“It’s imperative that we bring children into close contact with the miracle of evolution…and by so doing underline man’s consciousness of being responsible to a unit much greater and more valuable than himself, of which he is part”. (Konrad Lorenz, The Waning of Humaneness)
Has the Western world lost its way? This is a question being posed with disconcerting regularity by economic theorists since the onset of the latest in a series of catastrophic economic recessions.
But one could also pose the same question in a different sense: has the western world lost its way historically, culturally and on an individual level?
We are, it seems, engaged in a frantic search to reconnect with the past, as well as with our roots and origins, whether culturally, through the fixation with retro-referentiality, or personally, through the fascination with tracing our ancestry.
On programmes such as, Who Do you Think You Are? – celebrities are followed as they trace their ancestry, often with distressing or intensely joyous consequences. Likewise, on My Long Lost Family, members of the public engage in an often emotive search for missing relations. The journey to rediscover and to reconnect with, hidden aspects of our ancestral past has become a source of fascination.
We are becoming, it seems, a society that hankers after some mythical ‘lost’ part of ourselves, some missing part of our identity, in order to feel whole again.
There are numerous reasons for this and on several levels. On the cultural level, a type of spiritual ‘homelessness’ is part of the conditions of modernity as identified by the philosopher Martin Heidegger – who coined the phrase ‘we homeless ones’ to describe how nihilism and the rise of technology have precipitated this rift with our roots and with the essence of our selves, leading to a kind of oblivion of being. Disconnection from, not simply the past, but from the higher values imbibed from religion. Indeed, from the many different etymological derivations of the word religion, the mythologist Joseph Campbell favoured the root of the word as being from the Latin re-ligure, meaning to reconnect – hence the title of this piece.
Couple with the rise of the alienating force of technology this has led to a kind of existential rootlessness.
Since Heidegger’s time ( he died in 1976 but published Being and Time, his best known work, in 1927) – we have witnessed the gradual decline of the extended family and the increasing isolation of many peoples’ lives. People – being more geographically dispersed due to job changes and improved travel – are often lonely and cut off from the networks that once enriched people’s lives. In part then, this hankering after a connection with the past is partly due to a very literal sense of disconnection with the present.
Such feelings may lead us to begin the search for our roots, not simply because we want to feel connected to our past but because often these ancestral searches lead us to family members in the present with whom we may hope to establish friendships and connections, rekindling our sense of family in the spiritual sense but also quelling a more tangible loneliness.
In many ways this search for a forsaken inner wholeness can be an inner journey, a voyage of self-discovery and self-understanding. Knowing where we come from can provide us with a sense of certainty and a degree of emotional security. There is consolation in feeling that we know where we belong, which can help us to feel more grounded. It can reassure us, especially in these uncertain times, helping us feel less cast adrift by the shifting waves of social and economic change. In Heidegger’s worse, less homeless.
But what does it mean on a cultural level, this search for our ancestry and origins, this need to be in touch with our history; the yearning to return ‘home’?
The state of homelessness leads to collective introspection redolent of a culture which has become more introverted and inward-looking. This phenomenon – more notable during times of economic recession – is indicative of a fear of the future and of what the future holds. We don’t like what think we see ahead so we look away; we turn within and we become obsessed with the past.
Of course it is the expansion of global networks and communications that has facilitated these introspective leanings, providing us with access to ever-greater banks of information. The rise of Google and Facebook has meant that we can conduct searches for people with who we wish to reconnect: websites such as Friends Reunited and Find your Ancestry make it especially easy for us to engage with this introspective culture.
Yet, perhaps ironically, it may be the speed with which technology has progressed in the last hundred years which has also become the catalyst for this need to reconnect with our roots. The impetus to return to nature, the rise of the Green movement and the striving to implement ecologically aware ideals into our lives through recycling and grown-your-own produce also reflect a desire to move closer to nature. The rise of the machine has in many ways impinged upon our humanity, moving us from a world of animate nature to the dehumanising world of the inanimate machine.
In the twentieth and twenty-first century machines continue to replace humans: answer machines delivering endless options except the one of speaking to another human being; self-service tills, paying-in machines – these are all devices that interfere with day to day human interaction, creating a fissure between ourselves and the world we inhabit, dehumanising our world through the depersonalisation of our daily interactions and discourses.
We have brought ourselves to the condition of self-imposed exile and alienation from our human origins and only we can extricate ourselves from it, before it is too late. As Heidegger might say, perhaps it is time for us to make our way home.
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