As we relax with our families and loved ones at Christmas, Dr Matthew Mitchell reflects upon what sort of world we are creating for ourselves.
PERHAPS CHRISTMAS IS A GOOD TIME to reflect on what sort of world we are creating.
But sadly, I am putting forward the suggestion this Christmas that, as things stand, we ‒ me included ‒ are successfully creating a real hell on Earth. And this is without any help from a real or imagined Devil.
By hell, I am not referring to classical images of fire and brimstone, nor just circumstances that are materially difficult, such as poverty, a polluted environment, and so on — although we are creating these latter problems as well.
No, the hell I refer to is a spiritual one.
In its spiritual sense hell is far worse than any bad material situation. In fact, a spiritual hell can exist just as well amongst material splendour and glory as it can amongst complete poverty.
How would one recognise such a spiritual hell? One sign is a lack of genuine love for others. This in turn may be associated with an overdeveloped self-love. It is self-love that allows one to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others as long as there is some gain to the self. And it is self-love that can lead to a glorification of the self.
Is it self-love that leads the behaviour described by George Monbiot in the article ‘One Rolex Short of Contentment’?
In this article, he discusses Instagram photos as follows:
‘… photos of a young man wearing all four of his Rolex watches, a youth posing in front of his helicopter, endless pictures of cars, yachts, shoes, mansions, swimming pools, spoilt white boys throwing gangster poses in private jets – of something worse; something that, after you have seen a few dozen, becomes disorienting, even distressing.’
Is this want for things ‒ and to be showy about them ‒ a vice? One of the properties of vice is that the more one indulges in it, the more the desire and dependency on the vice increase whilst the satisfaction decreases. This is pointed out by Monbiot in his article. The more people have, the less happy they are, thus seeking more again, only to get increasingly unhappy in a never ending cycle. Note, that this is the nature of addiction — whether to drugs, goods or technology.
If we are creating hell on earth, how are we doing it?
Perhaps with an economy that replaces human relationships and interactions for mutual gain with a system of impersonal transactions? Impersonal transactions which tend to discount the humanity of the provider of a good or service instead focussing on what is provided and for what price?
A likely effect of this is an obsession with price and with the concept of getting a “bargain”. Is this an illness that has taken deep root in modern society?
When one considers what a bargain implies, is it possible that in many cases one person’s gain is another person’s loss? Do we consider these losses and who carries the burden of them? Or what unfortunate circumstances have lead people to sell things at less than their fair price? Or do we just think of ourselves and take joy in our own gain? (At this point, I should again make it clear that I am as guilty as anyone in this respect and in many others too.)
Another aspect of our society is competition. Competition can be about as a hellish a behaviour as you can get.
This is because it does not really matter how much of something someone has, or how good at something they are, rather it matters how many other people they are better than, by whatever you measuring. Competition is really a matter of pride and this type of pride is, almost by definition, self love.
The Pope sums up our current situation as follows:
“Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”
It is quite likely that competitive pride is the motivation behind the Instagram photos which drew Monbiot’s ire and it is quite likely competitive pride that drives very rich people to get even richer. But of course, they can never be happy. There is always someone richer again, or someone who might become richer. On top of this there is the ever present fear of losing some ‒ or all ‒ of one’s wealth. And of course, such inequality drives equally bad feelings of envy in others.
So what can be done?
Well maybe you cannot change the whole of society, but you can change yourself.
Perhaps that is a good place to start? Even if the effects do seem small.
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