Mar 09

The opposite of freedom is wellbeing

etching of adam, eve, and serpent by dmitry myaskovsky“Freedom is being you without anyone’s permission.” Anonymous

“Freedom lies in being bold.” Robert Frost

“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” Thomas Jefferson

“Doing what you like is freedom. Liking what you do is happiness.” Frank Tyger

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom assumes responsibility and most people are afraid of that responsibility.” Sigmund Freud

“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Janis Joplin

and of course, “Freedom is Slavery.” George Orwell

Throughout most of my life, I never thought twice about what freedom means. It seems self-evident: the more the better. In high school, I donned colorful shirts and stopped cutting my hair because I thought that the hippies of the 1960s were free while almost everyone I knew was not. Freedom from oppression and coercion is always at the front of our consciousness because being coerced is a terrible experience. It’s impossible to miss or ignore.

The concept of freedom as a negotiable quality is slightly harder to pin down. As in, everyone has freedom and therefore we all have to curb our individual freedoms when they come in contact with those of another. Related to this is the idea of the social contract, a controversial theory from the 18th century which says that everyone agreed to exchange some of their individual freedom for protection and the rule of law administered by a government.

But the experience at ground level is very different from that posited in theories. When I chaffed under the coercion of my parents and school rules as a kid, freedom seemed a simple thing: I wanted it and didn’t have it. I was denied freedom by parents, teachers, principals, society. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t feel significantly more free, but who’s coercing me? I’m not talking about the coercion of laws and economics, social constraints placed on all of us in supposedly equal measure. Even though I’m well aware that some in our society are much more equal than others, to use Orwell’s phrase, I’m not particularly upset by my lot in society in relation to everyone else. I can work with what I’ve got. As a citizen of the United States of America in 2017, I’m not very oppressed or coerced, at least compared to most other people. But I feel limited nevertheless.

All I want from life is extremely modest. I want to have a good family to love and be loved by. I want good friends and neighbors, a group of decent people to belong to and to share my remaining years on Earth with. I want to be able to practice the craft which is important to me and which I’ve spent my entire life getting good at, although I am more than willing to accommodate the tastes and interests of my fellow humans in the exact manner in which I practice this craft, or even to switch crafts altogether if need be. Finally, I want to be able to continue learning and bettering myself, so that I can be the best person I can be to myself, the people around me, my society, and the planet on which I live.

Ok, you got me—I don’t know how to segue into what I’m trying to say… It’s possible for a person’s completely modest, boring goals to be impossible to realize through no fault of their own, or of their fellow humans, or even of their elected and non-elected leaders. What’s preventing us from living our lives in a halfway decent manner is something much harder to point to than any of these, more nebulous and harder to grasp.  We can start figuring out whats going on by addressing our misunderstanding of the idea of freedom.

During the later Middle Ages in Europe society was going through changes which would have great influence on the way we think of freedom. A growing acceptance of trade and commerce combined with new technologies was undermining the rigid social order, which had remained largely the same since the fall of the Roman Empire. The difference was that now people could buy their way into a higher social position. Before this, whatever station you were born into was the one you died with, no amount of desire or effort on your part making any difference.

Social mobility in practice meant that you were responsible for your own success or failure. When everyone’s lot in life was a foregone conclusion, no one could blame a carpenter for failing to make it rich and send his kids to a private school—no amount of dedication or genius could change that. While it’s distasteful to modern sensibility, this arrangement had an important plus side: if no one can rise to the top or fall to the gutter and god is the only one who controls men’s stations in life, no one need be anxious about failing to strike it rich. All evidence points to the fact that people were relatively content with their lots under a feudal system compared to what came after. I’m not saying they had nothing to complain about, as wars, famines, diseases, and who knows what else were certainly a feature of early medieval life. But it is a historical fact that peasant uprisings, lunatic asylums, the black death, and decades-long, genocidal wars began in earnest for Europeans at the same time as they underwent the shift to early capitalism.

Many factors which played a role in the transition from feudalism to modern society can be identified, but it’s hard to ascribe a causal relationship to any of them. These included growing urbanism, continued enclosure of the commons traditionally reserved for shared use by the peasants, increasing accumulation of capital by merchants vying for power with the nobility. For our purposes, the important thing is that starting in the late medieval period people were more and more likely to view themselves as responsible for their own lives, whereas before this everyone was secure in the role they played in their community and needed only to do their best.

