My material husk of 31 years is full of immaterial memories, the fondest of which are being a nineties kid. The 1990s are caringly looked back on by commentators (who might usually disagree on everything else) as a relatively quiet period in the West. Of course, to claim that the nineties was a stable decade is highly subjective. Nevertheless, across industrialized economies and self-declared democratic societies, there is a sense that things have changed dramatically since 2008.
The turbulence unleashed by the Global Financial Crisis 11 years ago has culminated, in 2019, in an array of populist, rightwing leaders dominating politics around the world. Their sudden rise and dominance vexes even experts and insiders. On 4 June, Peter Daou, a senior political operative and advisor for Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign, tweeted: “In the 21st century, why are there so many rightwing authoritarian leaders across the world?” It is disappointing that he does not know, since his candidate lost to one of those rightwing leaders.
This trend may be related to an undercurrent of . . . something that is sweeping the industrialized world—and, to be fair, parts of the industrializing one too. Words like “discontent,” “insecurity,” or “anger” seem incomplete or even unsympathetic in describing the phenomenon. Aside from the possible social, cultural, and economic factors, this “something” indeed seems to accompany a feeling of being starved of opportunities for decision-making. Many have the creeping sense, perhaps in a vague and unarticulable way, that they are losing control over their own lives at a macro-level. They are pulled in multiple directions, even if willingly, by remote and powerful forces beyond them.
Consider an article written by Boston College professor Peter Grey in 2010: “One thing we know about anxiety and depression is that they correlate significantly with people’s sense of control or lack of control over their own lives. People who believe that they are in charge of their own fate are less likely to become anxious or depressed than those who believe that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control. You might think that the sense of personal control would have increased over the last several decades. . . . Yet the data indicate that young people’s belief that they have control over their own destinies has declined sharply over the decades.” (Psychology Today)
In other words, the seeds of this loss of control were already being sewn a decade ago, when the world was reeling from the events of 2008. Most commentators and politicians thought the rightwing populist leaders were still safely far away from the levers of real power. Humans are naturally acquisitive mammals, and we have lived for decades in a materialistic culture where extrinsic achievements (a high income, good looks, social status) are valued above intrinsic ones (developing a philosophy of life, doing things in which we find meaning). It is not surprising that extrinsic control would seem increasingly out of reach if the conditions necessary for it began to be reduced or diminished.
What matters, more than ever, is a radical reorientation toward enabling intrinsic goals to be achieved: for it to be easier for people to grow and self-educate, and in doing so fulfill their personal intrinsic goals. The difficult global situation also demands a reframing of the dominant narrative that extrinsic goals are better than intrinsic ones, so as to invite more people to reconsider society’s priorities. The author of the 2010 article very helpfully suggests that reforms be implemented in the education sector to allow more freedom and playtime for children: “Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests. . . . By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives.” (Psychology Today)
With more confident, imaginative, and adaptable children, a positive feedback loop is established through which school, which children have no control over, and competition for grades and extracurricular recognition (extrinsic goals) become less of an obsession for parents and kids alike.
A related activity to play, perhaps counter-intuitively, is meditation. Schools across Australia are implementing meditation classes, with very positive feedback from the overwhelming majority of participating students. The ABC reports: “For now, the practice remains optional for teachers, but it has received some backing from the federal Health Department. In the 2019 budget, A$2.5 million was pledged toward the school-based mindfulness program Smiling Mind as part of the Federal Government’s mental health and suicide prevention plan.” (ABC)
There is no greater exercise of internal control than to meditate, to watch the mind and observe its activities. To be able to be attuned to how one feels and thinks at each waking moment is surely a stepping-stone to full intrinsic fulfillment. To take this complementary duality of intrinsic attainment further: could it be that meditation and play are two sides of the same coin in gaining greater control over one’s life? Furthermore, if a religious or spiritual dimension is added to meditation, then it becomes a vehicle to work with existential feelings of dread, insecurity, and powerlessness. These are currents that faith traditions have been dealing with for thousands of years.
Religious people know that any acceptance of a path of faith implicitly requires the embrace of finitude and the recognition of human limitations. It is an acceptance that humanity is far less capable than it presumes itself to be, and that its fate is both less clear and controllable than we would like. Human choice and control, in this sense, will always be compromised and can never be at 100 per cent. Many religions prepare us intellectually for our ultimate finitude, far beyond our conventional ideas of extrinsic goals. However, it is meditation that engages us in the nitty-gritty of the mind’s movements, with the missing piece being play (not just for children, either)—to engage the mind in a different kind of absorption, to discover joy in the garden of our imagination.
Perhaps it is these three simple components that need to be plugged into as many aspects of our society as possible. When our intrinsic priorities reflect those of society, our choices can be truly free and meaningful.