I had my first session with the counsellor the company found for me tonight. Quite a surreal experience. I wasn't really sure what to expect - certainly not miracles - but I'm a little unsure as to what we achieved tonight. I'm sure that's pretty normal, to be fair, as simply articulating how I'm feeling (or trying to, at least) took up most of the session. I even gave her the weblink to this blog, which I'm sure will raise a couple of eyebrows and give us a few things to talk about next week...
The written word is probably a more honest window into someone's mind than a spoken conversation because there are fewer boundaries to expression - it's just you, your thoughts and a keyboard.
A few interesting things did crop up in our conversation. Firstly that I'm rather disillusioned with Mankind as a species at the moment. As I alluded to here, I find it really pretty disgusting that not only can Mankind be utterly complicit with the systematic destruction of the environment it lives in the name of profit, but that governments can also prize their own possession of power over the service of the people that they govern. It's almost as if anything can be justified in the name of short-term gain: "I'm alright, Jack" as a governing principle - just let our grandkids clean up the mess. Not that this is any real surprise - the vested interests from institutions as diverse as churches, monarchies, governments and corporations have always opposed change and fought tooth and nail for the status quo. As long as they hold the money and the power, they're quite content to let the world burn, even going so far as to strike the match, from The Crusades to the second Gulf War. As George Bernard Shaw once said "The one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history." We keep making the same mistakes and paying the same price. It's a consequence of the selfishness of human nature - plus it's inherent drive and ambition: Take land, take resources, gain power and destroy anything that tries to get in the way. It's a principle abided by from Alexander the Great, through Genghis Khan to Hitler (and even the current US administration). But after over 4000 years of philosophical and scientific research, how can we still continue to make the same mistakes? I find it hard to accept that we've learnt so little.
I look at the world and see it as being badly broken; and having a good scientific brain, I want to analyse and fix it (undoubtedly a typically male response as well - "Let me get my spanner and screwdriver. We'll be done in a jiffy!"). Studying physics gives you the ability to assimilate information at the macro and micro scales: from the cosmological to the quantum. So you look at the world differently from other people, and this makes you more inclined to question it and want to figure out how things relate to each other. You look at a system, analyse it, see how it works, reduce it to its first principles, see how they work, analyse again and repeat.
I've done this with modern society and identified several major "components" in the way it is structured that directly contribute to the unrest and instability in the world we live in today. (Note: this is by no means a complete and exhaustive list)
1) Religion: Fundamentalist religion is probably the biggest cause of instability in the system (for want of a better word) that we call "The Earth". Religious belief promotes ignorance and intolerance, by demanding faith without critical reasoning and by pitching belief systems into conflict with one another. Christianity and Islam in particular also assert that people can live their lives according to the knowledge and values set out in texts written nearly two thousand years ago, when the structure of society was very different to today's, and our scientific understanding of the universe was much more limited. The whole concept that people should live according to such archaic and outdated codes of conduct is anathema to me. These books were written when their authors had no concept of mass communication, mass transit of large numbers of people across huge distances by air, land and sea, or that people from myriad diverse cultures could be crammed together living in huge metropolises containing millions of people. Now, being a liberal, I'm more than happy to allow people to believe what they want to believe. Some people do find religious faith a valueable force in their lives, and if it helps make them happy, fine. However, religious fundamentalism is dangerous because of its inflexibility - and when you have such a large, culturally diverse population crammed into large centres of population, such inflexibility creates intolerance, tension and inevitably results in violence. And when you have governments actively embracing religious fundamentalism, it results in only one thing: war.
2) Capitalism: The Western world holds up capitalism as some kind of paragon of economic and social virtue; claiming that in the capitalist system, anyone can become a wealthy and successful. Unfortunately, this simply isn't true. Capitalism is the single biggest pyramid scheme on the planet. The nature of capitalism requires that a huge workforce of cheap labour prop up the system so that you can pop down the high street and buy your Nike trainers for the price of a couple of month's salary of the people who made them. It's a system that has the richest 1% of the world's population earning nearly 100 times that of the bottom 20% combined, and this gap gets wider all the time, instead of narrowing. We have the technology and the resources now to ensure that no-one in the world has to live in poverty, but even in burgeoning economic states like India, you still have families living on less than a dollar a day. Politicians continually state that their main priority is "economic stability" so that they're "not risking peoples' mortgages", yet they still subscribe to a system that requires an ultimately unsustainable level of year on year growth to remain stable. The bottom always falls out of pyramid schemes eventually, but as long as the people at the top keep making money... to hell with the people at the bottom who get fucked over. Of course, realigning the world economy to a more equitable, meritocratic system would be no simple matter. I can't imagine many billionaires being pleased if they were told "sorry, there are a couple of billion people in Africa that need this money more than you do", but unless something is done to close the gap between the world's rich and poor, this again will lead to conflict.
3) Denial of Global Warming and fossil fuel dependance: This follows on from Capitalism, really. There are still governments out there that refuse to acknowledge that global warming is a problem, simply because they don't want to compromise their economic growth. It's also no coincidence that these governments also tend to be among the worst polluters. Despite all the evidence from environmental scientists that industrialisation is affecting our environment far more seriously than previously thought and that a tipping point on climate change (where irrevocable damage has been done) could be less than 10 years away, we still can't even agree on what should be done. Humanity is sticking its head in the sand and hoping that the problem will simply go away... and by the time it takes its head back out again, it'll find itself under three metres of water because all the glaciers and half the polar ice caps have melted. There are plenty of viable alternatives to fossil fuels out there, but (of course) no-one wants to fund the research because it's too expensive and will hit their bottom line. In other words, corporations will only try to save the world if there's money in it. As if profits will matter a damn when the environment is stuffed beyond repair...
4) Fear and loathing in the media: The news media has evolved rather worryingly in the last 15-20 years. It's become far more sensationalist, snappier, glossier and provokative. Not only that, the news has become almost exclusively dominated by negative reporting: murder, rape, child abduction, terrorism, war, religious tension. And when its not about promoting a climate of fear, suspicion and intolerance, it's covering which celebrity couple has just broken up, who's been voted off Big Brother, or something equally vacuous and irrelevant. News used to be about informing people. Now it's either there to scare us senseless, or distract us from the real issues that matter. Though again, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The news corporations have their own agenda in the ratings war - be the slickest, most controversial and you'll make the most money - and governments have long manipulated the media for their own ends. I don't even watch ITV News anymore - it's Fox News Lite - and the BBC is little better. Only Channel 4 News (and perhaps Newsnight) has any integrity or the semblance of balanced, in-depth, non-sensationalist reporting anymore. The rest needs to be taken with more seasoning than your daily recommended salt intake...
My counsellor suggested to me that perhaps part of the reason I was unhappy was because I saw this big picture, and that maybe problems as large as these cannot be solved. I thought that was quite an odd, even defeatist, statement. People said that Man would never fly, or that we would never get a man to walk on the surface of the Moon. I believe that any problem can be solved if there is enough will to do it. Clearly, in the case of flaws in a system this large, it would be unrealistic to think that I could fix them alone.
Perhaps I just need to find problems I can fix, things that will make me feel that I've made some tangible difference that matters, and then hope that some kind of Butterfly Effect occurs - by making one small, positive change to the system, given time it will influence larger, positive changes. I still don't know what I'm going to do yet, but I'm going to give it a lot of thought in the coming weeks.