Ironically, the events of the 1960s accelerated this trend toward personal responsibility. Hippies insisted that no one need to follow anyone else’s path, that everyone could be their own person. Not only was everyone now responsible for their own success or failure, but one’s very identity was up for negotiation. It’s easy to see the effects of this pressure on teenagers, at the moment in their lives when they don’t know who they ought to be yet and are desperately trying to figure it out. The question of identity used to not only not be a source of stress, but was instead a source of positive experiences. Children learned a trade from their parents, slowly building up their ego as they gradually mastered more and more difficult things. Now you struggle to find out who you are and establish your identity, choose a career, figure out what makes you tick at the same time as you’re learning what makes everyone else tick… Even under the best circumstances, this can be gut-wrenching. On top of everything else, our society’s obsession with individualism makes it hard to even talk about many of these things lest we seem weak.

Imagine being told that you could be president of the United States, that anyone could, when you can’t even pay attention in class, don’t know anyone whose parents aren’t in jail or on drugs or whatever? That kid is going to grow up with a sense that he’s a failure so deep he’s not even going to know it’s there. He’s just going to go from one experience which confirms what a fuck up he is to another, from juvy to jail to some shitty job flipping burgers. If he was born in a feudal-like environment instead, let’s say, 1980’s Guatemala, he would go through life expecting to pick produce alongside his parents, siblings, eventually children, and as long as the Army didn’t come in to steal the land his village reclaimed from the jungle over the course of seven hard lean years, he would be relatively content.

In contemporary American understanding, everyone is always competing with everyone else, and being poor is not ok, is your own damn fault. This is a really good way to get everyone to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown at all times. We’re just not made for this kind of constant stress and judgment, and increasingly, we don’t have adequate support networks to help each other deal with the psychological and physical burden imposed by the rat race, or simply to blow off steam.

A familiar way to think of this might be the juxtaposition of individual freedoms and the common good. Everyone probably remembers this concept from government class. Different societies can be placed on this scale relative to each other. In doing so, we would find that many eastern societies like China are closer to the common good end of the scale compared to present-day America, which is closer to the individual freedoms side. Modern globalized capitalism is, as a whole, incompatible with the common good side of the scale. It is a force pushing everyone toward the individual freedoms side. But, it is entirely possible that humans as currently constituted are incapable of living meaningful, fulfilled lives without a strong common-good ethos to guide them and keep them grounded. This doesn’t mean that everyone living in less individualistic societies is happy, obviously there are many ways to make life hard for people. But in general, we aren’t made to be “free” on our own: true freedom is being a part of a thriving community.

It can be said that freedom is inversely correlated with sanity insofar as it is only possible to succumb to the pressure of expectations (the main cause of many psychological disorders) when you live in a society in which you possess the freedom to succeed or fail. Conversely, in a society in which everyone is tied to their station in life and understands themselves as a member of their group rather than as a free-willed individual, issues of belonging, identity, and success or failure simply can’t arise.

Essentially, an increase in freedom implies a decrease in well being. I say this because medieval peasants didn’t miss the extra freedom we’ve gained over the centuries, but we free citizens of the free world clearly and profoundly miss the security and sense of belonging which the medieval peasants enjoyed. Modern capitalism relies on this fact to keep us buying shit we don’t need day in and day out. They’re quite clear on the mechanics of using our need to love and belong to sell us things.

Here is theologian Jacques Ellul on the trade-off between freedom and well-being

…man himself is exalted, and paradoxical though it may seem to be, this means the crushing of man. Man’s enslavement is the reverse side of the glory, value, and importance that are ascribed to him. The more a society magnifies human greatness, the more one will see men alienated, enslaved, imprisoned, and tortured, in it. Humanism prepares the ground for the anti-human. We do not say that this is an intellectual paradox. All one need do is read history. Men have never been so oppressed as in societies which set man at the pinnacle of values and exalt his greatness or make him the measure of things. For in such societies freedom is detached from its purpose, which is, we affirm, the glory of God.

There is an interesting theory by Julian Jaynes called bicameralism which essentially says that meta-consciousness (awareness of awareness or thought about thought) was a relatively recent development in human history, as recent as the ancient civilizations of the Near East in the millennia preceding the Common Era. I find this very intriguing. I associate meta-consciousness with the strong sense of self that characterizes late capitalist societies. Meta-consciousness, strong sense of self, may be both the evolutionary hurdle which, once crossed, spurred mankind to amazing technological achievements, and a barrier to being happy. It’s possible that we simply can’t have both advanced civilization like we have today and relatively happy people.

