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American...And Alone
By Michael Goodspeed
The word is "atomized." It describes a thing that has been fragmented, it exists in disconnected parts, like a family ripped apart by divorce or a building that's been bombed. Whereas once the cohesive organization of individual units formed a mighty structure, the atomized thing ceases to be a thing at all. It's liquidated. Obliterated. At best an idea.
For atomized human beings, deprived of the vital experiences of community, fellowship, and shared purpose, the feeling is one of alienation. Since one does not seem connected to anyone or anything else, one's focus inevitably becomes brute self-interest. Narcissism, competitiveness, mistrust, and defensiveness reign among atomized individuals. Like threatened bullfrogs, we puff ourselves up into formidable things. We build massive egos, a bunch of useless hot air, to try and fill the gaping void caused by love's absence.
"Atomized" is the best term to describe the collective socio-psychic state of 21st century Americans. Contracted individuals exist separate and alone, only occasionally "coming together" to butt heads and give each other the finger. Author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Survivor) perfectly characterized the present state of our culture, describing the new American Dream as the desire "to get so rich you can rise above the rabble, all those people on the freeway or, worse, the bus. No, the dream is a big house, off alone somewhere....Some lovely isolated nest where you can invite only the rabble you like. An environment you can control, free from conflict and pain. Where you rule....Whether it's a ranch in Montana or basement apartment with ten thousand DVDs and high-speed Internet access, it never fails. We get there, and we're alone. And we're lonely."
Recent studies confirm Chuck's observations. In 2006, a study in the American Sociological Review claimed that the average American only has two close friends in whom to confide, while almost 25 percent claim to have no friends at all (1). Another recent study found a marked increase in the suicide rate of middle-age American men (2). In 2004, a similar bump -- 8 percent -- was found among American children and young adults aged 10 to 24, the largest rise in fifteen years (3). And of course, there is the seemingly endless string of "berserker" shootings perpetrated by disaffected, friendless young men.
Far from the spotlight of popular media -- who remain obsessed with more sophisticated matters such as Britney Spears, steroids in baseball, and yet another stultifyingly irrelevant Presidential election -- this is the reality of life in 21st century America. Despite the total pervasiveness of electronic "communications," more and more of us are alone and lonely. Across the full socioeconomic, racial, and gender spectrum, for Americans young and old, rich and poor, fat and thin, married and single, loneliness has become the rule rather than the exception.
If you live in a big city like Seattle or Chicago, you're probably lonely even though you're surrounded by an endless sea of anonymous faces. The most human contact you get is when you "interact" with sales clerks at shopping outlets, or when some enraged driver who nearly ran you over at a pedestrian crossing tells you to fuck off. None of the places of social congregation intentionally cater to "socialization"; they are designed for one purpose, to take your money. Bars, restaurants, night clubs, movie theaters. You may find some less mercenary jaunts such as book stores and cafes, friendly little places run by ex-hippies and young vegans who might not even call the police if you don't buy something within five minutes. But even in the most benevolent locales, you will most likely be restricted to politely inane conversations with "strangers." America's big cities are packed with many attractive, well-dressed, pseudo-hip young professionals, cell phones and iPods plugged into their ears, hordes of mostly polite zombies whose faces stretch in smiles that never quite reach their eyes. For "fun" they go clubbing and drinking and they drop caps of ecstasy and have joyless anonymous sex with each other. They probably imagine themselves popular and cool immersed in the movies of their lives. And they're alone, and they're lonely.
In the suburbs, it's far worse. Mostly Caucasian families exist atomized and oblivious to their neighbors, insulated in their private, media-focused fantasy lives. What do you do for "fun" in the suburbs? You watch TV. You go to the movies. You surf the Net. If you have the dough, you go to NBA games so you can feel cool and important for a couple of hours. If you're young, you go to the mall to see and be seen by the opposite sex. Maybe you have a family to keep you company. Maybe you even love them. But for more and more Americans, even this bare comfort has become quite tenuous. Nearly 30 million Americans live in single-person households, with the number increasing every year (4).
