Have you noticed how personal believes and values change over time? My attitude to life today differs from that ten years ago. Formation and evolution of beliefs differ from one individual to another, as they are affected by temperament and cultural environment. But it seams that there are also certain universal traits in work here.
Looking back at how my own beliefs have changed over time, I am tempted to think that this is more than just my personal journey. Combining my personal experience with educated speculation I suggest that evolution of beliefs can be at least partially traced to the circumstances of every age.
While I wasn’t a violent or an aggressive teenager, I was certainly a cynical one. Proclamation of higher motives I met with extreme skepticism, much more willing to believe in hidden interests than in genuine causes. I believed that sex and money rule the world. That everything can be bought and sold. That nothing that can’t be seen or touched is real. In this age the parents are no longer held in high esteem, they look ridiculously detached from adolescent’s reality. The school is perceived as being hypocritical, politicians are crooks, the media is biased, conspiracy is more likely than contingency, justice is only for the rich.
Such cynicism is quite typical in this age. Adolescence is a time of questioning authority, asserting personality, pushing the limits. It’s a time of revolt against the culture, the accepted norms and values, the common ethos. It’s a part of a normal process of growth. Only through distancing himself from the prevalent culture can the adolescent form his identity.
Early Adulthood: Materialism
As a young adult in my twenties I was becoming preoccupied largely with developing my career. First undergraduate studies in the university, than the beginning of a professional work in the army, I was concerned with securing my financial future. Preoccupation with ensuring high living standards, nice salary, a car, a first trip abroad – these are all marks of this age.
Twenties is a time of professional achievement. The revolting spirit of adolescence is substituted for an effective approach of working inside the system for your own good, rather than working against it. Instead of openly criticizing and questioning the rules and norms, they are used for own benefits. There is no much respect for the ethos of the older generations, but open contempt is now replaced with cynical adoption. The only goods that are valued are material ones. If in adolescence the little money that was available was to be spent on escaping boredom, now it is to be spent on accumulating material goods.
Late Twenties: Technophilia
After quenching the first material thirst, I was starting to notice the stark difference between the way of living of my generation, and that of the generation of my parents. Beyond the superficial layer of technological progress, I was becoming aware of the significant prosperity the Information Age has brought. Personal computers, mobile phones, the Internet seemed brought not only concrete technological improvement into our lives, but also the optimistic spirit of “everything is possible”.
Fascination with technology, that some acquire in an earlier age, develops in this age into a full-fledged technological evangelism. Materialistic indifference to the world at large is transformed into a somewhat arrogant self-assurance that anything can be fixed with technology. Poverty, hunger, corruption – no problem is too big. Technology is deemed to be the liberator of the human spirit – freedom can be broadened, diseases cured, death postponed.
Today, approaching my thirties, I find meaning not in bashing culture, accumulating goods or admiring technology, but rather in deep personal relationships. I see the universe as a cold and chaotic place, devoid of any inherent meaning. And in this void stands a little figure of man, that finds his only hope and solace in his companionship with other, equally puzzled and lonely men. Meaning is not derived from a top-down plan but rather from the experience of connecting and sharing a common existence with other human beings.
Love, altruism, empathy – these are no longer empty words. They are the fundamental bricks on which happiness may be built. And though most people in this age know already their share of disappointments and regrets, we still hope that harmony and inner peace can be achieved through understanding and acceptance of other human beings. Freedom, dignity, responsibility, duty are stripped of their dogmatic and moralistic connotations and are perceived as essential attributes of human society. They are no longer laughed at or neglected, but appreciated and defended. For the first time the ethos of the humanistic culture is deemed not only plausible but even necessary.
If the thirties is a time of adulthood coming into its prime, of professional achievement, of starting a family and building a home, than the following decades may turn to be the time of questioning yourself, of undermined confidence. As a result of a personal crisis, either in relationships (divorce, the death of parents), or in work (job termination, career changes) people often grasp for something larger in their life to account for the setbacks and give strength to endure them.
When natural and immediate systems of meaning, such as work and relationships fail, when cosmic loneliness of man is impossible to bear anymore, people turn to more complex and abstract systems of meaning. Revealed religion, New Age sensibility, mysticism, Western philosophy, Eastern traditions, Nature can be sought to fill the spiritual void. These systems tend to distance the man from the immediate circumstances of his life, and give him strength by exposing him to some greater life truths. Whether through Buddhism or Pantheism, man finds comfort and reassurance in knowing that he is a part of something larger, beautiful and eternal.
Sixties-Seventies: Common Sense
After looking for truth, knowledge and happiness is esoteric realms, people often find it in simple and banal life joys. The tenderness of life-long partner, the time spent with grandchildren, slow walks in the country side. It’s a time of nurturing, of passing knowledge, of leaving a legacy. As most of the life has been left in the past, it’s time of dwelling on memories, writing memoirs, collecting memorabilia. Some tend to nostalgia, others, seeing how their children and grandchildren are wiser than they were, may look at the future with optimism.
Coming full circle since the days of adolescence, people in this age find meaning in immediate and observable things, but these are not money, power or fame, but rather a family life, professional recognition and friendship. If adolescence is the time of pushing the boundaries, old age is the time of maintaining them. If there is some cynicism targeted at the spirit of current times, than it is out of regret and a sense of loss, rather than of spiteful revolt.
While this simplistic pattern obviously can’t represent the variety of ways human lives unfold, it stands to show how our common condition affects the development of our beliefs. How similar or different is your own spiral? It’s your turn now.