ON TURNING FIFTY
This essay, which I wrote when I turned fifty, seems to strike a chord with many readers.
I turned 50 recently. It’s a good moment to start looking forward — to think seriously about death. But like most people, I’ve pretty much avoided that spiritual challenge. Instead, I have looked backwards, trying to make sense of my half-century.
In many ways, it was the best of times. For a man living in the US or in Europe (or both, in my case), it has been a period of almost unprecedented peace and prosperity. There have been a few wars in my lifetime, to be sure, but they were fought far away, and fewer young men from my part of the world died in them than, say, in automobile accidents. As for prosperity, my childhood was comfortable, my young adult years were more comfortable and in middle age computers and e-mail have made life incredibly convenient. I am far from alone in enjoying these comforts. Thanks to the welfare state, almost everyone in my various homelands is now rich by almost any historical standard.
Of course, the world’s poor — two or three billion of them in my youth and four or five billion now — have seen more wars and felt less comfort. But in political and economic terms, even the poor have not done too badly. Far fewer people are ruled by oppressive governments than when I was young, and many more people have the benefits of clean water, adequate food and basic education, not to mention computers. Indeed, the increase in the poor population is itself encouraging, especially as most poor people today can expect to live longer and healthier lives than their parents and grandparents.
This good news came as something of a surprise. When I was very young, I was told to expect nuclear war. When I was a little older, political despair yielded to economic and environmental gloom. None of these threats have materialised. The assumed warmonger, the Soviet Union, proved too weak and corrupt to survive. There has been nothing like another Great Depression, and human ingenuity has belied the dire predictions of the neo-Malthusians.
All this good news is unlikely to prove the end of history. On the contrary, it is all too likely to prove just as ephemeral, by historical standards, as the last prolonged period of peace and prosperity in my part of the world. That was the century or so that followed the Napoleonic wars in Europe (with a parenthesis for the Franco-Prussian war and the Civil War in the US). It ended with arguably the worst military conflict ever, a 30-year near-global double-war.
It is easy enough to think of reasons for a similar conflagration, or for something different but just as sinister. But such portentous premonitions are not required to get depressed about the current state of the world. A different sort of look at the last 50 years — a study of what Catholics call matters of faith and morals — is all that is necessary.
The belief that current times are unprecedented in their wickedness is probably eternal. Still, even if this time is not worse than others — whatever might be meant by such a comparison — the social experiment of the modern age is distinct, and distasteful, in several ways.
There are three trends to complain about. The first is in personal morality. No other culture has ever given such social prominence to the search for happiness from sexual love. The most distressing result is that the good of children is too often sacrificed to the selfish pleasures of their parents. For the adults, the emphasis on romantic passion has provided much heartbreak and little durable good. Emotional satisfaction turns out to be a poor substitute for spiritual joy.
Spiritual joy? The very phrase sounds out of place in the modern world. But that dislocation is part of the second unprecedented trend — the denigration of the divine. For centuries in my part of the world, the transcendental found a home in organised Christianity. This deepest aspect of reality is now almost homeless. At best, it finds temporary shelter here and there – new age spirituality, imported traces of Asian thought, evangelical fervour.
More often, however, the tie of the profane with the sacred — between men and God, reason and faith, art and beauty, technique and truth, pleasure and love – has simply been broken. The society of peace and prosperity is spiritually bereft. The loss is intangible but significant. Without a transcendental anchor, the great accomplishments of the half-century can feel hollow.
This hollowness is the third unfortunate novelty. This converse of joy — not so much bitter sadness as dull alienation — is widespread. The enthusiasm for drugs and the stress-filled striving of many workers are signs of a desperate effort to stave it off. My own observations support the mental health statistics — too many people live on the edge of despair, or over it. In my view, though, the most alarming sign of widespread alienation is not madness but low birth rates, now found in all rich countries. Each woman’s story of is different, of course. Still, the cumulative effect is a vote against hope for the future.
The last half-century has been a puzzling combination of good and bad. I suspect that the two are related, that the turn away from the spiritual has freed up the energy that goes to pacify and master the world. Whether or not that is true, the good and bad are certainly thoroughly mixed together.
Which has predominated? I would not mind knowing the answer to that question. But one of the pleasures of turning 50 is the realisation that some questions are just too hard for me. That is one of them.