Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

To give the 1960’s countercultural guru and drug enthusiast Dr. Timothy Leary his due, he claimed his most famous saying—from which this commentary takes its title—was not meant to advocate a life of addled indolence. There is, however, little doubt that some variation of his advice has taken hold in a great many corners of American society, and even Cheech and Chong would be shocked at where we are today.

A recent article in the Washington Post contained these terrifying statistics about America’s current disastrous epidemic of drug abuse:

“In 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, heroin deaths alone surpassed gun homicides for the first time. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with another 20,000 dying from other drugs. A recent federal study found that prescription painkillers are now more widely used than tobacco.”

The article goes on to note that prescription overdose deaths have been rising since 2000 despite state and federal efforts to crack down on the abuse of these drugs.

It would, of course, be impossible to not point a finger at the pharmaceutical industry. Their aggressive marketing of all manner of drugs to cure every side effect of living our normal daily lives has been disingenuous at best—and outright quackery at worst. Although improvements in medications have made many diseases and maladies more bearable and even provided cures for some which were previously a death sentence, we have also been sold the notion that annoying or inconvenient variations in human behavior or function are now problems worthy of a visit to the doctor—and more and more of our lives are now wrapped up in gulping pills to cure more and more newly discovered “illnesses”.

Is your child is too rambunctious? We’ve got a pill for that! Are you shy around strangers? We’ve got a medication to cure you! Need to pep up? We’ve got you covered! Need to wind down? We’ve got something for that too! Sweaty? Yep! Not sweaty enough? Sure thing! Too hairy? You betcha! Not hairy enough? Step right up!

The predations of the pharmaceutical industry—now free to advertise their wares to a credulous and yearning public—are successful because they take advantage of two signal human weaknesses: our attraction to easy solutions and our desire—born of our insecurities—to “perfect” ourselves and our lives.

Just as we have a fantasy belief that eating fat-free foods will make us thin without the bother of exercise or that purchasing an expensive new laptop computer for our academically struggling child will guarantee future admission to an Ivy League college, so do we easily delude ourselves into believing that health, happiness, and success is available if we can find the right pill to swallow. The shamans of the tribal past would find the pill-sized hopes hidden inside our medicine cabinets, gym bags, bedside tables, and purses to be entirely unsurprising.

Of course, our routine use—and shocking abuse—of powerful and highly addictive opioid painkillers is another step beyond. If we knew how many of our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues are gulping Norco, Percocet, and OxyContin—or perhaps even shooting heroin or snorting cocaine—in daily dosages sufficient to stun a cow, we would likely be shaken to the core. This is obviously an issue that puts all manner of medical practitioners on the front lines of any solution, but it also speaks to something deeper, darker, and more disturbing happening in towns and cities across America where the desire for the numbing escape these drugs provide for many has nothing to do with a physical pain.

It would be foolish to deny that many people like to get high, but most somehow manage to get through their freshman year of college only slightly worse for the wear, a few brain cells short yet ready for the productive lives lying ahead. There have, of course, always been a few who never really grow beyond their partying phase of life, and these men and women have always spent their lives dealing with the chaos and health problems that have resulted.

However, we need to ask what has so changed within ourselves that we are now landing in emergency rooms, rehab centers, or the morgue in such astonishing numbers—lives ruined, families destroyed, and communities devastated.

Many are wondering why Americans are now so often using these potent painkillers, but I ask a different question: Given the grim and aimless lives so many are now forced to live, why would you not turn to narcotics for relief from the emotional and spiritual hurts that somehow must be endured—day after day after day. If you look back over the span of human existence during the past several thousand years, we have counted on three facets of our lives for the purpose and pleasure that helps us deal with the daily rigors and challenges we all must face: our families, our faiths, and our work. Unfortunately, all three are under siege by societal, economic, and political forces that are eroding the foundations of much of American life.

Soaring divorce rates, single parent households, out-of-wedlock births, and lonely latchkey kids: All of this and more is grinding down families across our nation. Organized religion—now often derided as the last refuge of the ignorant and bigoted by the intelligentsia—is in full retreat from the onslaught of our ever more permissive society. Work that offers dignity and pride of craft has been often replaced by “McJobs” that offer little beyond a meager paycheck, and more workers are daily told that their livelihoods are being shipped abroad—or being replaced by a robot or piece of computer software. Taken individually, these trends are profoundly disturbing; all three together are an assault upon everything that many of us hold dear.

