In an essay for The New Republic about the consequences of loneliness for public health, Judith Shulevitz reports that one in three Americans over 45 identifies as chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago. “With baby boomers reaching retirement age at a rate of 10,000 a day,” she notes, “the number of lonely Americans will surely spike.”
There are public and private ways to manage this loneliness epidemic — through social workers, therapists, even pets. And the Internet, of course, promises endless forms of virtual community to replace or supplement the real. But all of these alternatives seem destined to leave certain basic human yearnings unaddressed. For many people, the strongest forms of community are still the traditional ones — the kind forged by shared genes, shared memory, shared geography. And neither Facebook nor a life coach nor a well-meaning bureaucracy is likely to compensate for these forms’ attenuation and decline.
This point is illustrated, richly, in one of the best books of the spring, Rod Dreher’s memoir, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” an account of his sister’s death from cancer at the age of 42. […] What makes “The Little Way” such an illuminating book, though, is that it doesn’t just uncritically celebrate the form of community that its author rediscovered in his hometown. It also explains why he left in the first place: because being a bookish kid made him a target for bullying, because his relationship with his father was oppressive, because he wasn’t as comfortable as his sister in a world of traditions, obligations, rules. Because community can imprison as well as sustain, and sometimes it needs to be escaped in order to be appreciated.
In today’s society, that escape is easier than ever before. And that’s a great gift to many people: if you don’t have much in common with your relatives and neighbors, if you’re gay or a genius (or both), if you’re simply restless and footloose, the world can feel much less lonely than it would have in the past. Our society is often kinder to differences and eccentricities than past eras, and our economy rewards extraordinary talent more richly than ever before.
The problem is that as it’s grown easier to be remarkable and unusual, it’s arguably grown harder to be ordinary. To be the kind of person who doesn’t want to write his own life script, or invent her own idiosyncratic career path. To enjoy the stability and comfort of inherited obligations and expectations, rather than constantly having to strike out on your own. To follow a “little way” rather than a path of great ambition. To be more like Ruthie Leming than her brother.
Too often, and probably increasingly, not enough Americans will have what the Lemings had — a place that knew them intimately, a community to lean on, a strong network in a time of trial.
The gentrification of the heart paralyzes us.
Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer
and find myself chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others
And fall in.
I should be suspicious
of what I want.
Along with all of the other rising inequalities we’ve become so familiar with — in income, in wealth, in access to politicians — we confront now a fundamental inequality of accountability. We can have a just society whose guiding ethos is accountability and punishment, where both black kids dealing weed in Harlem and investment bankers peddling fraudulent securities on Wall Street are forced to pay for their crimes, or we can have a just society whose guiding ethos is forgiveness and second chances, one in which both Wall Street banks and foreclosed households are bailed out, in which both inside traders and street felons are allowed to rejoin polite society with the full privileges of citizenship intact. But we cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful. This is the America in which we currently reside.
“If genuine sharing involves a certain element of sacrifice, of giving something up, it also entails an acknowledgment of limits. Not everything can be shared. This is the lesson of the fable of St. Martin who cut his coat in half to give to a beggar. If we shared everything, we would have nothing left to share. Oversharing only exists as a problem if we spend too little time cultivating something of our own. What I do not share or cannot share is truly who I am. More time thinking about and designing for our unshareables, all those aspects of our mental and emotional lives that are inalienable, will serve as an important antidote to the perceived oversharing of social media today. As the contemporary artist Aram Bartholl has shown, it means imagining more of what he calls ‘dead drops,’ spaces where information does not go anywhere, in this case memory sticks imbedded in the walls of cities throughout the world…. Bartholl’s work is a moving digital version of the ancient practice of whispering secrets into the hollows of trees.”
To come to the kitchen
To tear the husk
To slide each piece
so sweeta discipline
Needless to say, Tsarnaev is probably the single most hated figure in America now. As a result, as Bazelon noted, not many people will care what is done to him, just like few people care what happens to the accused terrorists at Guantanamo, or Bagram, or in Yemen and Pakistan. But that’s always how rights are abridged: by targeting the most marginalized group or most hated individual in the first instance, based on the expectation that nobody will object because of how marginalized or hated they are. Once those rights violations are acquiesced to in the first instance, then they become institutionalized forever, and there is no basis for objecting once they are applied to others, as they inevitably will be (in the case of the War on Terror powers: as they already are being applied to others). As Bazelon concludes:
No one is crying over the rights of the young man who is accused of killing innocent people, helping his brother set off bombs that were loaded to maim, and terrorizing Boston Thursday night and Friday. But the next time you read about an abusive interrogation, or a wrongful conviction that resulted from a false confession, think about why we have Miranda in the first place. It’s to stop law enforcement authorities from committing abuses. Because when they can make their own rules, sometime, somewhere, they inevitably will.
Leave aside the fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted of nothing and is thus entitled to a presumption of innocence. The reason to care what happens to him is because how he is treated creates precedent for what the US government is empowered to do, including to US citizens on US soil. When you cheer for the erosion of his rights, you’re cheering for the erosion of your own.