When each of us is born into this world, we are not simply born of the biosphere of the earth into wild nature as our ancestors once were. Rather, we’re born into wild nature plus an additional overlay that we call culture. Culture is a complex phenomenon—it includes custom, art, infrastructure, governance, myth and story, attitudes, norms, and beliefs. It extends from the meta-temporal human-at-large scale all the way down to the family unit. The fact of culture is irrefutable to the hunter gatherer tribesman and fast food worker both. It intrudes on every facet of contemporary human life.
What is it about culture that makes it an intrudance? It is a landscape that is constructed and reconstructed over time, and we live among it as a layer of our environment. Therefore, we interface with it daily, at nearly every moment. And in the same way that city buildings are constructed to last for many decades, only to become outdated, dangerous, or woefully inadequate as entropy, time, and technology advance, cultural structures have a tendency to last beyond their usefulness to the point of impedance. (For example, think of the ways that privacy laws lag woefully behind the complex needs of the Internet age.) What’s more, cultural structures tend to become corrupted over time, as they draw out and mingle with the worst features of human proclivity.
Despite culture’s tendency to rigidify and stultify, it serves an essential function: It is the keeper of our sacred truths. Truths that would otherwise be forgotten in even a generation. The wisdom and knowledge we have collectively accumulated over unfolding time is cradled in culture; it is library and gallery, workshop and worship space.
When it is aligned properly culture can fill these roles beautifully. The rub is this: What we do, the culture becomes. Because culture is a repository of human actions (and their byproducts), those actions which are repeated most often become the cultural norms. And because cultural structures also have their own momentum, they inform what actions we decide to undertake. In this way, culture serves dual role as our student and teacher, just as we are the teachers and students of culture.
Through this lens, each individual stewards the progression of culture through his or her actions and their byproducts. Therefore, as stewards of culture it is our duty to actively maintain its alignment through our actions in the world.
The idea of the individual being the steward of culture is baked into the very concept. The word culture stems from the Latin verb colere, meaning: “to till, to cultivate the land.” Land is not cultivated for the purpose of meaningless labor, it is done with the purpose of helping something nourishing or beautiful grow. Land is not tilled haphazardly or frivolously, it is tilled in the way that best promises abundance. The verb colere also carries the meanings: “to inhabit; to protect, or nurture; to worship, or honor.” From the full image of these meanings we can derive an actionable understanding of how culture should be treated: In order to inhabit land it must be cultivated; because it is the source of sustenance, what is inhabited must be protected; because sustenance underpins flourishing, what provides sustenance must be honored. Outside of the realm of ideas and what could be worn or carried, culture could not be built upon in our ancestral nomadic way of life. Once we learned land could be tilled and inhabited an opportunity for cultural infrastructure was born, and with it a higher ceiling for both human flourishing and self-alienation/destruction. It’s worth noting that the term “cult” is derived from the same Latin root as “culture.” Appropriately, cults serve as a warning of what happens when cultural systems are worshiped instead of the promise of human flourishing.
It doesn’t take a long hard look to see that our culture is in crisis. Or more accurately, that our culture is sick. This isn’t a judgment; what I mean is that the culture has a sickness. Yet every sickness has its symptoms, root causes, and avenues of treatment or amelioration. What then is the nature of the sickness that is afflicting culture?
What we live among is what we interface with daily. This goes without saying. In our current culture we live in cities with crowded high rises, in towns with soulless strip malls, surrounded by billboard advertisements. We live in homes filled with plastic trinkets and the omnipresent glow of screens. We walk on streets littered with garbage. We have to take a drive to become immersed in nature. This may not be everyone’s story, but it’s the predominant story of our time.
We work at factories producing meaningless plastic stuff—or in cubicles designing or selling it— all the while feeling that we’re wasting our time. We sit in front of the TV and are advertised to, relentlessly distracted, and told by newsreaders how terrible and dangerous life is. We sit behind computers and phones and are advertised to moreso, dazed by infinite algorithmic suggestions, and reminded how unattractive and miserable we are compared to contrived figments.
