myth of progress

The Fucking You Get...

A friend and Catholic priest said it like this:

"The fucking you get isn't worth the fucking you get." 

God. What a predicament. 

We are almost always making these invisible tradeoffs, aren't we? 

The Hebrew Scripture opens up, straight out of the gate, with this proposition. It pictures the first humans as being presented with a temptation in which something specifically forbidden looks "pleasing to the eyes and desirable for food."  Turns out, it looked good--but it lands them in a world of suffering. I relate. 

Or another story from the wisdom teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. He tells about a little mustard seed that gets planted, and is nourished until it becomes a huge tree. It grows so large that the birds come in make a nest in it. While that story may not exactly be obvious, a couple of details crack it open: mustard seeds make small shrubs NOT trees, and in the same grouping of stories Jesus had been telling, the birds are always seen as looming specters of evil.  This story is about something growing out of control and it has an effect--a harmful one. Again, I get it. 

Consequences are rarely something humans consider when it comes to making choices. The reality is we are so embedded in short term propositions that its difficult to consider the long term outcomes. 

Recently I was listening to one of the emerging men's-movement-guru's. His bro doctrine was in full swing: "Don't you want to build a bigger business, be a better husband--a greater version of YOU??"

I felt my heart swell along with every other red-blooded blue balled listener. Fuck, YES!! Give me the meat!!  Let's DO THIS!

Then it clicked for me. This isn't really NEW, per say. It's in many ways part of the same dominant cultural mythology that is marbled through the rest of modern society. It rests on a profound assumption--Dr Seuss called it: "BIGGERING" But I'll call it "progress."  And believe me, its as tempting as the god-damned-original-forbidden-fruit. 

Myths and Meaning

A myth isn't an untruth. In fact its a powerful narrative that helps frame and guide people's understanding of their lives. In ancient or classical times those myths often involved personal explanations of the universe. If someone jumped up and then came back down they might say that it was some invisible SOMEONE pulling them back towards the earth. Today our dominant motif, and the way we view the world is through an impersonal lens and our myths tend to be centered around "science."  We would then attribute the forces pulling us downward as GRAVITY. Whatever the actual facts of the causation the way that we connect the dots of our experience lies squarely in the realm of "story" or "myth."  We are always telling these sorts of stories in order to make sense of our world. 

Humans are constantly making meaning by constructing myth and stories. We are constrained to it.

Victor Frankle who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” commented to humans without meaning lived depressing and empty lives. Yet even such “meaninglessness” exists within a meaning vacuum. There is quite simply no such thing as meaninglessness outside of the story we assign to it.

Life is phenomenon until we tell stories about it—until we connect the dots.

Nietzche proclaimed the “death of God’ or the end of the Big-Story. There would be no more metaphysics. Indeed, Camus’ drives the point home with his “Myth of Sysaphus” in which he shows a man, punished by the gods, constrained to pushing a stone up a mountain, only to reach the top and start over once more. This, Camus suggested, was the rather “absurd” reality we live within.  It’s all stories…and there is no meaning…

But the knife by which Nietzche killed God is the one by which he slit his own wrist. The exestentialists, and with them the post-moderns such as Derrida and then Focault, spend great amounts of words in order to tell of us of silence—they tell masterful stories to illustrate the end of stories. Which of course is absurd, to borrow Camus’ word.

A truly ridiculous story goes like this: there was a farmer during the days when surveyors were mapping the border between Finland and Russia who happened to live right along the line. Agents from both countries approached him and asked which nation his farm should be associated with. After thinking about it for some time he responded “Finland.”  When the surveyors asked why that was, he responded: “Well I love Mother Russia, and frankly have always wanted to live there...but the winters are so cold!!” 

Words are powerful. Words are meaningless.

Stories—our present condition is such in which the stories we tell, and the stories that are told to us have great meaning, yet are also malleable.

Which stories will we choose to live by?


If every culture is defined by the ways we interpret reality, the best and most effective structures kind of work like a good bra: invisible and firm. If the myth is obvious or overt it’s usually discountable. But dominant cultural myths (THE DCM) are those that are hidden, woven into the fabric of our assumptions.  

Fascinatingly there are commonalities among agriculturally based state run civilizations—across culture.  It doesn't really matter if it was the Sumerians in 3700 BCE, the Romans in 300 CE, or the United States today; civilization runs on the same dominant cultural myth.

Before we get to it, here's the truth: It's a ponzi scheme. 

For those of you wondering what that is, allow me to define the phrase. A ponzi scheme is when an organization or individual draws investors based on fraudulent information, and instead of paying them the dividends based on actual returns, simply gets NEW investors, paying off the old investors with the new money. Wow...sounds complicated.

