Everybody Knows We Are in Ruins

Image via Bousure

I was born in 1970. By that time, the West, and America in particular, were well into their decline. My life and the lives of all those younger than I have elapsed entirely within a period where the general spiritual sickness of the West has metastasized, spreading steadily until we are everywhere weak, deformed and diseased.

When such conditions are all you know, or have ever known, you assume they are normal, that everyone in all places and times has lived this way. You assume everybody’s parents have always been divorced, if they were ever married to begin with. You assume teenagers have always blown one another away at school. You assume porn has always been free, accepted and ubiquitous. You just assume these things are markers of normalcy.

It is a characteristic of our cultural sickness that the further it spreads, the more rapidly it moves. Thirty years ago, though we were already in decline, things had not reached critical stage. Most of the parents of my friends were married. Every adult I knew had a job. The most violent thing that ever happened at school was when our speech teacher took a spill trying to stop a fistfight and went sprawling down the hallway, flailing his arms as he slid between the lockers. Porn was sequestered into back rooms and dark theaters.

Even so, from my earliest days, I knew something serious was wrong. From the time I was in grade school, I was out of synch. While my peers were consumed with sports and pop stars, I longed for a nobler world. I was mesmerized by the romance of the middle ages. My boyish heart longed to be a knight or, failing that, Robin Hood.

I grew ever more uncomfortable with the world as I found it. Even before I was ten, I had a sense that the world I was living in was, at its heart, a shadow of what had come before. I was certain the culture surrounding me was hostile to what is best in both human society and in the individual personality.

I do not know where this sense came from. My upbringing was not markedly different from that of other children around me. We all went to the same schools, and watched the same tv shows afterward. Our fathers mostly worked in the same factories. Those who didn’t either taught in our schools or sold us shoes or insurance. Life in a medium sized town in Indiana in the 1970’s and ‘80’s was, by most measures, pretty homogeneous. Yet, still I came away with this inborn sense of decline most of peers didn’t seem to share.

Perhaps the real difference was that I was, alone among my cohort, unable to suppress my intuition of the not-rightness of things. Even today, I hear people bemoan the way things are these days, and this simple comment betrays a deeper critique.

People who complain about how things are these days implicitly compare these days to some other, better days. Everybody knows those days lie in the past. Most people’s only hopes for the future are for better drugs, a newer gadget, more money. Nobody expects the trajectory of destruction we are riding to be reversed. Nobody thinks the future holds stronger families, less violence, more satisfaction, less divorce.

Most often, I have heard the “these days” complaints invoked in the course an argument about any manner of social issues. Try taking any sort of non-mainstream approach to a cultural issue in discussion with some people and you’ll hear it eventually.

Let’s say you’re concerned about the coarseness and incivility among your kids’ classmates. You complain about it. Do that long enough, and you’ll inevitably hear, “Well, what can you expect these days?”

This is, of course, a curious response. The person who counters your reasonable concerns by saying “Well, what can you expect these days?” doesn’t come at you with a full frontal assault, mounts no defense of other kids’ raunchy behavior. Instead, she launches a more subtle, and therefore, more insidious attack.

Her response indicates that, on one level, she agrees wholeheartedly that your analysis is right. She too is concerned about the corrosive effects of the culture on kids. At the same time, she argues that such corrosion is only to be expected given that today is, after all, today.

Since, today is today, she implies, you ought not be complaining so much. Every reasonable person, she suggests, knows the right response to a collapsing culture is quiet acceptance.

But, still. In her response, we see another thing. We see the deep intuition of decadence, the sense that things have fallen apart. She is saying of course everything is worse now. Her charge against you isn’t that you are wrong, but that you are naïve for believing that your complaining might change something.

In this way, she has combined discontent with our age with the despair that characterizes it. She has tacitly accepted the spirit of our age, while rejecting its outward signs of corruption. By doing this, she has given the forces of our age a victory. To accept the spirit of an age, is to accept its right to rule. And her criticism of your complaint is really just an attempt to remind you who rules and to squash any nascent resistance to that merciless rule.

What we can take away from these encounters is that the deep intuition that we live in a time of decadence is widespread. Everybody knows, and most deal with this knowledge by suppressing it. They lose themselves in reality television, sports fandom, popular culture. The nightmare of reality is too great for them and so they retreat into a waking dream of distraction.

The job of those who have stopped avoiding what we know is to wake others up, not to the nightmare only, but to their inner witness, that little voice inside them that continually whispers, “It’s not supposed to be like this.”

That voice is our power. People deny it because the voices outside contradict it. If they hear a plethora of external voices reflecting back that inner whisper, their strength will return and they will begin to stir in their slumber. The only question is whether we who are awake will make enough noise to rouse them.

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5 responses

  1. I too had these instincts as a child, and have since remained “unable to suppress my intuition of the not-rightness of things”. The acceptance and embracing of ‘the ruins’ by the vast majority of society is the reason I do not and will not have children. I feel incredibly lonely and out of place in this culture. The only thing that consoles me is the rare occasion when I come across another person who expresses sentiments like this post. Reading it made me cry, out of relief and gratitude that I am not the only one, and also out of hopelessness and despair that I am certainly one of the very few.

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