Once in a while, as we immerse ourselves within the information vortex, scrolling along the many shared articles we find on our feed, we find articles of people – usually old people – who tell us about a discomfort that feel. This discomfort they have is usually a feeling that humanity is now marked by some loss, that it did not use to be what it was in the past. Thus, they try to explain how undesirable modern society is, and how important aspects of humanity are now under dire threat. One recent article I read related to parenthood and adulthood. The writer complained that young moderns are increasingly “hooked on screens” and “intellectually fragile”. Such arguments are put forth based on a gut feel, even if that feel is on the most part, right.
Yet, such assertions are not just indictments of something problematic about the trajectory of the human race in modernity, but are also criticisms of an entire generation after them: you are weak, unlike us. If it’s merely a problem of generations, then we might have to conclude that the human race is indeed regressing, and that the earliest humans were the most robust and worthy of praise. No, the problem is not with a generation, it’s with the human race as a whole. It is thus not for us to give self-congratulatory pats on our backs and despise adolescents for their lack of depth, for theirs is a condition that we have wreaked upon them due to our failure to consider the consequences of our actions. Thus, in order to make any kind of argument or indictment at all, one must consider the most fundamental question – what is the human condition and how has the human condition changed?
In understanding what it means to be a human, we can finally articulate what has been “lost”, and decide whether or not that is undesirable. And when I ask, “what is the human condition?” I’m not merely asking, “what was God’s plan for us?” or, “what is the purpose of man?” I would like to think I’m situating this in our particular and real situations on this earth. That is to say, I want to ask – what does it mean to be a human on the planet called Earth, where there are trees, animals, berries, beetles, rivers, blood, death, and other human?. In other words, i’m not asking about the essence of human beings as we were created ex nihilo – abstracted from the reality we know. Rather, what are we like on the given earth – not on mars, or floating in space, but here and now?
To put it in another way, the answer to “what is the human condition” is: the behavioural effect of living in the situation that man is in. I think this is a question that needs to be asked of ourselves. And it’s a pertinent question to ask because it helps to slow us down; to temper our ambitions and imaginations about what could be. In imagining a future so vastly different from the present, we may have too often been seduced by the positive prejudice we have for the words like “progress” and “advancement” or some vague sense of improvement or betterment. Yet, in our eager anticipation of a “better” future, we leave questions of our human condition behind, thus threatening the very meaning of our existence as humans on this earth. In saying this, then, I imply that the human condition was not meant to be changed – at least, not so drastically such that we barely recognize it. In saying this, I’m also saying that this was the original condition that God planned for us. Having said this, let me try to articulate the fundamental human conditions, and how modernity is destroying them in one form or another.
To be human is to create artifices in reflection of the eternal. Humans do more than just labor to subsist, to survive. We have always found the ability to go beyond working for food, to break out of the cycle of the life process. Everything that animals do, they do as part of an inevitable cycle. They live, hunt for food, and they die, returning to the ground as part of a ceaseless process of nature. But man does things that has a value beyond immediate use. If this were not true, then we would not have museums of ancient artefacts like statues, carvings, and jewellery. What use were these? If they fetch little value at all today, whether as a matter of fashion or even monetarily, what other use could they have thousands of years ago? Their value lay not in their use, but in their ability to endure. It was not made to be consumed, but to be remembered, a treasure to be beheld. Having been made in the image of God, we all have an idea of the eternal, the enduring; and thus, we create things in hopes of breaking the cycle of meaningless, so that it is not all vanity. This is what it means to create enduring artifices.
Artifices range from anything like chair to a painting. I speak of these as uniquely created works – not mass-produced chairs. It must have taken months to fashion a chair that not only had use-value, but also embodied one’s signature style, an expression of one’s views on beauty and the good. And why we can create, and in fact continue to create artifices is because we can contemplate – we do not simply survive. We think of deeper things, of harder questions; we ponder about the pain of death, even if it’s inevitable. And in that pondering, we sometimes feel enriched, and sometimes we feel like we have learnt something and have grown in one way or another. These are all in fact great things. The ability for mankind to contemplate about the deep meaning of life must surely be because there is a sense of the eternal – we try to make sense of our mortality and our frailty, and we seek for that which will be everlasting. That is why legacies matter, that is why history matters, and why we fashion, and in our own ways, take part in creation. We are co-creators, because we know life is not a meaningless cycle.
