Traditional communities are like rivers, while modern societies are like oceans, said Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Consider that a river—deeper or shallower, faster or slower—always has a direction, as traditional societies usually direct the lives of their members. The ocean is a different story.
Although much closer to us than outer space, the ocean is largely unfathomable and probably holds as many secrets as outer space. In contrast to the river, the ocean’s lack of direction is one of its fundamental features. In an ocean, anyone can take any direction, or no direction. Therefore, in modern societies, individuals who live close to each other can be captives of opposite currents, trapped in completely different ideologies and life dynamics.
With the abandonment of the great narratives of Christianity or modernism, the world was shattered into thousands of competing narratives. But amid the disappearance of comprehensive meta-narratives, a deep identity crisis has cast its shadow over the planet. While becoming aware of the vastness of the identity abyss, people have begun to develop anxieties about their new perspective on the world and life.
Populism, nationalism, fundamentalism, radicalism or extremism have reappeared on the scene today precisely because people long for the simplicity of life led by a great narrative, able to give them meaning. Ideological bubbles are becoming more and more attractive, because they promise to simplify our lives and get rid of the contradictions and paradoxes that come with the diversity of the huge ocean in which we live. Hence the convergence of many—traditionalists or progressives, conservatives or liberals—in taking the liberty of no longer accepting information that contradicts their innate beliefs, of no longer adjusting, and of no longer even doubting their own thoughts.
At the same time, a new meta-narrative, meant to restore meaning to our lives, takes precedence: man is meant to find his true self, chained and hidden under dozens of layers that must be removed. It is no coincidence that we are experiencing an epidemic of the self.
“Be yourself!” “Follow your heart!” “Think free!” These are the slogans of the new “authenticity”, which has become a moral ideal for the younger generations. The theory is that the deep self will only come to light if you are willing to put aside anything that limits your free expression of the self.
“What if my self is selfish?” This is the simple and timely question of Australian author Brian Rosner, who puts things into perspective. Advanced civilisations give up the Christian meta-narrative—which Rosner has accused of hypocrisy or lack of credibility—and embrace a meta-narrative that has, at its centre, the greatest human vice: selfishness. Universal virtues, such as patience, kindness, and loyalty, are gradually lost in the background noise because of the saying, “Follow your heart!” This makes no sense. It can’t be the way to find our meaning.
While it is true that Christian institutions have often intolerably altered the biblical meta-narrative of restoring the image of God in man, the moral superiority and value of this divine ideal are indisputable, as is the ability of such a perspective to inspire people and give them a strong and noble meaning in life. If we have failed in the past to pursue this ideal, it is not the fault of the Christian meta-narrative, but the fault of the same selfishness that corrupts us from within and which, at its peak, we have now deified, probably thanks to the ill-conceived principle: if you cannot resist a vice, embrace it and call it a virtue. Such an escape from reality can only create the illusion of solving the problem.
The deep self is not good or moral in itself, and therefore the escape from a meaningless world cannot be the fruit of this discovery of the deep self. If there is a self that needs to be rediscovered, it is not one that is deeply hidden in the corners of our soul, but one that God intended for us. Salvation will never come from within. The solution to the identity crisis we feel does not lie within us. But neither is the lack of meaning that immobilises us! Man cannot save himself, but must be saved from his deeply perverted self. Only a man healed of himself has found the meaning of life which is truly worth living for—a reason that is, by definition, antithetical to any other reason built on selfish premises.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.