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 spiritual void.

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 cancer.

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 itself.

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 soul survival.

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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.