Beirut is a mess of cars, honking horns, pollution and aggression; a seething mass of people moving in every which direction. Many live day-to-day, barely eking out a living, while others with means manage to carve out a private space of luxury. Lebanon lives permanently on the edge of war, not knowing when Israel and Hizballah (the Shia resistance organization), will go at it.
In contrast, the United Kingdom is a largely ordered, law-abiding country where public services run relatively well, and a diversity of ethnicities live together making money or being taken care of by the state. There is an endless stream of entertainment and distraction. Sports, theatre, TV series and shopping keep people occupied. Near Oxford is Bicester Village, where people from across the world come to shop. A stream of consumers cast aside London’s tourist attractions to seek goods that can be found anywhere else in the globe, but at a deep discount.
These are two separate and different worlds connected by airports that are mega shopping centres in disguise, where, again, one can find those same goods. On the surface, there would seem to be little question where one would want to live, as evidenced by the mass migration in one direction, away from places like Lebanon, towards the Western world. However, matters are more complex than first meets the eye.
In daily life, people in Lebanon are more available and readier to help each other, especially in need, than in the UK. Despite – or possibly because of – the governance failures, Lebanon and many other countries maintain a healthy social fabric. They also struggle far less with ideas about gender identity and other subcategories of “self” plaguing the West that create vortices of debate without fruit nor end. Lebanon retains a common cultural field where people resolve problems quickly and efficiently, sometimes by cutting corners. Medical, issues, travel, or the sale of a car can be attended to through a few phone calls. It is who you know that matters, but it’s a small country and most people can get to whom they need to quickly. They then move on to more pleasant affairs, a healthy social life where people feel part of something larger without having to invent a sense of community, or seek a cause to fill the void at the heart of being. They just are.
The UK once had its own version of a thriving culture. The British had their eccentric way of carrying on. Today, however, people increasingly live on the screen or phone, in a safe cocoon of one’s own making with only controlled interruptions. It’s a customized space where everything from food to entertainment is fine-tuned to satisfy what matters: ‘me’. Life is arranged to cater to immediate satisfaction with as little annoyance as possible. Digital technology provides this and it’s difficult to say ‘no’ to ease and comfort. In this machine-driven world, other people become a measured and controlled element, an ingredient, rather than the very stuff of life, as in Lebanon. The result is an increasing sense of isolation and alienation.
Getting things done in the West has also become a cumbersome, overregulated and time consuming process of security checks and double checks, loops that often lock out the very person they are protecting. It is often machines talking to machines and the human being involved is an extra whose needs are a distant secondary consideration. What matters is that the algorithms align.
The problems are not just technological, but bureaucratic. At the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), the concern with litigation means that every single action taken has to be written down, ‘If it isn’t written down, it wasn’t done.’ The result is enormously time-consuming activity primarily aimed at avoiding litigation rather than curing patients. The other unintended consequence is that medical doctors, already stressed and underpaid, quit because the endless, detailed reporting takes away the meaningful sense of service derived from treating human beings. Lebanon may not have a model universal health care system, but doctors there still attend to the needs of patients, not lawyers and bureaucrats.
We can learn why we are here from Dr. Iain McGilchrist, a scholar and scientist, who has demonstrated how the two hemispheres of our brain work differently, and how their outlooks define the nature of our engagement with life. The right hemisphere perceives a larger picture, looks for interconnections, can tolerate ambiguity and.is metaphorical. The left hemisphere is narrowly focused, linear, sequential, grasping and controlling – much like our machines. For healthy and optimal mental functioning, the two need to work together, but because the right mind sees a larger picture, it better serves as a guide for the more focused operations of the left.
Much of what that plagues the West is characteristic of a mode of operation of the left hemisphere of the brain: ever narrower focus and fragmentation of every action. Such an all-encompassing lead for the left hemisphere means we now have an upside down world.
Many still favour the ease and promise of the Western model because chaos in other places is so clearly a problem. When migrating from the poorer to the richer world, they are also in pursuit of having their basic material needs met. However, once installed in the West, they sometimes meet with family breakdown and isolated lives of hard work, taxes, and unsatisfying screen distractions as escape. I know many a taxi driver who has returned home to Latvia or Bulgaria because of an incomplete and depressing workaholic life in the UK.
This Western anomie can lead to people to take up causes and crusades to fill the chasm. We seek something to strive for, whether action on climate change, Palestine, or some other cause célèbre to give us a churning sense of purpose and excitement, of drama and importance, even when we understand little of the living realities of these complex issues. This crusading mind propels polarization and conflict. Lebanon has been marked by war, driven by age-old identities woven into modern ideological banners. The West may have its own civil wars soon because some people’s lives are so empty that they would rather hitch their emotions up to anything with purpose, and kill and die for it, rather than wallow in the mental prisons of our digital age.