Those who wonder why so many voters are revolting against the status quo fail to understand that many Americans blame our national leaders for their blithe lack of concern with the agony that so many feel today. We don’t want another pointless regulatory commission, another ossified agency, or another clock-watching bureaucrat explaining just how wonderful the latest round of new and improved government policies will make our lives—long after our bones have already been picked clean. Until our elected and appointed officials get it through their thick skulls that our country and its people expect leadership that supports families, respects faith, and empowers American workers, they can expect little beyond our cold contempt and volcanic rage.

Until this happens, don’t be surprised if many Americans turn to a narcotic haze to provide some respite from the empty charade that so many of our lives have become. This might not be a great long term plan, and it certainly carries along its own measure of misery. However, for many who are desperately lonely, spiritually bereft, and physically exhausted, a little drug-induced escape makes more sense than not.

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Perhaps Our Compassion Needs A Little Push

Some news stories entertain us. Some arouse our curiosity. Yet others raise concerns.

However, on occasion we encounter a story that makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up and leads us to wonder just what in the heck is happening to our world—and just such a one recently tumbled out of the great state of Florida.

For those of you who may not have heard of this particular—and disturbing—event, please allow me to summarize:

On July 9th a man named Jamel Dunn drowned in a pond, and his body was later found. Local police were alerted to a cell phone video that documented Mr. Dunn’s drowning—and the five teens present can be heard taunting and mocking him from the shore as he struggled. None offered assistance, and no one thought it was necessary to use that cell phone to call 911. Their apparent glee as Mr. Dunn finally slipped beneath the surface of the water is both chilling and appalling. As there is no law on the books that affirms a responsibility to offer assistance or summon it, it seems the charges that can be levied against these uncaring young people begin and end at the level of a misdemeanor, which is a shock in itself.

One can hardly summon the words to describe just how horrifying all of this is.

Of course, the next—and entirely natural response—is to complain about the desensitizing effects of violent media and video games, the decline in our personal morality, our loss of a sense of shared community and responsibility, or the effects of neglectful (or absent) parenting on the youth of our nation. Although all of these factors may have played some part in the response—or lack of one—to Mr. Dunn’s struggles and demise, I wonder whether we are seizing on facile excuses that avoid the core of the issue before us.

We are, sad to say, not a naturally compassionate or gentle species, and the history of humanity is knee deep in the blood of others. Although we like to believe that we have outgrown our ancestral aggressions and evolved into a higher form than our forebears, the worldwide conflicts of the 20th century and many regional slaughters that continue around the globe to this very day seem to contradict the notion that we have entered an enlightened era of reasoned debate and spiritual awakening. Brute force—or at least the threat of it—still typically wins over uplifting rhetoric. One need only to remember Joseph Stalin’s blunt dismissal of the power of the Pontiff—“The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”—to properly understand the harsh limitations of moral suasion.

However, with all this said and true, there seem to be problems more worrisome affecting many of our young people today—and it is difficult to discern what they might be. When one adds up the broken—and breaking—homes where so many young people are raised today, an ever more coarse society, rampant drug use and abuse, and the economic stresses affecting so many households, one might find some reasons for what ails today’s youth, but I find these explanations to be unpersuasive on the whole. There seems to be more to consider.

First off, we need to ask whether our youth are actually more violent and troubled, or we simply perceive this to be the case. Although it is fashionable—and sadly acceptable—to roundly criticize the behavior and demeanor of young people today, I wonder whether the mass media finds the misdeeds of the dysfunctional few generates more viewers and readers than the plain fact that most teenagers are trying to do the best that they can in a bewildering and difficult world. Some follow the unhappy path of these Florida teens toward nihilism and numbness—and the pity we feel for Mr. Dunn for having crossed their paths might extend to these young people as well. All are, in their own ways, victims.

