Time passes, life passes us by. What’s important?

We are sometimes confronted by the reality of the progress of time, aren’t we?

I have spent my precious few free hours the last week watching a series of documentary programs called the “Up Series”. This series was brought to my attention by Melonie Fullick (@qui_oui), who wrote a very thoughtful blog post about it. The premise of the series is quite simple: the first episode, “7-Up” takes 20 British children and examines their lives through a day of interviews, recompensed by a trip to the zoo. Their hopes, dreams, fears and ambitions are documented through the episode, and it is striking to notice how delightfully unsophisticated the little seven year olds are compared to their equivalents today. Their insouciance is both beguiling and saddening, since it inspires hope in the innocence of children, but also frames the sorry state of our neurotic and ironic culture today.

Here’s part 1 of Episode 1, 7 Up:


The series continued by revisiting most of the 20 children every seven years, each one the subject of a documentary: 14 Up, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, and, the most recent one, 49 Up. It is fascinating to see the evolution of these people’s lives, and we really see hints and clues and allusions to the evolution of our culture. You see how the predominant worldview were still very human up until the seventies, and then everything seems to go absolutely berserk.

This made me think very carefully about what we are about in our lives and ambitions these days. I was thinking that we live in a strange, accelerated culture that leaves so many behind simply because they are trying to keep up. But keep up to what? Our careers? Our relationships?

The fact is that our careers are but a small part of our lives. The rest is really to do with human things. Our careers are labels, categories, games – similar to building things with lego, or doing ever-more-challenging crossword puzzles, aren’t they? And yet, we allow our careers to predominate in our minds, and in our hearts.

Our relationships? I am starting to question the validity of this term altogether. In fact, it commodifies our links and connections to other people. It forces us to think of our love and feelings – those fundamental human things – as stuff. As commodities that we “co-own” with another person. This erases the person, doesn’t it? This erases the “human component” and replaces it with a two-dimensional paper cut out. It allows us to compartmentalize our feelings, our sexuality, our esteem for others. To assign the label of “relationship” to the sacred connection between two friends, two people in love, two siblings, or a parent and a child, is, I think, to reduce that connection to something that can be traded. This isn’t good. It lacks reverence. And we should revere one another as humans – full of infinite possibility, full of the potential for love, hope, goodness and growth.

I blame a lot of this on our growing dependence on technology and thinking machines. We have transferred so much of our thinking and feeling to machines: from the GPS in our cars to the dating websites we use to mate, to the spellcheck on our emails to the calendars and reminders on our BlackBerries. But this reliance on the machine is making us more one-dimensional as people, and our connections to other people more brittle.

I am more and more convinced that we must fight the encroachment of the machine and the material upon our lives and society. We aren’t robots. We aren’t commodities. We are human, and, as such, we have feelings and ideas, dreams and imaginations. We get tired and suffer pain. We revel unselfconsciously in the success of others. We convince ourselves that complicated things like ambition, competition and “success” are important, but we actually find ourselves happiest in those moments of simple pleasure: a walk in the cool breeze and bright sunshine; a cold drink, slowly consumed, in celebration of a hard afternoon’s work – all of these things lead to stability, predictability and order.

Without stability, predictability and order you have chaos, doubt and fear. We can lie to ourselves that this isn’t true – that we can live in a world of complete freedom and lack of structure and be happy. But this is a lie.

A terrible, seductive, beautiful, enchanting and destructive lie.

Stability, predictability and order are what permit us to achieve our potential. To experience happiness. To examine our experiences with a caring eye. To find the time to build a Good Life.

Watching the lives of the 20 British children unfold through each subsequent seven-year span has brought these points home to me. These people’s lives were real. They actually experienced the things that happened to them and the people they came across. They didn’t treat their experiences like a tv show, or the people they ran into as paper cut-outs or as actors in a play. We have lost this grasp on reality.

It’s time to stop lying to ourselves. Our post-WWII experiment in freedom, cynicism and nihilism must be brought to a close. It’s time to realise that people and our links to them are not trading cards. Rather, they are sacred and must be revered and respected.

We have to become human again. This means that it’s time to grow up.

Let’s start today.

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1 Comment

  1. You should read Lewis Mumford’s “Myth of the Machine” and “Pentagon of Power”. They are a pair of books that prolong this line of thinking and deepen it over two volumes.

    Mumford’s language is the language of his time (mid-20thcentury) so he traces a lot of things back to a Freudian “Death Impulse” that underlies technological society, but one is not bound to accept that in its extremity to find reading these books profitable. In general, these are better than Ellul’s books on the same subject.

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