AN INVITED PAPER FOR A CONFERENCE AT THE
STATE UNIVERSITY, MAGNITOGORSK, RUSSIA
Doubtless several aspects of the social and moral crises among young people will be discussed at this conference, so I will focus on only one aspect of it.
It is difficult to say whether Communism or Consumerism has had the more negative impact upon the aspirations of the natural youthful idealism. Consumerism is, however, the system with the greatest world-wide impact, and its effect on young people needs to be explored.
In general, young people are gifted with a natural tendency toward idealism, but at the same time, they are quite vulnerable to contrary influences. Part of this vulnerability stems from the high level of hormonal activity in their growing bodily systems, and also from the fact that mylenisation in the pre-frontal and frontal lobes of the brain is not completed until the early twenties. These facts, however, only create the possibility of social and moral disorientation. The ethos created by Consumerism (Consumer Capitalism) both takes advantage of, and feeds, all human susceptibilities and vulnerabilities. It is this aspect of the social and moral problems of modern youth that we will briefly examine.
When we discuss the human condition, the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden is always a good place to begin. Whether one wishes to take the story literally or understand it as a metaphor, it bears profound insights into the human condition and, in particular, into the struggle of youth.
We will not discuss the story of Eden in detail; let us just examine what it tells us about our condition. While we are told that God created Adam and Eve in His own image and likeness, we are told by the Orthodox Church that they were as youths, not yet mature, still growing and developing. The image of a tree is given and it is designated as “the knowledge of good and evil.” We are further told that Adam and Eve would receive this knowledge from God when they were mature enough to cope with it and handle it in an appropriate manner. However, Satan, the ancestor of the advertising industry, tempted the first people. “Don’t trust your father. There is nothing wrong with this knowledge, he does not want you to have this knowledge.” He might have said, “Don’t trust the social and moral system that your grandparents had. They don’t want you to have any fun or enjoy life.” Then, Adam and Eve were tempted with a counterfeit of something that they already had. “Don’t trust God, disobey him and you will become like God.” But they already were in the likeness of God. Somehow they forgot about that and accepted the counterfeit in place of the real gift. We are told that Adam and Eve fell, but what did they fall from and what did they fall into? They fell from an ethos of unselfish love into a new condition of egoism, self-centredness and self-love. And what do we inherit above all else from this fall of mankind? The habitual misuse of our energies. This is the actual nature of what we call “sin,” the habitual misuse of our energies. In short, they fell into an unauthenticity of life.
Whatever else one thinks that the story of the Garden of Eden tells us, it is clear that it tells us about the social and moral struggle of youth and about the egoism and self-love that entered into the human nature in a profound way. The story tells us that the normal condition of mankind would be an ethos of unselfish love which would lead one into the highest level of social and moral life: the love of neighbour, to love our neighbour as ourselves. When Christ said that the Law and the Prophets consist in this: to love the Lord our God with all our being, and to love (cherish and nourish) our neighbour as ourselves, and then told us to do unto others what we would wish to have them do for us, and again to “have love among yourselves,” He was really calling us to return to the ethos of Paradise.
But what else does the story of Eden tell us about our nature? Satan implanted in our hearts desires that caused our natural emotions to become passions. The word “passion” means “suffering.” Satan led us into desires that cause inner human suffering, desires that cannot actually be fulfilled no matter how often we yield to them. This inner human suffering, the passions, can cause a person to fall into deep bitterness. Such bitterness can lead us to pursue the desires and seek to stifle the suffering of the passions by attempting to fulfil them.
