Each person is a word from God that is never repeated. Or a melody that no one else can sing. They say that no two auroras or snowflakes are the same and that after creating a human being, God breaks the mould and starts again. Each one of us is surprising and unique.
However, today’s society is more like a flock of lambs than a community of different beings. The media flatten the minds like a steamroller; fashions do the rest. We think we are free; but by forcing ourselves to see the same images, listen to the same news, drink the same comments, swallow the same junk food, use the same jargon, we end up letting out the same bleats and it’s really nothing but a lamb. There are fewer and fewer people exercising the right to difference, to indignation, to have their own legitimate, independent thoughts and actions.
The most characteristic feature of the modern world is the importance given to the individual. For centuries the human being lived in anonymity, lost in the background of economic, political and religious institutions. In the 17th century, the philosopher Descartes summed up the turnaround that was taking place: “I think, therefore I exist”. In other words, I do not have to accept what I am told just because someone said so or because it is accepted by tradition, or because society imposes it on me, or because religion commands it, or because it has always been believed and has always been so. Everything has to pass through the filter of criticism. “Dare to think for yourself” – that would be the motto of the enlightened person.
Let no one say that no positive things have come out of it. When someone thinks for himself, diversity arises, points of view multiply, ways of interpreting life and customs. The world becomes more colourful and richer. According to Urs von Balthasar, “truth is symphonic”, it is made up of the parcels of truth that we all possess. Who does not prefer a library of a thousand different books to one of a thousand repeated volumes?
We live in a society that is rabidly humanist, in a land of individuals who are proud of their autonomy and freedom. In the last four centuries splendid declarations on human rights have been produced; democracy has asserted itself as the appropriate space for the exercise of freedoms. Humanist concerns lead us to cultivate the body, which is part of us, and to recognise the importance of happiness and pleasure.
I know that not everything is rosy. Pluralism can be a good corrective against fanatical and dogmatic positions; but if we leave it to each person to determine what is good and what is bad, will we not fall into relativism regarding any conviction that might be stable? And, in fact, is not the lack of confidence in absolute values, the denial of transcendence, becoming more pronounced? And is not superficiality – enjoying the day to day, “enjoying” the present moment – becoming the way to be in the world?
Humanistic demands lead people to come out of anonymity, to activate their conscience and their talents, to defend human rights, to take care of their bodies and to enjoy the many good things that life offers them. Often, however, the result is narcissism, the existence of men and women increasingly bent on their own “I”, incapable of loving anyone outside themselves, isolated in their own home, flattened in their transcendence. Does not individualism, that project of life at the mercy of one’s neighbour, spread its black wing over our society?
So far be it from me to be naïve enough to consider all the air of the modern world breathable, to see in the new culture only flowers of goodness. And here I want to underline what I think is one of the roots of our misfortunes: the fact that we have turned Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” upside down. For many of our contemporaries it seems more accurate to say: “I do not think, therefore I exist. I am amused, I consume, I conform, I am amazed by the media, therefore I am somebody”.
Stunned by human fragility, Pascal said that man is a reed, very weak, but thinking, and therefore more resistant and nobler than the entire universe. A thinking reed. And we persist in making him a reed at the whim of the wind!
A person who does not think becomes a field swept by all the fashions, conformisms, ideologies and the most diverse interests. And there we have the manipulated, instrumentalised, converted into a puppet. The producer, consumer and television viewer replaces the conscious, reflective and responsible man. There are those who think for him, who choose in his place, who decide in his turn, who suck his brains. Does not the Bible compare such humans to animals that are slaughtered?
Who saves the person of each century is this handful of men and women who refuse to get lost in the herd, who have their own ideas to enlighten their lives and are willing to climb up the slope.
Abílio Pina Ribeiro, cmf