Can Art Save Your Life?

We live in an age where depression is epidemic. According to the Black Dog Institute, depression is the third largest individual heath problem in Australia, after heart disease and stroke.  1 in 5 people will experience the black hole of internal nothingness at some time, maybe an extended period, in their life’s journey.

We have failed to find a secular replacement for the problems for which religion was once a solution. We no longer understand how to survive within our allotment of finite resources.

The reality is, we have not been given a whole lot of information about what this Birth to Death Project is about. We’ve had to make it up as we go. We train our children to pretend they get it, lest they lose hope altogether and do something drastic. We have been pretending for so long, we have fallen into the trap of believing that it is the answers that matter, not the questions. We have lost the most basic understanding of all – the understanding that it is actually impossible to know anything for sure. As a society, we really believe the answers are available, if we just try a bit harder, stress a bit more.

As far as I can tell, no-one really knows what we are doing here. Faith seems to be the process of living as though our best guess is right. Wise people and false prophets abound. Platitudes appear on facebook like a plague of toads.

Our culture has a long history of engagement with the sacred (I use the term sacred in a practical sense: the elements of life that hold the greatest value and importance). Art and scholarship are the byproduct of this. It is what we did when there was time leftover from the consummate work of survival. We put our heads up and said “what else?”. We didn’t always do it well, or artfully, but we always did it. Some evolutionists argue that this is the quality that differentiates us most from chimps, our nearest biological relative. We ask “why?”

There was once a time, within living memory, when a person could not claim to be educated without being able to locate themselves in time and space,  physically, psychologically and philosophically. Developing an holistic internal landscape gave us the data we needed to reference, cross-check and move forward intelligently and sustainably. Certainly only the elite were educated. But all leaders and decision makers were drawn from this minority pool.

Culture and art are not a quick fix. They are a 25 000 year old tradition that quickened 5 000 years ago, and then again about 200 years ago.

I’m not saying that art holds all the answers. But understanding the process of the last 5 000 years of engaging with the right questions may be the best we can do. And that may be enough.

The Good and the Generous

I just ordered a great pair of earrings. I got them at the Richard Dawkins website (A Clear Thinking Oasis) for $22.95. They are beaded, amber, in the shape of double-helix-es, and they are also available in other groovy colours. Being a spring natural, amber looks great on me. And they go with most of my wardrobe.

Richard says we don’t need religion to be good and generous. I agree with him. What we do need is a good heart. But has this always been true? For someone who understands so much about evolution, where does he think humans learned to be good and generous?

I don’t think there is any reading of history that presents evidence that human beings are innately good and generous. In fact, there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary. It seems we have attained the virtues of goodness and generosity that we now take for granted very, very slowly.

We seem to have forgotten that the idea of loving one’s neighbour and turning the other cheek were once radical concepts that went viral two thousand years ago. The fact that they are now thoroughly embedded in a secular society is due to great hardship and suffering on the parts of many of our ancestors who were willing to go to the lion pit to defend these concepts, and change the trajectory of history.

And of course, whenever human nature is involved, things become very complex. The corruption of the good and the generous into institutions that oppressed and tortured it’s fellow human beings was to be expected really, considering that oppression and torture were de rigueur (and still are in many places where human nature reigns unchecked). The crusades and the inquisitions were not a Christian idea. They did not appear as an isolated event against a backdrop of people going about their business, cooperatively building a better world. They were a continuation of a long tradition of humans trying to get it over one another.

Richard Dawkins claims to be evidence based, and there is much evidence to show that goodness and generosity are religious ideas. Although we no longer need religion as a vehicle, without it, who knows where we would be? For me the more interesting questions that go to the heart of things are about what we really are under the veneer of civilisation we take for granted?