On the other hand, I don’t think that civilization per se is incompatible with high levels of meta-cognition. It may be that most people do not have a highly developed sense of self in any case, so that we’re talking about relatively low levels of highly individualistic people in any scenario. Also, I can’t for the life of me see the reason a low density, low technology (limited if any fossil fuel use), mostly small scale agrarian society can’t exist and even support billions of people. This is obviously an uphill battle at best, but it seems more grounded in reality than the utopias conceived by libertarians, communists, or anarchists. Although it’s possible this would be an anarchist utopia, out of necessity. In any case, such an agrarian society would not necessarily mean a complete absence of meta-consciousness or strong sense of self, perhaps just the opposite.

Almost everyone would be a farmer and agriculture would be extremely intensive. Lots and lots of technology would still exist to help us farm and live good lives, it would just be a tiny fraction of current amounts, in both total number and variety, because there would be no way to create or power it using any energy source more concentrated than wind or hydro. It could still be extremely sophisticated, like, we could still have limited internet in a more stripped down form for communication and laser tag if we’re hellbent on it.

Such a society seems plausible to me so long as we get to it before we turn the world into a desert. It’s how humanity has lived for ten thousand years, except in this ideal society no parasitic government, warlord, or boss would exist to suck up all the surplus (This is because in a densely populated world without fossil fuels to constantly replenish the soil, there will be nowhere to move except unproductive lands. To keep the soil productive season after season, all surplus will need to be reinvested. Such a society can’t afford a parasitic overlord). I know all you modern people out there hate the idea of no cars, no iphones, and farming, but that’s cause you lack the imagination or the knowledge to imagine a way of life other than the current one. You will not be consulted should the opportunity for our civilization to transition to anything but a wasteland presents itself, as you weren’t asked whether you wanted to become lonely, overworked consumers of unsatisfying trash. But you will be much happier. And you can still chew your cud with the other livestock.

Let’s not end on that note! I have every reason to think that all you wonderful people will become much better, much more generous, cooperative, sensitive to others, thoughtful, and yes, even more intelligent should we ever dump the lifestyle we presently practice. Just as the brains of wild animals are much larger than those of their domesticated kin, all our faculties will be sharpened by the transition to a sustainable way of life. And to be fair, I realize that none of us are such crappy humans by choice.

Freedom isnt the act of shedding our attachments, but the practical capacity to work on them, to move around in their space, to form or dissolve them.

“The Coming Insurrection” by The Invisible Committee

Mar 06

What’s the deal with Abstract Expressionism?

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At the Chicago Art Institute, standing in front of Greyed Rainbow, a 1953 painting by Jackson Pollock, I overheard a middle aged man say to his female companion, “I think Emma’s made better fingerpaintings than this one.” Greyed Rainbow appeared unperturbed by their judgment. Why should it? Jackson Pollock’s huge messy canvases that look uncannily like the work of a 4 year old have been celebrated by critics and art history professors since the day Jackson drunkenly dripped them into existence. They’ve been maligned by the Aunt Gladyses of the world for the same length of time. For decades, the art elites have praised the same things that average working people have found ugly and ridiculous. The fact that the opposing assessments are finally starting to lose some of their edge feels slightly disappointing: the longstanding refusal of average people to embrace abstract expressionism seems eminently sane to me.

How did the art world find itself championing 50 foot long canvases that look like different kinds of walls? Walls with fresh and even paint, walls with multiple layers of paint chipping off in places, walls covered in illegible graffiti, walls cracking and crumbling, walls pasted with layers upon layers of colorful posters. Walls covered by tangled vines. The traditional narrative, the one I learned in school, is very simple and familiar. It goes something like this:

Humans have made art since the dawn of history. The first artists made prints of their hands on cave walls and little statuettes of big breasted women. Over time, artists learned more and more about how to depict things realistically, but it took thousands of years. In the Renaissance, the laws of perspective allowed artists to practice art in a more rigorous way, culminating in masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. With the invention of photography, artists were freed up from the task of depicting reality for the first time. By the 1940s, abstract expressionism rose as the dominant school of art, a triumphant culmination of its history up to this point. The artist’s field of creative expression has been blown wide open into infinity.

This heroic narrative is as stupid as it is widespread. The basic idea seems to be that art has paralleled the rest of human history in its climb from obscure beginnings to its triumphant present state. This alone should give us pause, since the notion that humanity is now at its zenith is already being tested by all the horrible consequences of our hubris and short-sightedness, from environmental catastrophe to the human effects of globalized capitalism. But this linear narrative of art hides and obfuscates much more than that.

