“Soul Sickness” in Disneyland?
Posted on 14 July 2014, 9:32
This is a slight rewrite of my editorial appearing in the July issue of the Journal for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies. For more information about the Journal and the Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, Inc., go to http://ascsi.org/
“Was all this real at one time, or is it all Hollywood fantasy?” That was the question I pondered on while sitting on a bench waiting for my wife and granddaughter in Disneyland’s Main Street USA theme park not long ago. Were the late 1800s and early 1900s really as happy as Disney has made them out to be?
Disney aside, when I think of that era, I get fleeting images of happy times. The “Gay Nineties” immediately comes to mind. I picture scenes from Hollywood movies showing couples walking arm in arm in an Easter parade on Main Street, one just like Disney has depicted, people enjoying themselves at a family picnic at the lake or at the state fair. I visualize church socials, families sitting together at a dinner table, kids swimming in the river, neat Victorian houses with manicured gardens, trolley cars with smiling conductors. prancing horses, bells ringing, little specialty shops, soda fountains, happy faces everywhere. Is it all an illusion created by Hollywood?
Actually, some of that was still around when I grew up during the late 1930s and the 40s. People sat on their porches and waved to each other as kids skated on the sidewalk and played ball in the middle of the street. We knew the names of everyone on the block. We had family picnics several times a year. People went to church on Sunday mornings and most stores were closed on Sundays. The ice cream man pushed his cart down the street and kids ran after him with their nickels to buy an Eskimo Pie, returning to a game of hide & seek, with no fear of perverts lurking in the hiding places.
Television changed all that. Adults moved from the porch into the house, and the kids followed. Streets were suddenly vacant. Gradually, we came to not know the neighbors or if we knew them, it was only a nod, as everyone was in a rush to get home, turn on the television, and escape into a fantasy world. TV commercials created a “need” for material things and Sunday was very soon a good day for shopping.
Based on my own childhood observations and experiences, I am inclined to think that Main St. USA is not completely fantasy and maybe such a world as Disney has tried to simulate actually existed at one time. But then when I read some of the philosophers of that period, I wonder. For example, William James, the pioneering psychologist, is said to have suffered from what he called “soul sickness,” and even contemplated suicide around 1870, while he was attending medical school at Harvard.
This soul sickness seems to have affected many people, apparently coming in the wake of Darwinism. “We were all in the first flush of triumphant Darwinism, when terrene evolution had explained so much that men hardly cared to look beyond,” wrote Cambridge scholar and pioneering psychical researcher Frederic W. H. Myers, in explaining why he began searching for evidence of the soul. As Myers saw it, the old-world sustenance was too unsubstantial for the modern cravings, the result being that advances in science and technology were leading to unprecedented prosperity, but, at the same time, this prosperity brought about a decline in the dignity of life. It was suddenly life without meaning. In effect, the advances in science and technology outpaced man’s ability to mentally and morally adjust to them, thereby creating an emotional void. The “death of God,” as decreed by Friedrich Nietzsche (below) in 1882, the same year that Myers helped co-found the Society for Psychical Research, resulted in despair and hopelessness for many, especially the educated classes of the civilized world. There were many who repressed the idea of Nietzsche’s “nothingness” by escaping into mundane earthly activities, but there were others who could not completely repress it or relieve their minds of this soul sickness.
Well before Darwinism impacted the world, mainstream religion was in decline, as science and its concomitant, rationalism, took hold. Thomas Paine’s book, The Age of Reason, published in three parts (1794, 1795, and 1807) influenced many educated people to repudiate their religious beliefs, including both God and the idea of an afterlife. For those who sat on the fence, unsure as to what to believe, Darwinism was the knock-out blow, since it was perceived as totally refuting the biblical account of creation as set forth in the Book of Genesis, which said that God created the world in seven days. Falsus in uno, falso in omnibus – false in one, then false in all – seems to have been the logical conclusion. After all, if the Bible had been inspired by God, as religious leaders claimed, how could an all-knowing God be so wrong? Therefore, god must not exist, and if there is no god, then there must not be an afterlife, either, was the logical deduction.
“Critical rationalism has apparently eliminated along with so many other mythic conceptions the idea of life after death,” observed pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung.
In his study of the late nineteenth century, historian Donald J. Mrozek confirms Myers’s (below) assessment. “The liveliness and energy of late nineteenth-century American culture all but necessitated that its ‘search for order’ would be accompanied by a search for meaning,” he wrote, going on to say that “although the yearning for spiritual fulfillment remained, supernatural forces faced impeachment in a century of rapidly accumulating scientific discoveries, many of which ran counter to the traditional sources of spiritual guidance.”