Still, the cell phone video and the comments captured on it are disturbing, and they speak to another unique problem facing young people today, the ready opportunity to document their mistakes on their cell phones right along with all the adults in this world who wish they had never sent that sexy text message, posted a drunk selfie, or engaged in a video chat with someone intent on embarrassing them. What has marked our world since the start of the 20th century—and has accelerated with lightning speed in only the last decade or so—is our ability to document man’s inhumanity to man or our own foolishness. Are we more shocked by hatred, violence, and indifference to the suffering of others simply because we can now so easily and thoroughly document and share it?

So are young people today more cruel or uncaring than previous generations? Stories that defend this idea are great click bait and may touch upon some uncomfortable truths about the most troubled of today’s youth, but to make such an assertion demonstrates what an insular and comfortable bubble so many of today’s commentators inhabit.

Just as we in the developed West are insulated from the horrors of war by our reliance on smart weapons and drone warfare, so have incredible changes in neighborhood policing helped to buffer many of us from the end results of daily human conflict. As much as some might decry this reality, infinitely more aggressive and sophisticated police techniques have successfully turned the tide of crime and violence in many corners of our society thanks to vast technologically-driven improvements in surveillance and detection. Those who complain incessantly about our terrifying young fail to realize that we now live in the safest society in the history of the civilized world—although some urban neighborhoods still suffer from elevated crime rates due to gang activity or localized issues The brutal behavior of some young people against this relatively placid background seems to scream out by comparison.

And what does all this mean in regard to those idiotic Florida teenagers who filmed a man drowning—and were later pleased and proud to share the video record of their cruelty with others?

On the continuum of human behavior, both their actions and inaction brand them as bullies and braggarts with no regard for others. Their obliviousness to human suffering and lack of concern with personal consequences certainly flag them for mental health evaluation, and some court-ordered supervision and treatment could provide some benefit, but I am eternally dubious about the practicable outcomes possible through modern psychology. Whether any of these youngsters will have further dealings with the legal system—their utter heartlessness could mark them as either future attorneys or defendants—will be for another day to tell.

However, the inability of law enforcement to hold them responsible for their actions speaks to grievous flaws in our laws—and only further sharpens our revulsion regarding their behavior. Perhaps something good can come from this horrible, terrible circumstance—although I am certain this is cold comfort for Mr. Dunn’s family and friends.

Given that human behavior often changes for the better only when a penalty is involved, perhaps we need to change our local, state, and federal laws in order to enact felony penalties for failing to report harm or potential harm to others. If we can require that educators be “mandated reporters” in cases of suspected abuse or neglect, we can certainly ask everyone to affirmatively act as his brother’s—or sister’s—keeper in order to save and protect lives. It seems nonsensical that any of us should be legally allowed to turn away from another in distress, and this strikes me as a change in the law that is long overdue.

We, of course, expect that everyone will watch out for everyone else without prodding or threat, but the case of these Florida teens is unique only because of the careful self-recording of their unconscionable conduct—people often fail to do what is right without anyone ever noticing it. I realize that civil libertarians are going to complain about the potential for new and improved laws to turn us all into “spies and snitches”, but I suspect that the benefits far outweigh any potential drawbacks. I am certain that I am not the only one who would rather everyone in the vicinity be legally compelled to pull out their phones and call the police if an old lady is being bludgeoned by a group of thugs. They need not jump into the fray themselves, but bystanders should be held criminally accountable if they do not phone for assistance.

Perhaps this is just weary life experience talking, but I no longer presume others will inevitably do what is right when asked to speak up to protect a stranger—or even a close family member. Therefore, it could be to our benefit to recognize this human shortcoming and move to remedy it. We might hate the fact that pushing people to do what is right is necessary, but it seems by far the wisest course of action.

We can, of course, still do what we can to reduce the violence in movies, television, and video games so they do not harm our children. In addition, focusing on improving our morals, building our communities, enhancing our personal connections to one another, and increasing our quality time with our families would be all for the good. However, a recognition of our flaws and limitations as human beings is also necessary so that we make changes to our laws that will compel us to help one another—just in case such actions do not come naturally.

Can We Survive If “The Center” Is Gone?

We are all defined by our life experiences.

