“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”
― James Clear, Atomic Habits
Atomic Habits by James Clear is one of the best selling self-help books in the past two years. Personal development gurus, leaders and mentors have been zealously recommending the book since its publication. It contains an in-depth and pragmatic explanation of productivity and building habits. The underlying message is that changing our lives does not come through dramatic breakthroughs or radical moments, rather through changes that may seem outwardly insignificant and mundane but have a profound transformation in the fullness of time.
Books such as Atomic Habits have been immensely influential and beneficial in my life. The brevity and rigour of James Clear have broadened my perspective on the synergy between systematic thinking and productivity. I am grateful for talented authors like him, who make our lives better through words.
Having said that, some of the ideas shared in modern self-help books seem to be overly focused on systematic and peripheral changes, over more heartfelt, penetrating changes to a human being like self-realisation, self-actualisation and finally self-transcendence. This utilitarian or efficiency-based view of being may create an ostensible perception of life — popularised by existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1960s — “existence precedes essence”. Colloquially, it means ‘there is no general account of who you are as a human being; therefore, everything, including your identity, could be derived from your existence.’ The sentiment postulates that the way one lives heralds one’s intrinsic worth. As a philosophical dilettante, I will not argue on the validity of Sartre’s proclamation, but I could recognise its tendency to manifest in various aspects of modern life; predominantly in how we form our self-image. Our careers, titles, wealth, popularity, status, etc. which, to an extent, are necessary and essential societal constructs, play a profound role in shaping our identity. We may think of ourselves as being mavericks, impishly rebellious and uninfluenced by society, but psychological studies have shown that social norms, communal values and cultural influences bound and control even the most heterodox individuals who may think they are thoroughgoing rationalists in their moral reasoning.
While developing positive habits for a productive life is undoubtedly beneficial for personal development, we must go beyond superficial lifestyle changes and ask ourselves, “What is good for my soul?”
I am aware of the convolution such a question brings upon one’s life. The “soul” at the least is an incomprehensible idea, and an observation of one’s own soul is not mere intellectual appeasement where we could gleefully indulge in philosophical speculation. There probably is nothing more emotionally, psychologically and spiritually laborious than knowing oneself. However, the difficulty of the task is no reason for not undertaking it audaciously. Extrapolating from what the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed, people must not credulously settle at socially imposed constructs, stereotypical identities and pseudo values. People must be responsible for making and living out, their own existential choices. We should develop an unyielding habit of deep personal reflection and ponderance on objective truth, and the source of that truth, God. It is only through such rigorous and discomforting contemplation, critical thought and self-analysis could we understand and hopefully redeem our souls.
“A crowd in its very concept is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction.”
― Søren Kierkegaard
Due to secularity, modern people are reluctant to speak about metaphysical realities such as the soul or God. For us, modern folk, it looks anachronistic. It is common to hear statements like, “I’m spiritual but not religious”, “The universe has a plan for me” or “I believe in God but not any particular religion.” Such assertions seem to lack any introspective depth into the human condition, recklessly dismisses ancient ideals and feed into a peculiar form of solipsism, as we are trying to obtain the practical good that comes along with God, spirituality or the divine but repudiate the duties such a good requires from us.
What we call habits in contemporary society are similar to rituals in the past―one noteworthy difference that appears to me is that ritualistic traditions are intentional, and carried out consciously (a psychoanalyst may disagree). In contrast, habits tend to dictate us at a more subconscious level. Nevertheless, I am convinced that rituals or habits (we may use these two words synonymously for illustrative sake) are an impetus of control and subsequent dominion over our souls. With my limited understanding, in this essay, I hope to explore a few insidious habits that I have identified to be harming our souls, move us away from that which is true and good, and ultimately killing us slowly.
Certain issues in life cannot be confronted and tackled at a mere lifestyle or psychological level. In reality, our existential dilemma lies in a deeply troubled soul — it is at this point we have to move to the esoteric realm of metaphysics, and that is where scientific materialism may not be of great use. Science is not the only form of epistemology (knowledge). Nor do I believe that while science can show us the breathtaking beauty of the universe, it isn’t an actual source of meaning for us and cannot answer moral questions human beings face in ordinary life.
