“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war…our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
By now it’s not news to you that we have an opioid epidemic that kills more Americans each year than died during the entire duration of the Vietnam War. It’s not news that obesity has become a pandemic across our nation killing an estimated 300,000 people annually. It’s not news that depression and suicide are at all time highs in our country with some 45,000 people taking their own lives each year. It’s not news to you that despite living in an age of unprecedented technological advances, we actually have declining life expectancy in our nation. We are increasingly addicted to our food, our phones, our booze and our prescription drugs. We even ‘binge’ watch our television. But none of that is news.
Our collective anxiety, addiction, escapism, and desperation is no longer newsworthy, for the vast majority of us are personally battling these afflictions on some level whether individually or through our circle of loved ones. What is newsworthy is that despite fighting the war on drugs, war on fat, and war on terror, none of these societal conflicts are helping us live longer happier lives. The big news story isn’t the what, but the why.
So just why are we depressed, addicted, overweight and unhappy? After all, we live in the richest nation on earth at the most prosperous time in history. Technology makes our lives so efficient that few of us have to actually labor strenuously to find food, shelter or even entertainment. The answer is simple, and yet complex. We feel separate from each other and live in polarizing times because we are separate from ourselves. We are out of alignment.
If you watch the news and pay attention to those in power politically and economically, the answers to our dilemmas come in convenient packages with straight forward answers - Obesity will be solved by burning calories, jobs and personal safety will be protected by building walls, drug addiction will be solved by locking up drug dealers and seizing the supply of illegal drugs. But deep down, no matter where you lie on the political and philosophical spectrum, we all know this is a lie. None of these short-sided ‘answers’ really address the why’s behind the what.
The proof is in the pudding. Despite our protectionist tendencies and efforts to save our jobs, both machines and other countries continue to take our jobs at an alarming pace. Despite a decades-long war on drugs focusing on locking up drug dealers and seizing drugs, this fight has had zero impact on drug consumption and addiction. Despite more and more joining gyms fueling the fitness industry’s unprecedented double-digit growth for the past 30-years, the burning calories approach has had no impact on the amount of overweight and obese Americans. These are failed approaches because they don’t address the underlying causes of our ailments.
We need to stop addressing the ‘what’ and start tackling the ‘why’ behind these issues. The reason we are overweight, unhappy and depressed is because many of us lack purpose, meaning and a feeling of true fulfillment in our lives. Great meals, engrossing entertainment and fine wine won’t solve our emptiness. Ironically, our escapism only exacerbates our pain. No matter how fast we run on the treadmill of life, the belt keeps going and at some point we have to get off and face the pain, guilt and shame of our own emptiness.
Facing the why means waging a “spiritual war” as Chuck Palahniuk states. Or as Gandhi famously said, “each one of us has to find his peace from within.” But many aren’t willing to wage that war. We’re too distracted and comfortable to be bothered. We’re too busy complaining about the system being broken that we don’t actually organize and mobilize to find real solutions. It’s much easier to blame the left if you’re on the right (or vice versa), to blame the drug dealers if you’re a drug user and to blame the calories if you’re overweight. These simplistic narratives have proven to be failed approaches and continue to do nothing to advance our cause as a society.
More than 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau prophesized this dynamic. His haunting quote about despair and its correlation to amusement also contains the remedy (wisdom). “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation…A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
The time has come to reject the notions of addiction and corruption and break out of our quiet lives of desperation. As “middle children of history,” our fight isn’t a black and white one like the wars and moral battles of our grandparents and great grandparents. Addiction, depression and even political gridlock aren’t solved with walls, diet plans and simply choosing the lesser of two evils. They are solved in the stillness of our hearts, in selfless community-driven efforts and in relationship with the Divine.
We must wage new wars in fighting the powerful and corrupt while at the same time holding ourselves to the same level of accountability. We must stand up to monopolies of thought and monopolies of commerce and political power. We must fight against systemic injustices like fake food and aggressive marketing campaigns that promote massive consumption and in turn, addiction.
The answers in these seemingly hopeless times will only present themselves if we are first willing to address the why’s behind the what. Waging such a spiritual war is not about choosing sides, but about finding a ‘third’ way and through the process of “kenosis” or self-emptying. It is only when we empty our lives that we can be truly receptive to God’s will. It is only through emptiness that we can find wholeness. It’s only by finding ourselves individually that we can band together and truly forge a path for peace collectively.