Surviving Decline

Three Ways to Live Through a Troubled Age

Some people are lucky enough to live in golden ages. Where prosperity is as plentiful as rain, and good fortune as natural as the seasons. Us? Our world is troubled, fractured, being broken. So, too, now are our weary hearts.

And so the unasked question beating inside them is: how we do live through this age of decline — and still live well? Can we live lives rich in meaning, seared with purpose, bursting with fulfillment…when, though we won’t admit it, many of us struggle to put bread on the table?

For an age of decline this is. Life expectancy’s declining, for the first time in modern history. The majority of public school kids are in poverty. I can recite endless statistics to you, and perhaps you still won’t believe in decline. No matter. Like a con man, or the devil, decline believes in you.

It’s a struggle. Bone-wearying. Endless. Not just a bodily one. But an existential one. Working (playing, wanting, performing, fighting) ever harder just to stand still doesn’t merely exhaust us physically. It drains us of our will, rebellion, defiance, and grace. We snap like twigs at the slightest noise, explode like grenades at the gentlest touch. Decline on the outside is like suffocation on the inside. It cheats us of our better selves. The selves that are willing, can, need to, must ask: why are we really here? Is this what we were meant to become? And then keep questioning, wondering, imagining, creating, answering until, at last, our shells split open, fulfillment finds us.

So I think there are three broad options for living through decline.

One, we embrace the darkness. We go to work for the very forces fuelling our decline. Maybe we become bankers, lobbyists, or so on. Perhaps that way we’ll prosper materially. But we will surely suffer spiritually, mentally, emotionally. How much meaning are you likely to find in cramming through a bill that destroys a town, city, society? Not much. How many happy bankers do you know? Not many. So what we gain financially we will lose in ways that money can’t buy. Our lives will feel insignificant, at last — because they will have been. It’s a choice — but not a very wise one.

Two, we reject it all. We walk away and cloister ourselves. Whether in ivory towers or monasteries. We might run to the ends of the earth in order to escape decline. Find a little island of peace somewhere, whether at a university or a literal island of some kind, and become the equivalent of shut-ins, refuseniks, hermits. That might work for some. But it’s unlikely to for most. Simply because most of us want to do something with our lives. As much as we don’t want to admit it, our minds slowly start to turn on our spirits when we aren’t fully occupied, engaged, consumed. So this too is a choice — but probably not a very realistic one.

Three, we accept that there’s no way out. Not by plunging into the darkness, nor even by escaping into the light. But there is a way through. And that way is one that we have to pioneer, forge, create. So we choose to become the very leaders that we’re so desperately missing. Perhaps we start our own little ventures, academies, societies, write our books, treatises, conduct our experiments. In some way, we try not merely to dispiritedly surrender to decline, nor run away panicked from it, nor even to bitterly fight it. But to heal it, improve, it, mitigate it, undo it. And in its place build something perhaps just a tiny bit more resonant, enduring, beautiful, good, true.

I can’t tell you which choice is right for you. But I can tell you which choice I think is wiser, nobler, and greater.

Living through decline isn’t going to be easy. Comfortable. Pleasant. Every day of most of our lives is going to be a struggle. But there are different kinds of struggles. There are vicious battles, that no one truly wins, which are needless suffering. And then there is the defiance of the tiny being in the embryo to break free the bonds of its shell and at last be born. That struggle is not just needless suffering. It is purpose, truth, gratitude, and love, rebelling against time, fate, ego, and death.

Struggle is our destiny. But choosing the right struggle is our possibility.

April 2016

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