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24 February, 2016

How to Reclaim a Sense of Meaning Amid Meaninglessness

We must restore esteem to concepts, language, pledges, moral integrity, works of art, and forms of life. We live in a world of rampant inflation. Why don’t we try deflation?

We are living in an era that is rushed, short on time, and generally accelerated. How best to describe it? Haste. Constant bustle. Multitasking. We lack time for ourselves, for cherished friends and beloved books, and for enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

Right before our eyes, the weekend – both as a concept and a custom – is vanishing. The end of the week has become the most opportune time to swap one exertion or stress for another. Weekends are now the best time for seminars, conferences, and training sessions.

We do everything hastily. But so often what is fast is of little worth: fast food, for example.

There’s no surprise that one of the most interesting antiglobalist movements in Europe today is the Slow Food International.

Along with this comes fast and automatic consumption – this includes the consumption of creative works. Fast reading. Fast writing. Fast talking. (Because thoughtful conversations might turn off time-poor television viewers.) Rapid-fire communication, even with friends and loved ones.

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At the same time, we live in an inflationary era. Right before our eyes, everything is rapidly losing its value – money, ideas, words, pledges, and even recommendations. Once upon a time, we wrote letters of recommendation infrequently and with regard for our own reputations; today we hand them out left, right, and center.

The value of scholarly books and articles is falling: their quality and content count for much less than they once did. They are not read but simply tallied. Right before our eyes, architecture and artistic works depreciate even as their prices get pushed up by brute financial manipulation because “money talks.”

At our universities, academic endeavors are candidly referred to as “production.” Performance is assessed in the same manner as the agricultural output of collective farms in the USSR.

This is a global trend to a certain extent. In Europe, it used to be that a couple of good articles in serious journals were enough for an academic to secure a position at a university.

Today everything is measured in terms of reams of publications and the number of characters or impositions – not content, ideas or international esteem.

In the first half of the twentieth century, thinkers such as Otto Weininger or Ludwig Wittgenstein could transform the intellectual life of Europe with a single book. Today, no one would offer them a job in the academy – either in Lithuania or elsewhere in Europe. They would be viewed as unproductive people. They wrote too little, too slowly.

Marathon Runners

These features of globalization can be felt in Lithuania and countries like it. A former student of mine at Helsinki University – a doctoral student in philosophy from Riga, Latvia – once quipped that the tempo of life in Finland is like a leisurely Sunday afternoon, while in the Baltic States it’s a continuous Monday morning dash.

When we cross the finish line, we triumphantly congratulate ourselves for our stamina. We sincerely believe that life’s meaning resides in starting-line jitters and the thrill of the finish, but we may not realize that our lives are reduced to a successful endurance run.

Perhaps it’s the other way around? Maybe the most valuable is that which we no longer glimpse and observe as we are running – the sights, impressions, faces, and glances we no longer notice? Why don’t we consider whether or not it is worth running in the first place?

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What’s going on? Is it the loss of the universal sense of meaning brought on by globalization, which results in equating value and meaning exclusively with power, success, visibility, intensity, and fast recognition?

Is it the extreme form of capitalism with its characteristic brutality? Is it modern barbarity’s general tendency to reduce all art and culture to products of market forces? Or is it the mythologized consciousness of postcommunist societies with their inverted Marxism, which refuses to take seriously anything not having to do with markets and financial power? Are we not being exploited by the lifestyle we so enthusiastically acquiesce to? Are we not held back by the fatalistic belief that resisting the very spirit of our times is futile?

The Alternative: Slowing Down

Let’s consider some alternatives. First off, we need to think clearly about what should be done quickly and what should be done slowly. Things to be done swiftly are related to everyday tasks, not aspirations or sources of meaning. For instance, meetings should be few and brief. Reports need to be written expeditiously. Conversations about work should be brisk; after all, work is to be done, not discussed.

Dealings with bureaucracy should be kept to a minimum. News should be gleaned cursorily. Toxic and frivolous information should be eschewed altogether. Life is just too short – we don’t have enough time to read, hear, and see all the things worthy of our attention. It’s also time to return to reading good literature slowly – always returning to the major texts. And the same goes for our favourite plays and films. We should take our time while in the company of friends and family. Cherished landscapes and museums should also be taken in at a leisurely pace.

Most important, we must restore esteem to concepts, language, pledges, moral integrity, works of art, and forms of life. We live in a world of rampant inflation. Why don’t we try deflation?

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This is much needed, because value and meaning must find their way back into people’s souls. Why worship a life where everything lacks meaning and is worth less? Wouldn’t it be better to try to live differently? If we did, we wouldn’t need to see ourselves as victims sacrificed on the altar of globalization, or as mythologized instruments of progress. And we wouldn’t need to rack our brains wondering about secret plots to snatch our souls hatched by the architects of globalization. And so, let’s have less fatalism and less keeping tabs on the centers of global power. And let’s have more freedom and audacity not to hurry – but to delve deeper into things, to read more slowly, and to appreciate every one of life’s moments.


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