The Source of Your Pain Is Cultural Collapse

The Source of Your Pain Is Cultural Collapse April 5, 2018
Image via Pixabay

When a culture slides into decadence, it does not go quickly, Rather, it oozes into progressively more degraded forms of itself. Cultures rarely end through explosion. They end instead over the course of decades through apathy, attrition and acedia.

Because cultures die slowly, many people believe them immortal. Skeptics look around and see that all the houses still have electricity, that the grocery store remains stocked, that in many places, at least, the streets are still safe. Since they see no sudden and total crash of civilization, they imagine no end is coming. Anyone who says differently, they dismiss as crackpots with a doom addiction.

The skeptics’ confusion springs from failing to understand that cultural blight makes itself felt chiefly in the personal arena. Cultural collapses are always felt as personal crises. Skeptics look outward for some approaching devastation and, seeing none, return to their comfortable convictions about tomorrow.

What Collapse Really Looks Like

They should look inward instead. Evidence of our cultural deterioration is everywhere on the personal level. Almost half of kids have no dad.  43 percent of American children live without their fathers. We are in the middle of an intractable opioid epidemic. Almost half of marriages end in divorce. The number of Americans on psychiatric drugs is creeping toward 20 percent. More people are killing themselves.

These are just a few of the signs of the despair gripping our culture. The sign of a dying culture isn’t barbarians in the streets. It’s the suicidal single mom wandering around Costco while she gets her Xanax prescription filled.

Even people unaffected by these particular problems are suffering. A life of commuting and consumption isn’t good enough. We feel restless. No amount of junk food, sports talk radio and porn can make up for the lack of purpose, authority, order and meaning that characterizes life in the contemporary West.

Life in Exile

We are, in a word, homeless. This inward homelessness is, as I discussed recently with philosopher Mark Dooley, pervasive and intense across the West. Even when barely conscious of it, we feel out of place, bereft, directionless on a sea of empty pleasures.Human beings are, because of our alienation from our Creator, always homeless. In the most profound sense, our sojourn on earth is entirely an experience of displacement. Our souls, to paraphrase Augustine, find no home until they find a home in Him.

Earlier versions of Western culture recognized this fact and worked to ameliorate our condition. Because each of us is exiled from our spiritual home, human beings once sought to design cultures that would make us as much at home as possible during earthly life. As beset as these cultures were by every manner of failure and corruption, they maintained greater space for the encouragement of personal virtue, rootedness in community, and family stability than ours. They took Christian faith as the foundation for both their cultural and personal lives.

The difference between our culture and theirs is that ours actively increases our dispossession. The societal structures that once encouraged good character, close community and committed families have been dismantled. Christianity has been repudiated.

The result is an ever-widening gap between what our culture tells us is the way home and our growing sense of homelessness. Those who follow the cultural script find themselves disconnected, broken and often full of regret. The cynicism with which millions of people now regard our social institutions arises from having followed the map our culture provided and found ourselves not at home, but lost in a desert.

The Possible Future

I chose “The Road Home” as the name of this blog because these issues form the core of my concerns. My hope is to explore them more in subsequent posts.

This exploration is important because people have a hard time connecting the macro and the micro. Many people intuit that something has gone wrong at the cultural level without being able to tie our cultural tragedy to the disappointments of their personal lives. Developing the ability to do this is critical. When people cease to see the pain of their own lives as sequestered from our cultural decay the big picture will change.

To achieve this change, we need each other. Only by helping one another become aware of the connection between cultural decay and personal pain can we revive the humane aspects of our culture. Only by working together can we arrive at the critical mass cultural renewal requires. Only by repudiating the culture of repudiation itself can we create something that dignifies rather than diminishes human life. Only by speaking about these things, only by bringing them to light can we hope to point one another home.

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  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    Obviously cultures earlier than ours have collapsed, and none of them had the sign of “the suicidal single mom wandering around Costco while she gets her Xanax prescription filled”. What signs did they have? Why did they collapse? Was it because of “the lack of purpose, authority, order and meaning that characterizes life in the contemporary West”?

    Most Americans who are on psychiatric drugs are on anti-depressants. While it is concerning that so many of us take them, it is difficult to compare ourselves with Americans of the past in this respect, for whom such drugs were not available. Generally speaking, we do not know if depression was more common among them than it is among us. Surely some of them suffered from depression, and they coped with it without psychiatric drugs–sometimes in ways which were unhealthy, such as by smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol.

