One of the plagues of modern life, as Hegel and Marx pointed out, is alienation. We are alienated in several ways. First, we are alienated from each other. Economist, Jane Jacobs believes we are heading into a new Dark Age, because of the collapse of community. We don’t know our neighbors. We drive long distances to work and the car has become indispensable to get our groceries over here, get our children to school over there, and we spend much of our day in a maze of scattered and disparate locations all connected by sterile asphalt roads. We are scattered physically as well as spiritually. This creates a separation from the rest of our fellow travelers through life. While I know many of the people in my ward, other than at church we don’t interact much. We don’t work together, dance together, or play together. We see each other only on Sundays and that is spent mostly in the rush of programs and programming that allows for few conversations and little in the way of being humans together. We are polite, but hardly even know each other at any level of depth.
Second, we are alienated from nature. We’ve lost the ecological connection between the cycles of life and death. Our food comes in nicely wrapped packages. The fact that an animal was involved in our hamburger has been completely masked by the Styrofoam tray and plastic wrapping. The fact that an animal gave its life so you could barbeque your steaks is given nary a thought. Our alienation from nature runs through every aspect of our life. For example, What phase is the moon in right now? Do you know? When was the last time you saw the stars? Our city lights block and hide these centering lights so that our night sky has been blanked out into a damped void. To our ancestors the sky was a source of wonder and meaning. The seasons were marked by the passage of signs and portents in the sky. It defined the pace and rhythm of their lives. They defined celebratory rituals and gatherings that marked passages through life’s pace and transitions. To us the seasons pass only with a sense of convenience or inconvenience. Do we have to use the air conditioner or the heater this month? Do we have to scrape our car windows? Do we get to ski yet? There is no harvest. We have abundant food at our fingertips all the time. Why look up when we have a calendar? Yet our evolutionary history is embedded in these cycles. Does the loss of our relationship with the nature’s round have anything to do with the anxious fatigue that defines our life?
In addition to the lost of the rhythms of nature, we have lost touch with the ecological fabric of the earth and its process. We are protected and isolated from birth, death, and the renewal of life. Only 5% of us live on farms where the relationship of earth’s ecology is more obvious. Now we live in houses with a few house plants in an artificial ecology (that depends principally on us remembering to feed and water the poor thing). But the great dance of life passes largely unnoticed. We see a few birds, put out some bird seed to see a few more, but the great intricacies of nature’s interrelationships are hidden and masked by our 20th century life style. Once again we are alienated from our evolutionary heritage. Our lives are poorer thereby. We live in a dearth of alienation from all the things that our physical bodies were evolved to cope with, interact with, and enjoy. How can this not affect our spirits?
Modern life seems to broker a kind of sterility. There’s been a hermetic separation from our biological heritage that creates a spiritual famine of sorts. I believe that spirituality is enhanced by our relationships with each other and with nature. The way of being that modern societies have created a kind of transcendental poverty. I feel this within my own neighborhood. There is no where I go that I feel the sense of community I long for. Maybe I’m looking for something that has never existed, something out of a Frost poem where we lean on shovels and talk over fences, where we hold dances that bring communities together for more than just quick interactions in hierarchal institutional structures. Maybe those times never existed. I’m not sure. But I do feel the need for a deeper more connected life with the rhythms that more clearly define deep biological and spiritual needs that modern societies seem to mask. I crave more meaningful rituals that celebrate the seasons of life. I feel the need to belong to something more than the contingent boundaries that define my workspace or ward boundaries. That this may be impossible scares me. What has happened? Does anyone else feel this?