For example, what good is it for us to have all the wealth, success, influence and social recognition in the world; live and breath productivity, engineering our life to become an optimal performer to a point where some people may begin to envy us, yet, be devoid of meaning and purpose without a transcendent perspective of life? It is common to hear stories of celebrities and other public figures who are miserable and depressed in their personal lives, imprisoned by addiction or even worse when the facade of fame is destroyed, they commit suicide. If all human beings were cogs in a machine and their sole purpose was to be optimally efficient and excel at subject ‘X’, whatever that ‘X’ constitutes, then such tragedies would be unheard of throughout modernity. Still, needless to state, we are more than automatons in a system. Since modernism, enlightenment and the scientific revolution, we have forgotten this undeniable truth.
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
Peter Wehrwein from Harvard University reported that antidepressant use has increased by 400% since the 1990s:
“The rate of antidepressant use in this country [America] among teens and adults (people ages 12 and older) increased by almost 400% between 1988–1994 and 2005–2008.”
According to the CDC fatal injury reports, 1996–2016, the suicide rate, ages 15–19 has increased by 25% for males (since 2001–2010) and up to 70% for females (since 2001–2010).
In the affluent west, as we rise in material prosperity, how is there a relative increase in addiction, drug use, depression and suicide?
There is an underlying assumption amongst contemporary thought that societal progress is always linear, mostly because our idea of progress is predominantly technological. Hence, we tend to be oblivious to what moral or spiritual progress would necessitate and possibly unconscious to the prevailing decadence in our society.
If the quality of people’s lives were getting better, wouldn’t this be the utopian panacea to all of our troubles?
Anthropological and psychological evidence may suggest otherwise.
Remarkably, the 19th-century existentialist novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky made a similar observation about Russian society in the 1860s. He portrays his scepticism of the “crystal palace”, symbolising utopianism, humanity is trying to build in the novel Notes from Underground (commentary paraphrased from Sao Yang Hew, economicstudents.com), where he ridicules progressive ideals of crafting hypothetical social systems based on the assumption that under optimum education and guidance, human beings would strive to act rationally and progress society into a utopia:
“Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in bliss so that nothing but bubbles would dance on the surface of his bliss, as on a sea…and even then every man, out of sheer ingratitude, sheer libel, would play you some loathsome trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive rationality his fatal fantastic element…simply in order to prove to himself that men still are men and not piano keys.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
If Dostoyevsky's exposition of the human condition is accurate, then, mental health already being a contentious topic, would not be a strictly analytical scientific problem to solve. There certainly are medical explanations and remedies to the physical and mental pain human beings have to encounter indubitably, but sometimes (or maybe, most times) we dig our own graves. Life does not give us what we want but instead, presents us with choices and tradeoffs; we have no other option than to play along with the hand we are dealt with by reality. Within that domain of choices, we can decide if we are going to dig our own grave or orient ourselves towards a higher goal, an honourable, noble, virtuous, good and faithful ideal. That trajectory of life is infinitely more valuable than a position given to us by fate.
I believe the following three habits will change our trajectory towards an inevitable spiritual death or something even worse than losing oneself.
The Reduction Of Sex To Lust
One of the reasons I used to be an atheist and ridiculed divinity was because of the moralising nature in some of the most prominent worldly religions. I particularly found sexual ethics rather condescending and unnecessarily intrusive. I was wrong.
At the start of my adolescence, I started to take religious teachings seriously and cross-examined these differing worldviews with my own life; a practice I still follow, and probably will continue it for the rest of my life. Crucial questions of such existential weight, which religions try to answer cannot be studied only at an intellectual level but must be viewed through the lens of our own life experiences along with our relationships with those whom we love. After much introspection, I’ve concluded that sexual ethics in a secular, materialistic worldview is incoherent and empty of meaning. Even the most influential postmodern thinkers who ardently proclaimed the virtues of secularity had deeply miserable and tragic personal lives. Paul Johnson examines in his book, ‘Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky’, whether intellectuals have the pertinence, credence and moral fortitude to advise humanity on topics such as politics, morality or sexual ethics. As brilliant as some of these minds maybe, he writes this poignant statement:
“The association of intellectuals with violence occurs too often to be dismissed as an aberration. Often it takes the form of admiring those ‘men of action’ who practise violence. Mussolini had an astonishing number of intellectual followers, by no means all of them Italian. In his ascent to power, Hitler consistently was most successful on the campus, his electoral appeal to students regularly outstripping his performance among the population as a whole. He always performed well among teachers and university professors. Many intellectuals were drawn into the higher echelons of the Nazi Party and participated in the more gruesome excesses of the SS. Thus the four Einsatzgruppen or mobile killing battalions which were the spearhead of Hitler’s ‘final solution’ in Eastern Europe contained an unusually high proportion of university graduates among the officers. Otto Ohlendorf, who commanded ‘D’ Battalion, for instance, had degrees from three universities and a doctorate in jurisprudence. Stalin, too, had legions of intellectual admirers in his time, as did such post-war men of violence as Castro, Nasser and Mao Tse-tung.”