Is it any wonder that we ourselves are sick? We share in a cultural illusion that assures us, “Just find the right trinket to take up the right space and you will become whole. Just become the right cog inside the right machine and you’ll finally belong.”
In the face of it all, we know in our hearts that none of this is right. In our moments of clarity, when the clouds of our sick culture’s phantom disperse, and the sunlight shines on our true human selves, we understand that the situation we’re in is untenable and intolerable. Still, the scope of the situation is enormous. Are we afraid to ask what even can be done?
The way I see it, if culture is our teacher and schoolhouse, we need to imbue our culture with our best qualities. This way, we are continually taught to be the highest versions of ourselves.
Because our world is so distracting, by design and by incidence, we easily forget the truth as it sits purely in our hearts—that we are here to actualize the flourishing of all humans and the earth. We lose sight of the proper path in the fog of industry and economy. Even in the best circumstances, we can only keep in mind so much. For all of these reasons and more, we need ongoing orientation. A properly aligned culture serves this purpose. And because culture is an ever-present overlay on the world around us, in order to imbue it with our best qualities, we have to circulate meaningful tokens into culture to remind us daily of truth, beauty, and the promise of human flourishing. Through interfacing daily with these meaningful tokens rather than drab concrete and advertisements, we will remain inspired and reminded that “there is a task to be done; there is a spiritual obligation.”
“That’s all well and good,” you might say, “but who decides what tokens to propagate? Who decides what will appropriately speak to both the situation we are emerging into and the one we’re emerging from?” To figure that out, a conversation needs to be had between those stewards in departure of the world and those set to inherit it. In other words, culture’s alignment depends on communication between the old and the young.
Elder & Youth
In our sick culture, the youth and elders can hardly communicate. In part this is due to the different vocabularies and priorities specific to each of these cultural subsets, which seems to be a mostly natural and harmless byproduct of coming into age in different times. The pathological part of this inability to communicate stems from cultural attitudes—toward and of—the young and old.
In our culture, the elders are seen as having caused the problem. In late age most are warehoused in facilities and forgotten about between the occasional visit. Many elder politicians and cultural leaders have been addled by greed and drawn off the path. The youth are seen as incapable, dangerous, and not to be left alone with the cultural steering wheel. They are overprotected, or abandoned, or dismissed as ungrateful of what they’ve been given. Many of the youth role models are compelled to be click-driven and image obsessed.
We can intuit a framework for the long overdue conversation between youth and elder by looking to the archetypal qualities of each. The archetype of the youth is someone bursting with energy, wide-eyed, gleeful, unfettered creatively, idealistic, passionate, and worthy of great investment. On the shadow side, the youth is naïve, fragile, destructive, cocksure, contemptuous, and lacking wisdom, experience, and perspective. The archetype of the elder is someone wise, patient, honorable, cautious, warmhearted, and worthy of reverence. The shadow side of the elder is corrupt, rigid, fearful, untrusting, shortsighted, power-mad, manipulable, and out of touch with the reality of the situation. The framework for the elder-youth conversation has to honor the golden qualities of the archetypes and recognize and integrate their shadow dimensions. It must provide for a Taoist-esque unity of all of the forces at play.
As far as I can see it, there is only one framework that can accommodate the enormity and nuance of the task. The frameworks we emphasize currently will never be capable: Agenda driven reporting has commandeered news media, reflecting that we have chosen ideological sleight-of-hand over collective understanding. We have resorted as citizens to the spamming on social media of belittling political memes. Name calling and outright dismissal are commonplace. Talking points are parroted and never fully explained nor understood. These are the distinguishing features of our discourse. All of it is done under the ostensible belief that we’re trying to convince the Other. I can hardly think up a more effective recipe for keeping a shut mind closed. Our current methodologies for cultural conversation have been proven bankrupt. Fortunately, the course of humanity has provided a better way. From time immemorial, we’ve indulged in and celebrated a universal orienting principle that reminds us of the glory, tragedy, and beauty of the human condition. It is the language of communication that our cultural discourse must rediscover: that of art.
