The False Promise of Modern Society

“The world was not big enough for Alexander the Great, but a coffin was.”   —  Juvenal

(Fill in the blank):

If only I had _____, THEN I would be  _____.

When it comes to the personal happiness, fulfillment, and joy found in life, this if-then statement pervades our daily thinking beyond what we may even realize.

Billboards, commercials, social-media ads, notifications, alerts, and on and on it goes… and that’s just the commercial side of things.

Life of the 21st century is training and conditioning its members that there is only one key that unlocks all we ever want in life. It’s a simple key that opens endless doors. This is the key of: having more

Consumption To The Max

One of the greatest contributors to our incessant need for more is the machine of industry, followed closely behind by the ever-increasing pressures of comparison and the identities that stem from statistics, numbers, and net-worth.

“To consume is one form of having, and perhaps the most important one for today’s affluent industrial societies. Consuming has ambiguous qualities: It relieves anxiety, because what one has cannot be taken away; but it also requires one to consume ever more, because previous consumption soon loses its satisfactory character. Modern consumers may identify themselves by the formula: I am = what I have and what I consume.” —Erich Fromm

Individual autonomy has turned each of us into solo-runners in the rat race of life, and the big cheese we all are chasing is disguised as the remedy to all our present maladies. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am so grateful for industry, individual freedoms and rights, technological progress, and the ability to create opportunities for ourselves and others. Yet, being afforded these opportunities doesn’t mean they automatically produce the best outcomes for ourself or for others. 

Opportunities are always a responsibility, and we’d be foolish not to consider the cost.

Synonymous to Greed

To “have” is to: “possess, own, or hold” something. If you are like the majority of us, when I pose the question: “what is your goal in your life, or your career, or your current job?”, the answer usually includes some version of having more. It may be acquiring more money (aka - getting a raise), it could be gaining greater responsibility and playing a bigger role (aka - more influence), or it could be attaining a higher position (aka - being promoted).

These neatly fall into three of the main categories of greed: money, power, and fame.

“We live in a society that rests on private property, profit, and power as the pillars of its existence. To acquire, to own, and to make a profit are the sacred and unalienable rights of the individual in the industrial society.”  —Erich Fromm

Without intentionally defining our goals and purpose in life, we will ALL (by default) fall into one of these categories as the chief aim of our work. This is because when we don’t intentionally choose our values or goals, the culture will happily choose it for us. And if the culture is setting our sights, the aim will ALWAYS be to have more

This is why having — acquiring, owning, possessing — is often synonymous with greed. “Greed” is: the “selfish desire for something.” Having anything is inherently selfish, because it is yours to own, which means others won’t be able to have it (in the literal sense). The inevitable danger is that there will never not be another level to reach upwards toward, there will never not be someone with more power, more money, or more fame/status than you.

This is the rat race we all tend to run. This is our default reality, being shaped and steered by the influence of culture and society until another path is intentionally chosen.

Having Isn’t The Enemy

To have something isn’t in itself a bad thing. Acquiring, owning, and possessing is not the enemy. But what it produces in us is.

The problem that results from the constant prodding of the industrial society we live in is that it promises freedom but never keeps its word. Having more only leads to wanting more. Reaching higher and higher levels on the ladder that we're climbing only leaves us more and more fearful of falling off that very ladder. The more we possess, the more we worry. The more we have, the less free we are.

In the process of pursuing “freedom”, we have become slaves to the pursuit of owning, controlling, and possessing more and more of the very thing we are in pursuit of, and the satisfaction that does come is only temporary and fleeting — a short-lived existence before the feelings of want return in even greater degree for the next lap around this never ending rat race.

Having isn’t the enemy, but it is a lie. It promises what it can never deliver, and it inevitably leads us down a path further away from the identity given to us at birth.

The remedy is found in regaining that very, God-given identity, realigning with the divine — returning to being human.

Breaking The Cycle

When we’ve perpetuated a cycle for long enough, breaking it becomes harder and harder. This challenge is only amplified by the extreme power that culture has in shaping our opinions, actions, and ultimately beliefs. In a consumeristic culture where marketing and advertising invades every inch of our public and private lives, choosing not to acquire more will take all the strength we possess and then some. 

The first step in breaking any cycle is to first separate from the negative influence. We must detach ourselves from the influence and sway that culture holds on our daily lives. This is the only way we can begin to see how much we are affected by the inputs and endless stimuli that bombard our every waking moment. We have to see that there can be a “new normal” before it ever becomes routinized.

The second step in breaking a cycle is to intentionally reengage with only the good. This means, choosing to reintroduce the influences and pieces of culture that will assist you in the new cycle you are striving to create, a cycle that promotes personal well-being and human flourishing. Similar to a detox with food, a cultural detox requires testing which pieces add or subtract to your new mode of existence, one item at a time.

The final step in breaking the cycle is to form a belief or conviction and reinforce it by action. This means you’ve thought through your reasoning for the new cycle you are creating and are able to logically defend the conviction while holding it loosely enough to hear the opposing points of view. It is not removing yourself from culture, but instead intentionally living within culture without being helplessly directed by the flow of the cultural stream.

True Freedom

If we’re honest with ourselves, true freedom is the thing we all long for — freedom from the daily grind; freedom from the tyranny of our bosses or other figures of power; freedom from the stress and anxiety of not knowing whether the bills will be paid or food will be on the table.

We have been led to believe that this freedom is only found in having more. This causes us to incessantly strive towards the goal of gaining, acquiring, possessing, or owning more, and more, and more. In working towards this “freedom”, we make ourselves into slaves of the very pursuit that promised us the opposite.

The core belief needed to break this cycle and remove ourselves from the incessant laps around the track that is the rat race of life, that core understanding is that: freedom is found solely in being more, not in having more.

“A blue glass appears to be blue when light shines through it because it absorbs all other colors and thus does not let them pass. This is to say, we call a glass ‘blue’ precisely because it does not retain the blue waves. It is named not for what it possesses but for what it gives out.”  —Erich Fromm

If anyone is a fan of growth, it would be. I’ve made my entire career on that very idea and function. Growth is an essential part of a healthy existence. Yet knowing what type of growth we are fostering is vitally important. Growth that is helpful is the type of growth that occurs on the inside, not on the outside. This is the internal, personal growth that leads to greater impact and positive influence on the world around you. External growth looks like having more, and this external growth will typically accomplish the opposite (a negative impact on ourselves and others) unless we intentionally make the choice to use it for the purposes of fueling internal growth in order to provide greater benefit to others.

This is where true freedom is found — in the full expression of our gifts, talents, and abilities, NOT for the purpose of GAINING something that we get to have for ourselves, but rather for the purpose of SHARING those gifts, talents, and abilities for the betterment of others and the pursuit of human flourishing at large.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others.”  — Nelson Mandela

Much of the inspiration behind this post comes from Erich Fromm’s book: “To Have or To Be” — a powerful perspective on our current culture, even with it being written almost 50 years ago. I can’t recommend it enough if you are looking to break free from consumerism’s grip.

The other book that has provided endless inspiration and guidance is The Bible, inspired by God. The freedom that Erich and other Socialist Humanists preach is the way of living prescribed by none other than Jesus Himself, who says you must die to self in order to live unto God (and then for others). (For more, read Colossians 3, Matthew 5-7, and John 14-17.)