totalitarian administrative state policing our thoughts and desires in order to keep them in line with whatever the current elite orthodoxy might require has strangled both our spirits and sense of personal initiative, and the average individual learns very quickly that society’s scolds, psychos and extremists are firmly in control and ready to punish any non-compliance with their diktats. Resistance, as the Borg state on Star Trek, is futile.
Therefore, it is not at all a surprise that our modern world—one where standards of human behavior and personal integrity continue to degenerate at a precipitous rate—is one filled with every marker of emotional dysfunction.
American despair can be measured by skyrocketing rates of suicides, drug abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, mental illness, widespread corruption, and financial ruin. Those who are rendered powerless and taught—or, in fact, continually encouraged—to blame others for their stunted dreams and limited life options rarely lead lives that are either happy or successful. Between a social media landscape that rewards whiners and government policies that seem explicitly designed to crush personal initiative and responsibility, we do, in fact, now live in a nation that struggles with a rational response to the continuing official and semi-official attacks on common sense, decency, and religious belief.
Our numb tolerance for grotesquely inadequate public schools, multigenerational poverty, incompetent parenting, pornography masquerading as entertainment, degrading and disgraceful personal conduct, duplicitous public officials, wasteful government spending, and so much more is perhaps a testament to the degree to which our expectations have been relentlessly lowered in response to the collapse of normalcy and reason in our nation today.
This might be an expected outcome, but it is certainly not the best one. To become accustomed to social, cultural, and political decline is, for all intents and purposes, to surrender to it. We have good reasons to complain, of course. However, perhaps if we can rediscover emotional restraint and use this seemingly lost art of self-control to help turn our free-floating frustrations into actions, we will be less likely to submit to defeat and despair.
But how, one may ask, is this resolve born of exerting ourselves to turn our complaints into vigorous effect to now manifest itself?
Our path is both obvious and effective: a sturdy and peaceful non-cooperation with those individuals and institutions that are contributing to America’s decline for financial or political profit. Those in power count on our mute compliance, and they have the tools in place to punish those few who refuse to acquiesce—but only if it is a few who actually do so. If millions—or tens of millions—of Americans resolve to no longer cooperate with systems, teachings, or beliefs that a sensible individual might deem evil, destructive, or immoral, change is inevitable.
For example, if just a few parents withdraw their children from state-run schools, it is of little consequence, but we are now seeing the crisis resulting from millions of parents moving or considering moving their children into alternative educational settings that focus on raising academic standards and enforcing expectations of respectful behavior. Likewise, colleges and universities rely on a steady stream of paying students, and the enrollment problems that began with the Covid-19 lockdowns could, with energetic effort, be further leveraged to demand these be institutions be focused on education instead of indoctrination while remaking themselves into effective and affordable institutions that benefit society as a whole.
By the same token, businesses that openly support and promote policies deemed objectionable by many Americans count on their customers to continue to use their products and services, regardless. The expectation is that most—if not all— will complain but continue to buy. The lack of acceptable alternatives is a limiting factor in the efficacy of some economic boycotts, but even the stated intention to avoid certain businesses and concerted campaigns to bring attention to targeted companies can, nonetheless, have a profound effect because spooked stockholders will begin to ask some very pointed questions about whether executives are properly executing their fiduciary responsibilities.
Given that the 2022 election demonstrated that our nation is, as we already know, split into two opposing ideological camps who are almost equal in voting clout, it should be apparent that we are stuck in a dismal and destructive political status quo at the ballot box. However, this does not mean that our elected leaders are unpersuadable. Ten thousand people peacefully protesting at a local district office, posting factual but embarrassing information on social media or on their yard signs, and openly and loudly resolving to shun businesses and organizations that contribute to that politician’s re-election funds will have a demonstrable impact. Multiply this by hundreds of thousands of local, state, and federal elected offices across the country, and it can easily be seen that fruitless and frustrated complaining transformed into determined and exhilarating non-violent protest can have a profound and lasting effect on the direction of America.
Violence is never the answer in a modern democracy because it will alienate those moderate, independent voters who are critical to any political or social movement’s long term success. However, focused and unrelenting non-violent action is a proven winning strategy, as has been demonstrated by political figures ranging from Mahatma Gandhi to the Reverend Martin Luther King. This strategy requires courage and entails risk, as we know that the lives of dissenters are routinely ruined by those tyrants desperate to impose their will upon the oppressed by any means necessary.
Nonetheless, fear should not restrain us, for it is better to roar like a lion than lie down like a lamb when the futures of our nation and children both hang in the balance today, tomorrow, and for many years to come.