James Baldwin, Consumer Culture, and The Human Beinz
May peace be with you,
This precious vital gift of life is incredibly fragile and fleeting. Although we are largely averse to admit it, none of us know when our last moments on this planet will be. So much of life comes down to molecular forces; the electrical charges that keep our heart beating, the amino acids and vitamins that exchange across cell walls, and the cell membranes themselves that hold our bodies together, and the thin band of molecules that form our atmosphere. It is nothing short of marvelous to be alive.
We are operating within a dominant culture that has leftover ideologies of dominance and submission. Our cultural norms reflect so much confusion and misunderstanding of the common factors of life that bind us all together. We can scrutinize the current condition of our social, political, and economic world ad infinitum without arriving on common ground. As James Baldwin noted, our collective history unites us all; "I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” The value of honest assessment is that we see examples of both systemic and individual incredulous cruelty and magnanimity. Just like rose and thorn share the same stem, so does the capacity for great virtue and vice arise from the same neutral ground of human capability.
In our modern context, we live at a pace unknown to the people of the past. We make decisions of consequence that impacts so much more than any humans before us (carbon footprint calculator). Yet we operate in a world where those with the highest concentrations of material wealth are not obliged to contribute or take responsibility for the common weal. As individuals we bear the consequence of facing our existential dread alone, questioning the validity of our own life, and searching for meaning and purpose in our seemingly inconsequential actions. We are marketed to, manipulated, and confused at great cost to our inner peace, but with great profit to faceless and deathless corporate machinery. Disengaging from the fog of endless consumption, we can clearly recognize how deeply skewed and alienated from each other we have become. Where once there was a short awkwardness of meeting someone new, now we open our cell phones in hopes that we might not have to interact with another human being. We are wrapped in a chrysalis of self-affirming social media, but a beautiful butterfly we will not be. The intense focus on individuality, identity, and personal desire keeps us from observing how our experience is woven together with the universal. Just like we cannot fully appreciate or understand a single water molecule without the context of rain, streams, rivers, lakes, glaciers, and oceans; we cannot hope to appreciate or understand our individual life apart from the variety of ways that life appears on this planet, and beyond.
The capacity for human beings to care, and use their concern to connect to the deeper reality beyond the mundane, ordinary, and material concerns is and always has been our greatest tool to mitigate the toil, drudgery, and suffering of our collective experience. So, if you are in pain, please remember that suffering in silence, or spreading your pain to others prolongs your pain. Whatever the cause of that pain, it is temporary, and not who you are. If you are afraid, angry, sad, or lonely, please remember that whatever real events are creating the mental and emotional reaction within you, they are also temporary. Your feelings are real, valid, and not a problem. Ignoring them, or taking them out on others does not diminish or resolve them, it is facing, embracing, and investigating them that will bring new space and freedom to your experience. If you are struggling, please remember that you are, were, and never will be alone in your experience. No one will ever know the contents of your experience as you do, but they are not your own personal crucible, but what helps you connect with your humanness which is also temporary. Just as The Human Beinz sang in 1968, the way to bring clarity to these dark times is to, Turn On Your Lovelight.