The confinement in our homes is forcing millions to stop abruptly, cancel all our plans, and take time to look in the mirror.
Spanish psychiatrist and author, Pablo Martínez, analyses how individualism, existential emptiness and intolerance to suffering, have become some of the main charasteristics of our society.
We continue with our series of in-depth interviews to review the main issues that have marked the last decade.
Pablo Martínez is a well-known psychiatrist, author, and President of the RZ Foundation for the Dialogue between Faith and Culture in Spain.
During the last ten years, individualism, existential emptiness and intolerance to suffering, have increasingly become some of the main charasteristics of our society.
“The rise of subjectivism and the bankruptcy of truth as an absolute value, constitute the most outstanding feature of 21st century society from an ethical viewpoint”, Pablo Martínez points out.
Question. We went from ‘I think therefore I am’, to ‘I feel therefore I am’, and then to post-truth. What is the reference that will be an anchor to human beings in this new decade?
Answer. The two great anchors of human beings are truth and hope. Both come together, they are inseparable and make the backbone of human existence.
These two do not vary with time, we need them today just like twenty centuries ago. What changes is the relationship, the attitude of Man towards these two anchors. That’s where the origin of the current deep crisis of values lies.
The replacement of ‘the Truth’ by ‘my truth’ has broken one of the anchors, dragging the other one, hope, with its breakup. In his best known work From Dawn To Decay, the renowned French historian Jacques Barzun, already warned that ‘the postmodern assault on the idea of truth could lead us to the destruction of 500 years of civilisation’.
The root of the conflict is not cultural or ideological, it is a moral one. Ultimately, it is not a matter of a new philosophy, but a matter of who has the authority in my life and in the world. Does anyone rule up there or can I rule?
A strong earthquake has shaken the foundations of Western civilisation, because in the last 30 years the foundation and nature of the truth have amazingly changed. The change is summed up in one sentence: ‘Truth is dead, long live to my truth!’
Therefore, the rise of subjectivism and the bankruptcy of truth as an absolute value constitute the most outstanding feature of 21st century society from an ethical viewpoint.
Q. Today we talk about liquid sexuality and genders. Is this a reality that has come to stay? How is it affecting the family and society?
A. The crisis of truth is not a theoretical issue to be discussed at a philosophy classroom. It conveys visible practical consequences in daily life. In the midst of this moral landscape, gender ideology is nourished by two of these consequences: individualism and self-deification.
If the truth is within me, then I am the truth. Let’s observe the subtle parallel of this idea with Jesus' statement “I am... the truth and the life” (John 14: 6). This usurpation feeds the fantasies of omnipotence that the human being has always had: "You will be like gods”. This is extremely attractive.
Gender ideology goes far beyond a sexual liberation movement. It does not affect only sexual behaviour or family ethics. It is a whole system of values, a worldview with many features of a secular religion.
It is ultimately a faith in yourself, a variant of the atheistic humanism that enthrones the ‘I’ as its god. It is very significant that one of its favourite words is ‘empowerment’. Empowering means ‘getting power’. That is its dream, its untouchable idol. If I can empower myself, then I can do with my life what I want.
‘If God does not exist, everything is allowed’, Dostoevsky’s character Kirilov said in The Karamazov Brothers.
On the other hand, in the name of love and freedom, gender ideology hides a fierce individualistic conception of the human being. As Lipovetsky (The Age of Emptiness) has pointed out, we live in the midst of an almost Darwinian individualism.
Individualism is today like a tsunami that destroys relationships and breaks commitments here and there. In the midst of this rampant individualism, gender ideology promises us the same paradise of happiness, self-fulfilment and personal freedom that Marxism promised a century ago.
We all know the results: a ruined building, because you cannot build a house on the sand - a materialistic conception of Man and life - but on the Rock - that is Christ.
Q. What do you think is the meaning of life for young people today?
A. The West is undergoing a process of ‘moral osteoporosis’ which is increasingly weakening its ‘bones’, namely the ethical and spiritual framework that sustains it. This eventually leads to important fractures. We start witnessing some of these fractures.
Turning the truth into a matter of personal opinions, inexorably leads to loss of hope, and hopelessness is the door to despair. A society with no hope is a sad society, orphan of a future.
This especially affects young people, those who most need broad horizons to live, the horizon of a hopeful future. Without hope there is no future, and without future the life of a young person loses much of its meaning.
A hopeless future leads to emptiness and frustration. It is the spirit of Ecclesiastes, ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity... so I hated life’.
This vital youth boredom, the annoyance of life, explains something as worrisome as the increase in suicides among children and adolescents, something unusual in the history of mankind.
What has happened so that childhood, the age of excitement, has become the age of disappointment? Life is like a ship that needs to be moored in a safe harbour. If the anchors fail, the ship drifts at the mercy of the wind; then the chances of shipwreck are high.
A similar process happens with the lives of our young people in a world that has lost its two great anchors, truth and hope.
Let´s return the anchor of the Gospel of truth to our Western young people, and they will recover hope and the meaning of life. The author of Hebrews strongly expresses this need: ‘We who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure’ (Hebrews 6: 18-19).
Q. You have written extensively about pain and grief. The concept of hedonistic society was introduced some years ago, how has it developed and what impact has it had in the last ten years?
