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Century of Change

November 7th, 2023 | 9 min read

By Phil Gaudreau

In the Book of Numbers, chapter 14, Moses, writing about the Israelites who refused to enter Caanan, says that the Lord will “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Other translations suggest these subsequent generations will experience the “consequences” or “punishments” associated with the poor choices of this one stumbling generation. These consequences are often referred to as “generational curses.” Those who miss that warning in Numbers will observe similar sentiments in Exodus 34, Deuteronomy 5, Isaiah 65, and Jeremiah 32 – not counting the references to positive generational inheritances, of course.

The idea of as-of-yet unborn heirs receiving something from you is not limited to Biblical thinkers, nor to those with outsized egos. I have been carefully considering the question of what I will leave my descendants after being introduced to the idea of seven generations thinking by a Haudenosaunee (Mohawk) colleague. It’s a thought process that involves considering the impact of decisions a full seven generations out – a few extra generations past my hypothetical great-grandchildren.

If I peel back from the full seven generations to a more modest four, those great-grandchildren are likely to be born close to the end of this century assuming about 25 years or so between each generation. They will be the inheritors of choices made all along the 21st-century by my immediate family, any intervening family members (who also warrant my concern and attention), and society writ large.

As I pondered what my great-grandchildren might some day think of me or know about me, and what sort of world they might inherit, I was drawn to consider the opposite end of the timeline – my own great-grandparents (which is about as far back as I can clearly trace right now). Though I did not meet or know any of my great-grandparents, I am increasingly getting to ‘know’ them today through family research. And as I retraced their steps, I realized that certain members of this particular generation were highly consequential in deciding who I am today.

Take, for instance, my father’s mothers’ parents’ decision to flee fascist Yugoslavia, and my father’s fathers’ parents’ decision to flee politically tinged persecution in small town Québec. Their independent, yet coincidental, choices to resettle in the same small northern Ontario town and allow their children to marry has had generational consequences leading to my existence. Their trying experience of relocating to a rural and unfamiliar place where they knew no one and didn’t speak the language introduced and exacerbated mental health concerns that reverberated for many years, reaching down to my generation.

At the same time, my grandmother’s experience as a refugee led her to create work opportunities for other immigrants through her lunch counter – a business that would go on to influence my father’s career trajectory, and, because of the demanding schedules of a restaurant entrepreneur, would also affect the way he was parented.

I learned these family truths and identified the ways they intertwined because I wanted to and because I thought there were lessons for me to learn. Yet, as I considered their stories, I realized I could not appreciate them independent of the culture and society of their day.

A New Century

I recently watched a 2002 BBC documentary called Century of the Self. This four-hour piece asks its viewers to consider the idea that the defining characteristic of the 20th century is how it reshaped our concept of self. That, in and of itself, is a pretty remarkable statement when you consider the many potentially ‘defining’ innovations and inventions of the 20th century.

The ‘main characters’ of this documentary include Sigmund Freud, a neurologist known for many theories including those about our inner desires; his nephew Edward Bernays, considered the founder of the public relations profession; and Freud’s daughter Anna, who carried on her father’s research work. Curiously enough, some of Freud’s living descendants today continue to work in related fields in academia. How’s that for generational influence?

Century of the Self is organized by time period, beginning around the turn of the 20th century, allowing the viewer to trace how evolving views over our subconscious mind and innermost desires and how to respond to them as a civilized society play out across governments, countries, and industries.

The concept of acknowledging these desires was first proposed late in the 19th century by Freud and, despite opposition and concerns from his industry at the time (and more modern criticisms and alternate theories notwithstanding), his intellectual heirs further developed his thinking and applied it to manipulate the desires of others, usually for commercial or political ends. The documentary argues that this development gave birth to contemporary Western consumer culture in all its self-centred glory through concepts like ‘self-actualization’.

If Freud provided the fuel through his initial research, it was Bernays who supplied the spark. Whether he was representing cars or cigarettes, blazers or banks, politicians or psychoanalysts (like his uncle), Bernays’ work had one Freudian idea at its core: speak to people’s hearts instead of their brains and, having activated their deepest hidden desires, sate those desires through consumer goods.