The Language of Art
William Blake wrote, “Truth can never be told so as to be understood and not be believed.” That is to say, when you’re told the truth in the right way you’ll get it. This is precisely why good teachers are so important. Art is a teacher, and it speaks the deep language of truth. Art is understood on a level that is visceral. It is felt rather than deduced. This is important because it means we can’t set up defenses against it. The worst we can do is not pay attention to the teacher. But if we truly pay attention to True art, we absorb and we learn. We experience, and therefore we believe. Or rather, we no longer have to believe because we now know. This is the unrivaled power of art.
One barrier we face in the ascendance of art to its proper station is that our attention has been narrowed to an unhelpful degree in the age of digital media. Another is that things are transpiring faster and faster. Because of these developments, it has become a challenge for us to pay attention. This is reflected and reinforced by our dramatically fast-paced culture. Add to the mix that the Internet age was born and has matured inside the age of consumerism, and what we’ve been led to is the creation of a rival category of creative output: that of “content.”
The difference between “content”—which our culture and youth creators are presently oriented toward—and “art”—which is “the proper task of life”—is that content is produced to be consumed and then fade, and art is entrusted to last and teach. Art is challenging and requires attention. It presents story and myth, evocative imagery, music, and poetic thought. It is pulled from the beyond and serves to guide us in the ongoing unfoldment that is culture and life. Content, on the other hand, plays in the background of your computer while you scroll on your phone—while you at the same time eat lunch. It fills the space between the next piece of content and the piece before it. It distracts you from your existential pain for 20 minutes in exchange for your attention as measured in ad revenue.
Time is a resource, and at least to the subjective experiencer, a finite one. Because time is all we have, and because we have a limited amount, what we do with our time matters. Therefore, we honor that to which we give our attention. When we create content to fill time and contents to fill space, we dishonor and disvalue ourselves and our fellow beings.
The cultural trend of consumerism in the 20th century normalized the idea of producing objects to be thrown away. With the shift of focus in the Internet age from objects to data, we have created the concept of disposable art and ideas. Our present culture teaches us that what we do, say, create, and put time into is throwaway. And we internalize that message and it makes us sick. So we take our own lives or the lives of others. Or we become wretched vessels of hatred fantasizing revenge. Or we become scared of the world and don’t leave our apartments. Or we numb ourselves out with drugs and media just to pass time until we go back to sleep. Look at what’s happening. I know you feel it too. Is it any wonder why we, internally, as pupils of the culture, feel lost? Why we feel like something is terribly wrong? Why we feel something is wrong with us?
There’s nothing wrong with us! I promise you. The culture—which we live among and participate with on a moment-by-moment basis—is sick; it is ill, and so we have become ill through prolonged contact. But we know better! I know you feel it in your heart. We know better and we have to forgive ourselves that we forget since our knowing, and remembering actively each moment, is itself couched in this sick culture. Knowing this, we have to cut ourselves some slack. We point accusatory fingers at each other thinking we’re pointing at the root cause. In actuality we’re pointing at a patient in the cancer ward. Terence McKenna reminds us to be gentle with ourselves when he says, “History is not our fault. You no more can blame us for the shape of human history than you can blame a fetus for the unfolding morphology of the womb.” We are sick. We must learn to forgive if we want to be able to heal. And we must pull ourselves together and get ourselves to work.
There’s no time to keep letting culture’s sickness gain ground. Through art, we can defy the sickness head on. To illustrate, take for example the basic fact of metabolism; when we eat improperly our body becomes sick, when we eat properly our body becomes robust. Our psyche works very much the same: The material we psychically metabolize can make us strong or sick. In this analogy, junk food is to whole food what content is to art. Psychologically, we’re being sold a vending machine and assured it’s as good as a garden.
