Oscar-nominated Filmmaker Frederick Marx Reflects on Maintaining Serenity Amid Today’s Social Upheavals

Frederick Marx

One cursory glance at the news is enough to make anyone conclude that we are living in troubled times. A global pandemic has killed more than seven million people, climate change is causing lasting disruptive and destructive weather around the world, and biodiversity is plummeting. Furthermore, extremist movements are gaining power in many countries, and multiple conflicts have erupted and intensified, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, leading to whispers about a Third World War becoming imminent. For thinking observers, it feels like the world is coming apart.

For Frederick Marx, an author and filmmaker nominated for an Oscar for his work making the documentary Hoop Dreams, most of the troubles being experienced today are a symptom of social bonds being eroded, as people become more atomized and isolated – a process that is aided by technology.

“Smartphones are actually rewiring children’s brains for the worse,” Marx says. “Studies show how smartphone use is creating adaptive brain structures in children, making them less capable of interacting successfully in a community. The next generation is losing a whole set of social skills, and their brain’s prefrontal cortex is unable to develop physiologically as extensively as it would if they were not glued to their screens all day.”

Marx believes that, while technology provides many wondrous advantages, people should abandon the notion that it will miraculously solve all of humanity’s various crises. He cites the book An Inconvenient Apocalypse by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen as some of the evidence. Jackson claims that technological fundamentalism is more dangerous to the world today than religious fundamentalism. The wildly successful film Oppenheimer depicts only one such proof, where technology resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb, bringing humanity closer than ever to planetary annihilation.

“If you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention,” Marx says, and then laughs. With all the doom and gloom surrounding humanity’s future, a discerning observer can’t help but wonder what people can do to remain sane in the face of so much conflict and suffering.

“We need to build and strengthen communities, both physical and online ones, but especially physical ones,” Marx says. “I believe that what's going to sustain us through this unprecedented social turmoil is strong communities modeling interdependence and cooperation. Instead of doomscrolling for three hours, how about you have dinner with friends?”

The maintenance and transmission of social bonds is a major theme of Marx’s work. His second book, Rites to a Good Life, deals with how rites of passage, prevalent in premodern societies, are disappearing, and how this vacuum can be correlated with the rise of antisocial behaviors, such as school shootings, drug and alcohol abuse, and gang violence. Marx’s short film, Rites of Passage, explains how ritually guided rites of passage and mentorship are necessary for all young people to transition successfully in their lives – leaving behind childhood and adolescence and accepting the more mature social role of adult with all its accompanying rights and responsibilities.

Seeking to reintroduce these healthy passages back into Western society, Marx also co-founded Youth Passageways - a non-profit bringing together people of different backgrounds, generations, and traditions, where elders mentor and initiate youth, creating communities with healthy, life-affirming, and sustainable cultures.

Another cause for societal atomization, according to Marx, is the lack of secular alternatives to religious gatherings, amid declining religious attendance. Many people today lack that significant ‘third place’ - a venue that allows them to relax and socialize apart from the standard social environments of home and workplace.

It is these “third places” that Marx says can point us toward solutions, ones that reinforce spiritual values and connection. Marx says: “I know many people are asking the same question I am: What do we do with this daily bombardment of bad news? How do we go about our lives, not only with serenity but even with some measure of good cheer?”

A practicing Buddhist for the past 35 years, Marx has made films with Tibetan Buddhists and studied with three other Buddhist schools: Soka Gakkai International, Vipassana, and Rinzai Zen, eventually becoming ordained as a Zen priest. He says that the three fundamentals of Buddhist thought, “the three marks of existence,” have helped him navigate daily life despite the relentless onslaught of negative information.

First, we have to accept that change is inevitable, the only constant. All those things we have can and will be taken away, at death certainly, if not sooner. The second is that suffering is inescapable – we are going to experience some form of suffering in our lifetimes. The third is selflessness or letting go of our ego. Who I am in this world – a certain Frederick Marx and all my accumulated history – is really just a mental fabrication. It doesn't exist aside from the stories I and others make up about its meaning. All that exists is this moment: the here and now. Past and future are just mental creations, ultimately carrying no lasting meaning. By accepting that, we can re-ground ourselves in each newly arriving moment. This ephemera of self, which is usually defined by our possessions, achievements, and cumulative history, including all ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ though they might help inform our present decisions and actions, needn’t necessarily determine them.

Marx discusses his journey with Buddhism in his book Turds of Wisdom: Irreverent Real-Life Stories From a Buddhist Rebel, where he combines spirituality with humor, using himself as an example of how humans worry and stress themselves over things that are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. His stories illustrate how humor can be a life-sustaining tool to help people cope with events they have no control over.

“All throughout history, empires rose and fell, so the end of current modern industrial civilization may well be coming,” Marx says. “What remains a mystery is how bad that end could be, and that’s up to humanity as a whole. I've largely given up hope on governments investing in the changes needed to ameliorate what's happening around the world. But I have great faith in individuals and communities and how we can come together and cooperate, supporting and sustaining each other. This is how, despite the upheavals in our world today, we can maintain a sense of equilibrium and personal meaning, finding fulfillment, and even joy in our lives. Perhaps most importantly of all, it’s imperative to keep doing whatever we're doing to make a positive difference in the world. That serves not only the people whose lives we can impact for the better but keeps us aligned with our deepest sense of purpose.”

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