The fundamental truth however is that both societies – wild Lebanon and the increasingly machine-like UK – don’t deliver on the full range of our innate human needs, that basic stratum from which all our motivations and reactions operate. The Lebanese model is poor on meeting the need for security, but it has plenty of opportunity for the daily pursuit of meaning and belonging. The Western model does not deliver well on the latter, but it is better on security and status through the protections offered by the rule of law.
Some will argue that most Western lives are not so starkly defined, and that we can mix technological advantages with social life, and an odd travel vacation or adventure to keep things interesting. This may be true, but the direction of travel is clear: every day more and more people are tied to their phones than to living social relations; more and more actions face a rising tide of regulatory or technological hurdles.
What is ironic is that we are creating ways of life that are fundamentally inimical to our very nature, and poison to our most basic purposes. Certainly, the Lebanese model is not the answer; both systems are failures. But, the technological addiction we indulge in continues to reshape our minds, ensuring that our experiences are as shallow as the screens we gaze into. With less and less direct and lived experience, and little satisfying depth, we partake in a new anti-human experiment.
No Meaning without Challenge
Such a world cannot be the source of much happiness. The expansion and deepening of the human spirit requires challenge of the right dose and kind, which inevitably means some degree of pain and suffering. This is difficult for many to accept: the Western model works hard to annihilate challenge, redefined as threat, and discourages people from taking on burdensome responsibilities in the name of self-interest. A life without obstacle or discomfort is now viewed as an entitlement, even a right. The very term ‘micro-aggression’ says it all: if micro, why does it matter?
This proposition is the opposite of what Victor Frankl, a doctor who was cast into the death camps of World War II, described in his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In the real hell of those camps, it was those who maintained a sense of meaning and purpose – a letter to a loved one, care for the other inmates – who had a better chance of survival. This is because meaning makes inevitable obstacles worthwhile as we stretch ourselves into the world in their pursuit.
If the Western world is indeed adamant about annihilating challenge in favour of a technologically-based comfort, then we are in the process of also annihilating meaning. And without meaning, we are lost. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA, in 2022, nine of out of ten Americans believe their country is facing a mental health crisis. The consequences of our shiny new world are anxiety, addictions, depression, suicide and the allure of illusory ideological projects.
Indeed, one can perceive our current trajectory as a form of global suicide. Our technological minders are focused on material gain, or manifesting their left brain talent, but they are also helping us dig our own graves. By being blind to larger context, whether history, culture and biological evolution, we descend into a rabbit hole of the self. We may look fine, but inside we are hollow and empty, right at the edge of losing fundamental purpose. Ironically, despite all their tribulations, most Lebanese are not so. They remain, for now, real if flawed human beings living in terrible circumstances.
In the past, we flourished through simple and direct human relations, embedded in cultures rooted in time, nature and ritual. Common sense and simplicity once prevailed. I remember times in Lebanon in the 1960s when being together with family, talking, laughing, with neither a deadline nor a smartphone was enough to be perfectly satisfied. Similarly, long summers of youth in Canada with almost nothing to do were equally pleasant. Of course, we got bored, and we would then pick-up a book, call a friend, go for a bike ride, or stare into the night sky in awe. There were no phones or video games and yet somehow, miraculously, we were satisfied.
Today, we may have reached a kind of dead end. Material comfort and excessive consumption may seem like steps forward when we gaze at the glass towers rising across the world, or the endless movement and mixing of populations across the earth. However, inside our psyche and soul a partial, half-human is being built, increasingly similar everywhere and lacking in the very quality zealously worshipped in this new world, diversity.
We are becoming half humans for the reasons Iain McGilchrist outlines. We are only whole if both hemispheres of our brains are operating together in the right way. Those simple times in Lebanon and Canada are examples of a healthy engagement of the right hemisphere, where much satisfaction is gained through very little. Today, we are determined to live the opposite.
2,600 years ago, the Chinese sage, Lao-tzu described some of the forces of an imbalanced society. “The more restrictions and prohibitions there are in the world, the poorer the people …The more skills and crafts the people have, the more bizarre and useless objects will be produced. The more laws and regulations are promulgated, the more thieves and robbers there will be.” In other words: in a world obsessed about more and more, including greater control and regulation – a left brained planet – matters only get worse.
Yet there is hope. As our brain is divided into hemispheres that are made to work together harmoniously, so today’s imbalance can be ‘righted’. What is divided seeks itself, said Goethe, and by a new union, produces a third thing: “something new, higher, unexpected”. If we are too mechanical now, we can look forward to a more organic future once we are aware of where we have come to.
For a more truly diverse and integrated human state to come about, rooted in basic motivations and fired by the challenge of ever new horizons, we need lives that are simpler and yet richer – and societies and politics that are permissive of that goal. It is only in that context, shot through with culture, that a more profound satisfaction of being alive arises.