If that is true, then we should produce more, should we not? It would seem so, but modernity has so radically twisted this human condition. Rather than create, we copy, rather than fashion, we mass-produce. In our world today, we have ceased to become artists and co-creators of enduring works, rather, we have become crazed producers of goods of mass appeal, in part because it is not longer a bashful thing to seduce our consumers with vulgar images or messages. And on the other side, we have become mindless consumers of cheap trills and vulgar entertainment. Art and theatre cease to be enduring works of contemplation, they are merely transient entertainment that we consume, inducing a passive state, like a coma. And when it ends, we go to sleep; and the next morning, we drag our feet to work, none the brighter, feeling none the richer. Rather, all that we do at work appears to be meaningless, because unlike the mindless high, we actually have to use our mental faculties. But sadly, we have forgotten how to use them.
In place of artifices that endure and spark contemplation and appreciation, we have a glut of mere things and objects that endure until they become obsolete. That is, we stop using them not because they have outlasted their use or have fallen into disrepair; rather, we stop using them because they are outdated. And so we continue to do only what we know, to keep on consuming. Think of a quilt so carefully woven and painstaking sewed with love. It might be an old piece of cloth continually re-patched and thus, renewed. It is an enduring work and essence of a beloved mother that has passed on, and it can bring so much comfort in times of anxiety, and so many pleasant memories in times of loneliness and despair. But the modern has no such place for sentiments. He must scour for sales and new clothing for new seasons, even if the seasons themselves cycle through every year. What was once current fashion becomes old, and there is an imperative to renew and accumulate.
Obviously there are implications for the human condition. The most important being this: we begin to lose sight of our mortality, and come to believe in our own immortality. Because things around us keep enduring, and they endure meaninglessly. What I mean is that we take their presence for granted, so much so we do not replace them, we only displace them. In other words, it is not taking something new in place of something broken, it is taking something perfectly new in favor of something that is out of season or out of fashion. This leads me to the second human condition.
To be human is to be aware of our mortality. It is this condition that necessitates the production of human artifices in the first place. In other words, it is because people know they are just a vapor in the wind that they want their existence to have meaning for others – they want their memory to endure. With our newfound and newly-imagined powers of immortality, we begin to live recklessly, with little concern for hurt or harm to ourselves and others, with little care to spend time meaningfully. With such thoughts, we expect that every morning, we are to have good health, no war or famine, or little existential hardship. What we don’t realize is that morality is an anchor, it anchors us onto a belief or a faith that propels us forward, that infuses our thoughts, actions, and speeches with meaning. Without such an anchor, we are fickle-minded people whose preferences and beliefs change like the wind. And we don’t mean what we say, are unwilling and unable to commit, honor promises, sacrifice or to suffer for the sake of another. We spend hours having friends over just to talk about happy but meaningless things because there will always be another day to go deep. But why not go deep now?
Part of why we have forgotten our mortality is also because we have distanced ourselves from nature. Our imperative to keep producing and to keep building meaningless artifices means we need more resources and space to do so. City-dwellers now only feel comfortable when they see skyscrapers and carpeted floors. They dare not sweat, nor can they really stand the smell of fatigue and hard work. If there’s any interaction with nature at all, we find ourselves state-of-the-art shoes that most effectively help us trek a mile or two – even if walking barefoot would suffice. In other words, we have become soft. We have become so vulnerable to nature that we fear it.
Yet we don’t realise that the natural world is so essential to understanding the human condition. How? Because the natural world is that which reminds us of the life process to begin with – that ebb and flow of birth and death, of sprouting and returning to the soil. Is there any wonder that the Bible has so many vivid images of mountains and seas and grass and flowers? Indeed, failing to relate to nature implies that cannot understand this fundamental fact:
For all flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.
