Walking the Tightrope


Before moving onto solutions to address the issues of modernity posed in my previous post, I want to further reflect on the impact that the decline of traditional frameworks for meaning and morality has had in our society. The secularization of the West has freed us from the necessity to conform to dominant belief systems. It has liberated us from dogmatic thinking.

We are now free to pursue our own interests, create our own meaning and purpose in our lives. This emancipation, the opportunity to openly pursue self-expression and strive towards authenticity is one of the greatest achievements of modernity. To quote existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Unlike previous eras, such as the medieval period, your lot in life is no longer predetermined. That is, you are not born in a rigid class system destined to be a king, aristocrat or peasant. You can strive to be true to your authentic self.

Yet this newfound freedom can be deeply unsettling for some. It is far easier to live a life of mindless conformity or follow a road map that has been already set out for you. Few of us concern our selves with exercising this new found liberty. We quickly resort to our old ways of conforming to the masses. In the mid 20th century, before the advent of computers or social media, writer Aldous Huxley concisely summarized this modern sentiment “Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty.”  

Why have we so easily dismissed this great opportunity to exercise our freedom, to search for truth and to be connected to something transcendent – something greater than ourselves. The answer is simple. Our society excels in providing us with two things, distraction and pleasure. We can indulge on almost anything through the tap of a button on our smart phones. Likewise, we spend many hours each week scrolling though our social media pages comparing ourselves to others rather than focusing on improving ourselves. In essence, all these technologies and platforms are like a springboard for our egos.

For those who are up for the task of living authentically, and living with purpose, the path forward is one that requires walking the tight rope between self-expression and narcissism. It requires finding the middle way between community and individual values.

In the Malaise of Modernity Charles Taylor reflects upon this idea further. He claims that the “the worry has been repeatedly expressed that the individual lost something important along with the larger social and cosmic horizons of action. Some have written of this as the loss of a heroic dimension to life.  People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for.” Meaning and purpose is found at the middle of these extremes.

The implications of these ideas and way forward I think is two-fold:

  1.  We can pursue self-expression and self-interest, but we must not allow this to turn into a selfish egotism. Furthermore, we can pursue our goals only insofar that these are true to ourselves. We must resist the temptation to boast and brag.
  2. We have to find the right balance between the needs of the individual and community. We can not abandon our efforts to better the lives of others or our communities. In fact, most of our problems we face now from climate change, terrorism and large-scale migrations all require us to cooperate with the global community to find viable solutions.

The solution is a balancing act between two extremes. Going forward – walk the tightrope.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s article, feel free to comment, provide feedback or discuss these issues.