I feel the need to acknowledge that there is a Renaissance of art happening right now. There is more music on this planet than ever before. That is a triumph. But there is also more noise competing with music for space. The heights of visual art, story, and film that have been reached are astonishing. But they share space crowded by boilerplate memes, gossip magazines, and reality television shows. By being more discerning with what we intake and more careful with what we produce and boost, we can give the art Renaissance its proper due.
Art is the garden. Art is the vegetable you harvest and the soil you till. It is equally important for the wise and knowing to create and disseminate art as it is for the curious and abundant with energy and ideas. This is how the cultural conversation occurs. This is what will orient us all. When we create art with care we respect that true art lasts. The 3,000-year-old Iliad offers volumes of wisdom to the modern person’s experience. A small fraction of the living can read it in its original language. The 10,000-year-old Bee Man of Tassili provokes wonder and awe in its viewers to this day. It was drawn on a wall in a cave, by someone whose cultural context was more different from yours than you could even imagine. Art is the universal language. It is a teaching tool that can transcend culture and time. When it touches on the numinous, nothing is more powerful.
Carl Jung writes how great art “has drawn upon the healing and redeeming forces of the collective psyche that underlies consciousness with its isolation and its painful errors,” and that it penetrates “to that matrix of life in which all men are embedded, which imparts a common rhythm to all human existence[…].” By creating great art, exploring great art, and/or spreading great art, we bring those healing and redeeming forces to the culture. Through glimpsing the common rhythm of human existence, we remember to see one another as fellow stewards of human flourishing and as brothers and sisters in the matrix of life.
The old are failing the young. Because when they were the young, the old failed them. Art is the medium for the cultural renegotiation between caretaker and inheritor that has to take place. The young need orientation. And the old need to pick up and carry the burden and honor (it’s both at the same time and it’s important not to lose sight of that) to teach the young and guide them to wise decisions. In return, the young have to help the old remember what they have forgotten—the unyielding promise of human flourishing. It will not be done through blaming and shaming, but through shining their own beauty and light. We need each other! Young and old together must continue to orient us all, and to guide the process of culture, which is always actively unfolding and as alive as any one of us. Think of a culture in the biological sense. It is alive in us right now.
Our culture is sick. So we—sickly, hurting, and burdened beings—have a responsibility to it. A responsibility to ourselves. We must shoulder the heavy load and act as physician, steward, and goddamned responsible parent. We owe it to ourselves to cradle in our loving arms this sick, confused, dying child that we birthed. We must say, “it’s going to be okay.” And we must mean it.
It is such a sad situation. But it’s hopeful. Because every moment is an opportunity to right the cultural ship on its course. It’s an appropriate symbol for culture, the ship. Like culture it carries us through the unforgiving tumult of cold, wild, unrestrained nature. And we are its guidance system through that blustery sea. If we foolishly dash the ship on the rocks we’ll be goners right with it. If we carefully captain a course with intention, forward and upward, there’s no telling where we might arrive. The ship needs our ongoing, steadfast attention and care to be able to soldier on stalwartly, and carry us, its precious cargo, young confused babies all, toward the “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”
It is all an experiment. So let’s do our due diligence and treat it with the care and attention befitting a proper experiment. We have the opportunity to bring to life a beautiful world that will inspire purpose in the generations to come.
Everything depends upon everything you do. Every action you take is deciding the path of culture. It is such a burden to bear; and that’s why we collapse under it. But it is our duty and honor to lift that burden onto our tired, weary, worn-of-time-and-trauma shoulders to carry us—and the youth, the babies, the sadly misinformed, and the stuck-in-their-ways—forward and onward in a positive, healing, and heart-aligned direction. Let us act that we find our way home.