Ancient artists drawing on the walls of caves were really, really good. Their images of different animals are spot on, anatomically and dynamically sensitive and accurate, but more importantly, they are extremely effective images in the sense that they seem to capture and convey the essence of the animals they depict. From the beginnings of human history, artists used art as a means of communication, and as such were aware that some ways of depiction communicate more effectively than others.

Much early art is perfect in this sense, which is amazing when one considers that all early artists were technically amateurs, in today’s terminology. You’d think at least some of the ancient art we find would be crappy, the work of a novice not yet in full command of the expressive possibilities of his or her medium. At the very beginning we were already as good as we would ever be at making art. Sure, we’ve invented new art forms, and some people made really big artworks, but nothing we’ve done between Lascaux and the latest Venice Biennale has surpassed the effectiveness with which the earliest artists practiced their craft to communicate with their audience.

The notion that the arts have developed linearly over time is ridiculous. Linear progress is a very important idea for purveyors of fascist ideologies of all stripes, but the truth is that the only cases of such development in the history of art are to be found within individual civilizations or societies, and even then only if one also considers the development to continue after the high water mark into decadence and deterioration.

I passively learned this narrative from Gardner’s History of Art just like everybody else. But then I saw an exhibition of Ancient Near Eastern art at the Met: the 4000 year old bronze sculptures of people were as good as anything ever made! They were sensitively observed, accurately depicted, and just awesome to imagine doing whatever it is they did for Sumerians or whatever who used them.

In 1943, the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote about Pollock’s art, “I took one look at it and I thought, “Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country has produced.”

Really?

It’s too much. Better than Sargent? Hopper? Frederick Church? Grant Wood? Thomas Hart Benton? Whistler? The above mentioned stone-age artists? Greenberg’s comment is above all revealing of the contempt in which he held American painters, American art. It’s hard to understand Clement Greenberg’s attitude without understanding the power of the narrative of human progress, and how mid-century Americans perceived themselves in relation to it.

It was pretty much taken for granted in the first half of the twentieth century that the human experience has been one of ever greater achievements, and that contemporary civilization was the pinnacle of human achievement up to that point. Coming out of World War II, the United States was widely seen as the very crown on that pinnacle. While the rest of the industrially developed nations had been literally bombed to the stone age, the U.S. was not only unscathed but at the height of its economic power, turning out the majority of the world’s industrial output, setting the standard for all other nations in every field of human endeavor.

Every field except one. While the whole world may have thought of the U.S. as number one in every way, cultured Europeans found the entire thing vulgar, the way old money shames the new. America may be an industrial giant and a purveyor of everything anyone the world over could possibly want, from bubble gum to Hollywood Westerns, but that’s all low culture, the boorish attempts of an upstart society to look cool. To some in the American cultural establishment, this perception really rankled.

The painting which prompted Clement Greenberg to call Jackson Pollock the “the greatest painter this country has produced” is Mural, a 1943 commission from Peggy Guggenheim. It is a canvas 8 feet tall and 20 feet long, intended for the foyer of her new home. Mural is not yet made with the “drip technique” which made Pollack famous, but it looks pretty much the same as his latter work, maybe slightly less boring. (Jackson Pollock started making his paintings by dripping paint over them on the floor after he saw the work of Janet Sobel at Peggy Guggenheim’s The Art of This Century Gallery; Sobel was the first to do the “drip” thing.) In any case, one can easily see what Clement Greenberg saw in what Peggy Guggenheim saw in this yet unknown artist: the balls on this guy! He’s making giant pictures (well, he wasn’t before, but Peggy set him straight) which fit perfectly into the narrative of artistic progress, and look like nothing anyone’s made before! I can see the dollar signs in Peggy’s and Clement’s eyes…

The relationship forming between Greenberg, Guggenheim, and Pollock would prove to be the legendary foundation of American dominance of high culture. It would also set in motion profound changes for the world of art. Most importantly to them, perhaps, the capitol of culture will no longer be tied to a place with lots and lots of culture, like Paris—it will now be New York, the financial capitol of the world. For many years, figurative art will literally be considered outmoded; anyone who stubbornly persists making images of people and things, like the ones people enjoy looking at, will be a pariah in the art world, unable to exhibit their work seriously. Paintings smaller than a barn door will also not be taken seriously.