Why are we alone? Why are we lonely? A number of converging factors conspire to keep us separate and "atomized." It is unavoidable that, despite the brutal, relentless taxation of Americans, a high cost of living, and the sparsity of job security, our populace remains relatively affluent. When people have enough money to get by (and more), they tend to believe they don't "need" their neighbors and will contract from community. Severely compounding the problem is the addictive, mind-controlling influence of media so pervasive as to be unavoidable. TV, movie, and now Internet obsession has seized the minds of countless millions of Americans -- CGI-generated surround-sound fantasy worlds provide more risk-free stimulation than real-world activities and friendships. Throw into the mix the apocalypse that is public education -- a sizable chunk, perhaps majority, of U.S. citizens can now barely read, write, or speak coherently -- and you have a populace incapable of interacting with one another in a healthy manner.
A 2006 study claims that young people in the U.S. today are more narcissistic than their predecessors (5). According to this study, narcissistic personalities are "more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty and over-controlling and violent behaviors." In other words, American youngsters are increasingly too emotionally, mentally, and perhaps neurologically damaged to form healthy human relationships. It's easy to ascribe words like spoiled, egocentric, lazy, or even "soulless" to today's youths, but this is a denial of the frightful reality into which children in the U.S. are born. For decades now, Mass Media, the public school system, and the food, beverage, and drug industries have addled, shocked, and/or manipulated the minds of children into states of helpless stupor. Kids who were never taught to read, write, or form cogent thoughts, who were abused and dehumanized by their peers, who are deprived of one or more parent(s), who belong to no community, and whose brains have been irreparably damaged by a relentless chemical assault are obviously high-risk for personality disorders. The tendency toward narcissism is not surprising, given the vicious, mercenary promotion of egocentric values by corporate Mass Media and the culture at large.
Of course, atomization, contraction, and loneliness are not endemic to the United States. A recent study revealed that in Australia, the greatest percentage of depressed and lonely people live in posh Sydney, the nation's most affluent city (6). Ironically (or perhaps predictably), the happiest people surveyed live in a poor coastal town called Wide Bay, where everyone knows one another, and meaningful personal connections are commonplace. In fact, according to the Australian Unity Well-being Index survey of 23,000 Australians, eight of the top nine happiest electorates in Australia are poor and isolated rural communities.
"The people in country towns seem to have a high level of connection with one another, they have good relationships, the neighbours know their kids and look out for them," said survey author Bob Cummins from Deakin University.
The benefit of close-knit communities is more tangible than the emotional and spiritual. In California, not far from the L.A./Ontario International Airport, has recently emerged "Tent City," a haven for a rapidly growing "suburban homeless" population (7). These are not the stereotypical homeless, addicted to drugs and alcohol or ravaged by mental illness. The national economic downturn and the rise in foreclosures has made homelessness a very real possibility for all but the wealthiest of Americans. Knowing and communicating with one's neighbors is not only healthy for one's mind and soul, it is becoming increasingly necessary for one's safety and very survival.
What brings people together? Aside from physical interdependence, the one thing that reliably creates unity in human beings is a shared sense of purpose and meaning. Unfortunately, thanks to the relentless dumbing down of Americans by Media, Big Pharma, and the public school system, the collective attention of our nation remains focused on the ephemeral, inane, grotesque, and meaningless. Vacuous obsessions like professional sports and celebrity gossip may indeed provide a shared interest for some people, but not satisfaction nor a sense of meaning. To find real unity, human beings must live in a state of mental and physical health and wholeness. This means being educated, vibrant, awake and joyous. In today's America, the only way to achieve this is to willfully react against the collective (programmed) impulse toward the inane and destructive.
Media, Industry and Government surely don't mind if Americans sit alone and lonely, constructing monuments to our egos and watching TV. It cannot be our destiny to live like this -- atomized, contracted, damaged, and suffering. We must fortify our minds and bodies and seek out meaningful connections with other human beings. We must celebrate our cultural endeavors that thrive on human creativity and ingenuity, and we must shun the collective obsession with the trivial and stupid. We must recognize our dependence on our neighbors, open the door to him or her as a brother or sister, and reinforce the meaningful and life-affirming in one another. Our nation is broken, fragmented, and teetering on the verge of collapse. We have very little time left.
We're Americans, and we need each other.
(1) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14126192/
(2) http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/02/19/america/19suicide.php
(3) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20620477/
(4) http://www.usatoday.com/community/utils/idmap/13081523.story
(5) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/02/27/health/main2519593.shtml
(6) www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2006/s1568612.htm
(7) www.dailybulletin.com/ci_8277825
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