The intellect only produces ideas; we cannot truly know the validity of these ideas until they materialize in the real world. A civil engineer would be considered an utter failure if a bridge they design collapses, possibly killing many people, but when can we know when an intellectual is an utter failure? There is no tangible, objective point of measure to validate ideas unless they materialize in reality.
It is entirely reasonable for a scientific material worldview to reduce sex into nothing more than evolution in play, continuing on our species without any consideration of respect, compassion or love, which are metaphysical realities. Values that manifest in the physical realm such as the sacrificial love shown by a parent to their children cannot be reduced solely to kin selection because there is no definite way to derive the value of love from the fact of kin selection. If people were only predetermined biological creatures that were controlled by natural forces and evolutionary desires, then technically, anything (even pedophilia or incest) is permissible. And yet, through tradition and religion, we have derived a values framework which places boundaries on how sex is treated. Sometimes these boundaries tend to be tyrannical, which is probably an indication that we must revisit our ancient stories to study and understand their essence deeply, but recklessly jettisoning our incumbent values framework without giving its validity any thought is unbelievably irresponsible. I’ve noticed that since modernity, we have begun to gradually undermine metaphysical realities resulting in harmful abstract ideas becoming prevalent in our culture. This zeitgeist shift has led to the proliferation of deleterious promiscuity, infidelity and even the sexual exploitation of children. It manifests in a variety of ways but most commonly seen in our cultural embrace of pornography or hypersexualisation of women in Hollywood and the entertainment industry.
In truth, how we view sex and our habitual sexual practices is deeply indicative of how we view another human being.
Are human beings only to be used as playthings for our passions and lustful desires until we get bored and move on to the next amusement, or do they have sacred intrinsic worth?
It cannot be an accident that sex has always been a sanctified subject across every major culture throughout human history, at times to the point of it being a taboo. Apart from the obvious biological consequences, I’ve understood that there are equal or greater sociological, psychological and spiritual consequences of how we view sex. Suppose people only view sex as a lustful passion exchange without any serious thought into what more it could be. In that case, there can be unforeseeable ramifications in their lives, possibly leading to lamentable outcomes.
Just because an attitude is legal and socially acceptable in a particular time does not mean it is moral, materially beneficial to society or even good for our souls. In our lives, we know that what truly matters is love, companionship, kindness, sincerity and having abiding respect for one another. If we look back in our lives, it was these eternally intimate, human qualities and emotions that gave our lives richness, beauty, marvel, fulfilling inspiration and a sort of childlike joy; also at times, indeed, gave us a reason to keep living through weariness.
Similar to those philosophers mentioned by Paul Johnson, anyone could come up with cogent and intellectually compelling a priori arguments on how we can reduce sex to nothing more than uncouth lust, fulfilling our carnal desires―without a transcendent outlook of fidelity, loyalty and reverence. But, cerebrally formulating an idea is in striking contrast to living out those ideas in life. Apart from a few aberrations, numerous sociological studies in the west have demonstrated the aftermath of the sexual revolution in the 1960s having questionable outcomes. It is not clear that sexual liberation alone gave birth to the utopian nirvana some intellectuals promised―I must stipulate this point with the caveat that authoritarian dominance and control of an individual’s sexual life through overbearing societal pressure is not a moral good either (such personal choices should be left to individual responsibility).
Here are some thought-provoking statistics:
The Kinsey Institute identifies that one of the main factors that predict infidelity in a relationship is having had a high number of prior sex partners. The paper also states “sexual infidelity… is considered to be among the most significant threats to the stability of adult relationships, including marriage” and “in Western countries, it has been estimated that between 25 and 50% of divorcees cited a spouse’s infidelity as the primary cause of the divorce.”
Susan Krauss Whitbourne from Psychology Today writes on what casual sex does to our psyche, stating that “people who engaged in more hookups had greater psychological distress. College students who recently engaged in casual sex reported lower levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness compared to those who had not had casual sex in the past month. And students who recently engaged in hookups had higher distress scores as indicated by levels of depression and anxiety.”