Most important to me, the changes set in motion by the Abstract Expressionist “revolution” will also reinforce the worst possible aspects of certain damaging ideologies. We’ve already talked about the narrative of human progress. Clement Greenberg may not have spent much time thinking about that one because at the time it seemed so self-evident to everyone. But he did spill much ink over his art theories, many of which have remained with us to this day. Greenberg believed that progress in the arts is in the direction of always less content. In the bad old days, someone who intended to make a picture had to make it be about something— Jesus, a basket of fruit, a pretty landscape, a bunch of drunk randy peasants. But art was never about the things depicted in the pictures, that was simply the price artists had to pay to do what they really liked doing: plopping gobs of paint on surfaces, dripping it on, smearing it around with their stubby fingers like kindergartners to their heart’s content.

Greenberg would create an entire theory around this idea that paintings should be about nothing, depict nothing, say nothing, and it really caught on for a very long time. Even many figurative painters who came once the ban on figuration was finally lifted, people like Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein, and Lucian Freud, felt compelled to make their figures inscrutable, their paintings devoid of narrative. To Greenberg, painting is about the paint caking the two dimensional surface of the support.

For a long time, average “uncultured” people convulsed at the sight of abstract art while art critics and other art-world personalities thought it was just great. Today, I’m afraid the decades of pimping huge abstract canvases have paid off, and more and more people believe that abstract painting is good. Visual art is different from music, theater, or literature, insofar as it’s not always obvious what is good and what is bad. With music, it’s clearcut: if you hear an amateur or just shitty musician, pretty much everyone knows they’re no good immediately. Even the shallow, cliché stuff they pipe to us over the radio must meet certain basic standards of quality to be found acceptable, even if that minimum quality is often the work of producers armed with autotune. Not so in the visual arts: terrible paintings are adorning the walls of every coffeeshop across the country, and no one is clued in to their crappiness. At the highest levels of the art world it’s much the same thing: once Picasso opened up the doors to crappy art, there’s been no closing them. It’s incomprehensible to me how careers have been made painting the same blank canvas over and over, when not fifty years before a quality painting was still scrutinized for it’s message and the skill with which it was made.

It seems silly to tell artists not to do something they want to do, but I will do that anyway. I think artists are as confused as anyone else, by the heroic narrative of progress, by the rock star treatment given to drunk hacks like Jackson Pollock, by the continued promotion of abstract art by galleries and critics. But the truth is that abstract painting sucks. It’s not challenging to create. It is limited compared to figurative, narrative painting. There is almost nothing abstract painting can do that can’t be done better by figurative work. In fact, there are great figurative paintings that work in part precisely because they are also great abstract paintings, like some Manets or Turners, but the opposite is never true. It is essentially a cop out from learning to paint. The people who buy it like it precisely because it’s safe and not challenging, a good match for their couch. If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine, but I think we should call it what it is—a sell out, a lower order of art, or hold it to the same standards as figurative painting.

The notion upon which abstract art is based, that form can be divorced from content, is false. An abstract painting still has content—that’s why there are great abstract paintings. Did you think it was because of the “technical mastery of shape, color, and line” exhibited by the artist? The notion that we can appreciate technical expertise devoid of any subject is absurd. The splotches of color which dissolve into “ugly” brushstrokes as you get close to them in a Sargent painting, they are beautiful because when you step away again, they come together to describe a gorgeously rendered figure. They are nothing but ugly brushstrokes free of that figure. To use an example from another artform, Kafka is considered the premier stylist in the history of writing. But not even his impressive literary technique will convince anyone to read the insurance reports he filed at his job as a bureaucrat. Simply, form doesn’t exist separate from content, they are the two halves of the yin and the yang, each impossible without the other.

Abstract painting still has content, it is still representational. There is no non-representational painting because as long as you intend for your painting to be seen by others, you are representing something to them with it, if only your own confusion. Shit, I forgot about “art for art’s sake,” the idea that art is made purely for the sake of making art, rather than to communicate, or dazzle, or share a feeling. Do I even need to discuss this one? It’s also not true, is laughable. Unfortunately, the content of most abstract paintings is usually only the ancient story of decadence, delusion, and shirking responsibility, although in theory there is nothing preventing someone from loading a non-figurative piece with information and beauty, feeling and mood. Many have.