A. The hedonistic spirit has grown in recent times to levels that we are not even aware of.
Man today is more ‘light’ than ever, low in ‘existential calories’. The sociologist S. Baumann has used the term ‘liquid society’ to express it. Nothing lasts, everything moves very quickly, in search of the hedonist-humanist dream: to be happy, to be yourself.
This pervasive hedonism makes us live in a cloud-cuckoo land, believing that we can get everything we want and avoid everything we don’t want (fantasies of omnipotence again).
Here is where hedonism borders on social pathology and forces us to be on guard.
Today we feel that the world is in our hands almost literally: with a simple ‘click’ we see, hear, buy, do practically everything we wish. The immediacy in the satisfaction of every desire is causing an alarming decrease in the ability to wait (patience) and to accept a refusal (self-control).
Those are traits of a borderline personality disorder: very low tolerance to frustration, impatience and impulsiveness.
Unpredictable reactions of frustration, even aggressiveness, occur when you cannot meet your desires because the hedonistic spirit does not tolerate any type of suffering. Suffering is considered meaningless, absurd. We forget that when we face setbacks or problems we mature as persons and also as communities. Suffering, though an evil in itself, helps us grow.
This hedonistic rejection of adversity has important ethical consequences, for example in bioethics. Abortion, euthanasia or even certain forms of genetic manipulation are a direct result of this intolerance to frustration.
The euphemism ‘relieving pain’ hides a shameless desire to get rid of any situation that involves sacrifice, suffering or even effort. At this point the border between hedonism and selfishness becomes blurred.
Q. Social media has brought a radical change in human relationships. How has it affected our own identity and relationships?
A. We live in a strange paradox: people talk more than ever, but communicate truly less than ever. Technology has allowed people to be permanently ‘connected’ with each other. However, as Simon and Garfunkel sang in the 70s: ‘People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening’. Hyper-connected, yes, but also hyper-alone!
Social networks, apparently the panacea against loneliness and isolation, have impoverished the ability to listen to worrisome limits. We live in a generation of men and women so lazy to listen that we are becoming socially deaf people.
Listening, unlike hearing, requires reflection and reflection requires pause. Both are in alarming decline in a digital society where their opposites prevail: the sensational and the immediate.
There is then a logical consequence: superficiality at all levels and, especially, in relationships. People confuse ‘contacts’ with relationships, ‘followers’ with friends.
Our digital culture, no doubt, has brought very positive achievements, but it entails enormous fragility. Why?
Reality today is captured and expressed by immediate and superficial sensations, regardless of the heart of things, only the surface. This leads inevitably to banalisation and impoverishment.
In this sense the digital culture that contemporary man worships is a giant with feet of clay, at risk of collapsing.
Furthermore, the internet gives a false sense of knowledge. People confuse having information with knowing. To have data is not to have knowledge.
Q. It seems that there is a lack of trust in people and institutions. Those who trust in politicians, religions, people, are seen as ‘fools’. Does this have to do with the changes we are mentioning?
A. Yes. Because of the influence of post-modernity, people show scepticism and rejection towards institutions. This is another expression of the pervasive individualism mentioned earlier. We witness an idolatrous worship of personal independence; in this context belonging to a group is seen as a potential loss of freedom. It is not so much a crisis of institutions as a crisis of commitment.
Institutions are far from perfect, of course, especially since they are made up of imperfect men and women. This has always been the case, but before it did not generate the current scepticism.
The real problem is not the imperfection of institutions (for example the church), but the allergy to commitment in all spheres of life.
And that is where we understand the subtle and powerful influence of the way of being of this world, which does not sympathise with any group that requires commitment and even less if it has to do with God.
This also explains the rejection of the Gospel, that requires a personal commitment to Christ and is expressed in fellowship within a community, the church.
Christ does not only want to be admired, but loved and obeyed. Jesus did not tell his disciples ‘admire me’ but ‘follow me’. That is why Christians and the church have the wind against us today in the West.
Q. How have the changes of this last decade influenced, for better or worse, the current church?
A. They have affected it very deeply. The church has been molded by the values of post-modernity (especially utilitarianism, individualism and hedonism) because it breathes them constantly.
Hence the exhortation to ‘throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles…and run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12: 1).
Without realising it, we approach the church shaped by these idols. The trend, then, is a faith and, consequently, a church that:
- Makes me feel good
- Does not demand effort or commitment
- Does not limit my personal freedom or tell me how to live
People mainly seek the welfare-benefit binomial, because the value of things (and of people) is measured by immediate personal benefit (utilitarianism). When you go to church with this mindset, you will soon be frustrated and disgusted.
This explains, at least in part, the waning commitment to the church and the frequent change of congregation, a sad “church zapping’ in search of the community that ‘makes me feel good’.
Finally we need to mention syncretism as another danger for the church. This is a natural consequence of the crisis of truth. If the truth is not so important and what counts are the experiences (feelings and sensations), then it is possible to choose the best of each religion and make an ‘à la carte menu’, according to one’s personal needs. Those are the new forms of spirituality, which in fact is neo-paganism.
That is why the principle ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda’ (the church always reforming) is so important. We need to be always alert, so that ‘no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit’ (Col. 2: 8) and willing to ‘contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3).
There is a text in Hebrews that is an inspiring motto for me in the dangerous times that we are living: ‘Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful’.