A 2019 Reuters Health study found, “suicidal thinking, severe depression and rates of self-injury among U.S. college students more than doubled over less than a decade, a nationwide study suggests.” The studies co-author Jean Twenge said, “it suggests that something is seriously wrong in the lives of young people.”
The Daily Wire reports in America between 1946 and 2006, the suicide rate quadrupled for males ages 15 to 24 and doubled for females the same age.
Like most findings from social science, there is no indisputable certainty that casual sex and infidelity is directly leading to unhappiness, depression and increased rates of suicide (particularly among young women). Nor am I claiming that the results of sexual liberation are entirely negative — similar to most social movements, there are both good and bad outcomes. However, it would be naive to think that cultural views towards sex and its psychological effects along with the societal plight of rising levels of suicide exist in silos without any relevance to each other.
Recently, documentaries such as The Social Dilemma have rightly identified the negative impacts of social media on the human psyche, but I still view this as a modernist grief mitigation strategy to a vastly deeper spiritual problem in people. Blaming social media or any singular societal change for the existential questions we face is only a tepid and skin-deep answer. There is great danger in attributing the cause of complex individual, social and spiritual problems to a single factor like the introduction of social media to our culture. Likewise, I am not solely attributing the sexual liberation of our culture for the thought-provoking statistics I previously highlighted. But, while we discuss how novel technological developments are changing people, we must begin the incumbent conversation of how capricious sexual relations between men and women are also affecting us. For myself, this seems like a strikingly profound and even religious discourse. Plus, I am sure young people like myself would greatly value the avuncular advice from older and wiser generations. I do not see convincing reasons to accept the notion that since the sexual revolution in the 1960s, we currently live in a utopia when it comes to sexual relations between genders. The #MeToo movement being a leading example of how attitudes towards sex cannot be uncoupled and indifferent to how people―especially women―are treated.
The statistics I’ve used are symptomatic of the tragedy that modern people have reduced sex to lust resulting in people becoming unhappy and killing themselves. When pathological narratives prevail and hegemonize society, it is not surprising when death is the culminating result. It is typical for mainstream culture to blame peripheral problems like climate change, economic plight, political uncertainty, social media or other external factors that are too distant and somewhat foreign for an individual. Such narratives are formulated and proliferated on a tacit assumption that if all material and social difficulties are eliminated, all of our personal troubles would subsequently disappear. I beg to differ, as this seems like an ad hoc, weak, overly expedient and lazy answer to a gravely serious question. It could have an element of truth but cannot be the whole truth behind what sustains our lives. The real dilemma is deep-seated in our souls; if we have a grasp of the whole truth, material, psychological and spiritual, then it gives us meaning in life to overcome any adversity―even those adversities that may seem out of our purview.
As Viktor E. Frankl recognized, there seems to be no limit on the suffering we can endure when one has discovered (not subjectively created) the true meaning to live their life by,
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.”
After I realised this truth poetically articulated by Dr Frankl, I began to pay reverential attention to religious wisdom and to be cautious of not developing the unwise habit of carelessly denigrating and deriding traditions. Despite my inability to wholly understand their reason for existing. I learned from stories like Cain and Abel, which are the cornerstone of our civilisation that I can’t demand things from reality and treat life as an egocentric game to play, where I create my own rules. Instead, I am to discover and understand the rules of life and engage in the game with respect and diligence. Accordingly, sex being a fundamental part of human beings is not divorced from the substructure of our lives. Instead, sexual relations and how we perceive its actuality is intimately woven to the fabric of reality.
I greatly lack the psychoanalytical knowledge to write anything substantial about Freud’s psychosexual theory, but it seems like he was hinting at certain fundamental truths about human beings and our relationship to sex.
Reducing sex to mere lust seems like an insult to human relations, social contracts and ultimately, our place in reality.
When Carl Jung was asked, “Do you believe in God?”, he replied with his most famous televised quote, “I don’t need to believe, I know.”
I hold a similar view to Dr Jung. God is inextricably a part of human beings. So is Satan, which Dr Jung calls the shadow — our inner devil, and there lies a continual battle between God and Satan in the human heart. Sexual ethics taught by religion, culture and tradition is one of humanity’s desperate attempts to maneuver through this battle. However confronting these ethics appear, it is not something we can cavalierly ignore. We must reason and try to understand such ethics, but cannot just ignore them as ancient superfluous dogma.
