The MACHINE which chokes us.
We've got this wonderful culture which has offered
us lives full of unthinkable luxury and possibility. Our economic
system has produced our homes, our cars, air travel, television,
computers, the internet, restaurants with access to a variety
of food that Emperors would envy. We live in a splendor that
previous generations could hardly imagine. But in spite of
this abundance, I write this out of a spiritual void that
so many of us are experiencing.
As the world speeds up and our stress magnifies, our souls
crumble. We work long hours at mind-numbing jobs, spend hours
of passivity in front of mindless TV, experience the cruelty
of governments, the lack of compassion and civility in our
public life, the decline of public services.
Above all, there is the feeling of being crushed: stressed
beyond any reason. All this raises the question of meaning.
As life ratchets up and tightens around us, we are left to
wonder what it's all for. We teeter at the edge of a
Our culture is like a MACHINE that grows relentlessly. It
is the great driving force. It includes everything: corporations
which increasingly exploit employees and customers, our government
which increasingly is marked by greed and corruption, our
movies, full of violence and cynicism, our advertising, our
unsafe streets, the triviality of our media, our too busy
lives. As the MACHINE becomes more and more pervasive, it
crowds out the few remaining woodlands and wetlands where
we can feel the peace of nature, where we can relax and find
beauty. How has this MACHINE, which has generated such material
bounty for us, gotten so very out of control?
It is probably useful to look at the mechanism of cancer,
another dynamic system which is characterized by uncontrolled
growth. Cancer also grows relentlessly. It squeezes out normal
cells as it blindly multiplies. It kills, not by intent, but
just by doing what cancer cells do, by multiplying mindlessly,
pushing everything else out of its way. Like the MACHINE.
And, like cancer, the MACHINE is invasive- it forces its
way into every nook and cranny. On our streets we see people
walking, their brains invaded by ipods or cell phones. TV
invades airports, bars, the waiting rooms of our ERs. In the
very center of our lives, enthroned in our "family"
rooms, it imports murder, sex, betrayal and cynicism into
the very heart of our family life. Under the veneer of "entertainment"
the MACHINE enters our most sacred spaces.
Cancer cells do not mean to do damage. When a cell mutates,
and becomes cancerous, the real change is that it has lost
its sense of place and purpose. Normal cells grow, but to
fill a bodily need: a cell dies in my cornea, and a new cell
grows in its place. Once its purpose is achieved, it stops
growing. The mutation that leads to cancer frees that cell
from any knowledge of nature's intent. Once mutated,
it only knows to keep growing.
Similarly, the MACHINE follows the law of continual growth.
If we ask the CEO of Walmart why he compensates his employees
so poorly, he'll answer, "To increase profits".
Why buy from exploited foreign workers? "To increase
profits". Why move into towns that wish to save their
main streets? "To increase profits". To, "Is
there no end?", he'll respond truthfully, "The
Board insists I increase profits or they'll replace
me with someone who will".
We all shop at Walmart because it sells the cheapest. So
Walmart follows its path and grows and grows and grows. And
there is no one to tell Walmart that we don't need another
store in town to displace all the towns small businesses.
There's no mechanism to force them to pay a living wage,
or offer their employees health insurance. Their only law
is to grow and grow and make money.
One final point about cancer. Cancer cells are produced by
our body every day. But our body protects us by producing
white blood cells and antibodies that recognize, attack and
destroy most cancerous growth. This feedback mechanism is
at the heart of our protection from disease. The body is dependent
on such feedback to keep all its systems in line. Under normal
conditions, this feedback controls the lethal potential of
For our culture to survive the uncontrolled growth of the
MACHINE, it also needs a feedback mechanism, something that
gives the MACHINE a sense of place and purpose and control,
when needed. Probably in the "good old days" the
governments of countries performed this function. Although
often MACHINE-friendly, government did provide a control to
minimize its worst intrusions. But as has become increasingly
clear lately, MACHINE money elects and drives our government.
Most governments have become integral parts of the MACHINE
Cultural solutions to this problem are hard to envision without
a major change in our national consciousness. Some of us long
for a moral scaffolding dictated by a literal reading of the
Bible. Others yearn for a return to the democratic ideal of
a government of the people and for the people. Time will tell.
But until something arrives to save us, we can each try to
save our own selves and souls.
For me, a big step was unplugging the TV. My wife and I did
that about ten years ago, without regrets. It had been eating
up too many hours of our lives each week. And years ago, my
wife asked the children if they'd rather have dad home
for supper each night or have more new clothes. Thank God,
they chose me. So I work less and we spend less. Sometimes
the choice is between more money and more life.
Another lifesaver has been going camping, something we began
when our children were in elementary school. Living in nature
free from the MACHINE, has been a wonderful reminder of the
nurturance and beauty of our earth's gifts. It also
reminds us of our place in the universe - we are not in charge.
We are immersed in something vast, powerful and wondrous.
In the woods, we slow down. We breathe.
Finally I have spend a lot of time on my inner life. Meditation
and prayer keep me connected with my soul. Writing, like this,
is another way to keep my inner world more conscious. I have
a stack of journals going back thirty years. They have been
a good release in hard times, and a place to reflect and celebrate
when times are good.
Each of us needs to find our own way. My hope in writing
this is that you will take some time to plan for your own
Jack Weltner, MD is a psychiatrist practicing in Marblehead
and on staff at Lynn Community Health Center. His web page,
safe-harbor.cc, is devoted to ideas about improving our lives.