Senor de los Milagros, Cusco, Peru One thing that strikes me about the modern era is the acquisitive nature of existence. Most of us spend a fair amount of time thinking about what we can get, what we can acquire, but few of us spend a lot of time thinking about what we can give, or how we can contribute, or belong. We seek experiences and materialism, but we don’t think much in terms of covenants, communities, and cultivation. We think in terms of getting, not giving. The reason this matters is that it often creates a world dominated by tourists, with residents pushed to the margins. Community declines, homelessness grows, isolation increases, mental health challenges explode, addiction skyrockets and an already thin cultural life evaporates further.
Take the flag protest of the last few years. What was lost with all the name calling was the very nature of such an anthem in the first place. An anthem is not about an individual and what an individual wants, or believes, or about the validity of the protest, but about the nature of the community itself. Just as a funeral, a wedding, or a religious service, or heck even a meal at Longhorn Steakhouse is not an occasion for self-expression, neither is the playing of an anthem. Changing the nature of an anthem to an opportunity for self-expression disrupts the ability of people to form a community, or to live as a group, with a group identity, and it changes the nature of the experience from one of connecting to home (in this case the USA) and identity to one of bewildering confusion for many, dominated by a “look at me” individualism.
There is an interesting philosophical term that I learned recently, Lebenswelt in German, or Lifeworld, in English. It is an interesting concept I discovered and kept revisiting this year. The Lebenswelt, or Lifeworld is ‘the world subjects may experience together’. It is a world beyond the physical, or material, it is the life of a community of persons. Tourists, for example, may observe others living in a Lebenswelt, but they don’t themselves experience it. As a matter of fact, the observation of the Lebenswelt may be the whole reason tourists travel to begin with. Through their travel, they acquire an experience of traveling and observing but they don’t contribute to the experience, they only see it and observe it and possibly appreciate it, but they don’t actually participate or contribute to what they are seeing. They’re tourists, not residents.
I went to Peru in the Fall and it was a fantastic trip. There was a Catholic religious festival which happened there that was one of the more beautiful things I had ever seen, with a 2 hour parade, folk dancing, costumes, incense, statues, and religious symbolism from native Inca and Catholic culture. I observed this Lifeworld, this Lebenswelt of Peruvian life, and it was amazing to see, but I was only a tourist. I was a stranger, if you will. I was treated kindly and warmly, but I was still a stranger. This and other experiences I’ve had traveling have made me realize how much of a void we have in our lives with these types of communal experiences in the USA.
If you think about the way we have structured our lives in America, and in other parts of the globalizing world, we have become tourists, largely disconnected from a shared life. I think subconsciously that’s why there has been such a strong connection to the rhetoric of “Make America Great Again.” America did previously contain some communal life, and though most can not articulate it, they know something is missing currently. We are surrounded by tourists, but tourists are strangers. No matter how many Yoga studios, TexMex Burrito joints, Craft Brewpubs, Organic grocery stores, and hipster coffee shops you assemble in gentrifying neighborhoods, it is still a world built for tourists, by tourists, and catering to tourists. It is a ghostly type of existence, and sure it creates comforts and tasty food, but not the kind of long – term communal stability that’s necessary to sustain a culture.
Why does that matter? Because the human psyche is not meant to find meaning on its own. Depression is a cultural problem. A classic work on depression, The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age, covers this subject in depth. Anxiety is a cultural problem. Addiction is a cultural problem. Suicide is a cultural problem. People need to be part of something bigger than themselves. Research shows it and common sense shows it, but the people who control the levers of power are unwilling to admit it, because if they did they would have to look in the mirror and see what kind of mess has been created on their watch. It’s much easier to be a tourist, than to reside and contribute. Many people have tried to live isolated lives, and for 99.9% of the population it doesn’t work.
As a matter of fact, isolation is a direct cause of mental illness. Prisoners in isolation go crazy. Children without socialization suffer the rest of their life. Isolation and loneliness are growing problems in our older populations. The pre-modern person would not have had any concept of being an individual, as we think of, it simply would not have existed. We don’t have to go back to that era of living in isolated tribes, but the opposite doesn’t work either. A resident life is harder, but it’s also more meaningful and full.
We need to reside somewhere, and to contribute face to face, to balance acquisition with contribution, taking with giving, consuming with creating, and hiding with belonging. What we can do about it is think local, and act local in every way possible from food to politics and to how we spend our time and energy. I find myself interested less and less in what’s going on in Washington DC and more interested in what’s happening locally, and I’m much happier that way. It’s amazing how interesting the people are who we interact with and take for granted on a daily basis.
The ideology of unhealthy, unmoored, atomized, and unrooted individualism has seeped into every aspect of life of America and you can only do so much to fight against it. But do what you can, and I’ll do what I can do, to create smaller communities that work for building health. It’s always harder to put yourself out there than to hide. But creating community, a Lifeworld, where we can live together is worth the effort.
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