With figurative art, the responsibility is mandatory. Every time someone paints two figures, they are endowing them with a story of some kind. Mostly, this will be a pretty boring story since most people aren’t that interesting or creative. But by creating a story, the artist takes responsibility for something, opens themselves up for judgment, not just by the art critics but by anyone who will ever look at their picture.

If abstract paintings have no content and only form, the only criterion by which they can be judged is whether one looks different enough from all other abstract paintings or not. That’s just ridiculous. With such criteria, we’re literally just checking off boxes: the early arrivals got to enter history simply by painting blank canvases, circles, rectangles, squiggles. With these niches occupied, the next group had to be slightly more creative in choosing their “unique” look, but it was still wide open and not hard to find. As fewer and fewer yet undone gimmicks remain, artists are forced to be ever craftier and more sneaky, but eventually nothing anyone could do will look sufficiently different from what’s already been done. I’m pretty sure this point has already been reached, hopefully. Maybe now we can go back to the old way, where the standards by which a work of art is judged are how well it communicates what it has to say, which is almost always a factor of the skill the artist brings to their craft, which is something that comes from practice and tradition.

The politics of abstract expressionism serve as an interesting sidenote. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded organization created to promote American culture and values, sponsored exhibitions of Pollock’s work. But despite the decidedly unrevolutionary nature of the project embarked on by Peggy Guggenheim, Clement Greenberg, and the rest of the American cultural establishment, most of the artists who were associated with Abstract Expressionism held far left of center views. I’ve seen it written that the large size of the canvases used by many of these artists was an attempt at making them too big for the museum and the gallery. I know, it’s absurd. In any case, I don’t believe any of the radical artists made rich and famous by Peggy and Clement’s art world coup complained about it or tried to return the money, although I understand that Jackson himself was tormented by his fame and whatnot. Then again he was tormented before he was made famous too.

Mar 04

To my friendsters

yuppies at the beach

A friend of mine used to tell me that looking at facebook depressed him because it seemed like everyone was having these amazing, satisfying lives, while he seemed to be going from one trial to another. It makes sense to me that we would post the best of ourselves for others to see and not the worst, but perhaps the fact that he was scrolling through the lives of hundreds of friends and acquaintances at once was deceptive, insofar as someone always has something good to share if you look at a big enough group. I personally know very few people who would claim to be content in any meaningful way with their life. Although everyone is making a valiant effort, and few people are outright failing.

How one defines success or failure is another matter. I know successful people by any worldly standard: their mothers would brag about their achievements breathlessly. And I know people who are not successful in the eyes of society, necessarily, but they do good, honest work, and have nothing to complain about in that regard. And yet, I know very few people who would say they are content. I certainly wouldn’t claim to be happy with my life.

Dear friends, acquaintances, fellow travelers through life, I am lonely and discouraged, and the conversations I have with you individually don’t resolve these feelings. I should say that I am not in any bad way, that I’ve been in a bad way before, and am now in a relatively good place. The best, in fact, I’ve been in maybe 15 years. In a good enough place to want to address the people with whom I’ve shared this world, although I am not sure what if anything I hope to come of it.

Many people think it’s a waste of time to complain about problems outside of one’s immediate control. This may be called the Alcoholics Anonymous school of thought: that whatever the external situation, we only ever have control over ourselves, and therefore we should focus on the things we can change within ourselves rather than things in the external world. That may well be a fine attitude, but sometimes a person tossed around helplessly by conditions outside of their control just needs to hear their fellow humans acknowledge that we are all in this same boat, at the mercy of events and circumstances, and there is little any of us can do about it. While it’s true that our reactions to external events are the only things we can control, not everyone can summon budda-like equanimity in the face of adversity. But everyone needs to feel like they belong to a group of fellow men and women, dealing with the same problems.

I don’t feel like I do. I don’t feel like I belong to a group of fellow humans sharing their problems and triumphs, the same external reality as me. Not most of the time. Not in a way I could call satisfying. At 37 years of age, having lived half my life in the same city, mostly the same neighborhood, knowing many of the same people for decades, I often feel like I am pretty much alone in the world. It’s kind of terrifying. In the long run, it becomes debilitating. It’s a feeling that, little by little, smothers initiative and hope, like an advancing glacier.

The last time that I did feel like I belonged to a group of people who shared daily struggles and joys was when I was in my early twenties. I was friends with some amazing people, and we all saw each other all the time, talked constantly, had lots of fun. I think we all looked forward to the future. It’s not that the future was disappointing, I don’t know, but the present certainly somehow turned out to be so. I’m still friends with many of the same people, but we don’t see each other as much, either because we don’t live close to each other, or whatever else. I’d like to think that maybe they all kept the feeling of belonging to something awesome, just sort of brought it with them to a new great thing. I’m sure it’s true for some of them.

