Driverless car? Not such big news when some of the tar sands companies are already running four hundred ton driverless trucks back and forth between the pit and the processing plant. Apparently the mining companies feel the wage of a lowly driver is too great an expense—even for these monstrous hauls. Doesn’t it kind of worry you that these giant companies will one day discover a way to dig it all up, burn it all up, ship it all away, and use the rest all up without the need for any human input (or wages!)? Then what—when people are irrelevant to this mad—utterly mad– rush to use up everything? Sure there will be a lot of unemployed people but what about our Earth? Will these ever more gigantic Earth eating machines just go their merry way eating up all that is left of our Earth –at an ever increasing rate? For what? Will the giant corporations that own the giant trucks also invent giant spending machines that can spend all the corporate profits on an Earth that is no longer habitable to the human populations that once thrived in a narrow ecological niche before giving rise to the great hulking corporations and their machines?
Driverless trucks, driverless cars? Google is inventing an algorithm that will soon manage the “meaning” in your life. Is there no place where we stop and ask the seminal question: What are people for? To the point, I once saw a film where some unfortunate person had become immortal by having his head attached to a vast machine that sustained his thought making processes long after his body had gone away. Is the point of technology really to take over all human functions? Talk about living a disembodied life! Clearly the imperative for our time is not about the need for ever more machines to take over every human task. Clearly it is time to step aside and consider our assumptions about what human life is for.
Novelist, poet, social critic, and moral philosopher Wendell Berry suggests it is past time to ”change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to know ourselves in relationship with our Earth.” Presaging the driverless gigantic trucks, driverless cars and the blind drive for machines to take over every human activity other than the duty to consume everything, Berry has written a collection of essays titled: What Are People For? In these carefully considered, convincing essays Berry argues that Western civilization has lost its way and has followed industrial and technological innovation into a self-indulgent, immoral, environmentally destructive, dehumanizing, monolithic, and unjust way of life. What we call “The economy” destroys what Berry calls the real economy—that of the household that is situated in the economy of the local community. What we call “the economy” exploits the local community and the rest of creation in the quest for the cheap labor and raw materials of which the bloated salaries of CEO’s are made.
Ferenc Mate, author of the insightful book: A Reasonable Life: Toward a Simpler, Secure, More Humane Existence, writes on the absurdities of a society in which consumerism has become the undisputed measure of value, the virtual life of the television has become more real than the blood that courses through our veins, and humanity has, generally, forgotten what it means to be human or how to ask what human life is, actually,for. According to Mate,
“Our industrial ‘progress’ has in a few short decades brought the natural world around us to its knees; it has laced our waters with toxins, is about to turn the atmosphere into a sauna; it has lacerated our food with so many herbicides, pesticides, growth hormones and other stuff like mercury that it’s almost safer to suck dry a thermometer than eat the average fish.” But it hasn’t begun to ask—let alone answer or understand—what human life is for.
Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning is probably the most cogent attempt to answer the troubling question: What are people for?
After three grim years at Auschwitz and other Nazi prisons, Dr. Frankl gained freedom only to learn that almost his entire family had been wiped out. But during and indeed partly because of, the almost incredible suffering and degradations of his harrowing years, he developed this theory of the experience of meaning as the most essential condition for the social, physical, psychological and spiritual lives of human beings.
The answer came back over and over in a remembered saying of Nietzsche’s: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” Those who found a connection to a loved one or to religion or to nature, they were the ones who could survive the ordeal.
Frankl concluded that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which humanity 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 someone who has nothing left in this world still may yet know bliss…”
Frankl goes on in his book to point out some important connections between the importance of meaning which he learned in the death camps and the meaninglessness of our modern day consumer driven world: “Having shown the beneficial impact of meaning orientation, I shall now turn to the detrimental influence of that feeling of which of many patients complain today, namely, the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives. They lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness.
No instinct tells them what they have to do, no tradition tells them what they ought to do; soon they will not even know what they want to do. More and more they will be governed by what the advertisers compel them to do. In actual fact, boredom is now bringing to psychiatrists more problems to solve than is distress.”
And yet, we go on evaluating the “success” of our society in meeting the needs of citizens, by the undifferentiated growth of our economy. As Robert Kennedy so profoundly observed:
Gross National Product includes air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. ..It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. “
Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of The Left hand of God suggests that ‘What people are for’ is the most under rated concern of our times: “Tens of millions of Americans feel betrayed by a society that seems to place materialism and selfishness above moral values. They know that “looking out for number one” has become the common sense of our society, but they want a life that is about something more-a framework of meaning and purpose to their lives that would transcend the grasping and narcissism that surrounds them. Sure, they will admit that they have material needs, and that they worry about adequate health care, stability in employment, and enough money to give their kids a college education. But even more deeply they want their lives to have meaning…some sense of transcendent purpose.”
As our life trickles away searching for things to buy, we forget all the things that aren’t for sale—the seashore, the meadows, the mountains, the woods, where we can find some solitude, insight and peace. Meanwhile our planet is slowly going to hell, as we mass-produce junk that has nothing to do with the comfort, the sense of connection, the meaning we seek.
Ultimately a love of the natural world, compassion and love for other human beings and a commitment to building a community of good will are answers to the question of what people are for which can bring a deep and lasting sense of happiness.
For 35 years my wife and I have been trying to cope with an illness that very slowly but inexorably leads down the path of declining health and function. I have at times found the most difficult part is the seemingly almost vindictive way that as soon as we learn to cope with one thing, life seems to reach in and grab something else. Since reading Victor Frankl’s book, I have begun to wonder if, hard as it is to bear, one of the meanings of my life is to be witness to the significance of our human abilities that have so little to do with these outward trappings of the physical body. I would be the last to suggest that dealing with this illness has not been difficult or painful. When I think of the things we could have seen and done and shared and cared for if it hadn’t been for this illness, I would not dream of saying anything like “well yes but Nancy and I are better more compassionate people because of it” Such romantic images over simplify and trivialize the amount of pain and suffering involved.
But what I can say is that the woman that I knew and loved in 1980 before this illness entered our lives, is still very much the woman that I know and love as we step into the 21st century. While at times she despairs over the ever increasing physical limits on her life, her concerns are a passionate interest in the well being of her sons and their families and in their development as fully actualized individuals. She is troubled by the plight of the next generation that must deal with the toxins we are so ungenerously leaving them and the trivializing of the meaning which our obsession with consumption is leaving to them. She is concerned about women who suffer at the hands of those who are supposed to love them. She is deeply concerned that long before the economics of More have exhausted the last of our natural resources, it will have corrupted that most essential place in our hearts where we recognize our inherent connection to the natural world and our spirits are renewed by it. I know every day she asks herself what she can do to nourish and develop the love she feels for others. She doesn’t have to ask What People are For?—she has to profoundly know the answer to that question just to get up each morning and get on with the life that is still available to her.
Interestingly, she would, however, be interested in knowing more about that driverless car—does it, perchance, come with a wheelchair ramp?