As with the creation of anything idolatrous, this new way of thinking begins innocently enough with notions of liberation and empowerment and ends with people enslaved to their lusts. Unsurprisingly, the documentary highlights the corrosive nature this mindset can have on community-centric matters such as faith. In one particularly disturbing interlude, a psychiatrist suggests a group of nuns act out their inner feelings and desires instead of restraining them. The then 118-year-old convent nearly collapsed within a few years and 300 Sisters were removed.

Freud believed civilization had been “constructed to control dangerous animal forces,” that the “ideal of individual freedom at the heart of human democracy is impossible,” and that man must always accept some level of discontent. As the documentary concluded, I wasn’t left with any illusions about what Freud would have thought of those who took his original thoughts and used them to sell t-shirts, win elections, or collapse religious organizations. Nor did I wonder what he, as a neurologist, would think about the social media engines we have today for self-expression, which negatively affects the mental health of so many, or the smartphones which allow us to escape any moment of discontent, awkwardness, or boredom rather than learning better coping skills or building up our character and willpower.

I did wonder what he would think about the effect of his work on his grandchildren and great-grandchildren among us today. While Freud may have meant his life’s work for humanity’s good, he lived to see it misused in his very lifetime.

And, working in the public relations profession myself, I wonder what subsequent generations will think of my work if they become aware of any of it. Unlike Bernays, I have not contributed to wars, political unrest, or public health crises (that I am aware of). However, I too have been part of a system encouraging others to buy and seek personal fulfillment through ‘products’ such as education.

The documentary also made me think about the ways in which the thinking of those who came before me was deformed by culture as generations fell away from faith. How much did a culture which told my ancestors to buy more, and unlock their own potential, and satisfy their inner desires weaken the roots of faith and change the course of my family’s history? And in what ways might the prevailing currents of today’s culture be deforming my own faith, values, and mindset?

The Burden of Knowledge

After considering where we have come from, we must eventually return to the question of where we are going.

In the decades since the turn of the century, we have developed countless new ways to express ourselves based in customizable digital environments that reflect our exact desires and preferences. Social media platforms like Twitter broadcast our every bite-sized thought, while platforms like Instagram broadcast pictures of the literal bites themselves.

Through social media, we can issue our own ‘sermons and gospels’, complete with iconography showing our (possibly manufactured, or at least manicured) lifestyles to the world; we can summon goods, services, and even servants to do our bidding in order to fulfill our desires for food, fun, and entertainment; and we can even tell people how we are to be addressed and judged within the confines of our own personal codes of identity and conduct.

The consumeristic focus on fulfilling our desires and ambitions doesn’t seem to have ended when the last century did, which isn’t a surprise when you recognize it is simply a new coat of paint on the age-old belief system of Self as God. While this ‘faith’ always existed, perhaps the atheistic Freud and the subsequent development of his ideas, rooted in an increasingly secular humanist culture, helped equip this religion of self with some of its modern rituals, language, prayers, and practices.

That said, it would be a mistake to solely blame the tools themselves and, in the process, exclude from blame the mindsets and lifestyles that give them power and the culture that makes it all possible and permissible. I don’t believe most would logically choose to use social media and these self-serving apps in the way we do if not for the way, like the snake in the garden, they promise to make us like God. At that point, it is no longer a head issue – it is a heart issue.

And there’s a darker undercurrent at play here beyond the fulfillment of today’s grocery order or the instant gratification of your favourite song playing whenever you like. The issue is one of relationships, where a culture of consumerism commodifies people such that we are no longer capable of appreciating them as bearing the stamp of God and we instead see them as mere pieces to be moved around the board to advance our goals.

In the process, our values and norms are being subtly reworked. We swap meaningful in-person interactions with ‘engagement’. We’re left with a friends list a mile long but few close people we could actually depend upon. We can speak to just about anyone at any time, yet we’re more lonely than ever. The impact social media has had on relationships certainly makes you appreciate those like the Amish who consider whether a technology will be helpful or detrimental to the community, life, and faith they wish to maintain before adopting it.