Modern people who lack spiritual depth are facing the perils of a secularized society living on the fumes of dying tradition and culture. Social movements, like the sexual revolution that have brought about a lot of good, have also done almost irredeemable damage to our moral frameworks. Intellectuals have attempted to revivify a new kind of morality through modernist tactics, but the unfortunate reality of the mental health crisis, increasing levels of suicide and abstruse culture clashes seemingly indicate that people are facing an existential dilemma. Nor is it clear that morality can be formed on pure intellect and abstract facts alone. Sex never was and never could be decoupled from societal ethics, the human psyche, moral values, culture, tradition and spirituality. From this line of reasoning, I conclude that reducing sex to lust is killing you slowly but surely.
Hiding From Our True Selves
In Stephen Covey’s magnum opus, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, he introduces a contrast between what he describes as the personality ethic and the character ethic. Up until the early 19th century, culturally, the west encouraged developing a character ethic within individuals. It encompasses foundational and genuinely innermost qualities which are true to oneself such as integrity, loyalty, courage and other ‘higher’ character traits. Such attributes have rightly been viewed as essential for the transformation of a human being into someone more virtuous. Personality ethics, on the other hand, tend to be what we see in contemporary self-help practices which place methods and techniques over real internal change. Phrases such as “be yourself”, “self-love” or “think positive”, etc. are typical to be characteristic of the personality ethic.
Akingunola Joel’s analysis of the book concludes the following:
“As Stephen researched about 200 years of success literature, it was discovered that so much of the success literature of the past 50 years was superficial. It was filled with social image consciousness, techniques and quick fixes — with social band-aids and aspirin that addressed acute problems and sometimes even appeared to solve them temporarily, but left the underlying chronic problems untouched to fester and resurface time and again.”
I fear that we may have credulously fallen into a form of mental trickery and self-deception with modern-day, social media-driven personal development. When we think of developing ourselves, it isn’t the development of a true self we desire but a pretence of how we want to be seen by society.
I vehemently believe the inability for us to confront our true selves is leaving deep chasms in society, notably amongst young people. We are becoming fragile as we lack the moral fortitude and courage to admit certain truths about ourselves, ergo we develop the habit of blaming society. Either, we cave into societal hegemony and learn to be controlled like a prop being puppeteered by a ventriloquist, or even worse, we somewhat pathologically blame social structures and institutions for our misery, conforming into cult-like quasi-ideologies of how societies ought to be.
In ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt identify (paraphrased by Sean Stevens in the Heterodox Academy) three Great Untruths that have proliferated in recent years creating a culture of “safetyism”, particularly prevalent among university students born 1995 or later:
The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
The Untruth of Us versus Them: Life is a battle between good and evil people.
They also emphasize that these predilections contradict timeless ancient wisdom, modern psychological research on well-being and harm the individuals who embrace them unhesitantly.
I do not believe it’s a coincidence that when more people are told that the ‘problem’ lies outside of themselves, there is also a corresponding culture of “safetyism” being proselytized to young people with virtually no conversations about character development and higher virtues.
I know that the development of one’s character ethic is a frightening and psychologically anguishing journey. It reveals realities about a person they did not know existed. This is probably the reason most of us settle at the facade of forming a personality ethic. A YouTube video on ‘how to be more charismatic’ will have more hits than a lecture on ‘What is the true human condition?’ I am unsure and lack the intellect or wisdom to understand what led modern people in such a path of detachment from the logos. Contemporary social critiques such as Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Haidt, Bret Weinstein, etc. are perilously battling with these concerns. It could be the newfangled lie of the ‘Noble Savage’ — man in his original state was “free from sin” and innately good before being corrupted by modernity and capitalism. A simple study of history will show that this goodness was jettisoned in most circumstances, or more accurately, there was never any undefiled innate goodness in human nature at the outset.
