By Jack Canfora
When the American Revolution seemed all but lost, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Imagine if he also had to deal with Twitter and Cable News.
First, let me reassure you: this is not a post about politics. At all. Rest assured. Zip. NADA. I PROMISE. Not even a little.
Well, I mean, it’s a little political. Obviously. That goes without saying. But not, you know, political political. Because the flood of toxicity streaming from Washington, D.C. would never have been possible if we hadn’t placed it there to begin with. It seems these days, more than any other in my life, we are drifting further and further away from each other (an insight into my neuroses: I struggled mightily between farther and further here, as it’s a potential gray zone. People are clustering, it seems, more and more, by physical distance. So, farther would be apt. Conversely, it’s also a question of degree, hence further, and in the end I figured that was more pertinent. I hope you agree. Welcome to one of the many dark quarters of my unquiet mind:)). Perhaps, it’s occurred to me more than once, we were never that close to begin with.
It used to be that liberals and conservatives used to disagree about what issues we needed to prioritize and how to tackle them. Now, they disagree about the nature of reality itself. It’s hard to find common ground when you live in different worlds.
We’ve been gradually but inexorably sorted into not only competing, but antithetical narratives about the world. I’m not going to get into all the reasons and theories why this has happened. For one thing, they’re too numerous, speculative, and detailed to examine fully here. Moreover, I’m hungry, and so I need to wrap this up pretty quickly and put food in me.
The point is we have become not only aggressively tribal, but have increasingly come to see the other groups not only as competing factions, but as enemies. In some cases, not even human. Perhaps the only commonality among all these tribes is that they’re angry and appalled all the time. For most of us, it’s become physically and psychologically exhausting. For those broken souls for whom anger, resentment, and a sense of grieving disenfranchisement are the only nutrients they’ve been fed, these are boom times.
I’ll admit it: I find myself looking at many of my fellow Americans with bafflement and even, at times, horror. And to my dismay, I’ve found that the more I find myself alienated from others, the more foreign I become to myself. And all of it, from all sides, is born in and sustained by fear. We are the United States of Fear. Worse still, we’re mostly afraid of each other.
In my view, America has always been a Petri dish for loneliness. Composed as we are by citizens whose origins hail from all over the world, it has never been very hard to stoke division (consult you local library for more on this topic. “The more you know” (insert rainbow animation)). Throw in the American myth of Rugged Individualism, late stage capitalism, materialism, yada, yada, yada, and it’s easy to see why we often find ourselves feeling, amidst the White Noise of our daily lives, adrift and alone.
I don’t believe America lacks universal healthcare for financial reasons, nor because Americans endemically lack empathy. My belief is that we have been taught to view interdependence as weakness; many of us view requiring help as a fundamental moral failing.
Now, I want you to prepare yourselves for this next part. I’d advise you read this sitting down. Here’s something that might, nay, most likely will shock you: despite what my boyish good looks might indicate to the contrary, I’m smack in the center of middle age: a Gen Xer. I’ve observed a palpable acceleration of that individualistic, cutthroat ethos over at least the last 20 years. Also, things are getting a bit blurrier. I don’t mean morally (although maybe that); I mean things are literally getting blurrier. That’s more an ophthalmology issue, which I probably should look into. But I digress.
I, for one, have seldom felt more intrinsically isolated and disconnected from my fellow person than I have these last few years. Because of Covid, some of this is tangibly true. But that feeling of distance and alienation that I’m sure the Germans have the perfect word for was there long before the Pandemic hit.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I have been blessed with great people in my life whom I love enormously. And yet the gnawing alienation – especially from myself – persists. Even grows. I sometimes want to shout out, “Don’t you all feel it? This aloneness? Can’t we all at least start by admitting that? And whatever happened to the original MTV Vee Jays? I feel like if we had more input from J.J Jackson, I’d somehow feel calmer.”
I just looked up J.J. Jackson. He passed in 2004. This both grieves me and sheds some light on our current cultural swamp. In the meantime, someone call Martha Quinn’s people (I know, I’ve totally lost everyone born after 1975).
Anyway, I’ll start the ball rolling. I feel isolated. In a O. Henry-like twist, reconnecting with long lost friends and acquaintances on social media often makes me feel more alone. I don’t mind admitting I’m scared these days, both for myself, and for the world at large. I try to do my paltry bit, but am just as often overwhelmed by how paltry that contribution is. Then I remember the words of the Talmud:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” There’s not only wisdom in that, but an intrinsic sense of connectedness, of community. Of having purpose. Mattering.
And here’s another piece of irony that is O. Henry-like in its fiendish, um, irony. Those of us who feel that marrow deep isolation: there are legions of us! The last thing we are is alone. Loners of the world, in spite of the inherent oxymoron, unite! It may be harder than ever to find commonality and community, but it’s there. Even those whose worldview we find most repugnant and alienating are, deep down, also coming from a place of fear and alienation. I try to remember that. And that’s at least something in common.
Maybe that’s something, eventually, to build on. We’re all human, for better or worse. I was recently reminded of this when I read an extraordinary book, Codependence, by the supremely gifted and tragically underexposed author, Amy Long. The author’s experiences and what she writes about have almost zero relation to my life experiences, but every page glows like a lantern, shining a light on our essential sameness, just like good art is supposed to.
Work for kindness and sanity in our communities to whatever extent you can, and I promise to do the same. Find solace in art, music, film, theater. In your friends. In your family (maybe). Most of all, in yourself. For me, that’s often hardest to do. But it’s there. Somewhere.
Regardless of the election results, a large cohort of Americans are going to feel honest to God devastation. Uncertain times are bound to ensue. Let’s try, as best we can, to be there for each other and ourselves. Vote. Be strong but kind. And stay safe. Til next time.
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