1 Peter 1:24-25
There is nothing wrong with fashioning artifices that endure. Yet, we must always do so with appropriate humility, knowing these artifices – even the best of them – can only serve to prolong our most glorious days for a little while. Soon after our flesh and body fail, they will also wither, for they cannot endure in eternity.
Finally, to be human is to relate to other humans as being of the same kind but also different. In every speech and action, we disclose who we are and who we are not. We are constantly differentiating between each other. In understanding the differences between others, we also come to understand who exactly we are. If we lived in a world in which we felt no different from any other, we would cease to have a concept of the “self”. This is why relating to others is so important, for in speaking to others, we realise, “oh, I never thought of it that way,” or to come to realise that some people can like potatoes much more than we can ever bear. Yet, we find that we never have to bear the idiosyncrasies of others in modernity. Mass society has made us all the same – all desiring the same things, all dreaming to possess the same things. Our true thoughts and creativities are not important, what we think doesn’t matter, and how we create isn’t relevant – our personalities, in fact, our very being, becomes superfluous.
Rather, we exhume the very essence of ourselves in favor of a digital shell. We say: if you want to know who I am, look at my profile; but we don’t realise that no individual human being can be essentialized, for I am a sum total of all the thoughts I think in the morning, the actions I take in secret, the aspirations, the histories, the dark past and the thoughts of death. None of these can easily be relayed at all. A person is not the schools he went to, the friends he takes pictures with, or the pithy statements invoking sympathy or applause. And because we think people are no different from their profiles, we fail to relate to one another as humans, we lack any desire to really know one deeply, because we think all that we need to know is there. The failure to relate to others as fellow beings means that when we hear of tragic news, or of people who live vastly different lives in war-torn cities, lives that hang on the balance, we are quick to find something else to blindfold ourselves or something else to drown out the sounds of pain and crying. We distance ourselves by donating a little, or perhaps by writing an essay or pledging for a cause, but we can’t wait to go home to numb ourselves, and what better way than through the modern-day morphine – entertainment?
Today I had the privilege of attending a sharing session by two North Korean defectors who enduring difficult trials to escape the country. They didn’t share too much about their arduous tale of survival, or the perilous journey across borders, but about how their eyes were opened to this new world – the modern world. Yet, for all the praise of freedom and liberty, I just had a burning question to ask. For, to me, they were like time-travellers that had come from the past into the present. With encouragement from a friend, I approached them to question them on their thoughts of modernity – was there some aspect of that “backward” life in North Korea that they felt was impossible to recreate in modernity? Both almost seemed to have ready responses. And my hunch seemed right. People in ‘modernity’ just don’t relate to one another as they did in their small villages. Poor and lacking in knowledge and freedom as they may have been, they looked out for one another, enjoyed each other’s company, and really celebrated each other’s uniqueness and their very existence.
On the other hand, moderns in America are too obsessed with their phones, too obsessed with indulging in the pleasures of entertainment. What does that tell us about the human condition? Simple. That freedom, prosperity, and knowledge are not essential components of the human condition. Even as slaves, we can still learn to relate to one another, and perhaps even better appreciate the beauty of nature and of our mortality. Might these people so deprived of modernity actually be enjoying their humanity more than we do? Might an obsession over “progress” and “advancement” actually be setting us back, that our natures change and we become less and less human? My answer is a resounding yes, at least, for the most part.
In gradually distancing ourselves from what makes us human, we distance ourselves from the necessary disciplines of the human condition: the discipline of mortality, of humility, of otherness. If freedom today means being free from these disciplines, it is no wonder that we feel so cold and lonely in modern society. And it is no wonder that young ones are so stricken with “wanderlust” – because in travelling to new places, one invariably finds that people are “nicer”, more “friendly”, more “hospitable”. We take our newfound loves back home and judge our society for being cold and dead. But, in reality, for all the external warmth we feel, we know nothing really has changed, and there really is little hope. What can we do but return to our fleeting pleasures? For little do we realise that the fallouts from the loss of humanity are being felt all around the world, and perhaps only in the most cloistered, ‘backward’, ‘unfree’ societies in the world are humans truly thriving and living their worldly existence as what they were naturally made to be.