By Brianna Wiest

We hail entertainers as gods. We’ve turned jesters into kings.

The most discussed, admired, emulated, idolized people in our society are those who most fully distract us from normalcy. Our social premium is on entertainment and luxury – things we feel are somehow transcendent of human life – so our personal goals are measured by how far we can stretch beyond and away from ourselves, how little of our reality we have to bear. In practical terms, our goals are external status symbols. This, we believe, is the result of a life well lived, potential fully maximized.

We believe this premium on leisure (especially passive leisure) is the mark of an advanced society, but it’s actually a sign of a society that is severely lacking a sense of meaning.

Societies begin to rely on leisure as a matter of necessity and distraction in difficult times. This, historically, has been referred to with the term “bread and circuses,” – psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in Finding Flow – it’s the ruling class’ strategy of “keeping people content by fattening them up or stupefying them with entertainment.” 

That’s been the case historically, anyway: ball games were introduced in the Persian Wars, as Herodotus’ method of distracting his subjects when bouts of famine caused unrest in the population. Chariot races began in Constantinople at the beginning of the fall of the Byzantine Empire. The first game akin to modern-day basketball was developed in the Mayan Civilization, right before the Spanish conquest, as a strategy to keep spectators preoccupied. And so on.

The point, of course, is that whether by intentional direction or emotional coping, we collectively turn to entertainment when we most deeply feel unsettled. This is logical: we can sense within us the capacity and desire to feel ‘good,’ and so when our reality appears to be the opposite, it’s likewise an external phenomena that we’re missing. The fastest antidote seems evident: rich food, blinding lights, shocking scandals, captivating cultural phenomena, a mob-mentality to stand behind the Facebook social cause of the week.

Unsurprisingly, this does not heal us, it worsens what ailed us in the first place, and our sense of “purpose” becomes skewed. This, right now, looks to us as “have it all!” syndrome, wherein the kind of life we want to live is rooted in extravagance. Even rallying behind “finding your passion” and “doing what you love” is a symptom. We don’t differentiate wanting “better” from just wanting “more.”

Everything we perceive to be desirable is maxed out for optimal pleasure. We want “soulmate” love, financial abundance to the point that we can accumulate enough status symbols to prove it. Travel as a means of mimicking the past time of people who have transcended working life, physical appearance as aligned with ideal beauty, to emulate the lifestyle magazines that instruct us on how to appear to exist.

This affinity for the “ultimate life” is proportionate to how little meaning we feel our lives have without these ideas. Because we don’t really understand why we’re here, or what we’re doing, or what the point is beyond some archaic religious teachings we’re progressively dismissing bit by bit, we cling onto what we can see in front of us: salvation in the physical form. Transcendence of our human condition as facilitated by money, and wealth, and things, and privilege.

Right now, this manifests in a very simple, seemingly innocuous way: we believe that the way things appear is the way they actually are. (No wonder we’re so riddled with anxiety.) Our appearance is our reality. Our digital presence is our life. Things exist on the surface; the portion we can immediately perceive becomes the whole.

Why? Because we haven’t attached any greater meaning to it. We must remain shallow to keep up with a life that’s meaningless to us.

We’ve liberated ourselves from the constraining tradition the immediate generations prior to us knew. We are, bit by bit, striving to “choose the lives we want,” “be anything we want,” “dream big,” “achieve everything,” because that’s what’s most in fashion.

I can’t ascribe meaning to our lives as a collective and expect it to apply to everyone indefinitely, but I can start by saying what we know is true: other than birth, death and taxes, the only other thing we know for sure is growth. We learn and develop and expand. The good things teach us and the bad things teach us even better. Our inherent desires are rooted in wanting to be more, but it’s misdirected. It’s not a “better life” we actually want, it’s a better perception. It’s meaning in the mundane. It’s the ability to see the beauty in a shaft of light from the window, or love in even the most intolerable among us.

The grand irony is that we don’t actually want to be beyond ourselves, we just want to know what it takes to actually be okay within ourselves. And until our society starts placing that premium on introspection and development and growth, nothing will ever change.

No one person can change the world (or whatever it is we’re using excessive passivity to shield ourselves from) but one person can change themselves. If every person took the liberty to do so, collective change wouldn’t be an uphill battle, but the natural progression.

Our lives aren’t meaningless. They’re so meaningful we don’t know what to do with them. We aren’t apathetic, we care so deeply that we almost can’t bear to try and fail. Since the dawn of civilization, luxury and leisure only took premium when something incredible was at stake. Rather than turn an eye to be blinded by a screen, we must learn to stare at the ground in front of us and take a step forward.

Image: JJ Jackson

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