Saturday, September 14, 2013

Puritanism...and the new feudalism

It was a blind John Milton who observed, "They also serve who only stand and wait" while lamenting his incapacity. Milton, the literary giant of puritanism, produced one of, if not the longest epic poem in English literary history, Paradise Lost, to 'justify the ways of God to men'....Both man's hubris and Satan's hubris stand as the cancer that results in both being driven into submission by Milton's deity.
And while the poem is replete with examples of soaring rhetoric, and, like Michelangelo, Milton has served as the source of much of western Christianity linked to its highest artistic expression, there is a core of puritanism, the notion expressed simply that "work is the primary route to a good life," that has imprisoned too many in shackles of faux faith for centuries.
The notion of work, the sine qua non of both industrialism and capitalism, has been turned into a public policy issue as the engine that drives the economies of developed, and it is assumed hopefully, developing countries. For some, their work is their vocation, their calling, the highest expression of their innate talents. For too many others, it is their chore, their source of income, and their worst nightmare. Millions in the middle of those extremes muddle through their current "occupations" attempting to discern and then to fit into the norms of the workplace culture of their employer.
Some, like Matthew Fox, have written about the potential of work becoming a path to a spiritual life, for the individual to be enriched not only by the specific tasks one performs, but by the manner in which those tasks are accomplished. However, given the much stronger link between 'income' or cash or bonuses or stock options and a job description, there is a kind of hierarchical value placed by too many on the size of the income/office/vacation/home/ that one "achieves" that has effectively, and perhaps permanently, distorted, if not eliminated, any vestige of the notion of man's having been created equal with all others.
The search, indeed the obsession, with superiority drives much of our world's troubles. The blind eye we turn to "our brother's keeper" notion that is allegedly at the core of all faith expressions, leads us all into blind alleys of self-interest, corporate interest, village or state interest, national interest...at the expense of "our brother's need". Generosity both of goods and services is now documented as "tax credits," and not as milestones on the path toward a more spiritual, collaborative, connecting and community-building existence. Tasks are measured as boy-scout badges for display on resumes, and for building curriculae vitae that are then converted into "acceptance" notes or calls or texts from employers upon hirings.
We have become an ant-hill of sycophants grovelling at the altar of both capitalism and democracy, focused almost like Olympic athletes in pursuit of their respective gold medals, replacing those medals with dreams of climbing to the top of our workplace pinnacles, whatever that might look like. Parents travel thousands of miles to "investigate" the best colleges for their high school graduate children, so that, upon graduation, those whose diploma bears the insignia of the best colleges will have the best chance of future work in the most lucrative corporations and the most lucrative posts. It does not matter which program those high school grads enrol in, or consider, except that it must be one for which there is considerable economic and statistical demand. We have more unhappy and unhealthy children and adolescents, at least in North America than ever before in history, including more frightened and more insecure and more medicated and more troubled kids...and we believe, in our own blindness, that we are "guiding" (certainly not pushing) them in the best direction that accommodates their highest aspirations and their best interests and abilities....Have we asked ourselves how much parental neurosis is attached to our guidance? Have we asked ourselves how much parental hubris is enmeshed in our aspirations for our adolescents who are crossing the threshold of puberty and entering into adulthood, no mean fete at the best of times? Do we concern ourselves with a spike in adolescent suicides, based on the degree of nefarious competition we have baked into the cake of our education institutions? Hardly, so long as the grades support our neurosis!
And where does our neurosis come from, if not from the also "baked-in" ingredient of the puritan, protestant ethic of hard work and diligent submission to the rigors of the most stringent of competitions, in athletics, in academics, in workplace applications, in life partners, in home and auto purchases, and in productivity at the workplace.....all of this as run-off, spill-off from the highest levels of the workplace cathedrals where men and women both literally and metaphorically run over their peers as if they were rushing to the only taxi in a busy Manhattan thoroughfare, in the middle of a monster thunder and lighting storm.
And we wonder why our health care system is straining like a building buckling under the weight of its lead roof, resting on mere two-by-fours in a hurricane-Sandy wind.
We all need to pause, and push the reset button.
We are not demonstrating nor even aspiring to our 'best angels'....we are reducing ourselves to our worst and lowest and most spiteful selves...and we are doing it in a spirit of "doing our best"....as we become ever more seduced by our own press clippings.
I recall, many lives ago, on a July afternoon, my mother's shoving the local newspaper into my dad's face as soon as he came through the door from his day's work, with the comment, "Your son did better than all the others in the Conservatory exams!" as if that feather, added to her already swollen head and hat, justified all the poundings of her rolling-pin centre, onto the arms, shoulders, legs and neck of her son while he laboured to practice the instrument, as a pawn in her Hollywood-mother-drama. Her own emptiness had to be filled by the public number on her son's Royal Conservatory examination report. And if that number was at the top of the list of local candidates, she somehow either believed or wanted others to believe, (or both) that she was a "good mother"....
It was not about the music that she was the least bit interested. It was about the mark! And for a few years, I accommodated her ambition, without reconnoitering as to whether it was my ambition.
And her "model" has been spread wide and thin among our culture, as if we were interested in the music, when we are really interested in the POWER of accomplishment, of achievement, of being top-dog....and the rewards such power brings.
And we have also linked our pursuit of power (really an overt expression of our own powerlessness!) to some form of religion, thereby sacralising our worst selves into our spiritual life, as if we can somehow convince God that we are worthy of consideration upon the encounter with our final day.
And, in doing so, we have turned our blind eye (along with our cold heart and our stiff spine) to the millions we are leaving behind, in the ditches of our towns, villages and neighbourhoods, not to mention in the ditches of our consciousness.
Our public discourse is now embedded with statistics bearing the cumulation of data on the unemployed, the underemployed, the ones who have stopped looking for work, having passed beyond their capacity to continue a fruitless search...and no one cares!
We have lost not only our sight of the plight of our lost ones but our grasp of our collective and willing and insouciant loss of even the smallest grain of interest in what might become of those we are "throwing under the bus" or leaving in the ditches.
And we are continuing,  blindly and obsessively, to pursue whatever crumbs of the "high life" that might fall from the tables of those who dine in their pristine elegance, while the playing field tilts ever more in favour of those who have won some kind of lottery, and whose perception of their lot is that they "deserve" it having worked so hard...while we all know that "deserving" is much more complicated than "working hard"...it includes a degree of sycophancy and grovelling, and luck and yes, performance, that links into some gestalt that some hiring agent finds "interesting and exciting" and likely to prove productive and thereby profitable for the hiring corporation.
And essential to that gestalt is the absence of any element of independence or questioning, or even arguing with the status quo, unless and until one has served one's time as a serf in the new feudal alignment.
Feudalism has been so proven to abuse its serfs, and yet, its newest iteration continues to move over our continent like a giant flow of hot lava down a mountain, as if it were inevitable...because we have replaced human-centric culture with a dollar-centric culture, and called it "success".
And our new feudalism owes too much to its puritan forefathers and their obsequious faith in a paternalistic God who demands their hearts, minds, bodies and spirits....as if to submit is to enter a full and rich life.

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