    I do not think that all adults in the West who are not Christians would say that they “feel out of place, bereft, directionless on a sea of empty pleasures”. Because marriage isn’t taken as seriously as it used to be, neither is divorce and single motherhood. I have the sense that many young single mothers are so by choice: before they first got pregnant, they accepted the possibility that they may become single mothers.

    The Bible says that Christians are “strangers and pilgrims” in this world (I Peter 2:11). Therefore it is understandable for them not to feel at home in it. Indeed, they should not feel at home in it. If they were to feel at home in it, it would be a sign that there is something wrong with them: it is a sign of wordliness. Their home is in Heaven. They should long for that home. Why should they try to make themselves feel at home here? That could deceive them into thinking that this world is their home. It could deceive them into loving the world and the things that are in the world–which they ought not do to do. “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (I John 2:15-17 (ESV)).

    Regarding Augustine’s famous remark in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Wikiquote): My understanding of this is that someone who is a Christian can find rest for his heart in God in this world. It is not necessary to leave this world to obtain such rest. One can rest one’s heart in God here–through the Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Tiny J

    Sorry, but whenever I see “opioid epidemic,” my brain automatically translates it to “We should force people who need medicine to go without it. Then we can feel good about ourselves because the junkies switched to heroin!”

  • City Gal

    Perhaps Wordlessness?–lacking the Word in one’s life.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    It can be both. One of Google’s definitions of “worldly” is “of or concerned with material values or ordinary life rather than a spiritual existence”. Which brings to mind this verse of the Parable of the Sower:

    As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
    –Matthew 13:22 (ESV)

    I think you know this admonition:

    Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
    –Romans 12:2 (ESV)

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    Are you aware that many of the people–from what I have heard, I would say most people–who are addicted to opioids have become addicted through over-prescription?

    That is, they have a legitimate and temporary need for opioid pills, but are prescribed so many of them that they continue to take them when it isn’t necessary, and end up addicted? When they cannot get their prescription refilled, or cannot afford to buy more pills, they may turn to heroin, which, of course, requires no prescription, and can be less expensive.

    That’s why opioid addiction has become an epidemic–and why so many people whom one would never imagine becoming addicted to any drug have become addicted to opioids. It is natural that if one is prescribed 50 pills, and pays for 50 pills, then one will take all 50 pills, even if one really needs to take only 30 of them.

  • Tiny J

    Conversely, my own personal experience is that opioids shut down your digestive system and leave you feeling sluggish and dull, thus leading any person on them to take as few as tolerable unless one is actively trying to get high. I understand “dumb enough to take all of them because that’s how many I was given” happens, but that’s user error/human stupidity. Making some one with dystrophy who’s on seemingly insane levels of narcotics jump through hoops because of what a small group of people MIGHT do wrong is cruel.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    If it were only a “small group of people”, would there be an epidemic?

    If one has had surgery or an injury, and has been prescribed opioids to cope with the pain, I think it is understandable that one will use one’s entire prescription in order to avoid feeling pain. The fear of pain is a powerful motivator. I do not think that it is “dumb” for a person to think: “The doctor prescribed me 100 pills so that I will not feel pain–therefore, I will take all 100 pills so that I will not feel pain”. I do not assume that every time a doctor prescribes opioid pills, the patient is warned: “Be careful that you take only as many as you need, because there is a risk of addiction”.

    No one is calling for a ban on all opioids. From what I have heard, if doctors did not over-prescribe them, it would go a long way to stopping the epidemic.

  • Paperboy_73

    Are you claiming the problem as being a lack of Christianity? Or a lack of the structures that Christianity (or other religions/forms of social order) provides?

  • RustbeltRick

    Depending on which economist you talk to, we’re either on our way to being an oligarchy or we’re already there. Democratic norms have been upended. I’ve noticed that most Christian bloggers completely skip over these things when they talk about cultural collapse, either because they don’t notice or don’t really care. Instead, they explain cultural dysfunction by saying Christianity has lost it’s dominant position. Would they welcome a plutocracy that bathes itself in the Church, ala Russia? Maybe they would. And that, my friends, is a massive problem.

  • jekylldoc

    I agree with this diagnosis, except that I think it overlooks the pain and trauma that lay hidden in earlier times, when the supposedly golden statistics were gathered. I agree with Stephen Pinker that the world is actually getting to be a better place to live in, but it is still not fit for the human heart. The neglect of family life is real, but to repent of that is not primarily a matter of rolling back the social mores to a time of meanness and judgementalism. We need more of Jesus, not more of the Pharisees.

