By Adam J. Pearson
As a Canadian citizen, I find myself immersed in the media and culture of Canada and the United States. While both countries certainly have their own cultural idiosyncracies, their contemporary cultural products have common trends that impact our lives in striking ways. I would be the first to admit that North American culture undeniably has much richness and value. However, it also has less laudable qualities; indeed, I would go so far as to say that North American culture possesses features that are increasingly dysfunctional.
In this brief article, I would like to comment on a few general trends that I have observed in North American culture. General trends always have exceptions, but are so pervasive and ubiquitous that they are worth noting. My aim here is not to invite judgment of individuals, but to invite self-reflection for all of us. Sometimes, we move at such an automatic and frenetic pace that we forget to take a look at what we are doing; however, sometimes the only way to avert disaster and regret is to do just that.
It seems to me that we have elevated the cult of the ego to such a point that, in our drive to compete, to be better, and to have more, we have become isolated, greedy, and dissatisfied. If our tweets are not retweeted, our YouTube videos do not earn subscribers, our Tumblr blogs are not reblogged, or our sexy Facebook photos do not garner sufficient Likes, we feel inadequate and anxious. In all of these social media, it is as if we are constantly performing for an unknown audience, like an actor on a stage facing out on an unseen audience and desperately yearning for outside validation and approval.
We increasingly locate our sense of worthiness, not in ourselves, but in other people’s estimations of us. When we are envied or admired, we feel good enough; when positive attention shifts away from us, we feel ashamed. We place conditions on our happiness that are outside of ourselves and contingent upon fleeting, impermanent opinions and objects. As a result, when conditions change out of our favour, we suffer.
Our increasing narcissism is not really about being selfish, however; that’s only its surface appearance. The poison flower of narcissism grows from the roots of shame and fear. We have become terrified of being ordinary, of not standing out, of never having enough money or enough sex or enough power that we have taken on a mentality of scarcity as our default setting. We feel this scarcity even though we’ve never before had access to such abundance. This leads many of us to feel a palpable and intense sense of lack, of not having enough or not being enough. And because we feel pressure to look and be perfect and strong at all times, we numb our emotions and deny our vulnerability. This is particularly true of men who are confused by contradictory messages that they should be simultaneously sensitive, silently emotionless, and never show vulnerability.
Our media’s worshiping of artificial visual perfection, total luxury, hypersexualization, and preference for rapidly changing airbrushed surfaces over depth have left us with an inner void. We are encouraged to fill the void with consumerism, escapism, and blaming everyone but ourselves. Instead of taking responsibility for our own actions and emotions, we shift accountability onto others. This happens not only the individual level, but also on the level of groups and both national and international politics. Our current popular culture is founded, not on psychological health, but on shame; not on community but on alienation; not on gratitude, but on greed; and not on forgiveness, but on judgement.
We have more access to information than ever, and yet we feel inundated by too much information, which numbs us into unconscious and unquestioning acceptance rather than critical thinking and reflection. We judge ourselves and each other constantly, as is natural for a culture founded on scarcity, fear, blame, and shame, and yet, despite our technological information overload, we often feel uninformed, powerless, and unable to make the right decisions.
Moreover, we increasingly favour fast food over healthy food and instant gratification over delayed fulfillment. Our high-paced lifestyles make fast food seem like the only viable option and we move so frantically that we sometimes forget to take the time to appreciate the present moment, where the keys to real happiness lie. Our culture is so attached to results, efficiency, achievements, and accomplishments, that we get attached to results and suffer and feel like failures if we do not constantly achieve them.
Relationships between men and women increasingly shift into a fast food mode; many devolve into nothing more than brief ways to mutually use each other to meet our needs. When emotions arise, they tend to get held back out of a fear of sharing them and being hurt or judged. A fear of vulnerability hinders authentic communication. We shift between neediness and being emotionally distant. Distrust and dissatisfaction reign as lovers cheat out of selfish disregard for their partner’s feelings, craving for attention, or an insatiable sense of entitlement. As a result, people become cynical and jaded and numb their natural tendency to care out of the fear of being heartbroken yet again. We fail to understand that people love in different languages and find ourselves misunderstanding each other. Many retreat from the dating game altogether and favour solitude over the chance of being repeatedly disappointed. As a result, many of us feel increasingly isolated, disconnected, and alone.
We are told to indulge all of our desires and yet, having done so, find ourselves feeling empty and unfulfilled. Our corporations teach us to throw away the shiny toys of yesterday for the new model of today and to consume to distract ourselves from the emptiness of what we are doing and how we are living. As a result, we engage in constant waste, which constant consumption, pollution, and environmental devastation.
In the age of the Internet, we have unparalleled access to information, and yet ignorance reigns and our time is consumed by fruitless pursuits like pointless Facebook games or perusing clickbait articles on Buzzfeed. Moreover, because we always have access to the internet and our phones, we are tempted to compulsively check our texts and social media websites. Our attention spans are low. We should feel more connected than ever and yet we feel more disconnected from each other and from our environment. Instead of talking to each other, people gaze like zombies at their phones. It’s not uncommon to see people nearly walking into walls or into traffic because their attention is so absorbed by their iPhones; their environment is invisible to them. In an age in which we should be more mindful than ever, we are increasingly mindless.
This whole system strikes me as being, on the whole, totally insane and unsustainable to our planet and to our psychological health. It is our responsibility to make sane choices in the face of this insanity and to be the change we wish to see in the world. Even if we do not have all of the answers to the global crises that our world is faces, there are always small, countercultural actions we can take to stand for what we know to be good for all of us.
If our culture is narcissistic and selfish, then we can reach out to one another with empathy and help.
If it is impatient, then we can be patient.
If it is uncaring and disconnected, then we can practice compassion, engagement, and nurturing connection.
If it is judgmental, then we can learn to radically forgive ourselves and others.
If it is mindless, then we can be mindful.
If it is uninformed, then we can take advantage of the internet’s vast library of knowledge to expand our understanding.
If it is afraid, then we can be loving and thus dissolve the fear.
If it is anxious, then we can learn to relax, meditate, and be at peace.
If it lives chained to the past and fearful of the future, then we can center ourselves in the present.
If it is numb, then we can be brave enough to be vulnerable.
If it holds back its true feelings and thoughts, then we can practice radical honesty and be brave enough to be vulnerable with people we trust.
In short, a little kindness, gratitude, patience, compassion, mindfulness, acceptance, passion, creativity, forgiveness, and courage to be vulnerable can go a long way.
Let’s remember to reach out and speak out. We’re not hopeless. We’re not deficient or lacking. We’re passionate, we’re powerful and we’re in this together. Let’s laugh and smile and love without fear and have fun and work together. And let us never forget that we are tremendously lucky to be alive and empowered with so many possibilities in an amazing universe that fills us with wonder and stuns us with awe.