Yesterday I was speaking with a colleague at the college where I teach, a sociology instructor, who asked me this question: “Why doesn’t our society teach people how to be happy?” Implicit within this question, which became more explicit in our brief conversation, was a shared concern regarding our cultural values, focusing particularly on the ingrained conditioning toward consumerism that defines American society much more than valuing the quality of our lives.
After reflecting on this throughout the rest of the day, it occurred to me that the real issue lies much deeper than the answer “because America is a consumer-driven culture that is obsessed with acquiring and maintaining material goods/comforts at the expense of human happiness.” I believe this is true, and that we are in desperate need of a greater awareness of this disturbing truth, but it is too simple and obvious as an answer to my colleague’s question. I think that a more honest and revealing answer is that our culture cannot provide such education because, to a large extent, we don’t know what it means to be happy, and more significantly, we are not united as one people by core values and a guiding vision. While I’m certainly not denying the presence of essential values/beliefs that do characterize American society, and although a compelling argument could be made suggesting that consumerism is in fact the ultimate value that binds us together, it seems to me that our culture is lacking such a foundation and grounding center. This is the cultural sickness and disease that is slowly devouring our vitality, potentialities, and cultural identity.
However, as I considered this, I was reminded of the sobering fact that the quest for such a unified vision has a frighteningly dark and insidious shadow side in terms of tendencies toward uniformity and conformism, either voluntarily accepted or forcefully imposed. In perhaps its most extreme form, this is represented by totalitarian/fascist regimes throughout human history that subject the members of a society and culture to one officially sanctioned value/belief system or way of life. We apparently cannot rely on an easy solution to the dilemma through a mere intensification of the search for a unified cultural vision, which could lead only to a cultural straightjacket that destroys the freedom, diversity, and creativity that make life worth living.
Herein is the profound tension within which we exist and must act to save our dying culture. One end of our cultural value continuum is dominated by destructive chaos, confusion, apathy, and despair, whereas the other end is dominated by suffocating uniformity, rigid order, mindless clarity, and blind commitment. While I believe that our culture is currently oriented more toward the former, aspects of the latter are also present, and our cultural identity and spirit are in constant movement between these polar extremes. I would like to advocate for a dynamic balance between the healthy elements of these competing value orientations, although practically actualizing such a balance seems to be very difficult and challenging. We need a collectively shared definition and vision of human happiness, of what it means to live life well, but who can ultimately decide what this looks like, and how it should be experienced? We need a sense of common purpose, meaningful goals that we can strive to achieve together, yet the personal freedom of every individual to create/discover his or her own unique purpose and life goals must be honored and respected.
I think that the context of our existential worldview and framework provide an excellent example to illustrate this cultural situation. I am, as I’m sure many of you are as well, passionately committed to existential-humanistic values. I am proud to identify myself as an existentialist and believe that existential-humanistic value perspectives are precisely what our culture most needs at present. However, if I go on a crusade to convert others to the “faith,” then I cease to be a true existentialist. The very last thing we as existentialists want to do is create a culture in which everyone is a “card-carrying” member of the club or party that decides and enforces a uniform way of thinking, valuing, and experiencing life.
I’m assuming that this would be the furthest from our conscious intentions, but we should also recognize that the potential danger is latent within each of us. We must remember that we have nothing to argue, prove, or defend, that to the extent that the existential-humanistic framework is valid and “true,” it will compellingly present itself without the need for persuasion or debating tactics from us. Perhaps the best we can do is to live by example, that is, live as authentic, free, self-actualizing and fully alive human beings who contribute and offer our own conceptions of a unified/grounding vision in terms of these values, while receiving and learning from the conceptions of others, especially when they conflict with our own. I commit myself, and urge you to as well, to an ongoing dialogue in search for a consensually-determined unifying cultural vision of authenticity, freedom, meaning-creation, and self-actualization that is experienced and expressed in a diverse range of unique forms.
— Scott Kiser
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