In one of my favorite books, “Fight Club”, which was later made into a movie with Brad Pitt and Ed Norton which became a cult classic, the protagonist utters many famous lines. These are some of the best ones:
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything”
“We buy stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.”
“You are not your khakis!”
“We’re the middle children of history man. No purpose or place. We have no great war. No great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.”
Fight Club and other movies like Office Space, The Burbs, American Beauty, and many more explore the depth of the spiritual void often encountered in American Life. I oscillate between valuing and resenting the trappings and pleasures of modernity personally. There are many to deal with for the lucky among us- a nice place to live, a thriving business, cars to drive, too much to eat, endless trivial entertainments, political dramas, futile status striving, worthy causes of all sorts, and so on, good and bad. But as I wrote about in Movement & Meaning, the depression and mental illness epidemic we face as a country is as much a subconscious reaction to reality as anything else.
We are faced with a problem. We are facing directly into a spiritual void and we need to turn around and go the other direction towards something more meaningful. Instead of viewing depression as solely an individual psychological ailment it could be viewed as a cultural failure as well. Depression and anxiety are perfectly logical reactions to a spiritually bankrupt culture. If you think about it, in some ways medicating for depression or anxiety is a way for the “narrative”, “matrix”, “system” or whatever you want to call the culture we live in to beat us back into submission so that we don’t really challenge what’s happening. There is a lot of money to be made off of these “illnesses”!
Medicate and you will feel better (wink, wink). Some people may really need to medicate, but not everyone does. Medication does nothing about the original problems causing us stress, anxiety, or depression. I believe looking at stress this way is helpful because it challenges us to make positive change. At one point in my life, I was not sleeping enough, I had some bad habits, and I was stressed out. I was offered antidepressants which I quickly turned down because I didn’t need to take them, I needed to change some things about the way I was living. In the irony of all ironies, most of our problems are caused by our own successes. We are victims of our own materialism, in that it controls everything else.
So let’s break it down:
Currently: Materialism > Spirituality & Values
Wise & Healthy Living: Spirituality & Values > Materialism
Notice materialism is not bad per se, but it’s not as “good” as spirituality. Our deepest sense of truth and justice and our values should drive our materialism, not the other way around. Ideally our spirits determine the meaning of our material world instead of our material world determining our spirits. So essentially we need to reorient ourselves towards valuing the right things. But this is not what we do, is it? I know I don’t always. It’s a constant battle to keep the priorities rightly aligned. Too often we let the material world own us and destroy us.
Currently: Stress > Self-Destruction (addiction, neuroticism, compulsion, narcissism)
Wise & Healthy Living: Stress > Change & Growth
It’s not all doom and gloom in America, though if you watched the new you would think so. There are inspiring things happening which reflect these two simple paradigm shifts. America is a civic-minded nation, compared to most others. Maybe not as much as we used to be, but we still are. Americans are good people and we want to do the right thing. People are stepping up to solve the problems we’ve caused ourselves. One of the most exciting and positive developments in recent years is the emergence of a movement called New Urbanism. I’m a recent adherent of the movement so I’m not an expert, but from what I see so far, it may be the key to saving American society.
New Urbanism is one of the few solutions I’ve seen which addresses many of the key problems like Crime, Stress, & Obesity / Diabetes in one concept, by increasing safety and fostering community. I believe in individual liberty but also communal responsibility. I’m neither a complete individualist nor a complete conformist. I think you need both aspects to live in a good world. If we move away from a materialism-first culture towards one where we are focused on what is good, then we will change for the better when confronted with the stress associated with cars, traffic, ugly urban blight, and commuting. New Urbanism addresses many of the issues we face in a uniquely balanced way and these are the main components:
- Mixed-Use & Diversity
- Mixed Housing
- Traditional Neighborhood Structure
- Quality of Life
- Green Transportation
- Increased Density
- Quality Architecture & Urban Design
One of the great tragedies of American life since the advent of the suburbs has been the sharp decline in community life, but we’re slowly starting to build it back. It can be done within the limitations of commuting for now but it’s harder to pull off. The trend away from the car is going to continue. Once communities are built to reflect the values of New Urbanism more, it will be easier to build community because people will be able to use common spaces, get more exercise, and be in closer contact. Don’t get me wrong, there will be growing pains and mistakes along the way. Utopia is a place which will never exist but I believe we can go back to a more sensible way of life.
Ironically, every year Americans spend millions of dollars to travel so they can then walk around theme parks, or popular walkable cities like NYC, New Orleans, Charleston, or San Francisco, or abroad in Europe in quaint villages or vibrant walkable cities like London, Paris, or Amsterdam. Did it once ever occur to us we could design our own towns and cities to be like this instead? We don’t have to go on vacation to go for a walk somewhere nice or charming. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t retrofit all of our architectural ugliness and dysfunction into thriving and revitalized cities and towns all across this country, and spur a decline in crime, stress, and obesity and diabetes with it.
The next time you drive up to a busy intersection, look at the 2 or 3 people, or the lone individual walking across or waiting at the light. Watch how they have to practically run to get across the street because the boulevard is so huge and they may not make it in time. Sometimes they are pushing a baby carriage, taking their life and their child’s life in their own hands. Maybe they were one of the millions displaced by deindustrialization and they spend their time now just wandering around looking for a job. Regardless, these walkers are our neighbors, and if we start to use some of the principles of New Urbanism, we might meet them sometime and find out that we’re not that different.
The Congress of New Urbanism, whose motto is “Building Better Places”, is not the end all and be all, but it’s a good start to a better tomorrow. For more information check out: www.cnu.org
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