It is difficult to take a long view of things from a perspective free of the hurly-burly of life. We are mostly preoccupied with what is in front of our nose. Still, there are trends we might observe from a distance that may be more important than whether we get a weekend date. Here are a few impacting our lives:
- Being with friends face-to-face is more difficult than when America was rural, cities were smaller, and cars and super highways didn’t exist. We try to substitute electronic contact, but the relationships are different, less easeful because they are hurried and perhaps shallower. Communities of friends are harder to assemble once past school years. We are more atomized, separated, and detached. The availability of email and tweets create an escape from those who are socially uncomfortable. Face-to-face contact, formerly a pleasure, has become a luxury if you enjoy it and a job you skip if you dislike it.
- Families, too, are more distanced by geography (once the children are grown) than they were even 50 years ago.
- Americans, especially if they are young, are less captured by a particular religion. Worship communities used to bind people together in a way seen less often today.
- The TV and computer present us with the possibility of witnessing the “lives of the rich and famous” and comparing ourselves to celebrities in a way impossible for almost all of human history. Fewer of us might think of ourselves as a “big fish in a small pond” because such ponds have been dried up by competition and contact with the entire world. This fuels the pursuit of material wealth and power, but also dissatisfaction with our station in life.
- As noted regularly, the income inequality between the corporate executive class and the rank and file workers is enormous, fueling further discontent.
- We work more hours and/or travel greater distances to work than recent generations, leaving us less time for other things. On the highway of urban life we live in little boxes, whether cars or homes, and gridlock — stuckness — is the norm.
- The creation of a volunteer army and the elimination of the military draft robbed the nation of a common experience and sense of responsibility to our neighbors and country, not to mention activities and goals pulling people together, including the families of those serving the country.
- We are in danger of feeling smaller and less significant as everything gets bigger and change is faster. Life becomes unmanageable despite all the labor saving devices. Lifelong careers doing one task for one employer disappear as the demands of work change and computerized machines make humans expendable.
Where does this leave us?
We are less interwoven with other people, for one thing. More isolated. More dependent on entertainment by ourselves, unlike those days in which others were more or less unavoidable and solo diversion consisted mostly of building or crafting something, or reading. Since we live without lots of family members around us (as was the historical standard), we spend more time alone — more time focused on ourselves. Thus, man’s innate self-interest is stoked even further.
We humans also must deal with our evolutionary baggage, including a tendency to get used to things (habituation) and want some new object or activity. We pursue money, status, and other goals which we hope will be attractive to others, but don’t counterbalance the mission with effective moral or religious messages to get ourselves “out of ourselves” and on to thoughts of being a part of something bigger. Moreover, in the absence of easy intimate contact (not necessarily sexual) we substitute sensation and material pleasures, which are only satisfying for a short period before we habituate to them and search for a new diversion. No wonder the USA is rated 18th in life satisfaction of the 38 countries measured by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), despite our historical affluence.
What can be done? Several things:
- Join with others. This might include participating in government by attending meetings at which your elected representatives speak or legislate, finding a cause worthy of volunteering for, creating your own philanthropy, reading to children at your library, or joining a religious community or a park district sports team. Alexis de Tocquiville wrote that one of the benefits of worship was to get your mind off yourself and on to something bigger and more distant, not so focused on the day-to-day minutia and irritations we all experience.
- Mindfulness meditation is another way to get outside of yourself and in-the-moment, accepting whatever the present conditions are, and reducing your tendency to wring your hands and worry about yourself.
- Try to reduce your addiction to the rapid-fire stimulation of electronics. Spend a day free of your computer and phone. Read a great book. As Oscar Wilde said, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
- Buddhist philosophy focuses on developing compassion for oneself and others, an antidote to the selfish motives residing in each of us and a mercantile world encouraging them.
- Get away from the city. Walk more outdoors. Let yourself assume the tempo of a life more like your ancestors, the one your body was built for.
- The liberal arts have fallen on hard times. The importance of knowing such subjects as history and philosophy are dismissed. “Be practical,” people are told. “Learn about those things you can turn into dollars.” I’m no philosopher, but I will admit that there are few fields of higher learning as hard to turn into a fortune or even a living as philosophy. Getting a tenure track university job as a philosophy professor is only a bit less difficult than flying without wings. Yet such learning has enormous relevance to our lives. Despite great technical advances, the most important issues are the same as they were 2500 years ago: life, death, love, loss, morality, and purpose. What does it mean to be human? How can one lead an honorable and productive life? Often in therapy, especially with those who are beginning to overcome anxiety and depression, these concerns arise. We can do worse than consult the wisest minds in the world’s history, an oasis in the dog-eat-dog struggle to get ahead. Getting ahead, as it is defined in the West, can leave your soul behind. If your life is focused on making money and spending it for things inessential, you will have earned whatever emptiness you find at day’s end. Should you measure yourself by the size of your bank account or reflection in the mirror, the result is the same. What have you learned from your time on the planet? What do you know about the human project that you didn’t 10 years ago? What is important to you and what are you willing to give up? The world has changed, so we all must change with it. Ask yourself similar questions and chart a new course.
It is hard to find repose — peace of mind — these days. But, I suspect, it is more necessary now than ever.
The first image is called Running Man, by amandasqueeze. The second is Nude Man Running, an 1887 photo by Eadweard Muybridge. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.