If only we’d all believe it.

I was a teenager when the grunge movement hit its stride. And I miss it. Not so much the music, as such, but the attitude that stands against the modern self-righteousness and presents a clear view of human nature:

Humans are terrible and that includes me.

Take Nirvana, for instance, and their song “Lithium”. Here’s the verse:

I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends
They’re in my head
I’m so ugly, that’s okay, ’cause so are you
We broke our mirrors
Sunday mornin’ is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared
Light my candles in a daze ’cause I’ve found God


Note the universal “we” in the chorus and the theme that the “ugliness” extends to both the singer and you. There’s a dual movement to the lyrics. We read him as addressing ourselves as the listener but he’s addressing the friends in his head. Their ugliness is a manifestation of his own ugliness. Unlike twice-baked potatoes which are twice tasty, he’s twice ugly. This ugliness in connection to “Sunday morning'” and “God” point toward a sort of secular doctrine of original sin: “All are fallen and have no hope of glory.”

The lyrics are wonderful because they are both universal and particular, remind us that we’re all in the same boat but “I” am paradoxically worse than you. While depressing, they’re at least inclusive. But when we examine the state of popular thinking on human nature, we reach a claim that looks something like this:

“You are fallen and can only hope to achieve glory by being like me.”

Consider the various hashtag movements and populist slogans. Don’t you get a sense that the ego in the modern world has found its perfection? I don’t want to call out particular movements; far more significant is the underlying thinking that penetrates all areas of society and promises to fragment us even more. As we’ve seen over the last few years, movements come and go — we’ve seen the Tea Party and  Black Lives Matter movements peak and decline. I’m more interested in their attitudes and actions over time. 

It seems to me that new social religions emerge with religious leaders and purification rituals that use hashtags as the blood and body and group protests as a church. These new groups define themselves in terms of opposition to others in terms of ritual and word though perhaps not in their written doctrine. Like most religions, there is a significant gap between intellectual belief and individual passions.

Our new tribalism is exclusive, fervent, and exclusive.  It proclaims that we are holy and you are sinful. But until we can say that we all are ugly, I don’t see much hope for a beautiful world.

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