I would assume that the people I know are smarter, more creative, more original and interesting, more gregarious, more goal-oriented and harder working than a group of people taken at random from the population, and yet I know very few people who would say that they are content with their lives. Maybe half the time, or on a good day. My friends may be special people, but they’re no more happy than anyone else. On the other hand, I know many people who are regularly tried to their limit by life, and sometimes past their limit. It seems that happiness has little or no correlation to smarts, creativity, sociability or hard work.

The problems we have with happiness are easier to understand with reference to the hierarchy of needs as described by Maslow. A person is first concerned with physical needs—food, shelter, safety. Only if these needs are met do we move on to the next level—belonging to a group and being loved. If all these are met, we can work on gaining the respect and esteem of others. Above all these is the work of self-actualization. Paradoxical as it may seem for educated, intelligent, and relatively affluent people to struggle with the more basic needs, it is no accident. The modern world would be impossible without lonely, insecure people. Aldous Huxley called our way of living “organized lovelessness.” There is not much love passing between the members of a civilization which considers its members chiefly consumers. Friends share things, buying and selling is technically something that only happens between antagonists.

The need to love and be loved, and to belong, is very basic to us. If we find ourselves denied the opportunity to love and be loved or to belong, we can’t move forward to the higher needs, the direction in which fulfillment lies. Our society is full of people whose need for love and belonging has been thwarted to various degrees and for different reasons. Families don’t live together in multi-generational households like they used to, which puts a huge physical and emotional strain on everyone.  We don’t grow up knowing the other people in our community, either because of how much everyone moves around nowadays, or because there is no community to speak of. A child today doesn’t expect to follow in its parents’ footsteps as it once did, but instead has to figure out, almost from scratch, who he/she is and what he/she will do in life. This question of identity used to not only not be a source of stress, but was instead a source of positive experiences. Children learned a trade from their parents, slowly building up their ego as they gradually mastered more and more difficult techniques. Now you struggle to find out who you are and establish your identity, choose a career, figure out what makes you tick at the same time as you’re learning what makes everyone else tick… Even under the best circumstances, this can be gut-wrenching. On top of everything else, our society is obsessed with individualism like no other, making it hard to even talk about many of these things lest we seem weak.

My very unscientific assessment is that many or most people in this society are extremely fucked up. It’s been so long since we’ve lived with anything remotely resembling humane and functional social arrangements, we don’t even realize we’re fucked up or that there may be another way. Under these circumstances, those of us who have maintained some semblance of sanity in our social life should probably be hailed as heroes. God knows it’s not easy. If you’re such a person, someone whose home is a place of love and whose relationships are based on respect and support, I hope you will keep in mind that the reason the rest of us don’t live as you do isn’t because we don’t want to, but because we are thwarted in our efforts every step of the way. Some of us, before we even begin to try, others by ourselves as we pursue strategies we didn’t know lead nowhere.

The rest of us, god help us all. Our need to love, be loved, and to belong is so strong and our options often so limited we tend to take what little in way of this that we can, whatever the circumstances. As a kid, almost every one of us has had a friend or group of friends who put us down and made us feel like shit, but we still hung out with them again and again. Hopefully, not for very long. As adults, we often do the same thing: we stay in awful relationships, jobs, and “scenes,” simply because the immediate need is so great. Or we settle for half-way satisfying arrangements, getting half of our needs met, because that may well be the best we can do. I think this is what Facebook is to most people: we would prefer to have real communion with others, but when we for whatever reason aren’t able to do that, Facebook fills some of that need. It can be hard to initiate real communion with people when the faces of everyone you pass on the street look like they’re passing kidney stones pretty much all the time.

Maybe you’ve heard that Americans now have two close friends each, on average, down from three a generation ago. Facebook notwithstanding. A quarter of Americans have no one at all to talk to about serious things, and another quarter have only their immediate family members. In another study, it was observed that Americans touch each other just twice an hour on average when two people engage in casual conversation. The French touch each other 110 times an hour. Puerto Ricans 180 times. I don’t put much stock in studies and have little but anecdotal evidence to go on otherwise, but it’s simple common sense that even having friends and lovers, families and social networks of certain kinds may not necessarily offer us the emotionally fulfilling experience that we need. The quality of the social networks matters. I’ve lost friends to suicide who had hundreds of online friends and dozens of real-world people who cared about them deeply. None of it matters if we aren’t part of a meaningful whole.