A simple thought experiment I tend to carry out is asking people, “Do you think human beings, and by that, I really mean yourself, are fundamentally good?” And the answer I usually get is a self-assured, “Yes!” or a more ambivalent “Seems like it” but seldom do I get a “No”. I am afraid that the quintessence of the Noble Savage archetype has become prevalent in our culture. Therefore, people believe they do not have to engage in the development of one’s character and become a ‘good person’ as in such a quixotic reality — which does not exist — there possibly cannot be a way upwards from pure human goodness. If nothing is broken and corrupted, there is no need for rectification and redemption. It has become common for New Age spiritual gurus to espouse detachment from society, getting in touch with our pure good selves and channel, or manifest realities into being. From my understanding, the central message is that a person could act as a type of divine conduit between God and humanity. While the New Age spiritualists are accurate in the absolute need for human beings to get in touch with our true selves, the rest of the ideology is not entirely true and seems to have ontological flaws. While there is uncertainty in the complex and multifaceted task of getting to any sense of objectivity within the metaphysical realm through empirical evidence, certain schools of philosophy, specifically theology, does suggest there is a real sense of divinity in human beings. But, having a divine nature does not mean we are God (classically defined as having attributes of omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence and perfect moral goodness) incarnate; nor are we the universe, and we most definitely are not an overflowing vessel of eternal goodness — to support this assertion look no further than in your own heart.
Socrates has a famous dictum,
“the unexamined life is not worth living”,
found in Plato’s Apology, a dialogue where Socrates spoke at his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth through his teachings. These words speak closely to my heart, but not in a sense that the Ancient Greeks would have meant it. The classical philosophers from Athens held reason as the highest virtue and worshipped intellect. Reason, logic and rational inquiry have made unequivocal contributions to the modern world―these values undergird all of math and science, and the Ancient Greeks founded much of Western philosophy. And yet, intellect alone is emotionally, morally and spiritually bankrupt for the human heart. As Paul Johnson (See ‘The Reduction Of Sex To Lust’) understood human beings could conveniently hide behind the veil of intellectual prowess and rhetorical genius or even a personality ethic, deliberately refusing to face the festering problems in our own lives.
We need to uncover and confront the malevolence in our souls. Once we stop hiding from our true selves and understand our condition, we will see good with vestiges of evil, and we will see evil with vestiges of good. First, we must face our demons and restrain them from manifesting into being, and then we can give way to our better angels.
In ‘Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self’ when Carl Jung was psychoanalyzing the figure and symbol of Christ by juxtaposing it with Satan he somewhat notoriously wrote,
“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
Due to a multitude of technological, sociological and cultural reasons, there was a change in the collective viewpoint in the early 19th century. There was a solipsistic and egotistical movement which made people repudiate themselves from their predisposition to sin or moral frailty. Contrary to religious wisdom, individuals began to accept the notion of innate human goodness, resulting in a peculiar form of cognitive dissonance whenever conspicuous and overwhelming evil―which is inconsistent with the prevailing narrative―was seen. Consequently, we began to look for the root cause of the problem of evil in social systems, i.e. capitalism, communism, democracy, etc. In contrast, looking into our own heart reveals more about human nature than any abstract social system ever will, and it is in this persistent self-examination, we find the necessity for emancipating ourselves from our own malevolent nature. From this line of reasoning, I conclude that hiding from one’s true selves is killing you slowly but surely.
Avoiding the Truth
The American social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt states in ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,’
“Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”
Amongst many accomplishments, Haidt is probably most known by the general public for delineating and clearly articulating a certitude from decades of psychological research and social science; human beings are better at following narratives over pure logic or reason:
“The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories.”
In this case, if we want to be individuals of integrity, we must ensure the narratives we live by are based on Truth―the uppercase ‘T’, objective ‘Truth’. We must let the Truth about the world and ourselves guide our lives. Nowadays, the most overused, yet totally meaningless and semantically devoid statement is, “My truth”. Such a thing does not exist, and only disorients a person’s reality. What exists is the objective Truth and our subjective experience, opinion or interpretation of that Truth, but simply semantically overloading a word with ulterior meaning does not change reality.
In 2016, the Oxford dictionary declared “post-truth” as its international word of the year. According to the BBC report, “Oxford Dictionaries says post-truth is thought to have been first used in 1992. However, it says the frequency of its usage increased by 2,000% in 2016 compared with last year.”
According to Sara Fischer, a poll by Axios found that “across the board, trust in traditional news outlets continues to sink, with the overwhelming majority of Americans (70%) saying that ‘traditional major news sources report news they know to be fake, false, or purposely misleading.’”
Research published (before the pandemic) in the latest Edelman Trust Barometer reveals despite a year of strong global economic performance, Australians trust in four of society’s pillars — government, business, media and NGOs — has plummeted.
