Lee-Roy Chetty
Lee-Roy Chetty

Beyond symbols, we need substance

“The unexamined life is not worth living” Plato says in line 38a of The Apology. The thoughts of an ancient Greek philosopher personally grappling with self-examination and intellectual exploration.

But how do we examine ourselves today?

What happens when you critically interrogate yourself? What are the consequences when you and I begin to call in to question our tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions that we have of the world, our country, ourselves and the people who inhabit it?

Not something we consciously think of every day is it? Certainly not.

It requires what Professor Cornel West refers to as a shift from living in the superficial to living in the substantial.

A process that takes discipline and courage. Courage to think critically and for oneself. Courage to question our abstract virtues. The courage to cut against the grain.

But do any of us really possess that type of discipline and courage?

Or do the majority of us settle for conformity and complacency?

Especially in today’s market-driven society, which rewards and celebrates the hedonistic, individualistic and narcissistic among us.

Where success is all about making as much money as we can, living large, the bling-bling and all that goes with it.

That somehow success is defined on the narrow axis of economic status and financial prosperity. Where often superficial demeanour and appearance pass for reality.

Where too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

Indeed we live in a world today that has been seduced by the romanticism of the ordinary.

Allowing the culture of celebrity and often talentless individuals to dictate the living standards and aspirations of society. Especially our youth.

Justified and reinforced by the licensed coercion of mass media.

Where the entertainment-industrial complex that so effectively bombards all of us, but more in particular our youth with weapons of mass distraction, that keeps them titillated, over-stimulated and so thoroughly distracted.

In 1947, American writer and playwright Tennessee Williams published an essay titled “The Catastrophe of Success”.

In it, Williams describes what happens to people who experience a modicum of success.

He cautions that if in fact you are not spiritually, morally or politically prepared to deal with success, then a form of catastrophe follows.

That far too often, we confuse and conflate financial security with personal integrity. We misinterpret our prosperity with our own magnanimity. That it’s very easy to think that life is all about fleeting pleasures and collecting commodities and that somehow we are able to possess our souls by possessing these commodities.

But it’s not only the wealthy and the middle class that suffer from this catastrophe. It has also become increasingly prevalent among the destitute in our country.

Because the destitute have developed a fetishism of commodities. A fetishism of success.

They believe that all they need is “success” and then somehow they will become a “better person”. “More human”. People will finally “accept them”.

Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote that it takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.

Do we have the courage to examine ourselves critically?

Courage to move from the superficial to the substantive?

The courage to ask ourselves hard questions?

I hope so.

Because the opposite of courage is not cowardice. It’s indifference.

And indifference is contagious. That’s far more dangerous.

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