Wherever we grow up, whatever individual circumstances shape our lives, and whomever we interact with all combine to form our perceptions of ourselves and the world in which we live. Moreover, understanding and sharing our life stories can instruct—and sometimes inspire—others. To forget the influences that made us who we are is to, in a sense, forget ourselves, and our personal narratives also help to enhance our understanding of history by giving it a human face. This all makes it important to collect, preserve, and celebrate our life stories and the life stories of those around us.

For example, when I was growing up, one of my favorite books was Reach For The Sky by Paul Brickhill. This account of the life of Douglas Bader, a Royal Air Force pilot who lost both of his legs in an airplane crash, was forced to leave the service on disability—and yet persevered to return the R.A.F. and become one of Britain’s greatest military leaders and fighter aces during World War II—is an amazing tribute to both personal bravery and resilience under the most difficult of life circumstances. It certainly put whatever adolescent concerns I might have had about a stray pimple in its proper perspective and taught me a valuable lesson about never giving up no matter what obstacles life or fate might throw in your path.

Globally speaking, personal narratives—or at least the illusion of them—have been both entertainment and moral instruction since the dawn of civilization. The Iliad and The Odyssey, Mahabharata, The Holy Bible, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, Le Morte D’Arthur, and so manyothers have taught countless generations right from wrong, honor from disgrace, and good from evil. These narratives and others like them, whether sacred text or epic tale, have served as the essential glue binding together societies, nations, continents, and our entire planet by both transmitting shared values and creating institutions that have served as the foundations of governance and justice up until the present day. To put it plainly, without the many life lessons gleaned from these texts and our reactions to them, who we are today would simply not exist.

Today we live in the golden age of the personal narrative, and the advent of powerful and omnipresent technology now allows us to share our stories with a worldwide audience. For perhaps the first time in human history all voices can be heard, all stories shared, and all lives celebrated via an iPhone or an Internet connection. What an amazing world it is.

However, the downside of this multiplicity of voices and viewpoints is that our common cultures and shared values are being rapidly obliterated by the combined opinions of an entire planet of individuals who are all asserting the primacy and correctness of their particular needs and wants. Now more people than ever—especially those who live in our large urban media centers—essentially curate their own idiosyncratic set of personal values from all that is available. Given the infinite possibilities inherent in the cafeteria-style morality now available via Google, that which separates or unites many people is less dependent that ever on national boundaries, traditional cultural beliefs, or religious institutions. There is instead a new globalized system in their places bypassing and supplanting that which bound us to our immediate neighbors for many, many previous centuries.

Given that traditions and institutions that once acted as arbiters and guidelines regarding taste and social norms have now been discarded in favor of what could—with perhaps a trace of irony—be called “crowdsourced individuality”, we find that those most comfortable with the norms of this fluid and ever-changing milieu—actors, entertainers, and media personalities—are now most often called upon to pronounce judgment on the issues facing us. What is truly remarkable about the world we live in today is that celebrities are routinely asked to offer opinions on matters of war and peace, the stewardship of resources, international diplomacy, immigration policy, and a host of other issues—and their opinions are dutifully reported as actual news on front pages around the globe. Think carefully for a moment: Do you recall anyone checking with Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn before we declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbor? Did President Kennedy worry whether Elvis was on his side during the Cuban Missile Crisis? That which, if you stop a moment to think, is utterly bizarre is now quite commonplace.

Unsurprisingly, some find shrugging off the societal shackles of the many millennia incredibly liberating—and insist that we all celebrate their personal paths toward whatever lifestyles or experiences will maximize their happiness. However, others obviously find the erasure of long-held cultural and moral norms to be either stressful or troubling. Nonetheless, ditching all that created a common humanity so a relative few can pursue their personal journeys does not seem a concern for the media elites that now drive our national conversations. Considering the matter broadly, we could question whether we are living a wonderful moment in human history or acting as the avatars of the end of national, cultural, and societal cohesion—but few seem to care to inquire further regarding this.

So this is where we are today. Our personal narratives and individual judgments have now become the unassailable—and sole—guides to how to live life for an ever growing portion of our global population. Therefore, conversations about what is right or wrong, honorable or disgraceful, and good or evil have become impossible. In fact, merely to assert that some behavior is right, wrong, honorable, disgraceful, good, or evil is to make a judgement about someone else’s idiosyncratic curation of their values that is often considered insulting or intolerant, which makes reasoned discussions about any issue or concern very, very difficult indeed.

