It’s frustrating how temporary and forgetful we are as human beings. Exactly six months ago, my flight left Amman Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan. Even in that moment, I wasn’t foolish enough to tell myself, “I’ll never forget how I felt about the things I saw here,” because I knew it wasn’t true. Just as I forgot how I felt when I got a puppy or my first car, past emotions are constantly overwritten by present emotions. I did, however, tell myself that I wouldn’t make it easy for my mind to do so, placing around me images and objects intended to have fragments of those emotions attached to them, kind of like that guy from the movie Memento.
However, I think that nothing impresses the mind quite like culture shock, that scarring, glitch-in-the-Matrix moment that is so contrary to how you assumed the world worked for everyone else in the world because it’s how it worked for you and everyone around you. As a naive Westerner throwing himself into the heart of Middle Eastern culture, no amount of reading or images could have prepared me for the realization I had about halfway through the trip as I wandered through a street inhabited by markets of various purposes. Seemingly out of nowhere, it occurred to me that these marketplaces were nothing like the movies in which the marketplace in X Middle Eastern city is the location of a manhunt in an action movie. There was no yelling, pushiness, or pressuring from the vendors to purchase their products. In fact, the shop owners didn’t ever seem to have a sense of urgency to make a profit, but rather they leisurely sat in tattered plastic chairs in the front of their shops so they could smoke cigarettes and talk with the other shop owners, even those who I assumed would be treated as competitors.
Then I realized I had seen, heard, smelled, or touched one single advertisement for a product or service (that is, outside of the Westernized areas–ironic, really). Try to imagine that yourself. Try to imagine going through an entire day of your life seeing nothing that was purposely formulated by a company’s marketing team in order to get you to feeling a certain way or do a certain thing. It’s impossible! This is America; we invented mass communication and, as a result, advertising as we know it today.Heck, as I sit writing this, I didn’t even have to move my head to find something that could be considered advertising.
As I continued observing their way of life, I came to the conclusion that everyone seemed to be fully content with their respective places in life. But like trying to force a TI graphing calculator to divide a number by zero, there was a logic failure in my brain. I wanted to blackout. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to run to the nearest street corner and scream to the people, “WHERE’S THE SENSE OF URGENCY?! WHERE’S THE DRIVE TO MAKE MORE MONEY?! DON’T YOU PEOPLE GET IT???” But they did get “it”. They got “it” better than I did, in reality. I was beginning to understand just how well I’d been conditioned by western society to pursue, at all costs and with no exceptions, that word which is the goal of every management team of every company in capitalist society: efficiency.
The quote in the image above is one of my absolute favorites from Mr. Ellul, which is certainly saying something. Ellul wrote these words in his book Perspective on Our Age in 1981, over a decade before personal computers, smartphones, and the technical revolution of the 90s, but like a soothsayer or oracle, Ellul saw what was on the horizon. If he were alive today, he would hardly be surprised at our society’s desire to make the qualitative, quantitative, forcing emotions and personalities to be ratios, percentages, and probabilities. See capitalism is, like any other economic system, great–in theory. It assumes that competition will drive a producer’s desire to get a bigger piece of the pie than he or she already has, which will result in products that are constantly improving, which will better serve the consumers. The problem is that, again, like any other economic system, it cannot account for mankind’s inevitable desire to take a bigger piece of the pie for themselves…and then take everyone else’s pieces, too. Heck, you learned that very early on when your older brother took you for everything you had in Monopoly Jr.
As a result, like an endless assembly line, our lives are constructed to where our immediate purpose is to acquire the necessary parts and knowledge to prepare for the thing that comes next. I wish I had a dollar for every time (my capitalist conditioning at work even in that idiom, perhaps) someone has asked me about if I’m excited for the “next phase of life” following my graduation from college last month. Eventually, I turned around to look at my personal assembly line to see just how many phases I’ve been told there are. Gotta get the proper educational foundation in elementary and intermediate school so that I can be ready to succeed in high school. Gotta succeed in high school so I can go to college. Gotta go to college so that I can be in the best possible position to succeed in the professional world. That’s just one, very broad assembly line; there are countless others I’m sure you or I could think of.
