It hit me during our Young Families gathering over the weekend: our lives are a non-stop running on a hamster wheel. For young families especially, the typical routine goes like this: wake up, scramble to get the kids ready while getting yourself somewhat ready, shove them in the car and onto daycare, then scurry about to get yourself to work. Work itself carries many demands and loads depending on the specific job and occupation one’s in. If you’re lucky, then you may have a steady 9 to 5 job, or even better yet, one that’s in the public sector where the work schedule is much more predictable and your job security is not at issue. Or you’re in a private sector job where your compensation and job security itself is tied to your performance and results. This precarious scenario itself is another source of worry and anxiety.
Once work is done, assuming you can get out at a predictable and reasonable hour, the mad dash is on to get the kids from daycare, feed them dinner, wash them up, and get them to sleep at a hopefully reasonable hour. Finally some time for quiet! But by this point, you’re exhausted from the day’s work. You don’t want to think or do anything else. Mindless entertainment or diversion is the way to relax until you get tired and it’s time for bed. Or you have to deal with matters you couldn’t deal with while the kids were up. The whole routine then starts all over the next day.
On weekends, it’s time to do the things you couldn’t do during the week: go shopping for provisions, attend social obligations, all while working around our kids’ sleep schedules. Then maybe attend church on Sunday, but even there it’s hard to fully engage in the service or fellowship after because you’re too occupied attending to the kids. After a whirlwind hour or two, it’s back home to unwind and get ready for work and all. In the blink of an eye, the weekend is over and it’s time for the daily grind again.
What is our end goal of all this effort? And where do we find meaning in all of this?
Underneath all of the activity and effort lies our need to sustain a material standard of living that we’ve become accustomed to and that is on par with our expectations and peer groups. We would definitely not work this hard if we didn’t get paid for it, would we? And if there were an easier way to receive the same financial compensation, we definitely wouldn’t work as much, would we? So in the final analysis, all of our hard work and grind is to maintain or improve our material standard of living.
I feel that young families and young people today face even more pressure, because it’s more difficult now to maintain the same material standard of living than the previous generation did. Not to say that they didn’t work hard – they surely did. But for those in their 40’s and 50’s, it was more possible – and more normal – for one spouse to be the main breadwinner and the other spouse to stay home and attend to the family, or at most work part time. Families were able to sustain a certain material standard of living under those arrangements. This seems much more difficult nowadays. Both partners must work to sustain that same standard of living.
The ridiculous housing prices reflect much of the economic strain: houses that were once much more affordable are now out of reach for young families who now also aspire to have the same plot of land that earlier generations had.
When I look at our situation, I can only conclude one thing: we are all captives of our current capitalistic system. It’s an all-consuming one. It literally consumes our time, our energy and our thoughts. Let’s be honest with ourselves: what percentage of our physical time, of our mental thoughts during the day, and energy spent is allocated to earning our income? Even if it’s a steady 9 to 5 job (which I’ll say is becoming rarer and rarer), that’s still a big chunk of the day. And for most jobs, thinking about work doesn’t end there – it will stay on our minds after we’ve left the work setting. For those who work from home or have performance-based work, the mental process never ends.
Now, I am not assigning moral blame on individuals. Unless we are willing to opt out of society (which I don’t even know how that would look), we must somehow live and survive within this system. It would be foolish arrogance on our part to think that we can survive on our own outside of the economic system that dominates our society.
However, my concern is that our minds and spirits – not just our physical time and energy – is and will become captive to the values of capitalistic society. And what are these values? Capitalism at its essence is about material gain. Money. The prime directive of this system is about material growth. More money. Being stagnant or losing money is bad. And so one devises ways to increase this growth and make more money. This is by increasing existing market share, creating entirely new markets, or offering new products and services for the existing market. But the bottom line is growth.
Even if you’re in a job or occupation that’s not directly related to such material growth, you’re still dependent on such growth. You expect your salary to continuously go up, not stay the same or go down. You expect to be fairly compensated for your skills and efforts. But your pay is dependent on the success of our economic system. For example, if you’re a public sector worker, then your pay is dependent on a sufficient tax base that comes from economic productivity.