I am not against embracing our personal narratives or pursuing personal self-fulfillment; I am, however, concerned that our zeal for elevating the needs of the individual over that of the group is a prescription for the unending paralysis of direction and purpose—at a time when definitive and perhaps painful actions are needed to meet a host of challenges. There will, given the enormity and complexity of the problems facing our nation and world, be a time in the very near future when cooperative sacrifices will be necessary for the common good, and I am not at all certain we are going to be able to muster up anything beyond endless bickering about the solutions—if we can even manage to agree on the problems. With apologies to William Butler Yeats, no civilization can continue to exist unless a boring, stable—and perhaps to some slightly judgmental—center is allowed to hold.

Is it really a problem that we are fixated with individual stories and personal dramas that grab our attention rather than national and global matters that will assuredly impact our country? Perhaps some comparisons will prove instructive. Think just a moment, for example, about the time wasted on news articles about the age disparity between the new President of France and his wife versus the coverage of the pension crisis right here in the United States. Have you heard more about recent—and ominous—test firings of ballistic missiles by North Korea or the marital or financial woes of any one of a dozen Hollywood stars? Would it, sad to say, be easier for most Americans to name the nine starters on their favorite baseball team or the nine Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court?

We might be able to muddle along wrapped in our oblivious self-absorption a bit longer, but I fear a day of reckoning is at hand that we are wholly unprepared to meet because many of us can see no further than the tips of our own lovely noses. This will be too bad for us—and for the generations to follow who will likely be stuck with cleaning up the many problems we happily ignored while updating our Facebook pages.

Fixing America’s “Perspective” Problems

Our political landscape sometimes seems like one big, bad, broken relationship crashing upon the rocks—and those on both ends of the political spectrum are instantly (and sadly) prepared to ascribe the most noxious intentions to the actions of those who hold an opinion contrary to their own. This is unfortunate—but certainly understandable. The political ground shifted beneath the feet of many last November, and the resulting feelings of fear and insecurity have made people lash out. Unfortunately, however human these kinds of reactions might be, they do little to facilitate the national consensus necessary to fix the many pressing problems facing our nation.

These anxious and emotionally-driven responses from those in the political arena who were stunned by the November election results have become so twisted and out of proportion that it has become impossible to understand what either side actually supports or rejects—consistency is no longer a part of the of the equation. For example, regarding the ongoing conflict in Syria, those on the left have moved from “Trump is in Putin’s pocket” to “Trump is waging war on Putin” since the  Presidential campaign last fall. Even worse, when the need to reform our broken healthcare system is discussed, those on the right have moved from “Repeal and Replace” to “Never Mind” just since the Inauguration in January! The revolving door of opinion certainly makes one’s head spin, but it is the extraordinary degree of distrust exhibited by all regarding almost every issue that is startling—and profoundly worrisome.

We must move beyond our paranoid preconceptions of one another’s motives because—although this might make for wonderfully “tweet-able” bits of schoolyard-style maliciousness—it contributes little to the real world of discussion, negotiation, and compromise. Sadly, no matter what our political opponents might say or write these days—and how thoughtfully they try to explain it to a listener or reader—they are often perceived to be engaging in subterfuge designed to crush our nation and its people in a shortsighted attempt to impose a personal agenda on an unwilling and/or vulnerable public. I could keep adding more adjectives and adverbs, but this is pretty much the state of our political discourse these days.

The problem we now face as a result is one born of the inevitable collision between overheated rhetoric and quotidian reality: Despite the vehemence with which we now commonly express our opinions and beliefs, we still need to find a way to occupy a common land mass and live under a common set of laws and norms. Short of outright secession—which some are foolish enough to actually advocate—we must figure out some way to make our many interconnecting relationships work for the benefit of America as a whole. Even if we can’t agree on every issue, perhaps we can agree on a few basic principles that might keep us from flinging the household crockery at one another day after day and help us to regain some much-needed perspective that will cool down our flaming rhetoric.

The world is not fair, but we can still strive to make it as fair as possible—within reason.