  • Tiny J

    “If it were only a “small group of people”, would there be an epidemic?”
    Yes. It both is and would be. “Epidemic” is a panic word designed to get people to throw out reason because “we have to do something.”
    (side note: “We have to do something” is the most terrifying thing you can ever hear in regards to public policy. It always ends badly.)

  • Alan Drake

    I simply do not see the cultural decay you complain about.

    I chose to live in New Orleans, which has both strongly positive and strongly negative cultural practices – but overall the trend is positive in my eyes.

    I do wonder if the underlying complaint is loss of white evangelical cultural dominance (a shift I personally welcome) which translates – in your view – to cultural decay.

  • You couldn’t look at American culture 20, 50, or 100 years ago and find plenty to wring your hands about? To simply say that we have problems A, B, and C in society (or, worse, say that we have new problems A, B, and C in society) isn’t enough. Society always has problems. It’s whether things are overall worse now than before.

    American in 1942 seems like a very dark time. Or, American in 1933. Or even America in the middle of the Cold War. You must look at the big picture, not just a few select facts.

  • Martha Anne Underwood

    I take antidepressants because the serotonin in my brain is low, not because I am failing in my Christian faith. I also do not see our world being in such dire straits as you think it is. I believe that sometimes divorce is necessary. It isn’t an easy decision and most parents do a much better job in caring for their children than you think when there is a divorce. I grew up in the 50’s and grew up with two parents however my father was distant and incapable of forming meaningful relationships. I grew up with very little fatherly love or advice. In essence my mother was a single parent. Furthermore, back then women were stuck in abusive marriages with no way out. That is no longer the case. As a Christian I do not believe that women must stay in abusive relationship. And I don’t believe that God made women to only be mothers,

  • Martha Anne Underwood

    I’m with you Alan.

  • Robert Landbeck

    When the ‘road home’ looks more and more like the ‘Road’ the problem is with those who paved the Way with the undelivered Promise and unrealized Hope; the result of humanities failed theological attempt to comprehend the mind of God and the Gospel of Christ. As we are reminded on the anniversary of the death of MLK, a dream without the means becomes little more then illusion and chasing after wind.

  • Ivlia Vespasia

    Must be something wrong with me but I have been prescribed opioids for decades, for a genuine medical reason. Recently, in spite of the fact that I show no signs of addiction as attested to by my doctor, my old doctor halved the opioids and replaced them with something else. My new doctor, upon being told by me of some of the side effects I am suffering, wants me to stop taking the new medication and return to the opioids. The problem is that apparently the new stuff is incredibly addictive and harder to kick than heroin. Not everyone who takes opioids is addicted, and sometimes the alternative is worse than the original problem. Now I have to try and break the addiction I was unknowingly forced into, whereas I could, and did, simply stop taking the opioids (tramadol, 3 twice daily) overnight now I face weeks or months of slowly weaning myself off the new medication while slowly being given opioids (for the pain) and diazepam for sleeplessness and other things. A really great medially caused, by a doctor who believed that we were all addicted to our medica

  • Bogdan Stancu

    While I do agree with much of what the article says about contemporary Western culture and while I do personally experience some of the feelings mentioned in the article, in my opinion the author inaccurately identifies the cause and the solution. He says that “Christianity has been repudiated”. No, it has repudiated itself. It has been naturally debunked by science and its claims have become more and more unbelievable. There is no turning back from this, in the same way people cannot return to a belief in Santa Claus. Maybe our culture does indeed suffer without the moral demands placed upon people by Christianity and enforced, at least partially, by the threat of supernatural punishment. But Christianity, at least in the Western world, cannot really be revived, since its claims are no longer believable. Without sincere belief, it’s doomed.
    The author also states that “a life of commuting and consumption isn’t good enough”. I agree, it’s not, but if Christians don’t like a life of “commuting and consumption”, they shouldn’t support the plutocracy currently ruling all Western nations. Yet that is exactly what they’re doing.

  • Reba

    “White evangelical cultural Dominance”? Which culture would you prefer to have dominance? I will “identify” with the one that teaches and practices Christ’s teachings at its core…Regardless of one’s skin or other physical characteristics- something of which we are not given a choice.