The Pressure to Break Free
When we clamp down and control life, we generate a pressure that must find an outlet. The release is usually guilty and often in secret, and directs our creative life force—our divine nature—into activities that are generally trivial, meaningless, marginal to our main occupation, and sometimes downright destructive.
To most of the roles society offers, I say, “You are made for more than that.” We inhabit, in the words of Ivan Illich, “a world into which nobody fits who has not been crushed and molded by sixteen years of formal education.” The very idea of having to be at a job “on time” was appalling to early industrial laborers, who also refused the numbing repetitiveness of industrial work until the specter of starvation compelled them. What truly self-respecting person would spend a life marketing soda pop or chewing gum unless they were somehow broken by repeated threats to survival? To participate in our society’s depredations is an indignity. A corporate executive recently confessed to me that his job consisted of lying to the customer; another that his job consisted of frightening customers into accepting digital security products that they really didn’t need. An elite lawyer described his job as, “I take money from one rich son-of-a-bitch and give it to another rich son-of-a-bitch.” Part of my job at Penn State is to pass judgment on students by issuing them a grade. To be sure, there are many people fortunate enough to have interesting jobs, creative jobs, perhaps even meaningful jobs, but even if you love your work, what do you have to put up with in order to do it? Indignity is hard to avoid when our whole economy revolves around the creation and fulfillment of phony needs. It is hard to avoid when our institutions depend on standardization of roles. It is hard to avoid when the profitability and even survival of a company conflicts with human and community values. We all know this, yet we feel compelled to participate. To participate in any form of injustice, humiliation, or degradation, of people or the environment, is itself degrading. What does it take to get a divine human spirit to participate in this? It requires its breaking, so that we dare not say no.
To cut corners, to do something just well enough for the grade, the customer, or the boss, to do anything with the feeling that it really doesn’t matter, to care about your work mostly because you are paid to care about it—all of this is degrading. It is an indignity to make anything less than an art out of your work. That is what we are made for—nothing less. I will never forget the day long ago when I realized that I really didn’t care about anything I did at my job. We were having a meeting about some new computer audio capability, and everyone seemed quite interested in it. A lively discussion was going on about how to integrate it into our software. I looked around the room and thought, “Hold on, you mean you people really care about this? I thought we were all just pretending to care.” At that moment I realized that I only cared about it because I was paid to care, a realization which fueled a growing sense of panic in the weeks to come. “There’s got to be more than this,” I thought. “What about caring about something for real? What about devoting my full energy to work that I love? Don’t I get to have that this lifetime?”
Very few of society’s usual positions can accommodate the enormous creative life-force of an unbroken human being. To keep the world under control demands that we bottle up this creative force and expend as much of it as possible in harmless ways—harmless to the status quo, that is, though not to the individual. All the addicts and alcoholics I have known—all of them!—are blessed (or cursed) with what seems to be an exceptional creative energy that is burned up in their addiction. Other people channel it into obsessions and compulsions, hobbies, nervous tics, excessive exercise, overeating, work, and the like, contributing to a more dilute version of the addict’s sense of life betrayed.
When we submit to lesser lives, we cannot avoid a sense of self-betrayal: that we are complicit in the plunder of our most precious possession. The roles society offers do not befit the divine beings that we are. It is not merely that a career as a retail clerk is beneath my dignity; it is beneath anyone’s dignity. No one is meant to do such work for very long. It can be fun for a while, for the few days or weeks it takes to fully master it and learn what there is to learn. One of the best jobs I ever had was washing dishes in the university cafeteria. It was fun figuring out the series of hand movements that maximized my efficiency, learning how the kitchen worked, having food fights with the other dishwashers, and spraying my friends with the dishwashing hose when they came to bus their trays. Everyone should do jobs like this for a while as I did: a couple of hours a day, a few days a week. It is only when, through poverty and despair, we become enslaved to such work that it becomes degrading.
When a divine spirit mortgages her very purpose in life, which is joyful participation in the creation of a beautiful universe, she will compensate by being good to herself in whatever ways are available. She may thus appear selfish or greedy, but all she is really doing is searching for something that is missing. Of course, no amount of food, material possessions, physical beauty, power over other people, or money can fulfill her need as a divine being to express her creative potential and experience intimate connection to the rest of life. Here is the wound of separation in two forms: separation from the divine creative nature of the self, and separation from other people and nature.
The sense of entitlement that drives selfishness and greed thus arises from an authentic source: that we have been robbed of our birthright. Something is missing, it’s just that we are looking in the wrong place for it. An ancient Sufi tale describes the sage-fool, Mullah Nasruddin, groping around under the streetlight. A passer-by asks, “Mullah, what are you looking for?”
“Alas,” replies the hapless Nasruddin, “I have lost my house key.”
“Well, when was the last time you saw it?”
“I think I lost it over there in the shadow of those trees.”
“Well, why are you looking for it here then?”
“Sir, can you not see how dark it is there? I am looking here under the streetlight where I can see better.”
What we are missing is nothing less than the key to our homecoming, a reunion with the divine essence of our being. Unfortunately, we dare not look in the frightening shadows where the key actually lies, preferring instead to find that missing something in a safe zone. So conditioned are we to survival anxiety that we dare not leave its domain. Notice how all the things we pursue in lieu of our life purpose—money, beauty, career, power, prestige, possessions—are all linked to survival: the command of people and resources. We have been rendered afraid.