These findings are worrisome as the moment we feel like society is drifting away from the Truth, uncertainty, distrust, and an eerie sense of cynicism begins to rise, eventually giving way to social unrest and decay. Historically, almost all cultures devolved into nihilistic annihilation or capitulated to totalitarianism once they developed the habit of evading Truth. Timothy Snyder’s tenth lesson from his book, ‘On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century’ is ‘Believe in Truth’:
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”
Human beings cannot live in a society without absolutes. We look for absolutes in science, jurisprudence (justice) and most definitely in our own lives. A parent’s unconditional love for their child is absolute, and every human heart yearns for such incomparable love. Fundamentally, absolutes can only be based on Truth.
Unfortunately, due to pluralism, we have been duped into believing sentiments such as “My Truth”, “All ideas are equally True” or “I believe in all religions”. If we take such propositions to their logical conclusions, they inevitably begin to contradict and become muddled. For example, at a philosophical level, the divide between monotheism and polytheism is a sharp and unambiguous contradiction. If the starting point of a religious worldview is at odds, then all truth claims that follow from the respective worldviews, undoubtedly, ought to have incongruities. So no, one cannot honestly “believe in all religions” even if they convince themselves to do so. Personally, I also believe it is an intellectually lazy way out of an almost impenetrable question,
“What is Truth?”
Is it reasonable to live by pluralism?
Politically, Merriam-Webster defines pluralism to mean “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilisation.” But, philosophically, it means “a theory that there are more than one or more than two kinds of ultimate reality.” Most people use the term ‘pluralism’ in the political sense of the word, and even if it may seem like I am making tacit political statements in this essay, I am not. Therefore, I am using pluralism in the philosophical sense of how it relates to our personal lives―or else, it becomes an abstract conceptualisation defeating the central purpose of this essay.
Pluralism confined to the politics of organizing society is a beautiful idea. As a society, it is worthwhile to strive towards such a goal. Except, the personal — an individual’s private and intimate life — should never be embroiled with the political. In our personal lives, we cannot live by pluralism because it does not lead us to Truth. Life is an adventure and a calling — it is a question to be answered. Life is a song to be exuberantly sung and sometimes just arbitrary pain to have endeavoured gallantly — it is an ultimately spiritual duty to be carried out and fulfilled. Yet, all of life’s capriciousness has to be relentlessly led by the Truth. Evil ensnares our lives through lies and deception. A life lived without a bold and audacious pursuit of the Truth will sooner or later succumb to the pretence of evil.
We need to ask ourselves if our hearts earnestly yearn for the Truth or comforting and sometimes seductive lies. I am confident that Truth is eternally good, actualized, loving and in time captivates our souls. It is only the journey of seeking Truth that is haphazard, chaotic, agonizing, perturbing and makes us wish we never embarked on this god awful journey in the first place.
Given the sense of despair we all feel in life, I understand why pluralism, masqueraded as empathy, tolerance or compassion, has enthralled modern people.
Talk to a politician, and the conversation would be uncannily empty of any sincerity.
Talk to an economist, and he would say that neoliberalism has failed, we are on the verge of a global economic calamity and severe social unrest.
Talk to a scientist, and he would remind us of the climate emergency and an imminent apocalyptic catastrophe.
Talk to a philosopher, and he would say life itself is meaningless, and humanity is a pest on the planet.
With such pessimism and despondency, we could settle with the comfort pluralism provides us to drift along in life; searching for Truth seems like a futile and meaningless pursuit. Seldom do people think things through foolishly tumbling and falling, making mistakes and feeling pathetically oblivious in this bemusing world. It is a depressingly arduous pursuit. Most people would accept the narratives of moral and cultural norms in their time. And for us, the prevailing narrative is relativism. “My truth” is what matters in life as long as “My truth” does not make claims of objectivity and exclusivity.
Except, only people are equal, ideas are not. Ultimate Truth will always be objective, exclusive, nondemocratic and cannot be established by an aristocratic consensus. We can gloat over the philosophical virtues of pluralism and its moral superiority or pretend to live out pluralism, but we will eventually come to crossroads in life. Every individual will inescapably come to a point in life where the blunt decision has to be made between Truth and the a priori conjecture of pluralism. There will be a point in our life like that of Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, where he has to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a young white woman in the 1930s. In the novel, Atticus is symbolic of nobility, justice and one’s moral conscience. In a racially contentious time, when he is questioned about defending a black man when almost everyone demands the defendant be executed, Atticus Finch replies,
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Similar to Atticus, in most circumstances, we cannot live by majority rule. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the conspicuous force of Truth, pluralism leads to the regrettable habit of cowardly acquiescing to the mob. To the reader’s horror, the jury convicts Tom Robinson of being guilty, despite the overwhelming evidence given in the book that he is unequivocally innocent. The jury’s overwhelming racism allows societal pressure to triumph over Truth. While pluralism would have obscured the facts of the case, Truth would have saved an innocent man’s life.
