Running the gauntlet of life can be hard work: credit card debts, the cost of raising children, or the stuggle to be noticed. Are you alive or just existing?
We live in an age of excess. Wallets flap open to show rows of credit cards. There are more homeowners than ever before. Flash cars whiz through deprived and affluent streets. Technological gadgets are rampant, accessible to young and old, rich and poor. But at what cost?
We’ve long been taught that to ‘live’ is to get the job of your choice and the spouse of your dreams. These ideals intact, you’ll have the hi-tech home, the cool car, the beautiful babies, and the heavenly holidays. But modernity has made us slightly harder to please, as we thirst for the added bonus of not just fortune, but instant fame!
We turn on our televisions to see that there is no getting away from reality TV: programs showing ordinary people chasing success. Big Brother and The X Factor are prime examples of the way in which individuals (some untalented, vulnerable, or simply empty-headed) are exploited by producers who think there is little intellect among the masses, and want to keep things that way. This cheap and unimaginative form of entertainment is what nations are now being fed, and the concept 'edutainment,’ which also honours its duty to inform, seems to have become less fashionable.
Did you see the utter desperation on that girl’s face, that night on The X Factor? Simon Cowell coolly told her that her voice wasn’t bad, but said it was nothing special: no originality. The tears streamed, her nose ran, and she spluttered and blabbered. Virtually bowing, with her hands clasped, she begged him, and his panel, to give her one more chance!
This is the type of personality mutilation people are prepared to endure, before an entire nation, in their quest for success. Is it simply escapism from the stress of our own lives that makes these programs so popular? Or do we need to get into the lives of characters that we can criticize, ridicule and use to make ourselves feel better? This may be true for some. For others, reality TV offers opportunities for the success for which they pine, but feel they have no real skills to gain through their own creativity. And if their turn never comes, they can gain pleasure vicariously at the joy of seeing someone else make it. For the rest, maybe they find comfort in admitting that we’re all just the same, and our failings are indeed intrinsically linked to the human condition, so there’s no point in striving to be any better.
Yes, we all want to feel we’ve achieved, but most people resign themselves to more modest and conventional means of gaining this sense of satisfaction. Most of us are simply working people who marry and have children, or don’t marry and still have children. Our society now has more single parents than ever before; it has, in fact, become one of today’s norms. But whichever category we fall into, it seems there is no escaping being beleaguered by the wearing and tearing demands of modern living.
Post laden with demands has been dropping and piling on the floor beneath a letterbox for the past week. Murmured curses are finally heard above the stomp of tired heavy footsteps. A flame is produced from the flick of a lighter. It slams as it falls to the kitchen table. A deep sigh – or is it a long exasperated pull on the cigarette?
Then comes the ripping of the mail: £70 – Council Tax Reminder; permit renewal form - £41 for 3 months; £104.38 – electricity; a flipping V11 – tax is due, £68.75; Capital One, Skycard…all due this month! Mortgage to pay, shopping to do, and both the kids need shoes. She’s up and stomping again:
“Can you get out of the f**king bed, you’re late!”
“Why are you talking to him like that?”
Mum balls, “Like what?”
Dad bellows, “Like that!”
“Okay! You can both stop now, I’m up.”
But that’s precisely it; it never stops! Couples battle with the restructuring made necessary by the liberation of the sexes as they try to define their roles with regard to their children, themselves, and each other. Single parents struggle in their attempt to be ‘all things to all men,’ including themselves. But in the final analysis, a parent’s a parent; they all have to make time for work, school and leisure, whilst feeling there is so much do, yet so little time, and not nearly enough money.
And nowadays it’s not obvious which children are from nuclear or single-parent families. Bombarded with symbols of materialism, the children all sport name brand trainers, bop to MP3 players, and don mobile phones. They’re all unfamiliar with traditional board games and a balance of other imaginative past-times, because they’re shoved in front of the TV and Play Station, or handed some other sedentary and insular gadget. They’re allowed to run around the streets because parents need the time to just stop: simply too tired to amuse after a day on the treadmill. It seems our ability to meet the incessant material demands of our children is the yardstick we use to measure our capabilities to parent. When will we realize there’s much more to it than that?
Several kids are overheard in a changing room cubicle of the local swimming baths. The boy’s voice hasn’t yet broken, and the girls sound pre-pubescent. Screams and shrieks of laughter are heard as one continuously tells the others not to look over the top of the cubicle.
“What’s your mobile number?”