No matter what regulations, systems, and laws we put in place, we cannot create a nation where all opportunities are equalized, all disparities are eliminated, and all conflicts are erased. As much as this might grate on some, we must accept this in order to avoid unnecessarily restricting the basic freedoms we are fortunate to enjoy as Americans. The desire of many to change this harsh fact of human existence springs from a well-meaning place, but the resulting actions generally do nothing but suck us all into an intrusive and expensive bureaucratic vortex of blather and bother that simply produces its own set winners and losers when government officials pass out the goodies. Short of a genetically engineered “utopia” where we all come off an assembly line with the depressing sameness of Styrofoam blocks, our lives, those of our children, and the lives of the billions upon billions of people around the globe who are total strangers to us are going to be battles of brains, brawn, and beauty that will produce winners, losers, and every variation in between.

Moreover, although it might not seem so when you read the hourly attacks on one another that reverberate through our media outlets and the blogosphere, we actually do live in a blessedly calm nation—although it is still sitting astride a messy, noisy, and scary planet where the list of factors we cannot control is far longer than the meager list of those we can. Some rules and boundaries are obviously needed to manage any nation; however, it could certainly be argued that the most important lesson to be learned from the past half-century of politics is that micromanaging everyone’s lives often produces nothing more than a new set of problems. The proper role of government in creating a world that is more fair for all is certainly a matter for discussion, but we must always remember that perspectives different from our own should be granted equal space and consideration—and nothing will be accomplished by engaging in continual in-fighting and name-calling.

We need to return to appropriate levels of personal privacy in order to keep politics from intruding into—and overwhelming—our daily lives.

We live in a “Too Much Information” society that has sadly erased the boundary between what is acceptable to share and that which should be kept to ourselves. The problems caused by documenting and sharing every aspect of our lives might not seem obvious to those who are voyeurs and exhibitionists, but there is a clear line between someone who wishes to share their personal story out of a desire to inspire or instruct versus those many individuals who are seeking personal validation—or perhaps even retribution—via social media.

If you count on the crowd for your sense of self-worth, you can count on a signal truth: Somebody will disapprove of you. Unfortunately, social media now allows that disapproval to be broadcast to a worldwide audience who will further amplify—and likely garble—that initial disapproval with the aid of their own doubts, anger, and frustration. The result of this is a spiral of rage, defensiveness—and yet more insecurity—that improves nothing and no one. If our political discussions are reduced to the 21st century technological equivalent of spray painting 140 character slogans on a wall and making derogatory comments about those who disagree with our positions or values, we are going to keep shouting right past one another and never build the bridges between one another that are necessary to manage our nation and provide for our people.

Some believe that hashtag activism and virtue-signaling via social media creates a stronger nation. However, although a society where we all walk around naked with billboards on our heads broadcasting our thoughts would, of course, be utterly transparent, it would also destroy the space that should be reserved for dreams, hopes, and desires that are ours alone—which seems to be exactly what has happened. I believe much of the pervasive anxiety of our modern age can be attributed to the societal pressures that now drive us to overshare our lives to a point of sheer absurdity. The well-documented link between the time we spend pecking away on Facebook pages and diagnoses of depression should tell us all something about the innate human need for boundaries and personal space that we seem to have forgotten as we have coasted into the 21st century digital age, and our politics cannot easily heal under such circumstances.

The personal may, as some feminists have claimed, be political, but we still need to maintain our personal lives and sense of what should be kept private in the process. We are not worthwhile individuals just because every aspect of our lives is shared with everyone, and we damage ourselves and others if we lose all touch with our inner existence. Reasoned perspective that is born of quiet and personal contemplation—not mob action resulting from a Tweetstorm—is exactly what is needed to improve our national dialogue right now.

Keep the courage of your convictions without closing your mind to learning from the lives and experiences of others.

I am sometimes complimented by others regarding my calm and patience, which I believe is a helpful attribute to possess no matter what your life’s endeavors might be. I believe this peace springs from two practices I strive to always keep at their forefront of my daily activities: Live according to a set of principles while also respecting the principles of others. If we are smart, we are humble enough to realize there is a great deal about the world and the lives of others that we neither know nor understand. Rather than fear and reject contrary viewpoints or ideas, we maintain balance and emotional health by listening—and hopefully learning.