I write all this to illustrate just how all-consuming our capitalistic system is. And the danger is allowing the values of this system to start defining who we are as people.
We start defining ourselves in accordance with our success in this system. Meaning, do I have a job that pays me a sufficient amount to maintain a standard of living on par with others of my peer group? Is it a position that is esteemed in the eyes of this system and others in society? Does it allow me to provide materially for my family at a standard on par with others? If I cannot do so, then I as a person am not esteemed or worthy. My value as a person is contingent upon my relative success within this system.
What else happens when our minds and spirits are consumed by this system? Our souls become numb. The things that made us alive when we were younger – our dreams, our passions, the things that were innately unique about us – become squelched by the overriding need to conform ourselves to succeed in this system. And because our constant focus is on surviving in this system, there is no space to care for and feel for others beyond my immediate orbit. So apart from my immediate family and perhaps close friends in my vicinity, there is no space for concern beyond that.
I’ve seen this played out in our community so often. When once as young people we were passionate about community and making a difference, that passion eventually became dried out by our need to survive the daily grind in the system. A concern for the broader community by necessity of time and energy become limited to one’s immediate community of family and friends. This has unfortunately been the case for me as well.
But is this our destiny? Is this our fate as human beings? Are we just meant to be cogs in a big system? It’s no wonder that many people don’t find meaning in their lives. I believe that this disconnect between what one must do to survive and one’s authentic self is a big cause of the deep malaise I perceive in today’s society. And by malaise I mean a “general feeling of discomfort or unease whose exact cause is difficult to identify” (Google).
Is there an answer to this malaise? Does the Christian faith have anything to say to this? I believe so.
Sin is a central concept in Christianity. Many Christians have misunderstood the concept of sin. Many perceive it as bad moral actions. For example, lying is a sin. While this may be true, it is a simplistic and superficial way of understanding sin. One accepted concept of sin in theological circles is a state of being “alienated” from God due to our rejection of a right relationship with God.
Our belief is that God created humanity in God’s image – as spiritual beings capable of perceiving beyond our material surroundings. God created each of us in a unique way and saw that it was good. God desired to have a deep and intimate relationship with each of us, just as we are. Just as God affirms who we uniquely are – with all of our quirks, our personalities, our passions, our tendencies – God wants us to love ourselves for who we are and to use that uniqueness for the good of our neighbour.
What we have done, however, is allowed the capitalistic system to distort our sense of who we are – that is, to measure ourselves not as God created us but by the yardsticks of the capitalistic system – and lose our sense of connection and care for our neighbour.
This has been our sin which has led to our alienation from God and others. We have allowed the system to absorb our thinking and values.
The apostle Paul says in Galatians 1:3-4: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (emphases added). Rev. Kim also preached a sermon about Jesus’ mission of bringing freedom from what enslaves us: listen to the sermon here.
The key theme is freedom. The “present evil age” had a specific meaning in Paul’s context, but I interpret it for today’s context as this:
Our capitalistic and materialistic society that makes us extremely self-absorbed and self-centered, and that robs us of our ability to think for ourselves, be our authentic selves and care for others.
By freedom, do I mean a complete, physical and material freedom from this system? No, that is not what I mean. We have no choice but to live in this world, but we are not to be of this world.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
Yes, we must survive in this world, but let us free our minds. Let us not be mentally and spiritually captive to the system. I do believe that people are more than just functional creatures meant to survive. Let us reclaim our humanity. Let us protest against a system that dehumanizes us, that takes away our ability to feel. Let us ask God for the wisdom to discern and be awake.
In the midst of our daily grind, let us try to be aware. Let us not allow the grind to erode our unique selves or rob us of the joy in life. Let us not allow it to scrub away the feeling in our hearts or care for others. Let us renew our commitment to be authentic human beings who need community and a spiritual connection with our Creator.
In this slow and incremental process, I pray that we may become free people who are free to love, care and be people in community.