“Why? You’re a lesbian.”
“I ain’t f**king gay – suck my d**k!”
They all clearly find this hilarious. This is obviously not two families spending an afternoon out with their parents. There’s no intervention of any kind: no attendant, no passing reprimand. Modern children are left to get on with it. Hence the onslaught of ASBOs, failing schools filled with ill-mannered and over-indulged children, increasing obesity, gangs adopted as families, drug addictions, muggings, shootings, community care patients, cries for parenting classes, and unnecessary guidelines on how we should reprimand our children. Reaction, but rarely proaction.
We’re so caught up, going around on that treadmill, we can’t even see the damage that’s being done. And it’s as though we’re on that treadmill to stay! An average family home in London costs at least a quarter of a million pounds, and the prices shows no sign of falling. So the mortgage keeps us on it. Everyone wants to be a homeowner, so if you can’t afford it, there’s a broker out there that will knock you up a financial profile to make it look like you can. Utility bills, car loans, credit card payments: they all keep us on it, so it’s no wonder we’re exhausted, frustrated and confused about whether this is yet another ploy by governments to control the masses. They don’t want us pondering philosophical matters such as whether we’re actually alive or just existing. We might just do something crazy like question the status quo!
So is it really out of social goodwill that Breakfast Clubs, After School Clubs and Holiday Play Schemes have been introduced? Could governments not have chosen to revolutionize working hours and schedules so that parents could see their children for more than three to four hours per week day? Think about the impact that parents working from home would have on saving energy, road congestion, pollution and the moral decline of today’s youth.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are signs that people are beginning to realize the connection between our lifestyles and the ailments that we suffer. People are becoming more mistrustful of chemically based drugs, and are turning to alternative treatments which have a more holistic emphasis, and acknowledge the role that stress plays in making our bodies malfunction.
She’s a 39-year-old mother of four. Her youngest is only 7. Her hair is streaked with grey. Her mouth is twisted. Paralyzed down her left side, she’s still in the hospital, learning to hobble with a stick!
He wasn’t so lucky. 42 years old, his body was being flown back from a holiday in the Caribbean. Dead! Deep Vein Thrombosis.
It’s not just in modern times that people are becoming severely incapacitated or dying young. But with all the technology available to us today, we know that something else must be wrong.
A rise in allergic reactions and skin problems has led to calls for the government to invest more money into allergy specialists. In the mean time, our GPs, who don’t come out to see us anymore, are being replaced by homeopaths, herbalists and masseurs to treat the asthma, eczema and ADHD in our children, and the insomnia and back problems in ourselves. We’re becoming more acquainted with the ill-effects of an absence of the work-life balance, a lack of knowledge about our inner-selves, pollution, and an over-indulgence in processed foods.
The move towards alternative medicine is just one way in which people express their speculations on whether they are alive or just existing; as to exist is to simply live passively, in a robotic and unquestioning way. Somewhere deep inside ourselves we know that the human make-up is so dynamic that it allows much more than a mere existence. Although many of us continue to just exist, the tide may be beginning to turn. Self-help books focusing on our spiritual sides are purchased now more than ever before; hundreds of pounds are paid by ordinary people to attend life-coaching seminars; participation in charity events, such as ‘Make Poverty History,’ is widening.
Perhaps people are awakening from their coma of existence, and feeling zeal to want to live. And with the arrival of the internet, opportunities to live are endless. One community full of people who are certainly alive is the Global Ideas Bank. This is an online initiative that was created to advance constructive ideas that will serve to make our society a better place. Visitors to this site put forward ideas to address a problem. These are called social interventions. It has a database of thousands of ideas. So there is hope, maybe.
Humanity has spent civilizations fighting long and hard for freedoms; now governments seem set on imposing initiatives, like ID cards, to police their nations and claw back those liberties. The world is richer than ever, yet half of it is starving. The personal fortunes of a few individuals in the West amount to more than that of an entire state in some parts of the world. These are some of the facts that epitomize confusions faced in modern times. So what to do?
The opportunity to be wise is one of the positive aspects of modernity. Humanity is old; much has been said and done by those who have gone before us. Our duty is to find and utilize the best elements of science and nature, wealth and poverty, tradition and convention, religion and secularism, East and West. But beware! Whoever is alive and feels no urge or compulsion to impact their surroundings, in some way, is not alive at all, but just existing! Whoever is alive and only conscious of being a helpless victim of circumstance is not alive at all, but just existing! Which are you?
1st August 2006