As a schoolboy I recall being quite deeply affected by the plight of lemmings. I was morbidly fascinated by their suicidal compulsion (not actually suicidal but a compulsion that often resulted in death nonetheless). I thought it eery and unsettling. It didn’t occur to me to judge them for their lack of prescience, the inability of a single one amongst them to hold up a tiny, querulous paw and say “hold on lads, there’s a lot of water at the bottom of that cliff, maybe we should think about this.”
If you are someone who feels there are less reasons for hope in the world than for despair you may think applying as metaphor for the human race oblivion-embracing lemmings entirely appropriate. Some think we are hurtling towards extinction as fast as our greed and self-interest can carry us. Perhaps in aeons to come a little extraterrestrial school-being will download a history of 21st century Earth and ponder to itself our incapacity to not destroy ourselves. “Oh, those poor, dumb humans” it might think to itself, “they had a suicidal compulsion. Their obliteration was inevitable.”
I don’t particularly agree with the doom-mongers and yet it is hard not to wonder to which clifftop we are progressing. And I wonder if we haven’t cultivated a compulsion for unprecedented selfishness? This doesn’t feel like an age of discovery where there’s a belief in something amazing and unseen beyond the horizon. It doesn’t feel like an age of probing, questing curiosity. Quite the contrary, it feels like we are living in an age of incessant dumbing down and wilful disingenuousness as epitomised by incredulous politicians, scandalised public figures and hand-wringing commentators. This is the white noise of the Internet Age where nothing goes unrecorded or remains uncommented on. This leads to a compulsion in many not to be left out, not be left behind, not to be unheard. Driving this compulsion is the desire to be seen to be doing or saying or writing the right thing. What we realise very quickly, however, is that only the most skilled actors can fake this, the result being that we are daily subjected to a barrage of awful performances that fail to connect or resonate meaningfully with any of us. So it becomes one big production line of artifice. Shoddy, mass-produced pap that gradually homogenises the commentary and vacuum packs the emotion for our convenience. The conveyor belt for this ‘Ready-to-Feel-Meal’? The internet and consolidation of ever-improving technology.
Are we utterly determined to remove ourselves from a place of feeling? Is this going to go down as the Age of Dehumanisation, of Desensitisation? “I don’t know how I feel about this. Hold on, maybe if I tweet something I’ll work it out. And there’s bound to be an opinion on Facebook I can like. But first I’ll just quickly take a picture of this latte I’ve been served, it’s totes amazeballs! LOL!” Consumerism has broadened its tentacled reach far beyond mere retail. It now unarguably incorporates mass media which is a global marketing machine unremittingly trying to sell us a philosophy of wish-fulfilment and aspiration based on isolation, superiority and dessert. It parades before us the failings and private agonies of people from every corner of the world, tacitly encouraging us to feel secure and safely removed from the squalor and mundanity to which we bear witness. Our reward for not being the subject of the ‘social porn’ we consume? Entitlement.
The Internet Age is giving birth to the Age of Entitlement. We are all ‘amazeballs’. We are all ‘totes fabulous’, unendingly fascinating and categorically brilliant. Therefore we deserve to ruthlessly pursue the certain route to happiness. Acquisition. Of anything and everything. Fake abs. Fake asses. Fake boobs. Designer dogs. 4x4s like battleships. The latest food fad. The latest hip belief/trend/fashion/religion. The latest opinion. The latest thought. The latest facial expression. The latest space. But as we insatiably usher in every zeitgeisty titbit to bolster our sense of self, which we then flaunt on every possible social media platform to further guarantee our ineffable wondrousness, what, in fact, are we losing?
I don’t know if anybody else cares but I think we are losing certain fundamental human skills. I am going to bypass the obvious ones like face-to-face communication and connection and move straight to the elephant in my imagined room of human devolution. It’s this: fellow feeling. Empathy. Understanding. Call it what you will but it is, in essence, the ability to care for, to feel for, those other than ourselves. And I am convinced that it is rooted in the ability to listen. But not listening with your ears. What about listening from your belly? Your gut? Your core? It’s intuition. It’s an energy. It’s an aura. It’s a vibe, man. People are cynical about this type of language, this way of describing human sensitivity but to me it seems to be so self-evident that it borders on absurd to pretend it isn’t there.
How do we know when a child has been up to no good? How do we know when a colleague is being totally insincere? How do we know when people have just been arguing? How do we know when something bad has happened in a place? How do we know when a friend isn’t being ‘straight’ with us? How we know when someone ‘isn’t themselves’? How do we know when two people are attracted to each other? How do we know when someone is trying to surprise us? Our certainty is not based on external evidence alone. In fact that external evidence is what we use only after we have identified in ourselves that initial misgiving, or premonition or feeling. Is it a long-dulled animal instinct from when we shared our habitats with predators? I suspect so. We get shudders and shivers, hairs that rise on the back of our necks, uneasy feelings in our stomachs, a flutter of excitement, a quickened heart rate. Why? What is it that we are picking up on? Energy.
I think we have an innate capacity for reading other people that is based on natural selection. We are identifying predator or prey, friend or foe. Do I need to be on guard or can I relax? This sensitivity is no longer as potent or refined as it once was because we don’t spend as much time looking over our shoulders for woolly mammoths or sabre-toothed tigers. This neutralised sense is even more battered by the onslaught of verbiage and mass media effluent that floods our modern lives. The challenge then, is to create a quiet space that will effectively seal off the soundbite-tsunamis and allow us to nurture an older, deeper news source that will serve us much better in helping us feel what is truly important to us.
Don’t feel compelled to flood the quiet space with opinion and response and deconstruction. Just shut up (!) and listen. When that listening feels more real to you, more present, then start the process of selecting what and who you actually want to listen to. Maybe your choices will be different to before. But at least acknowledge the energy that you are a part of. Is it good energy? Bad energy? You should be able to tell. And it might just affect the way you view the prevailing dynamic. You can be the lemming that says “this is bad energy, man. I’m getting a bad vibe off this cliff and those waves have a very funny aura. I think bad things are going to happen if we keep going this way, man.”
Can we find a way back to old wisdom? To old knowledge? Is that within us all?