How does Consumerism add to all this and cause a social and moral disorientation? Partly by making us subject to the happiness-seeking sickness of mankind. Of course, there is nothing wrong with experiencing happiness. However, to come to true happiness, one must first become content. Contentment is the prerequisite for true happiness. The happiness-seeking sickness comes about when man thinks that fulfilling his desires will make him happy. As an economic and social system, Consumerism requires that people consume. They must consume more than they need and even more than they actually desire, without regard to the destruction of the environment or the pain they may cause future generations. We must be aware that the advertising industry, which is like the serpent in Eden, employs both psychologists and psychiatrists in order to study how to increase man’s desires and passions. You cannot market to contentment, you can only market to desire and the passions. But in order for the system to prosper, it must increase the passions and desires of people, but ensure that they can never be fulfilled. Happiness must always be just one more purchase away. The industry must, therefore, learn how to prey on the egoism and self-centredness of the fallen human nature. Who is the most susceptible to such advertising? Young people. They do not have enough experience and maturity to cope easily with a programme of propaganda and indoctrination that feeds their already strong and compelling desires and passions. And how could they when, during the last century and into our own 21st century, the adult world has abandoned its responsibility and fallen under the prelest of pretending to still be young, following after the excesses of uncontrolled desire and undisciplined passions? This is why, at least in America, we see advertisements that begin “IF YOU DESIRE IT, YOU NEED IT.”
Why do many young people, despite all these pressures and temptations, nevertheless retain the high idealism of youth and find a more moral social ethos? Because we are not in complete bondage to the fallen human nature. God has given us another part to our own nature, and that part the Orthodox Church calls our “hypostasis.” The hypostasis, which we would assert is a gift of grace, is our individual personhood. It is this that makes it possible for us to have a degree of freedom from the confines and forces of the fallen human nature.
This is the point at which the diligent teacher, the careful parent and the compassionate priest can reach out to our youth. Being careful not to forget how great our own personal struggle was in our youth, we can offer guidance without being bullies, moralists or hypocrites. We cannot lump all young people together, even the ones who are in trouble and seem to be pursuing a life of egoism and self-love. Each one is an individual with his or her own “hypostasis.” We should not allow ourselves to fall into the sin of “moralism” (which is not the same thing as morality). Rather, those adults who are still willing and able to take on the responsibilities of adulthood and maturity, need to rediscover the adult role of leadership, so often abandoned now. If the adult world cannot display some degree of discretion, self-control and self-discipline, how should we expect the younger generation to do so? From whom would they learn it? And yet some of our youth do master this, and put many adults to shame.
What are the weapons of the new “serpent of Eden?” Television of course, the misuse of the computer, and every means of advertising that seeks to increase desire and the passions. Remember that we said earlier that what we inherit most of all from the fall of mankind is the habitual misuse of our energies. Thus, the struggle is really to master the proper use of our energies. This is not simply a moral issue. This is a very practical and pragmatic matter also. Discretion, self-control and self-discipline are all necessary not only for any society to continue to exist, but also for the individual if he or she has any hope of an authentic life, a life that has meaning and true happiness. In this regard, I will assert that framing our teaching purely in terms of morality is not always useful. We must include that, but teach morality not just in “bad/good” definition, but also from a pragmatic point of view, a concept relating to the quality of life itself. Somehow, teachers, parents and priests need to study and learn how to counteract the delusions offered in such a convincing manner by the advertising industry and by the counterfeit promises of Consumerism. We must recognise the innate and natural idealism of youth and seek to nourish it with love, trust and enthusiasm. Ultimately, we all, and especially our parents and priests, must learn that great and healing gift of co-suffering love about which the ever-memorable Vladika Antony Khrapovitsky spoke. Such a love has the power to penetrate the heart of another person and nourish in them the seed of moral rebirth.
If I can add anything to the dialogue of this conference, I offer these concepts:
1. That youth is gifted with a natural inclination to idealism which must be nourished, never discouraged as being “naive.”
2. That adults must fully accept the responsibilities of adulthood, with the discretion, self-discipline and self-control of maturity.
3.. That the advertising industry is the new “serpent of Eden.”
4. That Consumer Capitalism, with all its material benefits, also creates an ethos of egoism, self-centredness and self-love. It feeds on uncontrolled desire and unbridled passion.
5. That there is no other force or power that we possess that can serve for the spiritual healing and moral rebirth of another human being except the gift of co-suffering love.