Enduring Values in an Age of Change?


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Ours is a turbulent and challenging age with many major cultural shifts seemingly happening all at once. A few examples: world powers jockey for dominance, civil rights and other rights advocates compete to be heard, major social shifts occurred in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic with its many impacts isolating persons from each other, rapid advances in technology are ongoing, struggles among various political supporters for democracy versus autocracy abound, and increasingly some of these changes appear to contribute to acts of violence. As citizens experience these seismic changes, many are understandably confused, bewildered, and disbelieving with concomitant feelings of anger, fear, and a sense of loss dominating. What has befallen us? Why is this happening? What is going on? How are we to cope? Where are the values that we looked to for guidance and direction? Are there no longer any basic community guidelines to draw upon?

Many of these citizens are experiencing the collective symptoms of grief. That grief is frequently associated with the current changes in our cultural world-order as citizens had understood it (1). This essay offers one way to understand what has befallen us and suggests some guidelines for coping with this sense of distress.

First, let us note that cultural chaos is not new. It has happened before and has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years. Although there have been various theories to explain these periodic changes, data has been limited (2,3). A more robust theory is that of Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) (4), who documented these cultural disruptions throughout history. He noted that the cultural mores of a society are basic and important. When citizens generally agreed with the values, they provided guidance on how to interact with others and how to rear children. This network of customs created a sense of community and belongingness.

Durkheim also noted that disruptions of these traditions were preceded by some significant major event in the culture that altered the usual ways of doing things. When the common cultural rules for social guidance were interrupted, the sense of community and belongingness were lost. Citizens were left confused and in short order there were significant increases in mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, and violence. Durkheim characterized these periods of distressing change anomie, a French word that, roughly translated, means a condition of instability resulting from a breakdown in values.

These forms of anomic social turmoil continue until the impacted society has adapted and modified its emerging culture to the new major disruptive force. Examples of common major disruptions over the years have included significant changes in the economy, technological advances, and contact with new populations of individuals with different standards and traditions. The United States has seen these types of disruptions in its past: the War for Independence, the Industrial Revolution, and the civil-rights movement.

Current daily events indicate that the United States, along with several other major societies worldwide, are now experiencing an anomic period with its attending disruptions. In the U.S., the rugged colonial values of individualism, equality, future progress, and achievement were modified during the Industrial Revolution with the addition of the Protestant work ethic of John Calvin (1509-64) (5). In his theology, the good person was known by the number of good works in which that person engaged. This value-system was in tune with the need for hard work in the newly emerging factory system

In recent times, the development of the desktop computer and subsequent related technological innovations has altered work-settings, raised the global economy, and led to the presence of a variety of online social-media sites. Spurred on by these developments, migrants the world over are moving to countries with these newer resources. This shift has been gradually altering our own nation’s value system, with a new emphasis on instant gratification, the primacy of the self, and the acquisition of material goods (5). This evolution of values has resulted in cultural disruptions and anomie with the expected increases in mental illness, substance abuse, suicides, and acts of violence that Durkheim catalogued.

As noted earlier, citizens become bewildered, angry, saddened, and confused with the new world order and wonder about what to do next. Are there any values that can still provide guidance in making sense of the chaos? Are there any enduring values that can be of help?

In addressing this issue, we need to begin by taking the longer view. The current cultural disruptions will not be resolved quickly. In human history, the only constant is change, and in most of the preceding disruptions the human condition did eventually advance, even though it did not seem it would during the attendant period of chaos. How did our forebears cope during previous disruptions?

For some, the transformative shifts may not have been distressing and even welcomed. For example, those now advocating for accelerating climate change may not be distressed by the current social disruption, and may embrace new opportunities to make their case. However, for those citizens who are distressed by any or all of what they see around them, there are at least three possible strategies for coping.

The first is to take the historic vantage point as Durkheim did (4). As noted, these cultural disruptions have been occurring around the world for centuries. Humans have adapted and civilization has grown and been enhanced. These disruptions are like Nature’s hurricanes. Hurricanes are very destructive to individual humans in their paths but are meant to distribute heat over the face of the earth to avoid subsequent natural calamities for the whole human family. Similarly, cultural disruptions permit the introduction of new ideas to emerge within a confined structure so that the human family can assess their importance and value, and adjust as needed

A second approach is to focus on the inherent wisdom and values residing in the human family. Despite periods of cultural confusion, humans have adhered to 7 basic morals that have been found in 60 cultures across time (6). Bravery, fairness, deference to authority, helping the group, loving your family, returning favors, and respecting property are the basic values that individuals and societies have adhered to in troubled times. These values have assisted humans in past periods of anomie, and are freely available for any of us to implement and utilize.

A third approach is that of a more spiritual dimension (6,7). All the great religions of the world have the Golden Rule as a basic tenet: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This implies love and respect for others and this loving concern for others is good for your physical and mental health, especially in these turbulent times (7). In addition, The Ten Commandments are the moral foundation for many in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths. Similar basic teachings in the other great religions have also stood the test of time. These basic codes of moral values serve as guides for troubled souls in turbulent periods.

It is true that history teaches us change is the basic constant in the human family. It is also true that history teaches us that nothing lasts forever. Perspective helps in reducing stress. Adherence to the three strategies will help to reduce stress.

References

1. O’Connor, M.-F. The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss. New York: Harper One, 2022.

2. Varnum, M. E. W., Grossman I. “Cultural Change: The How and Why.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2017, 12:956-72.

3. Wuthnow, R. “Cultural Change and Sociological Theory.” In Haverkamp, H., and Smelser, N.J., Social Change and Modernity, 256-76. Berkley: University of California Press, 1992.

4. Durkheim, É. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Trans. Spaulding, J. A., and Simpson, G. New York: Free Press, 1951.

5. Flannery, R. B. Jr. Violence in America: Coping with Drugs, Distressed Families, Inadequate Schooling, and Acts of Hate. Riverdale, NY: American Mental Health Fdn, 1997, 2012.

6. Curry, O. S., Mullins, D. A., Waterhouse, H. “Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies.” Current Anthropology, 2019, 60: 47-69.

7. Baldoni, T. A., VanderWeele, T. J., Doan-Soares, S. D., et al. “Spirituality in Serious Illness and Health.” Journal of American Medical Association, 2022, 238:184-97.

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Dr. Raymond B. Flannery Jr., Ph.D. FACLP, is an internationally recognized scholar and lecturer on the topics of violence, victimization, and stress management. Dr. Flannery is available for lectures and workshops for all types of groups and may be reached at The American Mental Health Foundation: elomke[at]americanmentalhealthfoundation.org.

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