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In my last newsletter we talked about spiritual health, and a few options for acquiring that health, such as overcoming suffering or, alternatively, gaining material abundance. In this newsletter we’re going to go beyond talking about the merits of different options to discussing the way in which these options have multiplied.
Go back a few centuries, and there was one religion, one staple crop, and one way of doing things. These days, however, we’re spoiled for choices and options for both spiritual and physical health, and beyond that our emotional and mental health as well. We have countless religions to choose from: some secular, some informal. Beyond that there are a bewildering variety of diet and exercise programs, and tens of thousands of self-help books. We are offered a truly insane number of choices, all backed up by a deluge of data drawing sometimes contradictory conclusions. Everybody wants to be happy and live a good life, but which of the thousands of options best accomplishes that?
I am far from the first person to cover the idea that more options may, in fact, not be a good thing. There was a whole book written about it called The Paradox of Choice. Along with that there’s the associated concept of decision fatigue. Nor am I the first person to point out that acquiring more data can, somewhat paradoxically, make picking the correct path or even any single path more difficult.
On top of all the complexities already mentioned, technology has introduced new options which seem like paths to happiness but which are actually engineered to hijack that impulse. Perhaps you’ve been following Jonathan Haidt’s new substack where he lays out the way social media has done this — promising a world of connection that brings health and happiness, but actually delivering a huge increase in teen mental illness, particularly among girls. Nor are the problems created by technology likely to get better as it becomes smarter (AI) and more immersive (VR).
This abundance of change and choice is historically unprecedented. For the vast majority of our existence (the countless millennia previous to the industrial revolution) the choices were simple, and our knowledge essentially static. Centuries could go by without much changing. Now we’re lucky to make it a full year. The ground is continually shifting under our feet. There may have been less potential for health and happiness in all its forms, but more actual contentment, by virtue of the fact that they knew what the limits were.
If you’re anything like me this brings to mind the depression era policies of FDR. (That’s a joke. No one is like me.) In her book The Forgotten Man, Amity Shales points out how bad things still were in 1937 eight years into the depression. She ascribes this in part to FDR’s mania for experimentation with government policy. We normally think that experimentation is good because it’s the best method for arriving at the right answer. But what if we just need an answer? Shales points out that businesses were left in a state of uncertainty by all the changes and felt unable to move forward with plans because at any moment things could change. The experimentation significantly slowed the economic recovery. What the country really needed at that point, Shales contends, was a solid unchanging foundation to build on.
I wonder if we’re in a situation similar to those businesses. I don’t want to discount the benefits of information and innovation, choices and change. But perhaps what we really need right now is a solid foundation, some way of pausing for a moment so we can get a handle on things.
It seems unlikely that the world is going to pause, which means this effort has to be driven by individuals and families, though I wouldn’t discount the importance of religious communities either. Given that they’ve provided a solid foundation for millions of people for hundreds of years. A foundation which the modern world has perhaps been too hasty at casting aside.
Religions are also valuable for the methodological example they provide. In place of conclusions, changes, and choices, they offer faith, solidity and limitations. And the point of this newsletter is not to say that that first list is bad. But rather my point is that they make a good house but a poor foundation. As someone very wise once observed, it’s a foundation of sand, and what we really need is to build our house upon the rock. Because the rains and the floods are coming…
Come for the discussion of religion, stay for the obscure references to FDR’s Great Depression policy. You know who’s also going through a great depression? My friend Mark. Remember that for the next couple of weeks, all donations are earmarked for him.