As materialism, scientism, Darwinism, and nihilism had become the new philosophies, “the late nineteenth century also ached for the comfort and assurance of the religious sensibility, even as specific creeds fell and denominations dissembled,” Mrozek continued. “The need for renewal – on an emotional and spiritual level perhaps even more than a physical one – may have been even stronger beneath the surface than its public expressions, in the face of challenges from science and skepticism, suggested.”
Philosopher Eugene Rose observed that much of the literature of the nineteenth century had non-serviam as a constant theme. The objective was to overthrow God and crush all His institutions, permitting “triumphant Man to ascend His throne to rule in his own right.” This mindset, Rose concluded, was a result of “righteous” indignation against the injustices and tyranny of God and His earthly representatives and was based much more on passion than on the truth.
If the spirits who communicated in the years immediately following the advent of Spiritualism in 1848 are to be believed, there was a plan behind it all – a plan that resulted from a growing loss of faith and spiritual values in an increasingly materialistic world. “It is to draw mankind together in harmony, and to convince skeptics of the immortality of the soul,” was the reply given to Territory of Wisconsin Governor Nathaniel P. Tallmadge when he asked a communicating spirit claiming to be John C. Calhoun, former vice-president of the United States, about the purpose of the strange phenomena.
Apparently, some progress was made in restoring belief in a hereafter by 1914. In reviewing a book about life after death for the April 1914 issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Professor James Hyslop wrote: “The primary importance of the book is the simple fact that the subject can be discussed, when twenty-five years ago a book either affirming or denying immortality would not have received publication, most probably. Skepticism and agnosticism have been so confident of their positions ever since Immanuel Kant and Herbert Spencer, that no man has dared venture to show himself on the affirmative side for fear of being accused of being religious or of being a fool.”
But Spiritualism was not strong enough to resist the negative forces of materialism and rationalism, and it, for the most part, began to weaken around 1900. After experiencing a resurgence during World War I, it quickly faded during the “Roaring Twenties,” when materialism renewed itself after the Great War. An economic depression and then another world war stemmed the tide of materialism for a decade or so, but by the 1960s materialism and its close companions, hedonism and Epicureanism, had clearly declared victory.
“An unfortunate awareness has overtaken our species,” opined humanistic philosopher Alan Harrington in his 1969 book, The Immortalist. “Masses of men and women everywhere no longer believe that they have even the slightest chance of living beyond the grave. The unbeliever pronounces a death sentence on himself. For millions this can be not merely disconcerting but a disastrous perception.”
As Harrington saw it, when people are deprived of rebirth vision, they “suffer recurring spells of detachment, with either violence or apathy to follow.” Harrington saw mass-atheism as responsible for most, if not all, of society’s ills, including misplaced sexual energy. “Orgies, husband and wife swaps, and the like, more popular than ever among groups of quite ordinary people, represent a mass assault on the mortal barrier,” he opined.
The “detachment” observed by Harrington 45 years ago seems to be much the same thing as the “soul sickness” of William James of 145 years ago. It is likely the same thing as what was once called “shell shock” in the military and now called “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD). Some call it “death anxiety.” Whatever name be given to it, it is the result of a failure to find any meaning in life, a failure to see a greater reality. “At the heart of this distress, the illness may be identified, simply and without sham, as the fear of aging and death,” Harrington offered.
“The state of anxiety, the feeling of powerlessness and insignificance, and especially the doubt concerning one’s future after death, represent a state of mind which is practically unbearable for anybody,” wrote Erich Fromm, another humanistic philosopher.
The big difference is that in those earlier years, people did not have all the escape methods they have today. Those of William James’s time didn’t have radio, television, phones, movies, or the Internet. There were relatively few books and limited travel. There just was not much to do to help a person flee from the idea that life has no meaning, if that was what the person had come to believe. He or she might spend many hours sitting in front of a fire place while contemplating extinction, obliteration, and nothingness and concluding that one’s deceased loved ones are gone forever. Nietzsche is said to have gone mad during his final years on earth.
The non-believer now just flips a switch or pushes a button to tune into some fake reality so that he or she doesn’t have to think about death and what might follow or not follow. To some extent, escapism works for many, but it manifests itself in other ways, essentially in developing a soulless society – a society governed by the so-called “Seven Deadly Sins.” Consider how Anger is manifest in everything from world terrorism to simple road rage. Lust is openly celebrated on television and in the movies, and various forms of sex are reportedly now common in middle school. Greed and envy drive our advertising industry and the economy. Pride, more appropriately translated to arrogance, is rampant among our revered athletes as well as our politicians and other leaders. Following the belief that pleasure is the highest good, gluttony and sloth can be observed all around us, the latter especially in a growing entitlement mentality.
Walt Disney apparently didn’t see the soul sickness of the Gay Nineties and our leaders and mental health experts don’t recognize it today. They’ll never recognize it as long as they refuse to accept the existence of a soul, and they will never do that as long as mainstream science rejects it. Who or what will save us?
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I will be published by White Crow Books in July, 2014