During the last year, I have been pondering how we the general trend in society has shifted its values from solidarity to self-promotion, from generosity to greed. I guess you know what I mean.
Today I read the best description of this cultural shift, in the most excellent book “Lost Connections” by Johann Hari. The book is about depression and is well worth a read, since depression and anxiety are the most popular health problems, probably larger in impact than the recent covid pandemic.
In any case, Hari makes the case that our culture has been taken over by “Junk Values”. Just like junk food breeds disease in our bodies, junk values breeds disease in our mind.
Junk values are everything that advertisement whispers: “More followers on Instagram makes you happy”, “You are useless, but if you buy this thing, you will have friends!”, “You will get great relationships if you eat this snack!”, “You get attractive when you drink this drink!”
It is all about celebrating vanity, comfort, greed, pride, envy and lust. And the twitter-feed and facebook-algorithms are designed to induce anger and conflict – wrath.
These junk values are promoted by the commercial forces that destroy our planet, by inducing us to work more than we want, buy more stuff than we need and binge on recreational travel to deafen the hollow scream in our souls.
Hari shows convincingly that these junk values also make us more depressed and generate lots of anxiety. He also describes research that shows that the opposite is what brings real joy to life: generosity, friendship and temperance.
I think the metaphor of “Junk Values” is very well found.
But wait a minute… Those seven junk values… I recognize them from somewhere..?
The Catholic Church! Seven Vices! Mortal sins!
I think that the “seven sins” are one of the most interesting theological concepts. They are not part of the Bible, but were invented in the 4-5th century AD, by the “Early Church Fathers” (and Mothers).
It was a time of chaos. The Roman Empire fell apart piece by piece, and people were thinking a lot about what went wrong? When we rebuild society, which values should we build it on? Can we “build back better”, as the slogan says?
One of the thought leaders of the time, who we still remember, was Evagrius Ponticus, who left a well paid career in Constantinopel to become an ascetic in the desert region Nitria in northern Egypt. (In those days, it was equivalent to a City-of-London banker who decides to become a farmer in Turkey. Not a common path.)
He was one of a large group of ascetics who tried to reboot a better civilization in small communities. They lived in simple dwellings, grew their own food and prayed and thought a lot about which values had led the Roman Empire astray, and what to focus on to live a good life. How to live outside of colonialism and without destroying the fabric of society. Evagrius came up with the list of seven sins that we still know today (see e.g. the contemporary art film SE7EN).
Evagrius also formulated seven corresponding virtues, as a guiding compass, to help pull in a direction that builds a better tomorrow. Generosity, humbleness etc.
He recognized that we all have weaknesses and strengths. He also suggested that it is helpful to talk about temptation and our personal struggles. To help us choose better. We all have the seven sins inside. And the seven virtues. Every moment we have a choice. Every moment we choose to do good or evil. To generate or destroy.
As Solzhenitsyn would say 1500 years later about evil: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
However, talking about sins and virtues and the Catholic church feels slightly tainted. There has been so much abuse in the religious institutions in the last centuries, that we probably need to build new religious traditions to guide us through the collapse of our current civilization. We will need a strong foundation when we try to build something new and better afterwards. We can start like Evagrius, in the margins. Not in the heartland, but at the edge.
What do you think? Which “Junk Values” are trying to capture you and your attention?
How do you fight back?
How can we reduce the “junk value propaganda” (a.k.a. advertisement) in our lives?
Which values and virtues would you select as a foundation for a new world?