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.