What matters in life

Here are the last three sentences of an opinion piece that appeared in Time magazine some time ago:

It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste—and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.

To what does that “it” refer?  By themselves, these sentences leave open several possibilities.  They sound very much like the more strident remarks that aggressive atheists make about religion.  For their part, believers have been known to reply to these remarks in kind.  People on each side of that dispute tend to build their favorite presuppositions into the way they use words like “reality” and “life,” so that each could accuse the other of offering “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life.”  At the same time, leftists have been known to write this way about right-wingers, especially when the right-wingers in question belong to groups that the leftists see as victims of unjust policies that the right supports.  The phrase “false consciousness” may not be much in favor any longer, but there are other ways of accusing people of being deluded about what political movements are in their own best interests.  The line about “fake status as minority martyrdom” sounds just like the sort of thing left-of-center Americans are often provoked to say when their least favorite political figures claim to have suffered unfair treatment at the hands of a “liberal elite.”  Again, it is not uncommon for right-wingers respond in kind, presenting leftism as a mental illness and a sign of self-loathing.
Indeed, just about any activity or belief of which a speaker disapproves could be attacked in the words that Time magazine used above.  If the speaker is absorbed in a rival activity or committed to an opposing system of belief, it may seem obvious that Time‘s description is perfectly accurate.  For example, when I was in graduate school, I was entirely immersed in the study of ancient Greece and Rome.  For years, I and my fellow students averaged something between 80-100 hours a week studying the languages, literatures, histories, and material remains of classical antiquity.  We socialized primarily with each other, and modeled ourselves on our professors.  So by the middle of our grad school years, we came to take it for granted that every walk of life that did not advance classical learning was a waste of time, a poor consolation for people who couldn’t make it in classics.  We had entered graduate school with a more balanced view, and by the time we entered the job market most of us were on our way back to that balance, but for most of us there was a period starting sometime around the end of the first year and ending sometime before the fourth year when it was hard to take anything outside of classics at all seriously.  I suspect we would all have nodded in agreement if someone had described, say, a career in the insurance industry as “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality,” etc.
Of course, classical scholarship is not one of the most powerful or celebrated professions in the twenty-first century.  So once a person emerges from the odd little world of a graduate program in classics, that person is unlikely to continue taking it for granted that classicists are the only successful professionals.  Other fields enjoy far more  prestige; their practitioners are in much greater danger of becoming unalterably attached to the idea that they and their colleagues have a monopoly on wisdom.  Businesspeople, scientists, and medical doctors seem to number among their ranks many people whose intellectual development is permanently stunted in the condition of the second-year grad student.  For these individuals, the boundaries of “reality” and “life” are the boundaries of their disciplines, and anything outside those boundaries is a “substitute for reality” and a “flight from life,” and people who dwell out there are sad cases to be taken gently, but firmly, in hand.
Political and religious beliefs are even more likely to swallow up a person’s conception of success in life than is a sense of the importance of one’s profession, and certainly less likely to spit that conception back out into the open air.  So it is small wonder that left and right, atheist and believer might see each other in the light that Time magazine describes.  For each ideological group, it seems obvious which things truly matter in life, and people who are uninterested in those things and devoted to others must therefore be fools who are suffering from some peculiar sort of disorientation.  Any influence such fools have on those around them is, of course, dangerous and requires action to reassert the more wholesome values.
So, these sentences represent, on the one hand a content-free insult, but on the other hand the writer’s confession of faith.  What he was attacking as unreal, unliving, and pernicious was the direct negation of what he thought of as most plainly real, lively, and wholesome. To find out who Time magazine was insulting, turn to the original article (which I found here.)
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