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.
I have a question for you that JoEllen and I talked about the other day. My son has twin baby girls. It upsets him that his wife’s father kisses his teenage grandaughters on the lips. I have witnessed it myself and felt the girls looked uncomfortable. JoEllen said in Mexico it was thought a bad practice because even if the person doing it is not a pedophile it makes young children growing up more susceptible to predators. Any thoughts? My present therapist thinks Matt is right to not want his father-in-law to do that with his children. His wife has no problem with it and thinks Matt is the one with the problem, Sheila Wiedemer
I am no expert in this area, but will share my own opinion. The human species seems to have evolved not to have sexual attraction toward one’s children. Obviously (and unfortunately), this is not always true. That said, I’ve encountered a few people who like to kiss a friend on the lips, including very casual friends. Indeed, I had a very good friend about 25 years older who did this. I kind of instinctively pull away from this. If the kids are uncomfortable, that’s probably reason enough to have concern. Does your son leave the children in grandpa’s care? Does the grandfather in question unsettle your son or you in other ways? This sounds like something you son and his wife need to talk more about. As a new grandparent myself, however, I think our position has its limits as to what we can do or say in most cases. Sorry not to have been more decisive on this issues. As I mentioned, I am not an expert in this case.
You have nailed my plight directly on the head. The loss of a sense of community takes its toll on me. I grew up in a very small town of 200 and as such was basically raised by an entire town. Three churches that also intermingled regularly and a single K – 12 school were the backbone of the community. After high school, a university heavily steeped in tradition created a way for 50,000 people to feel camaraderie, and incoming freshmen bonded together over the shared experience of starting anew.
After that then what? Spending days at the office, then evenings and weekends alone in a box called home staring at Facebook? Drowning out the world and attempting to blur boundaries for a perceived connection at happy hour that eventually proved more troublesome than positive? Family 10 hours away? My saving grace is a regular yoga practice that connects me to a spiritual group, but one hour per day doesn’t cut it.
Yes, I most certainly miss the security and comfort of community.
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Thanks, Katie. Contemporary life, for all its wonders, has turned the way we live upside down. It sounds like you’ve made a good start with the yoga group. The good news, at least from the standpoint of finding others looking for a social group with which to bond, is that there are far more people in your situation than at first seems apparent. You may yet be able to build a community more to your liking.
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Dr. Stein, thanks for another insightful and thought provoking article!
I believe that your following comment best describes our current human condition in the USA: “Getting ahead, as it is defined in the West, can leave your soul behind.”
We’re not only disconnected from others, but we are also disconnected within our own selves. For us as individuals as well as social beings, this is no recipe for contentment or peace of mind.
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Agreed entirely, Rosaliene. Thank you.
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You sure nailed it in this one. Being of a certain age allows me to remember when there were no electronic communications and a phone call was a big deal, when regular face to face interactions were the rule of the day and relatives gathered routinely for b’day celebrations and picnics. Then, “the media” meant the daily newspaper and the radio news (well, yes, there was TV news but it came on at 6:00 and that was our family’s sacred dinner hour so that was not part of the routine). The steel shop where my dad worked was about three miles away and our Catholic parish and school were about three miles away (in a different direction). Everyone knew my family and my family knew everyone else. It is so different now. I was one of the lucky ones in that the last 25 years of my career were spent in schools within walking distance of my home. My children went to school in the district where I worked so , yes, I knew the inside scoop at all times!
I don’t care about celebrities but admit to feeling left behind b/c I can’t be part of the cultural conversation around celebrity life (not that I want that conversation but I couldn’t have it even if I wanted it…). I feel left behind when it comes to a lot of technology / media stuff. its not that I am not capable. It’s more that I am not interested. But the end result is the same: left behind.
Admittedly, I have become less of a joiner now. I am cynical about political issues (where once I was an involved activist…) and can’t find what it takes to even consider church related communities (certainly not Catholic communities – way too much sting there still).
In some ways it is a mixed blessing but I have limited my own use of technology (specifically email, texting, and the use of social networking sites). I want to be plugged in but on my terms and on my timeline. I LOVE that phones tell you who the caller is. Rarely do I answer the phone, preferring to let VM summarize the call rather than actually having to talk to a person in that moment (family members excepted – I ALWAYS pick up the phone for them). I never answer the phone if I don’t recognize the caller id. Yet I remember back forty or fifty years ago when there was a race to answer the phone at home!
I agree so much with the getting outdoors. As my mobility has increased over this past year, I have been able to resume walking to the library, grocery, post office. As many errands as possible are done on foot (and soon back on bicycle when the knees are ready for that). The best moments of my solitary life now are the once or twice weekly excursions over to the Pacific Ocean. I am lucky to be 20 minutes by car away. I am content to walk along the shore and/or sit on the sand and do nothing but watch the water and listen to the foghorn, sea birds, and waves. I feel most alive and most soothed in those quiet moments.
And, yes, as you probably know already, I am a big fan of the liberal arts. I like thinking and pondering and wondering (or are they all the same thing?). I ask myself all the time what is the point of the whole thing? I read and read and read and seek to understand the point but to no avail. Mostly it’s just a mystery but I find that unacceptable so I read some more. I guess I think somehow I am going to be special. I am going to figure out the answers that have eluded the greatest thinkers! I liked your questions: “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?” I suspect that I have learned more in the last ten years than in the fifty plus that preceded them…. maybe it’s all that thinking and those moments of solitude on the beach?
Wow! What a ramble! I’m just going to hit post comment here.. enough is enough… but forgive me if I’ve gone on too far. It hit a chord obviously.
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This is sensational, JT. I think you have given a practical and personal face to what I talked about abstractly. It is very rich. I suspect your time in recovery from your surgery has been informative, but mostly I’m happy to hear you seem to be getting better. I’m almost three months into the same process, and can affirm that it is a learning experience, among other things. Thanks for offering this great comment.