Monday, May 28, 2018

Imagining Memorial Day

What does "patriotism" mean? What does it look like? How do we "do" it? 
It's Memorial Day and just feet from my study there is an American Legion post. There have already been services today in Deming, in honor of those we have sent to war, those who fell, those who were injured, those who lost dear ones in war.
Attendance at these services is not compulsory, but there are things we are expected to say or assent to in silence; and there are things we cannot say.
We are expected to state or silently assent to the notion that all of America's wars are fought in defense of "our freedoms." I can understand this pressure, because it is obscene to think that our young men and women who devote themselves to military service and promise to say yes to their government's orders would ever be misused.
It is taboo to state that we might honor combat veterans by reducing our military aggression, deploying them on more peaceful missions, and sending far fewer people into harm's way.
I will not be accused of disloyalty or disrespect for the troops in saying that I would like a patriotism that is about building community, addressing past wrongs (as a country built on displacement and extermination of indigenous peoples and human bondage - a legacy that is indelible), and building a viable society whose holidays, anthems, and social customs all reinforce an expansive commitment to justice, humane regard for all, and to leaving a beautiful place for coming generations.
Likewise I would like one day to see Memorial Day as a day that remembers a time when America evolved from a country that sent its children to wage wars of American dominance generation after generation, until a new generation redefined America's mission and purpose in the world.
It begins with our ability to imagine. So my Desert Sagey advice this morning is, whether you take a moment to thank a veteran (a very good thing to do any day of the year) or salute a flag or whatnot, to imagine what else might be possible, what more, what better.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Lonely Americans

Americans are lonely, reports health insurer Cigna.

10,000 people who responded - half of the survey - reported feelings of loneliness and isolation. 54 percent said they feel nobody knows them well. 2 out of 5 said they lack companionship and meaningful relationships. Previous studies have shown similar findings, and yet this one indicates that the problem is more severe with the younger generation.

There are some unsurprising correlations. People reporting more in-person interactions tend to score as less lonely. Work-life balance is also correlative: working too much or too little contributes to isolation, since many of our daily relationships reside in workplaces. Time spent on social media or staring at screens is associated with greater isolation.

There are cultural dimensions the study does not address.

We are, as Wendell Berry put it, a "footloose" culture, oriented around individualist models of progress and achievement, routinely moving away from family and friends to pursue personal opportunity. (Berry later revised his comment to say we are "wheel-loose.")

On one hand, we enjoy tremendous personal freedom. On the other hand, it is considered entirely normal to pick up and leave the people you love behind for months, years, or even forever, for a job or some other personal opportunity.

I've done this several times myself, and if you were to ask me, "Where are you from?" I would struggle to answer you. I am honestly not sure anymore. I know where I grew up, of course, but I left that place 18 years ago and have only paid rare, brief visits since, despite feeling like I miss it. I've lived in Chicago, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Deming. Where the heck do I belong? Couldn't tell ya.

If 54 percent of this one survey said "no one knows them well," a greater percentage than said they lack companionship or meaningful relationships, we are looking at a number of people who feel unknown even to what companions they have. They may even refer to some of these people, whom they say do not know them well, as "friends" in the casual manner we use the word.

On average, we move somewhere every few years: Americans average more than 11 moves in their lifetime. Tens of millions every year. That's a mass migration event every year.

There is also a medical reality here: social connection is related to better mental and physical health. If the conversation is primarily medical, however, we risk falling into a kind of scientism where we think about human connection as a treatment plan, with statistics and goals particular to improving some metric: "My social connection index didn't go up this month, I need to get out there and talk to somebody!" That wouldn't really be social connection.

We've done this with physical exercise: it's good to get out and walk or run or play with the kids and secondary to that it's good for your heart; if you're out for a walk or talking with your child and half of you is thinking about your heart rate or your cholesterol or your distance, half of you is not really doing what you're doing.

I even know someone who put her fitbit on a kid to help her meet her goal - saw saw the irony, but she did it. Because GOAL.

Anyway, what it boils down to is, a lot of people are unhappy, don't have the kind of friendships that can help them, and we barely even have a vocabulary allowing us to talk about it.

The picture that emerges is that a lot of us don't know where, or to whom, we belong, or even where and with whom we are now. How, then, would it be possible to know oneself?