I wish I lived in a neighborhood full of families living right there where they work, small stores selling all kinds of stuff, so that when you walk out of your house to buy groceries a few blocks away you see your neighbors and can catch up, and when you’re hanging out on your porch after dinner, you see the neighbors’ kids playing in the street and keep an eye on them so they don’t get into trouble. Living in this kind of neighborhood, you don’t have to post stuff and “like” stuff to remind people you exist, you get to have meaningful interactions just by living there, and maintain your privacy to the degree you prefer. Where everyone knows everyone else, someone is bound to check on you if you fall ill and miss some part of your routine. You have no idea how much time and energy having that kind of social network saves: from sharing knowledge, tools, chores, carpooling, baby-sitting, etc. etc. And you get to not be lonely, alienated, purposeless, meaningless, that is to say, you get to be sane.

I know many people don’t trust this notion of an “idyllic neighborhood,” since the idea of it evokes nothing in their minds except the WASPy, white picket fence, small town ideal of a place that is supposed to represent everything that’s good and great about America but is in reality more often than not a bigot-infested, repressive, close-minded hellhole many of us have been lucky to escape from and never look back. A great neighborhood full of people who trust and help each other isn’t automatically a false ideal, or a Trojan horse for small-minded values. Just as a white picket fence, waspy small town isn’t automatically devoid of acts of genuine acceptance and generosity.

This stereotyped kind of place might exist here or there, to greater or lesser extents. There have been summer days when I could have sworn Riverwest is this idyllic kind of a place. But really, not so much. What makes a great neighborhood what it is takes place over years, decades, centuries, not days. Riverwest is ok and all, but… There are few places to shop and none to work so you have to drive everywhere. The kids seem more jaded with every year refusing to acknowledge you even if you see them walk past your house twice a day for years. My own generation is getting to an age when realism trumps idealism, so we make ourselves scarce. People around town seem to be terrified of each other. And no one visits anyone anymore.

So, I’m sure it’s me now as much as anyone else, passing the shitty attitude around and around instead of opening myself up to people, but it’s got to stop. No one’s gonna win, at this rate. I don’t imagine it’s a matter of simply gritting your teeth and smiling more. But to be honest, I’m not even sure what to suggest. I kind of think we’re fucked. The people who can be civil and neighborly do their best, with various degrees of success, while everyone else is trapped in awfulness by either poverty or money, health or trauma, lack of imagination or an evil upbringing. Whatever.

I hate to end on such a negative note. I guess the severity of every problem is in the end in the eye of the beholder. The reason I’m so pessimistic about this issue is that every component of it seems to be stacked against a positive outcome. Americans (and westerners in general) don’t see this as a problem, are by and large not aware that their quality of life suffers because of the individualism and materialism of their lifestyles. When we inevitably feel depressed and bewildered, we’re likely to look for the cause in the things we are doing and consuming rather than in the things we are failing to do. Economic institutions which have such sway over our lives are not only not concerned with the death of the community spirit, they actively encourage it because it is their meal ticket. Corporations are well aware that members of strong communities make for bad consumers, and that conversely, depressed, lonely people are the best consumers. The government is the weakest it’s been in a long time and getting weaker by the day. Even assuming that people wake up and demand a saner, more sustainable community-oriented society, it’s very unlikely that the holders of real power who exercise disproportionate influence over our governments would take it laying down. Do you even realize what it would take, specifically, to backtrack from the rapacious model of capitalism we have become prisoners to? An end to economic growth, for starters: sustainable communities are by definition zero growth, on the whole. A dismantling of virtually all economic systems with global reach: we can’t be ferrying raw materials across the globe to be assembled by semi-serfs and shipped back to where people can afford the finished products. This should be obvious. These strategies will necessitate a mass exodus of people living in places like Phoenix, Arizona, since there’s no way millions of people can live in the desert without exploiting the resources acquired elsewhere.

The list goes on and one. All we’re trying to do is re-introduce sanity, but this requires dismantling all the insane things we’ve surrounded ourselves by. We’re obviously not going to do anything of the sort without a cataclysm on the order of a nuclear war. Short of this, we can just try to smile more and hope for the best. There are many, many good people who refuse to participate consciously in selfish, shortsighted behaviors, and I hope I can spend more time with some of them in the near future.