We can change or modify our own values as we see fit based on what we learn from the lives and experiences of those outside our circle of friends or family, but more importantly we develop the ability to empathize with those with whom we disagree rather than simply shower them with our smug scorn. That, by itself, might be the first essential step toward healing the angry divisions in our nation. It may be distressing to listen to others explain why they believe we are wrong, but it is certainly a valuable part of our political educations and allows us to broaden our perspectives regarding the people and world around us.

I am sorry, America. National divorce or separation are not options even remotely available—and isolating yourself from your neighbors or “un-friending” those with whom you disagree will do nothing but produce yet more grief for us all. Therefore, let’s all resolve to work together while respecting the reasons of others and rediscovering our perhaps frayed sense of personal privacy. You may consider it “couples therapy” if you wish—but please consider it, nonetheless.

The Pursuit Of Happiness: Random Thoughts For The New Year

 “You’re breaking up with him? Why? He has such a great car!”

I remember laughing to myself when I heard this conversation some years ago between two seniors at a high school where I once taught, but it perhaps amply illustrates how possessions—and their pursuit—have always tended to warp our judgment. We love stuff, and we presume that more of it (or at least proximity to someone else’s) will make us happier. This is certainly the case many times (particularly on Christmas Day), but it can also be said that—oddly enough—our pursuit of more and more often satisfies less and less these days. There are likely a couple of reasons why this is so.

First off, I suspect that the ease with which we can now purchase everything under the sun is not entirely a blessing. I know the convenience on-line shopping is an incredible boon for many—particularly if one cannot easily travel to the store. There is, in addition, the benefit of near infinite choice when shopping and excellent bargains can often be found. Moreover, there is no need to park a car or take public transit, wrestle one’s purchases down the escalator, or push through crowds only to find that the item we want is no longer available. All of this—and I mean all of it—is absolutely true. I cannot deny it, and those who love on-line shopping cannot see a reason why anyone would not celebrate Amazon.com as the finest achievement of our civilization to date.

I am, however, unconvinced because it seems to me that “retail therapy” no longer seems to provide the same pleasure it once did. I know I sound like a terrible curmudgeon to feel this way, but I am old enough to remember when shopping meant an outing with family or friends, healthy walking spiced by a great deal of conversation, and a stop for a pop, snack, or hot chocolate that provided a chance to recharge and regroup, which turned into yet more bonding and sharing in the process. Memories were created and relationships cemented. All of this seems to me to be far preferable to what we have today.

Perhaps it is simply the case that what we obtain without the social and emotional investment that the tradition shopping experience entailed is intrinsically less satisfying—or the holes is our souls are now sometimes too large to fill with throw pillows or a cute purse—but it does not seem to me that base consumerism lightens the load as it once did. Maybe I am dead wrong about this—and I would be foolish not to admit the possibility—but I believe that something of value has been lost that is diminishing our lives just a smidge as we move from lots of shops and stores filled with people to cavernous, fluorescently-lit warehouses supplying fleets of soon-to-be robotic delivery trucks that stop, drop, and drive off without a word.

In addition, although I readily concede that video games and virtual reality googles can be a hoot, it may be the case that the nature of what we now buy is far less exciting and provides less pleasure than what was available in the past. Presuming that in these difficult economic times we even have the cash to make the purchase, a reasonable case can be made that, for example, a Prius is far less stimulating than a 1969 Pontiac GTO once was. Moreover, so much of our spending on smart phones, computers, tablets, and other electronics tends to promote social isolation for many instead of providing the adventuresome physical joys we associated with a new baseball glove or cherry-red bicycle. Playing football on your iPad, although diverting, is nowhere near as much fun as catching a perfectly thrown pass on a crisp autumn afternoon, and it provides nowhere near the same sustaining memories to carry throughout our lives. I doubt grandparents will someday be dandling their grandchildren on their knees and regaling them with stories of their high scores on video games—or at least I hope this will not be the case.

