Media reports suggest an economic upturn, even increased employment, while at the same time, reports also indicate that the nation’s social fabric is unraveling. What’s going on?
Are there two issues running concurrently in our country? It seems counter-intuitive to me to believe that a rising economy with improved employment would not stem the grievances being aired about our adversarial way of life? Still, there’s no doubt that we Americans are feeling less safe. Chronic lying and relentless character assassinations by our leaders are creating tension and encouraging distrust of our neighbors, both native born and immigrants. It’s very common to hear people say they feel helpless.
It’s not a new thought that man does not live by bread alone.
In a recent column, conservative pundit George Will described what he sees as the modern dilemma with which we live today.
He notes how the nation’s most-discussed political problem is entangled with the least understood public health problem. “The political problem is a furious partisanship. The public health problem is loneliness . . . Americans are richer, more informed and ‘connected’ than ever while unhappier, more isolated and less fulfilled.”
There’s something to this. Insurance giant Cigna conducted a survey to explore Americans’ mental states to see if they correlated with our physical health concerns. The survey revealed complaints of loneliness by 48 percent of Americans. Baby boomers scored 42 points. Members of generation Z born between the mid-nineties and early two thousand said they felt lonely and isolated and that their relationships were not meaningful.
There’s an old story about a team of technical advisors dispatched from the states to a Polynesian island in the Pacific. They went to help with agriculture. The natives’ lives were oriented around watering their crops that grew in fields on top of a hill. Their water came from a river below flowing in the valley. Irrigating required enormous effort and took almost the entire tribe’s time. Buckets of water were carried up the mountain daily.
The team saw immediately how labor intensive their lives were. They knew ways in which they could reduce the burden of labor and time the natives spent in tending their crops – simply by mechanizing the delivery of water to the crops. Pumps were brought in and pipes laid so the water could be efficiently delivered, leaving the natives with the kind of leisure time they’d not known before.
After the irrigation system was up and running, the natives grew bewildered.
Soon, unprecedented behavior appeared among the members of the native community. Children began to defy their elders. The men began drinking. Spousal abuse became endemic. Fights were frequent and a murder occurred, the first in tribal memory. An attitude of malcontent and malaise began pervading the lives of natives who once lived satisfying lives by sharing in the manual task of watering their crops.
Watering the crops by hand was far more than just work or even survival. Men and women talked to and connected with each other daily while they went up and down the hill. The children worked along with elders, everyone was integrated into a way of life that had meaning well beyond the particular task of feeding themselves. From one point of view, with mechanized irrigation the natives never had it so good. What nobody had foreseen, however, was how this arduous but well-functioning way of life that brought peace and harmony to the community had been decimated with what we, by western standards, would call progress.
The team had their hearts in the right place but they lacked understanding of the values natives held and how critical this difficult work was to their way of life. Labor was playing the determining role in creating social cohesion and community, more than the attempts to bring progress did.
Trump has, by word, deed and innuendo, legitimized hatred, and has bred a brutal climate that polarizes our citizens. It’s become a way of life. My question is if economic and employment improve, will our social climate grow kinder and gentler, or is there something else fueling the hostile climate? I believe that the president by his leadership has drawn from the social order, all the toxins that had been latent or partially contained. Instead of using the power of the presidency to mitigate these harmful toxins for the common good, he has exacerbated the toxicity to serve his own purposes. Congressional republicans don’t seem at all troubled.
A way of life, rooted in basic human values can sustain a community though the most difficult times. Consider the remarkable story of the Amish community.
In October of ’06 a small Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania was stricken with a horror of unimaginable proportion. Ten Amish children were killed in their school in a mass shooting. Only five survived. There have been more shootings in the twelve years since the one in the tiny Pennsylvania village, some with much higher death tolls. But the Amish school shooting moved our country in a way other shootings had not. The attacker preyed on the most innocent and defenseless members of a bucolic and pacifist religious community. Within hours, the Amish announced they had forgiven him. This reaction of the Amish community stunned those familiar only with the Amish rejection of modern technology. Many were unaware of the community’s deep faith and how it guides their daily lives. In the face of unspeakable tragedy and violence a community that cultivated essential goodness, although bloodied, survived with grace and dignity.
Their way of life helped to heal the community, even the family of the perpetrator.
The Amish forgave the man who killed five of their children. They embraced the man’s widow to comfort her. The community responded not with rancor, anger or hatred. They responded with love and forgiveness. Not only does character count but it may be the singularly greatest asset in sustaining community life.
“We have to forgive,” said Aaron Beiler, 66, whose farm is just a few miles away from Nickel Mines where the shooting took place.
I often wonder if I would have had the moral fiber and the depth of character to meet such tragedy with that kind of grace and magnanimity. The truth is that many Amish did feel just such outrage because they are, like all of us, human. Brutal and retaliatory instincts exist in all of us. We are both lamb and lion; whichever one is regularly fed and encouraged, takes us over. Managing our instincts is a matter of our values. The more humane values guiding a way of life can transform the raging inner landscape of pain, anger, and vengefulness first into one of sadness and mourning, and finally into forgiveness.
I propose that the real challenge for Americans today may be less about money and jobs, than the way of life we’re beginning to settle for.
Without a vision, the people perish.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.