Obsession with the self is the outstanding characteristic of much of modern American culture. This article explains why the 1970s have been called...The ME Decade
The banquet hall of the large hotel in downtown Los Angeles is filled with a certain tension: 249 anxious souls are taking their turns marching up to the microphone and telling the others the one thing in their lives they would most like to eliminate. Each one is lost in his own deep, private inner space, concentrating on his particular problem: husband, wife, weaknesses, craven fears, impotence, frigidity, grim habits, primordial horrors. The most private, intimate details of 249 individual lives are reverberating over the loudspeaker! For one delicious moment, each person attending this mass confession gets to be the object of everyone's attention. After concentrating on their own lives, they get to bathe in the intense glow of the psychological spotlight. The above scene, an Erhard Seminar Training (est) meeting, is described in more vivid detail by journalist Tom Wolfe in his book Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine. As the title of his book indicates, Mr. Wolfe has a keen eye for what is culturally avant-garde; as a novelist he has specialized in the stylistic trends that mark modern society. He chronicles the fashionable styles and trends which begin with the "Beautiful People," are taken up by the affluent, upper-middle class, and eventually filter on down to the rest of us. Mr. Wolfe is a specialist in what's "in." And what's "in," says Mr. Wolfe, is self. We are living, he says, in the "Me Decade." The 1970s is a decade in which everyone is "shut deep in their own private space," a decade where everyone is consumed with one solitary notion: "Let's talk about me," an era dedicated to the cultivation of self. Mr. Wolfe's characterization has not escaped other observers either. Other writers have taken note of the "New Narcissism," and the "Great Turning Inward." The magazines which cater to the affluent upper-middle class, largely because they themselves must stay on top of "fashion," are also preoccupied with the discovery that the aspect most peculiar to American culture in the 1970s is selfishness. The staff of Time, for example, writes about the self-idolization inherent in the current crop of "get-ahead" books, and Henry Farlie in the New Republic traces all the seven deadly sins, which are so characteristic of our time, back to our vaunting of the solitary self. To take the pulse of the modern age, consider another phenomenon perhaps even more revealing than 249 people publicly airing the most private details of their lives. The most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States, conducts a nationwide phone-in. Now, the future of the Western world hinges on such things as the President's decisions regarding disarmament, peace in the Middle East, and the military balance. Forty-two Americans get a chance to put their questions to the President, and we hear: "Mr. President, what's holding up my check from the Veteran's Administration?" The questions, with some exceptions of course, are related to the immediate self. People want the President to help them with filling out their income tax forms, or with getting their welfare check, or with getting a job. The great issues — the issues which transcend our "private space" — are ignored. While the future of mankind rides on the SALT talks, it is: "Mr. President, can you help me get a job?"
Best-Sellers Sell Self
But the prime bit of evidence that our culture has suddenly legitimatized primordial human selfishness is the crop of get-ahead-by-intimidating-thy-neighbor self-help books. They promise "Power!" and "Success!" They tell us how to "look out for Number One." They tell us that it is OK to be dishonest, selfish, scheming: just don't get caught. One discovers How To Be Your Own Best Friend, or is advised on Winning Through Intimidation. These books are monuments to the sovereign, unfettered self: a self which will brook no repression, which will not subordinate itself to anyone or anything, a self which will be its own ultimate ruler, which would, if it had the power, ascend into heaven to displace God from His throne, for it alone will be Number One. To be fair, of course, God does not exist in the conceptual universe of the get-ahead books. The theology of Winning Through Intimidation is summed up succinctly by the author at its conclusion: "No matter what your feeling is about the rest of my philosophy, you salvaged something from this book if you can first face the reality that nothing you do is going to matter 50 billion years from now, anyway. Relax. Cool it." Life, to these authors, is a zero-sum game: It has all the significance of fighting over who will get the bigger piece of candy. It is the fight of the solitary ego against other solitary egos, a fight which calls out all the instincts of the jungle fighters. Novelist D. Keith Mano describes the general attitude: People are being told to become "psychological jocks out to get a black belt in nasty."
The Great Turning Inward
Perhaps the cause of our egocentric mind-set has something to do with the current interests of the baby-boom generation, that great swollen lump moving through the age statistics, that group of people who were born between 1945 and 1958 when everybody, it seemed, was having large families. Thus the 1950s culture was preoccupied with Dr. Spock and child-rearing. In the 1960s, culture revolved around teenagers. We now call the 1960s the Youth Culture. And the 1970s have brought us the settling-down insularity of young adulthood. Also, in part, there is the great reaction to the frenetic 1960s which were characterized by youthful idealism. We are now all hardened cynics. Certainly the great passions that gripped the campuses only eight or nine years ago seem lost in the dustbin of history. And so the signs of turning inward are all around us. The bestseller lists. The self-realization the — rapists, the psychological snake-oil peddlers. The quickening divorce rate. Yes, there is voluntarism ; there are many selfless volunteers. Blood is still being donated. People still help each other. But the fact remains that the Great Turning Inward is a special cultural characteristic of America in the 1970s. Let's face it: Looking Out for Number One would never have made the best-seller list even six or seven years ago. The apex of the trend is found in our approach to psychology. It is psychology which is at the very frontiers of a culture, at its vanguard. You don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows; it is blowing in the direction in which modern psychology is leading. And where is it leading? In the direction of self-realization, self-actualization. Is there anything wrong with realizing one's abilities and employing one's talents to the full? Of course not. But the Untrammeled Self has become the focal point of many of these movements. There are the Erhard Seminar Training sessions described earlier. There is Transcendental Meditation, assertiveness training, transactional analysis. All are devoted to helping the ego get its act together. Modern man is like the mythological Narcissus, staring at his reflection in a pool, adoring himself. Or he is a yogi, chanting his mantra, gazing at his abdomen, and, we are led to believe, achieving the greatest heights of self-realization — all the while shut up in his own inner space. Modern man is enamored with the there-is-a-hidden-genius-inside-every-person theory of self. It could also be described as the "Great Pearl" theory of self: Somewhere "in there" is a Great Person who must be liberated, and if only we can unearth enough of one's innermost psyche, the Great Person will blossom forth.
