Lost Souls Swimming in a Fish Bowl

by | Aug 6, 2018

By the time you have finished reading this sentence, your attention may already have started to wander, according to the latest statistics on attention-deficit. The average attention-span in 2013 was just 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000, and less than that of a goldfish, at 9 seconds.

Still with me? Good. Lets swim outside the goldfish bowl for a few moments to explore why our attention spans are decreasing and, more importantly, what effect this is having on how we find meaning in our lives. 

We are living in an age where our attention is under siege. There are more organizations competing for our attention than ever before. In 2012, 984 billion dollars were spent globally on marketing, via ever more invasive channels.  In only the last 20-30 years, we have gone from having only a handful of primary lines of communication (e.g. speaking in person, writing letters, home landlines, print media), to being spliced opened to influence, through a suffocating complex of social media channels, social networking tools, multiple email addresses, 300+ TV channels.

This rapid growth of communication channels is accelerating our dependence on instant gratification, ‘quick fix’ modes of being. We expect everything to be instantly accessible, ‘at our fingertips’ or ‘in our pocket’. A recent Pew Internet study showed that college students had less patience than their predecessors, whilst their willingness to engage with in-depth analysis had also decreased. In the words of eminent psychologist Daniel Goleman, we are ever more ‘seduced by distraction’.

And in this bullish market for our attention, those marketers trying to seduce us towards their products and services are having to find ever more innovative ways to capture our attention, in ever shorter bursts of time. This intense competition to influence our minds is seriously affecting our mental health, most alarmingly that of our kids. In 2011, 11% of American school-aged children were diagnosed with ADHD, whilst in Britain ADHD has been cited as the most common behavioural problem in schools, affecting between 3 and 9% of schoolchildren. Divide (our attention) and conquer, you might say. 

In some ways, we can imagine life was more simple in the past. Traditional social and religious structures emerged partly to provide a solid framework (‘a sacred canopy’ as sociologist Peter Berger describes it) within which humans could find and sustain meaning, a moral fabric through which people would weave their decisions. For some, the only book they would ever have had access to would have been the core religious text of their culture: Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, etc. Even if they could not read, there would have been a much-reduced menu of values, assumptions, and beliefs about how to live life. At the root of this simplicity was often a different concept of time: not the linear, onwards and upwards march of progress of the Modern world, but a cyclical understanding of time and the cosmos, which historian Mircea Eliade describes thus: “The cosmos is conceived [of] as a living unity that is born, develops, and dies on the last day of the year, to be reborn on New Year’s Day. […] At every New Year, time begins ab initio as ‘continual present’.” There was simplicity and humility in these cyclical belief structures that is truly hard to imagine now. 

In our day, these sorts of traditional frameworks of belief are on the decline in much of the world. There are many reasons given for their decline; too many to go into full detail here. I will just briefly describe three such reasons that are relevant to our discussion here. For one, the power structures that were built around traditional and religious beliefs were often revealed to be ultimately oppressive, not progressive. Often, if you disagreed with the status quo you would be excluded or exterminated. Also, as science has climbed up to an ever more powerful global position, traditional and religious beliefs have been discarded by many as just ‘beliefs’, by their very nature ‘unscientific’, and so all value has been bleached out from them. I would like to suggest a third important reason here: that in our distracted, attention-deficit age, the discipline and commitment required by traditional and religious structures and practices has become far more difficult to attain, as our minds are pulled in an ever more complex tug-of-war.

However, whilst religion may well be on the decline, the inherent need for meaning in our lives certainly isn’t.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who wrote the seminal book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, after surviving 3 years in that darkest manifestation of ‘scientific progressivism’, the concentration camp at Auschwitz. His most profound realization came when, even in the darkest pits of despair, both he and his fellow inmates still found themselves actively, unrelentingly searching for meaning. Thus, having survived this ordeal, both physically and psychologically survived, he came to the conclusion, captured so beautifully in Nietzsche’s most lucid one-liner:

           Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.

Human-beings are meaning-hunters. Celebrated anthropologist Ernest Becker coined the term homo poetica, by which he simply meant ‘man the meaning maker’. Becker believed that what separates the human from other animals is his unrelenting search for meaning and significance. The proof and product of this unrelenting search is culture.  In this unrelenting search we are all potential artists, that role Woody Allen famously described as ‘the seeker of the antidote to the emptiness of existence’. And the antidote seems pretty darned effective. Humans thrive when they have a consistent ‘why’. Meaning can provide a deeper, sustaining nourishment: chicken soup for our souls. 