However, a supremely awkward occurrence transpires immediately following graduation from college: that “next big thing to look forward to” is no longer prescribed to you. Obviously that just won’t do, so people starting making 5-year/10-year/20-year/50-year/1-day plans & goals so that the assembly line of life can keep humming on efficiently (Obviously I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with setting goals & plans). The idea of “having drive” no longer becomes a unique personality trait, but rather an assumed necessity to keep the process flowing. If you’re not working towards buying that thing, earning that new professional/relational status, learning that new idea, or mastering that new skill, well then what are you really doing? Imagine Mr. Jackie Ellul having a conversation with the average working professional:
Jack: Why are you working so hard when you clearly hate it?
Guy (OR GIRL, DON’T WANT ANYONE TRIGGERED): Sure it’s hard and I wouldn’t prefer to do it anymore, but a little bit more of doing ______ and I’ll be able to ________.
Jack: Okay, then what?
Guy: Well I suppose I’ll be able to do _____ next.
Jack: …then what?
Guy [clearly growing frustrated]: I dunno, dead Frenchman, what do you suggest?
Jack: Have you considered just living?
“Just live life”. I don’t mean that in some sort of meta, faux-wisdom hippie way, but seriously, can we just take a second to account for what’s real? Money isn’t real; we print that stuff. Job titles aren’t real; we create those words and the meanings behind them. The way we measure time–days, weeks, months– isn’t real; we made all of that up! Imagine living in a world with no measured hours, minutes, or seconds (people did it for centuries, so this one isn’t a hypothetical). Nothing would really work in our society, would it? So if the values placed on how we measure time are entirely made up, and everything our society does is reliant on those measurements, then nothing in our society is necessarily real either.
This isn’t about a movement or a new trendy lifestyle (even those can become our next life project); I don’t really believe in change at the macro level. When X politician made Y policy change you didn’t like, did it suddenly make you like the policy? Of course not. Just because things change in how society operates doesn’t mean that each individual’s feelings towards that change are also adjusted. If macro-level change was effective, mankind’s first ever civil war would have been the last one, but in reality, there’s been thousands of revolutions, revolts, and rebellions. Thus nothing really changes. Nay, the truly daring thing to do is what I call a micro-rebellion.
A micro-rebellion can occur every day. When I tell a friend about why I don’t really have any “professional aspirations”, a small-scale rebellion against how things are assumed to work has just occurred! Or when I dialogue with someone about why I don’t really care about having a huge savings account, the seeds of revolution have been planted! Biblically, we’ve heavily complicated a thing that is supposed to be quite simple; our only requirements in everyday life as believers are that we 1. work hard (Colossians 3:23-24) and 2. be good stewards of what the Lord provides us with (1 Timothy 5:8). That’s it! We’re told WHAT we’re supposed to do, but there are no biblical requirements for HOW we’re supposed to do it. It is crucial that we don’t allow societal standards for a respectable life (early retirement, eventually buying a nice house, etc.) mix with biblical standards. As the Lord says, His yoke is easy, and His burden is light…but we cannot forget that no matter how easy the yoke is, there is still a yoke!
I suppose I’ll wrap this up now. Am I excited to move to a new city and start a new job? You bet! I’m not completely a robot. But am I excited to start this “next phase” because I can start planning all these different things to add to the assembly line of my life? No way. I only get one of these, making time an invaluable asset. Our jobs attempt to compensate us for spending our time working for them, but no company could ever properly compensate someone for their time. Will I get married and have a family one day? I hope so. Will I make more money or get promotions at work? Perhaps. Will I try to acquire more knowledge or formal education? Certainly. But these things will happen or not happen on their own. The only goal for my life is to live it for those around me and increase the Kingdom as I search for God’s elect. Much less stressful to have just one unchanging mission for life than it is to constantly have to create plans, goals, and events to stimulate your inevitable journey down the assembly line of life. There is no next phase or next level. There is simply life. One last bit from Ellul:
“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The social environment in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”
― Jacques Ellul,
Thanks for tuning in.