Turning the Tide

This is why I have been thinking carefully about how we can yet define the 21st century – both what a good focus for the remaining 76-ish years might be, and how to push toward it. When our great-grandchildren look back, what would we like them to see? How will they understand our choices and the values that shaped them? Will they view us with pity and regret, or appreciation and admiration? And how do our choices fit into the context of where we are coming from?

A recent headline in a major Canadian newspaper asked, “Must Canada accept that the next generation will be worse off than us?” That promising headline was then followed, sadly, by a purely economic analysis that ignored whether any of Canada’s other infrastructure required any ‘investment.’ I don’t think making the 21st century the “century of GDP growth” will leave any of us truly better off.

It may be that my generation – millennials – will not be the ones to define the 21st century. Some may choose to point to the many life and world-altering events which have already occurred this century (perhaps we aren’t done with those just yet) and conclude that the course is being set by forces beyond our control. Yet, by the same token, my great-grandparents could not have expected two World Wars and a Great Depression to have occurred by the time they were middle aged.

Rather than give in to the tide of culture and society, I think these 21st century world-altering experiences should inform where we might go next as a society. If the 20th century was defined by evolving views of self, we as Christians must respond in asserting a more humane approach. At a time when loneliness and mental illness are soaring, perhaps people are finally ready to accept that socially distanced online life, brought to the fore by the pandemic but not invented by it, is no real way to live. Perhaps we are ready to admit that a life based on self cannot sustain itself.

In a bold vision, I imagine churches and denominations leading the charge against the loneliness epidemic by reminding us of our inner worth and connection to each other and serving as a central clearinghouse for those seeking to create and live in community. At its core, such a change would be about creating deliberate time and space for individuals to see the world beyond themselves and to make space in their self-centred kingdoms. Though algorithms may keep us apart online, we can do something in our real, physical, personal life to close the chasm of separation.

Yet, as society becomes increasingly secular and as the pressures on our time - not to mention the lure of an ever expanding array of entertainment options - increase, will people recognize their need for, and the positives of, interdependence through personal networks like churches, service clubs, or even marriages and families? Will they choose to invest in relationships and flesh-and-blood networks, or will they choose the fast food equivalent? A freemium ‘AI friend app’ called Replika has reportedly seen 17 million downloads on Apple and Android platforms, so we know the answer for at least a few of us. And yet perhaps the major ethical lapses and money grubbing of Silicon Valley and its offshoots (Replika, as it turns out, is Russian in origin) will finally give us a Brave New World-type of moment where we reclaim our right to be inconvenienced and are reminded of the importance of living in an imperfect world and an imperfect society away from our phone screens.

New Beginnings

Though we are already nearly a quarter of the way to 2100, and it has been a busy century already, the 21st century could yet be defined by many things. For our sake and our families’ sakes, we are given the chance to shape it.  

And not making a choice is still a choice. Freud did not set out to shape or redefine culture’s values and priorities as he worked away in his office anymore than I do when I am tapping away feverishly on some press release or speaking notes. Society will not wait for Christians, nor for secular humanists or any other faith, to articulate a vision for society for the century ahead – it will continue on, as it has.

The issue, then, is determining how we can offer thoughtful and coherent answers to the important questions that face us, and hold up a mirror to the self-absorbed heritage we have inherited and carry forward today. The question must be asked and answered; you cannot solve a problem you do not realize you have.

With deliberate focus and effort from faithful leaders, I believe this century could truly be defined as a time when we re-embrace what it means to be human. To disagree well. To dream well. To live together and trust for each other well. To love and care for one another well. And, ultimately, to see the imago Dei in each of us and use it as an invitation to turn back to God, rather than to self.

I cannot imagine a better legacy to leave our great-grandchildren.

Phil Gaudreau

Phil Gaudreau is a writer and consultant based in Kingston, Ontario where he lives with his wife and children.