Nowadays, however, we live in an age of hyper-culture.  The cultural edifices within which we find meaning are changing with g-force speed; that sacred canopy that once sheltered is now pierced by multiple god-shaped holes, and through those holes falls a mind-boggling deluge of different meanings, different narratives, different forms of belief, or non-belief. This is the distinctly modern, globalised problem of having too much choice. When it comes to orienting my own life, I have become acutely aware in the last years of the effect of too much choice. For example, I love listening to inspiring, uplifting talks: TED talks, Conscious TV, stirring videos posted on Facebook. Each time I listen to one, I get a hit, like a meaning junkie smoking his pipe, and I emerge emboldened: a new crusade is born, a crusade that rampages all the way through…until the next video pops up. Thus, my engagement in these million brave new worlds struggles to move beyond skin-deep. I find myself unconsciously complicit in a game, a game where I am repeatedly distracted from the commitment necessary to truly evolve. Digital structures are in fact designed to support this superficial level of engagement with meaning (think of the streaming News Feeds of Facebook, or the sidebars on Youtube that are always tease, tease, teasing with tangents: other videos, images, words, we might prefer to imbibe). In 2010, Micah White wrote in a critique of ‘slacktivism’: “we have become so dependent on digital gimmicks that our revolutionary potential is now constrained”. I would say that both our revolutionary and our evolutionary potentials are challenged by these digital rabbit warrens.

Why are these worlds being created in such a way? Why do I find myself repeatedly sucked back into the vortex by that most fundamental of enticements, that ‘there will be something better just around the corner’? Whilst we humans are naturally curious, meaning-hunters, our curiosity is exploited by corporations who create products that we can never be fully satisfied with. The term coined for this consciously un-settling mechanism is ‘in-built’ or ‘planned’ obsolescence’, an inherent part of the industrial Capitalist system since 1924, when the American automobile industry reached saturation point, leading General Motors to the ingenious (and scarily correct) prediction that car owners could be trained to believe that they needed to buy a replacement vehicle each and every year. 

These structures that seduce our attention and encourage continuous up-scaling can even be seen in that marketplace of meaning: the self-help industry. 2014 has been deemed by publishers as the year that self-help titles will rise right to the top of the sales charts. The self-help industry was already in 2013 estimated at $11bn. Just imagine how many different ideas that $11bn-and-rising figure represents, how many different descriptions, suggestions, techniques, all designed to help us find meaning and to live our lives better. Staggering.

From one perspective, self-help authors are increasingly muscling each other out to create ever newer bottles for the same old wine. And this, for me, is really the key: whilst these meaning bottles may be described in shiny and new and exciting ways (‘this Chardonnay has a certain naïve quality’, as my old Australian friend would say), what is contained within them are more or less the same core principles that humankind has been trying to live by for millennia. I find this is an important and grounding realisation, as I find myself being carried away on another crusade by the next self-help book or spiritual sound-bite. 

So how are we, dizzied meaning-hunters atop this Tower of Babel, to remedy our existential vertigo? How can we lost souls stay outside of the fish bowl long enough to find that sense of genius, magic, and power that Goethe famously associated with the bold act of commitment? In my own life, I am finding it increasingly useful to ground myself in just one simple principle, which is certainly not my invention, and I would probably struggle to sell any books on the subject, because, to be honest, it may seem a bit overdone, passé, perhaps even a bit cheesy. That principle is unconditional love. Its been around for ages, and simply means giving without expectation, or love for love’s sake. Although it is admittedly not easy to achieve, nonetheless, as a coordinating principle, it has profoundly beneficial consequences, and is simple enough to remember: a sturdy life-boat to boldly hold onto when the tsunami of ideas and information engulfs.

And this principle seems so vitally important today in an age where so many billions of dollars are being spent on getting us to feel we need to have more to be more, rather than to give more. So, whenever I am feeling lost in the jungle of spiritual soundbites, whenever I feel drowned in the deluge of mercurial meanings, I stop, take a moment of quiet, and orient myself to that simple convention of unconditional love. I breathe a sigh of relief…until my next crusade begins.

I am fascinated by how, under extremely different circumstances, when all light and meaning was being sucked inexorably towards a very big black hole, Viktor Frankl has a similar, profound and grounding realization in Auschwitz:

… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun, which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”