My constant reminder to the duplicitous, weak, incompetent, complacent and pathetic side of my soul is to live by the convictions and principles of Truth, even if I may have to suffer for that choice. Needless to state, in many personal dilemmas, I have failed to follow this tenet, but I’d rather fail miserably in living up to my convictions than giving into a lie and corrupting the fabric of reality itself. I know a lie may give me all the comfort and convenience for a moment, but at the end of the day, I need to live with my conscience, and one can never lie to oneself.
History would tell us that building a functional society is hard, almost impossible, but destroying one is much easier than we may think. It will only take a cowardly and corrupt populace, and it always begins with the complacency and degeneracy of a single individual. Therefore, living by Truth is a moral obligation to ourselves and the broader community.
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
The postmodern movement, which demonstrated an attitude of cynicism and broad scepticism towards all metanarratives that undergird our culture led to a rise of relativism. Despite the overwhelming evidence of objectivity in natural science and other branches of epistemology, people began to live out as postmodernists in their day to day lives. It manifests as pluralism, moral relativism, radical individualism, and people being indoctrinated by pathological ideologies. Unfortunately, denying the existence of Truth and objective reality, or even habitually avoiding it and lying has grave consequences which, for example, we see through the present cultural polarisation, or in the past, we saw through the rise of totalitarianism. Therefore, we must follow the Truth wherever it may lead us. From this line of reasoning, I conclude that avoiding the Truth is killing you slowly but surely.
Colloquially, what we call bad habits are regular tendencies or practices evidently destructive to an individual, i.e. smoking, drinking, gluttony, etc. As follows, I suspect you did not come into this article expecting a philosophical, theological or even spiritual exploration into the nature of being. Nonetheless, it appears to me that such patently obvious negative habits are a manifestation of much deeper problems in our soul. Unfortunately, it seems like human beings have an inclination to indulge in self-destructive suffering. People know a certain action, utterance or habit is wrong, but they still end up doing it with no regard to what their conscience is telling them. And yet my romanticised view of humanity still clings onto some notion of human goodness, and the potential for redemption. My hope is that a person imprisoned by a harmful and malign habit does not want to remain in the abyss willfully, but still yearns to rid himself of those demons and pursue a higher good. Despite the overwhelming profusion of bad habits we could adopt, it’s this hope that made me pick the particular ones I discussed.
There is a reason I specifically picked these three habits: the reduction of sex to lust, hiding from our true selves and avoiding the truth. I believe ever since human beings became self-conscious, we have come to the eventual realisation that liberty is the state we were meant to live in as thinking and feeling beings. Through a lot of struggle and bloodshed, starting with modernism, we created social systems such as democracy, capitalism and modern egalitarian planning to make this realisation an actuality. Needless to state, this process is still in progress in most parts of the world. But amidst the social changes, modern people face another problem. While the ancient struggle used to be against the brutality of nature, tribalism, tyranny, ruthless monarchy, etc. for us, in modern life, our struggle is individual atomisation, moral confusion and the inability to draw personal boundaries; a paradox of unfettered freedom. Therefore, we are necessitated and even contrived to engage in a sort of divine discipline in pursuit of truth, and I think the habits I wrote about linger in this existential quandary.
I understand the vagueness of this essay; partly, because I am an amateur writer, still learning to formulate thoughts for an audience coherently. Leading on with that rather pathetic caveat, I sincerely believe the other and primary reason for my uncertainty was because I am still a young and, for lack of a better term, naive person. Therefore, I am wrestling with my naivety. I began writing this essay, wanting my reflections to be overtures to the ideas discussed. Not to moralise or make high and mighty proclamations. I could never forgive myself for such condescension. My hope is that you and I could expand on each point, agree or disagree, and at least bring some sense of clarity into our lives.
Thank you to Shannon Van Twuyver for proofreading this essay.