Now for the good news: A human soul can never actually be broken, but will continue to resist a wrong life through whatever means it can. The soul is like the wild that eventually, through roots, rot, and weather, will bring down the strongest house. The soul will engineer situations to bypass our best efforts at control. First there will be a growing sense of unease and discontent. Getting up for work becomes a chore and we find ourselves looking forward to the end of the day, the weekend, or vacation when the day or week has hardly even begun. We try to dispose of our work responsibilities with as little effort as possible; we cut corners and become lazy, doing the minimum required. To stay at the job now requires willpower: to get up in the morning to do something that gradually but inexorably becomes excruciating. We control ourselves with alarm clocks, coffee (to enforce attention), and external motivations such as money, promotion, and so forth. We also motivate control through fear—What would happen if I quit? Usually at this point an opportunity arises elsewhere, and we may or may not have the courage to quit the old job and take a leap into the unknown. Failing this, the stage of self-sabotage begins: after a few close calls, we engineer a situation that enables us to quit or that gets us fired. Alternatively, the soul invites in a disaster from another realm of life. Often there is a convergence of crises in health, career, and marriage, and the betrayal of life purpose extends to these other areas as well. To stay the course of a life wrongly lived requires control; without it one quickly drifts away from anything unpleasant.
Just as we cannot permanently protect a house from natural processes of decay, none of the means of controlling or diverting our creative life-force works forever. Each of them eventually becomes intolerable. The most potent of these diversions are addictions such as alcohol, heroin, cocaine, pornography, and gambling. These can consume an enormous amount of suppressed life-force, but they exact a rising cost on body, life, and mind. By consuming frustrated life-force, they make the wrong life tolerable for a while. Usually, because we have been forced into the wrong life through survival threat—that is, intense physical and/or emotional trauma in childhood—the objects of addiction are also means for the temporary avoidance or amelioration of pain. They are thus a means of control, a means of coping with life-as-it-is. To break free of the forms and structures of our culture means confronting the materials from which this prison is built: it means facing the fear and the pain. It is no accident that two of the most potent addictive substances, heroin and alcohol, have physiological pain-killing effects; what is not generally recognized is that all addictions do the same. Only, they do not really kill pain; they merely postpone it, keep it under control, keep it temporarily unfelt.
Please, then, do not condemn addicts as weak-willed, immoral, or indulgent. They have merely received more than their share of pain. Like all of us, they are suffering under one of the many permutations of the myth of control. Genetic predisposition and the vagaries of circumstance merely determine the form this control of pain takes.
The recovering alcoholic Jack Erdmann writes, “When I started, the alcohol told me there was a way out, that the pain could be killed.” In effect, alcohol, drugs, gambling, television, and other addictions large and small are simply technologies, technologies for controlling pain and accessories in making life-as-it-is manageable. But then the trap is sprung: “Then it told me to kill the pain at all costs.” Inexorably, the life-as-it-is that demands management becomes wholly the product of the technology of control. As Erdmann puts it, “This is the secret of alcohol. The alcohol creates the symptoms you think it’s treating.”
It’s the technological fix again. Technology, the means to manipulate nature, is driven by the urge for comfort and security; that is, the avoidance of pain and the insurance of survival. Yet the very experience of life as a struggle for survival is a product of technological culture, which seeks to control reality rather than simply accept it. Remember agriculture, which replaced the Edenic existence of hunting and gathering with a life of toil, in which a harvest tomorrow requires labor today. As soon as that happened and the population grew to exceed the carrying capacity of the unimproved land, we became addicted to technology. We could no longer live without it. And as invention after invention came along to ease this burden of labor, to mitigate the omnipresent threat of famine and the travails of civilized life, the underlying anxiety and suffering only grew until it reached the crescendo of the early 21st century. “The alcohol creates the symptoms you think it’s treating.”
Encompassing both alcohol and technology, control creates the conditions that necessitate control. Control is a trap, a lie, a vicious circle, a one-way train ride. And as Erdmann says, “The last station is Hell.”
Looking at the stripmined mountains of West Virginia, the thousands of miles of bulldozed Siberian forests, the bleached coral reefs, the vast parking lots of suburbia, the disintegrating health of Americans, the generation of child cancer victims around the world, the despair of the poor and the ennui of the rich, is there any doubt where we are headed? Is there any doubt that we are creating Hell on earth?
Just as the alcoholic treats the agonizing wreck of his life with another drink, so do we believe that we can fix the mess we have made of the world with more of the same: nanotechnology, perhaps, trumpeted as the final solution to industrial pollution.
The real danger lies when the program of control succeeds in clamping down on our creative life-energy. When internalized coercive mechanisms and external addictions overpower the soul in its struggle to break free, the soul can still play its one remaining trump card. If an escalating series of crises is not enough to dislodge us from the wrong life, then death is the natural choice. Sometimes the rut is just too deep, the labyrinth of self too bewildering, for a person ever to emerge. (I am not speaking here of deliberate suicide, which is usually just another means of avoiding the pain, a futile last-ditch attempt at control.) When hope fails that we may transcend the diminished selves of the world under control, then our true selves engineer the final escape from the illusion of separation.
Now apply this idea metaphorically to the collective level. Are you alarmed? You should be, because the implication is that our civilization—or even our species—may very well choose (albeit unconsciously) to die. If the convergence of crises is not enough to dislodge us from our delusions of separation from nature, then the collective soul of the human race will unleash a catastrophe such as nuclear war. That is what will happen if we hold on too long.
 Illich, Ivan, Medical Nemesis, Pantheon, 1982. p. 85
 Erdmann, Jack with Larry Kearney, Whiskey’s Children. K Publishing, 1998. P. 198. I recommend this book to anyone who thinks he is in any way superior to an addict.