It’s always interesting to think about which words have recently been marginalized in our culture because gone with them are different ways of conceiving of the world. Notably, while everyone seemed to use popular psychology to analyze everyone else a couple of decades ago, now “psychology” is rarely mentioned in public. “Evolution,” likewise slipped from mainstream discourse about a decade ago. But the most important word to disappear, in the modern era, is “proportion.”
Proportion lies at the foundations of culture. Yet. our society is increasingly based on disproportion. To name of only a few obvious examples:
- “Supersized” drinks sold in fast-food restaurants and movie theaters. “Grande” sized cups of coffee.
- A lottery with prizes that stretch into the hundreds of millions.
- Medication dished out like candy. (Nearly fifty percent of Americans are on prescription drugs in any 30-day period).
- Social media platforms that were designed to be addictive, to make you emotional (mostly angry), and to keep you on them, wasting your time.
- The “couch potato,” the “jock” who doesn’t read, and the “intellectual” who never works out.
Worse, of course, is the loss of proportion in the public sphere, Here, again, are some of the more obvious examples:
- Politically-slanted media (left or right), that attempts to whip up fear rather than to convey the facts.
- Presidential campaigns that cost billions of dollars.
- College “education” that teaches young people what to think, not how to think.
- Student loan debt that can add up to tens of thousands of dollars (and sometimes over $100,000).
- A increasing percentage of the populace whose primary concern in life appears to be “safety.”
- Biased industry-funded studies (up from 0% during the 1950s to 60% of studies today).
- Social media hysteria.
- Constant surveillance by search engines and social media sites.
- Political violence.
Why Culture Is Based On Proportion
So, considering how disproportionate our society ha become, why is proportion so essential to culture-building?
Proportion is the foundation of everything from law to diet. If someone steals a loaf of bread and is given a ten-year prison sentence and someone else commits a cold-blooded murder and is given a week in prison, both sentences are unjust. And they are unjust because both are out of proportion. Similarly, if you do all of the work at your company but a slacker is given the reward of a raise that is also unjust because, again, it is out of proportion.
When it comes to diet, we know that we need to eat in proportion to our activity. If we do a physically demanding job or work out every day, we need to eat more food than someone who lounges around all day. (But, today we also have to make sure that we eat food that isn’t filled with chemicals and that is natural and nutritious, rather than addictive.)
Drinking alcohol has always been part of Western culture, myths, religion, and seasonal feasts and celebrations. But drinking in proportion to our body and not getting drunk was expected. (Fathers traditionally took their sons for their first pint of beer to teach them how to drink and not get drunk.)
Like clothing, architecture is built in proportion to the human body. Hence the roof is usually two or three feet above our head, the door gives us a foot or so of space above and to our sides, and windows are positions to enable us to see out of them, whether we are standing or sitting down. (Sacred architecture is bigger because it is based around the idea of vastness, space, and Deity.)
Classical education, East and West, trained the mind and the body, and taught the individual the arts of war and peace — calligraphy and archery, wrestling and music, and so on.
Good Times Of Disproportion
A society based on disproportion can be an exciting and very energetic one. In the best of times, it can create new art, new fashions, new genres of music, and even new philosophies. Over the last fifty years, we’ve seen Punk, Goth, Disco, Hip-Hop, and Death Metal, among other types of music and associated fashion and lifestyles. Before that, in art, we had Dada, Cubism, Surrealism, Vorticism, and Abstract Expressionism. And we’ve had extreme sports, extreme yoga, extreme eating challenges, extreme Parkour.
But as creativity runs out of steam, no new art, fashion, music genres, or philosophies are created. Instead, it becomes insular, navel-gazing, ideological and, ultimately, self-destructive. Instead of extreme art, fashion, and sports we get extreme politics.
Every day, there are more and more temptations for us to become disproportionate — to get drunk, to binge on food, to work twenty hours a day, to not work out (yet again), to join the hysterical mob on social media, or to endorse or to excuse political violence because it’s “our side” that’s doing it right now and we don’t have the foresight to realize that our opponents will learn from that and will one day use it against us.
Of course, while we should ignore such negative and, ultimately, self-destructive temptations, there may be times when we need to focus more intensely on something. But these times occur either because we have some catching up to do or because we need to make a radical change in our life. Perhaps you will find that you need to focus for a while on your education, on your relationship, or on getting fitter. But the point of such focus is to get things in your life — your studies, work, relationship, your health and fitness, and so on — in proportion.
What You Can Do
Now, more than ever, it is essential to cultivate proportion. A life based on proportion will offer you mental, physical, and spiritual self-defense in a world that is increasingly out of balance.
First and foremost, this means not wasting time arguing on social media. You won’t convert anyone because those posting political memes and articles on social media know that they aren’t presenting a balanced view or all of the facts. They know that at least some of what they post is little more than a gross distortion. They do it because they don’t like a large segment of society, and because it gives them an outlet to express their own childhood suffering, which they project onto certain politicians along with half of the country. They do it because they think it makes them look moral and intelligent (it doesn’t) and because it’s the easiest way to get “likes.” It’s a drug. And they are addicts. Don’t waste your time arguing with addicts.
Secondly, it must mean developing yourself proportionately: mind, body, spirit. Swept up in news and social media hysteria, most people only develop their intellect (which just makes people intellectually aggressive and, on a profound cultural level, actually ignorant — from dance to architecture, culture is largely physical).
Eat a diet of natural foods, instead of junk food, processed food, or food with lots of additives. Prepare or cook your own food instead of eating out or ordering food all the time. Whenever possible, eat meals with friends or family and make it a small communal ritual.
Read different types of quality books, ancient and modern. If you come across a video on YouTube that presents ideas that you disagree with, listen to it and think rationally about the arguments presented. Better still, seek out the best representatives of the worldview you disagree with — not to make yourself convert, but to gain an understanding of what they believe and what you actually believe, and to give yourself a chance to think and to reason. (As a person who cultivates proportion, you should not see yourself as against half of your country or society, but should recognize that different people — artists, soldiers, poets, athletes – contribute differently to their society when it is healthy.)
Practice an art or a skill. And work out physically. If you’re a man (unless you regard yourself as a feminine man — an embodiment of the shaman archetype), get stronger and put on some muscle.
Regardless of your gender, learn some self-defense, and understand violence and mob violence. (A good resource is Rory Miller’s Meditation On Violence.)
Practice meditation, prayer, or some kind of religious or spiritual ritual every day.
Build periods of quiet into your life. Don’t habitually reach for your smartphone to check social media when your alone. Just get used to being quiet and not doing anything for a few minutes. We weren’t designed to be stimulated all of the time. To think, and to have new ideas and moments of revelation, we have to have periods of quiet in which we can just relax the chattering mind.
Enlarge yourself, mentally, physically, and spiritually. And fortify yourself against a society that seems to be spiraling out of control. But don’t be a naysayer. Contribute what you can. Help others back away from hysteria. Capitalize on your experience and strengths and create something of meaning or beauty — a work of art, a piece of writing, music, a gym, a group for like-minded people — to help show the way out of the darkness.