The Incontinent Ego
Another weathervane which points to increasing preoccupation with self is our attitude toward sex. It has almost come to the point where chastity, as one writer put it, is considered a sign of an unhealthy preoccupation with sex. Marriage ceremonies now stress not interfering with the "growth" of either partner. Television sit-com characters now promise, when they get married, to be faithful only "as long as we both shall love." And, after a season, the need to up the Nielsen ratings precipitates a divorce. We are not willing to surrender enough of our impregnable psyches to make a marriage work. Each partner is off fulfilling himself. What was once a unit has become an alliance of two self-contained egos who will be faithful only as long as the terms of the "treaty" remain advantageous. And since we cherish our singularity, we flee commitment. We believe it is better to live together without benefit of clergy — that way, no one really has to give up anything. As psychoanalyst Herbert Henden has said, our culture has made caring seem like losing. And so couples live together unmarried. It is the way to enjoy a readily accessible sex partner without having to surrender any of one's individual sovereignty. And none dare call it "fornication," to our ears a slightly antiquated word which suggests a time when people looked outside themselves for their moral standards. Other ages saw sex in terms of a transcendent morality. Today, we make hobgoblins out of "repression" and "inhibition"; they are our hobgoblins because they cause us to restrain ourselves. Sex, for us moderns, has been reduced to so many neurons firing in the brain : an affair of the nervous system, not of the heart and emotion s. Consider the modern sex manuals. They are mostly written without consideration of what in other times was called (here is another quaint phrase) the "sanctity of marriage." Rather they are written for "sex partners." And sex is presented as technique. A workout. A set of gymnastic exercises to be learned much like a quarterback manages football plays. But sex is not considered to be an expression of love, the prototype of God's love for His people. No, that's all syrupy Victorian drivel. We moderns are interested in getting our neurons to fire at the right time. Sex is the relief of tension. But it is not love. And no one — including God — is going to put a crimp in our sexual style. Or consider another best-seller, the Hite Report. It is a hymn to masturbation. Why, it asks, should a woman worry about sexual fulfillment with her "partner" when she can do it all herself? Why indeed. Ours is an age which does not simply tolerate masturbation, it glorifies it. Indeed, such a glorification is the logical extension of our preoccupation with the solitary, unrestrained self.
Moderation in All Things
So what's wrong with our culture's glorification of the self? It is a problem of balance. Mao's China, where individuality was systematically expunged and the self was made to merge into a kind of collectivist mud, obviously does not embody the good life. We are worth something in ourselves, because it is true that in one sense our selves are all we've got. But much more than that, we are worth something because we are made in the image of God. And that is the error that our modern culture — at least this phase of it — has made. God is shut out of the how-to-get-power universe. He is not part of the intimidate-your-way-to-success books. He is excluded from the joy-of-sex manuals. The psychological reason God is excluded from the modern mind-set is that God is incompatible with our personal sovereignty. God has authority, legitimate authority: When we acknowledge God, we acknowledge we are not the masters of the Universe. C. S. Lewis describes the attitude we get into in wanting to uphold the sovereignty of the overweening self. In his autobiography, Lewis tells us why, as a onetime atheist, it was so important to him that God not be acknowledged as part of reality: "What mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer" (Surprised by Joy, p. 172). But our self-seeking is ultimately counterproductive. Happiness cannot be directly made its own end. And yet happiness is the proper end of all our activity. Are we caught in some monstrous cosmic paradox, condemned by some malevolent God to misery because we seek our own happiness and are thereby barred from it? Fortunately, the universe has not been contrived by a malevolent God; rather by a loving Creator who has ordained that man should indeed be happy. But that ultimate happiness can only come from doing the will of the Creator. We can better understand the reason for this principle if we consider what Lewis says later on in his autobiography about not being able to achieve happiness by seeking it directly. Lewis relates how he finally learned the principle that we cannot "enjoy" something while we are at the same time "contemplating" it: "It seemed to me self-evident that one essential property of love, hate, fear, hope, or desire was attention to their object. To cease thinking about or attending to [a person with whom one is in love] is, so far, to cease loving; to cease thinking about or attending to the dreaded thing is, so far, to cease being afraid. But to attend to your own love or fear is to cease attending to the loved or dreaded object. In other words the enjoyment and contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment, for in hope we look to hope's object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning around to look at the hope itself" (Surprised by Joy, p. 218). Lewis seems to be saying that we cannot be happy if our attention is directed to our own happiness. What might at first appear to be a paradox is really simply the way the human mind works. But it is a lesson at least temporarily lost on America in the 1970s. We shall continue our pursuit of the wind: the vain emptiness of trying to attain happiness by concentrating on our own happiness itself, instead of seeking it in the service of God. The words of Christ may stick in our throats; we may hide from them, seek to bury them, banish them to the nether worlds of our consciousness, but they are nonetheless true: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life."