However, I believe there is still yet more to the story here. For some reason, despite living in a nation awash in wonderful shiny stuff, many of us seem to feel increasingly annoyed with the present and anxious about the future—a feeling that was amply demonstrated in the results of this year’s Presidential election. Why is this so?

Setting aside the problem that many of us can no longer afford the wonderful shiny stuff, I suspect that many people today are cranky and frustrated because they feel that they have little or no control over their lives—so nothing they can purchase can really make much of a difference in promoting happiness or a sense of well-being. Pleasure cannot easily co-exist with the sad passivity that I believe is one of the most salient characteristics of our collective social fabric today. To feel anything intensely requires engagement, but we often seem not to be able to muster much passion for anything although—perhaps paradoxically—we grit our teeth in anger about being reduced to this state.

To have the control of our daily lives stripped away by bureaucrats, academics, and lawyers is infuriating enough, but to be told over and over again that we need to sit and take it is likely a major contributor to the tsunami of discontent that is now upending our politics and fragmenting our nation. Psychologists call this syndrome “learned helplessness”; the average person has a more prosaic description, “being forced to eat sh*t.” Pundits and credentialed commentators are bemoaning a rise of populist politics in America and elsewhere that they equate with sheer ignorance, but it may be the case that many are simply rejecting the statist supervision of everything they say or do. All the toys, texting, and tchotchkes in the world cannot compensate for a loss of agency. Everywhere we turn there is a rule, regulation, “voluntary” guideline, or law circumscribing how we can act, speak, or think—and what we must accept as our lot in life.

That which is done “for our own good” by others will never rest easy on our souls. For example, we now have to drive that Prius instead of that GTO not because we are no longer thrilled by racing down the open road but because big block muscle cars have been largely legislated out of existence by federal fuel economy, emissions, and safety standards that have—depending on your point of view—either saved the planet or condemned most of us to driving incredibly expensive putt-putt shoeboxes. Although one can argue for the necessity of government regulation in pursuit of a larger social good in this particular instance, the net effect of never-ending oversight of everything we do has been that the romance of unfettered possibility that once seemed an American birthright has been supplanted over the past half century by the demands of a metastasizing nanny state seemingly intent on controlling us rather that encouraging our dreams.

Of course, the parental nature of the state is, according to its defenders, designed solely to control our worst instincts and protect us from the great unknowns, and this is certainly appreciated—to a point. However, just as we all sometimes prefer to make our own mistakes rather than have someone “protect” us, we generally like to be able to live our lives with as few restrictions, controls, and monitoring mechanisms as are congruent with public health and safety. All of us would certainly endorse any rule that prevented us from living in a home that was likely to burst into flames any instant; few of us want to be told how we can interact with our neighbors, what our children should be taught to believe, and where our holiday displays may or may not be placed. No matter the fine intentions of the architects of policies designed to protect polar bears, teach tolerance, or support the impoverished, if a hammer is used to make the points or enforce the edicts, people are going to become awfully annoyed awfully quickly.

It is little wonder that so many are now pushing back against a governmental culture that is obsessed with overseeing the most granular details of our lives—up to and including how our toilets flush, whether we can burn leaves in the fall, and what time we put our trash cans on the curb for collection. The shape and scope of this soft rebellion is still a work in progress, but I expect we are going to see more and more battles in the years ahead over who has the final say about the most basic decisions regarding the paths of our daily lives, families, and communities. The results should be interesting—to say the least—and we should all resolve to think carefully and deeply about what we want government to do for us now that big changes—if change is what one wants—seem to be just over the horizon.

As for me, my goals for 2017 are to go out and engage with the world more, stop being beguiled by mindless distractions, and express due annoyance with having my words, thoughts, and actions subject to approval or censure from anyone who (mistakenly) believes that they have a right to do so. I also plan to drop the top on my convertible on the first warm day of spring and take my wife for a long drive in the country before stopping for an ice cream cone, ride our bicycles as much as possible, and play a game of catch with my grandson until the twilight chases us inside.

Finally, to the extent that is possible in our scorched retail landscape, I plan to browse in actual stores this coming year. I don’t know what—if anything—I will purchase, but I just want to get a taste of an experience that might be going the way of the Dodo as it disappears altogether.

And let’s all have a healthy, happy, and speak-out-loud 2017!