How it works is this. Mr. Wonderful gets you to invest 10,000 dollars, with the promise that you'll make $5,000 dividends for investing with him. He then spends your money. He's broke now. And you've got ZERO coming to you. So what's he do? Mr. Wonderful then goes out and convinces several more investors to give him $10k each, which they do because...well...he makes great promises. He then takes THAT money and pays YOU your $5k.  In other words you haven't really made any money. You've actually lost money. But the illusion keeps you satisfied. For a while.The really disturbing thing about Ponzi schemes is that investors are usually thrilled with the results. Until they want to cash out. Then what happens? Well, because there's no money--they're shit out of luck. Sorry folks. Nothing to see here. Move on. Sadly, people have drained their entire life savings, mortgaged their houses, spent their kid's college money hoping for the "get-rich-quick" promises to come true. And in the end, they don't. Lives get ruined.

The Ponzi is based on the notion of constantly increasing size and dimension. There must always be NEW investors, because it's literally covering the costs of the old. There's no REAL growth--only getting larger.

That's why the civilizational structure resembles this scheme. It is based on empty promises from its earliest inception. We know that contrary to what Hobbes said, human life prior to civilization WASN'T short, nasty, and brutish. Instead hunter/gatherer culture is often portrayed by anthropologists as the original affluent society. With as little as 3-4 hours a day of working for subsistence and the rest going to play and inter-tribe socializing. Further more--we also know from the earliest archeological records that the first citizens of the city and state organized socieities lived shorter lives, had higher frequency of illnesses, and experienced overwhelming oppression compared to hunter gatherers. Why the hell would anybody want that? Why did THEY make that choice. 

Well--this gets back to consequences and choices. Because my guess is that's not exactly how it was presented to them. My guess that had they known--or for that matter had WE known--we wouldn't have hitched our wagons to this unwieldily juggernaut. So the deception has to be really good. You have to really sell that shit. 

And the Ponzi scheme of civilization is set up this way. What's over the next hill is better than what's here right now. Your life can be MORE. In fact--the only way to have that "more-ness" is to accept the fact that you're missing something, and that we--WE--can provide it for you. The myth of progress invisibly demands that bigger is better, that newer and next are the desirable, that the forward arc of history is the correct one. The moral imperative is to control our own future, to become more than human, to change our own stars. We increase speed and efficiency, yesterday's limits are today's challenges, and the assumption is that technology will create a world that is the kind we all want to live within. 

This myth is sold in such way that to deny it, you end up looking like a conspiracy theorist or radical. In fact the very word "radical" which formerly simply meant the opposite of a progressive and literally translates "to the root" with an implication of getting back to the basics, is now touted as a fearsome word. Think of terrorists--they've been RADICALIZED. The way this word has even been villianized reveals the implicit bias at work within culture towards the myth of progress. . 

An Alternative

While the myth of progress informs people that difference is to be distrusted and done away with (in order to get as many new people into the Ponzi Scheme as possible), radicals appreciate difference. They prefer an organic story informed by the myths of interdependence and the science of ecology. If progress tells us that MORE IS BETTER, a radical world view says, "LESS IS MORE, SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL." It teaches sustainable growth, appropriate and cooperative technologies, permaculture, and slow-movement (as opposed to breakneck speed). But most of all a true alternative to the myth of progress tells us that kinship and connection are the language of truth. 

Both of the stories I referenced at the beginning of this article are rooted in that tradition. Whether discussing how self-deception and the desire for more lead to a  fall, or the idea that bigger doesn't always make better, these are counter scripts. They're pushing against something, and inviting us, as wisdom literature often does, into a new experience. 

As public philosopher Sam Keen put it: "The new human vocation is to heal the earth. We can only heal what we love. We can only love what we know. We can only know what we touch." The radical alternative to progress is intimate, close, and diverse. Progress at all costs is an impoverished innovation when compared to this.

So What's this Have to Do with Fucking?

I started with a story about "the fucking you get not being worth the fucking you get." Which is really about trade offs, isn't it?  

One of my complaints about the "pro-bro's" is that they don't really challenge the dominant cultural myth. They keep on putting it forward. Progress or else. Bigger is better. More is the only way. Not only does it not challenge this harmful myth, it continues to propagate the untruths. You have to be a Demi-God at the gym to get the girl (or keep the girl), you need more technology, more STUFF, to have the relationships. You need bigger barns, better houses, crazier and and and....

It's exhausting.

So, it feels good for a while, but ultimately leaves you dissatisfied on the hamster wheel. Men who are already exhausted from transitions, middle age crisis', divorce, remarriage, loss of businesses, the rapid decay of their own dreams, are quick to take the bait. They throw themselves into the experience, buy the book, arm themselves with the compound bow that is being sold to them, and hope for a soul change. The approach here is to do whatever it takes to get the wife back, the house back, the business up and running again--and of course, this time, even BETTER than before. But the reality is--its just going to leave them depleted. 

What if a better way to approach your masculinity wasn't to use the same old boring story line? What if it was to radicalize it? What if we chose to listen to our bodies, to work with them, to simplify instead of only consume, to give (more than we get), and to work with our own energies for a while, before we conquer to "enemy" on the other side of the aisle.I wonder if we approached ourselves through the lens of sacred ecology how we might become better gardeners and care-takers of our souls. 

Just a thought.