We are a complex culture, no doubt. Like most developed societies, we are rather varied, and you may encounter within an earshot hurt and consolation, justice and prejudice, willful ignorance and playful brilliance, manifestos of communal and individualistic lifestyles in their most radical forms. I can go on listing extremes, but no need. I am thinking today of one aspect of “our culture” familiar to most because it’s become an adage: We are a lonely culture in some ways. Not in every way, but in some very profound ways. What occurs to me today, however, is a strange thought: There’s an irony to our loneliness. I’ll come to that.
We are a lonely culture in some ways, but it’s not because we are unkind. We are kind enough. On average, Americans give more to charity per capita than any other nation in the world. Americans volunteer more effort to charitable causes than any other nation in the world. We are generous with treasure, time, and talent—and yet, we have children who go to bed hungry, homeless who warm themselves with newspapers, sick who can’t afford medicine, elderly who struggle to push their own wheelchairs up the street, schools that do without computers. I don’t know why this is. We are kind by ourselves, separately, in a controlled little effort, but being kind together… Maybe, it requires something else. Maybe, trust. Maybe, a deeper and larger connection.
Many years ago I was introduced to the concept of friendship by The Cosby Show. It’s an iconic gem, a classic of our culture, and a beloved show of decades. My family knows it by heart, but for us it was more than a wonderful and light-hearted diversion: in the early nineties, every day the Huxtable family taught us little lessons about America we were just learning to navigate. In the episode I’m referencing, Denise has brought to her mother a worry about her friend, who is in trouble. She doesn’t know what to do, how to help, but she is trying to find a way, and she’s upset. Claire sits her teenage daughter down and explains to her that she must learn to be a friend without taking on her friend’s problems. That she must “be there” for her friend, that’s all.
I’ve heard this countless times since, encountered the concept in hundreds of other sources, in art and in life. I admit, it took me a while to wrap my head around it, but I did. And now, as I think about the loneliness of our culture, I remember The Cosby Show. There is a kind of emotional distance we preserve from all but one or two closest people in our lives: maybe a spouse, maybe a parent. For the lucky few, maybe one “best friend.” We’ve disconnected from each other by putting on brave faces, saying “I’m fine, how are you?” and smiling. Because winners don’t whine.
We call “friends” people we no more than call for coffee—people we would not count on with our lives, would not share our most wrenching pain with, would not go looking for should they be out of contact longer than usual. Some of us call “friends” people on Facebook we’ve never met. We “support” each other in some vague manner, we “like” each other’s status posts, and we smile—and all it means is that, when someone is finally in trouble and that trouble overflows and spills over despite the brave face or pride or whatever other silly notion we carry—when someone tells us he is in desperate trouble, we are taught to offer nothing but a hug and a shrug, and a sympathetic smile. Maybe an encouraging platitude. And he is taught to expect nothing else.
Don’t get me wrong. A hug is very important. Essential. A hug, a kind word—and listening to each other’s problems—are the first steps to being truly connected. And sometimes, when there truly is nothing we can do, just holding someone’s hand is the precious thing we can do. But if a hug is the standard first and last step…
When you come to me in tears because you’ve lost your job or can’t afford to take care of your family, or because you’re ill and scared and cannot get answers from the doctors, or because you’re failing at your dream and think of giving up—and I say, “I’m here for you,” what does it mean? Will I take you in to stay with me? Scour the nation for just the right specialist? Brainstorm with you, dig in with you, confront you, advise you? Am I here for you as part of your life—or here and now, as a shoulder, for an hour, to let you cry and walk away to deal with your problems on your own? Because, understandably, I have my own problems to deal with? Or because you don’t really want me interfering in your life, you just want a benevolent witness to your moment of weakness? Or because it’s just convenient for me to think so?
Of course, there are exceptions. We do have friends who take us in and advise and confront us. We do meet people who care to hear the real answer when they ask how we are. But this isn’t the norm. On the cultural scale, we share time, talent, and treasure, but not so much ourselves. We guard ourselves very jealously—our personal space—and stay out of others’. We are not taught to say how we are when asked, nor to listen to the answer. And should we encounter a person with a burden, our hearts sincerely ache, and we give her a hug and say “Awww, dear!” And we say, “You’re in my prayers” and something else uplifting, like “You’ve made the right decision.” We need know nothing about the decision. We’re being supportive. Then we leave her behind and walk away. What else can we do?
This, I feel, is the problem: not a lack of compassion or kindness, not some sort of indifference. Most people I’ve met are warm-hearted, passionate, and committed to loving the world. And yet, there is a problem: a surface quality to our mundane communications.
Yes, I believe the fault—well, part of the fault—for the loneliness of our culture lies in the loss of depth of communication. When everyday communication is so mired in convention, it no longer serves its primary goal of connection, and the only goal left is secondary: navigation. Avoidance of conflict. We have reduced our interaction to putting on faces. We mean so much more than we say, but we don’t say it, and we leave chasms between persons and we say something else, and we lie when we talk.
Here’s the irony that occurs to me: we are a lonely culture in many ways because we are too polite. Because we are careful with each other’s feelings.
Think about it. We don’t say what we mean. We say what we must, what’s expected, what sounds good, what will not offend, what will spare feelings, what will get us the job, what will project the best image… Of course we do. This is semiotics, the mind-bendingly complex system of signs and symbols that creates and projects images outward from ourselves and helps us interpret the images our fellows project toward us. Since the dawn of humanity we’ve been learning to do this. We are a semiotic species. It’s just that…I’ve been feeling like we’re going overboard with it.
Not long ago I planned to do something useful and wonderful in a place I love, with people I adore: to help them with a great endeavor, and I was breathlessly looking forward to it. But my life is not entirely simple just now, so I sent my friends a letter that spoke of a couple challenges we’d have to overcome first. I didn’t think twice about being honest—if anyone in the world could talk to me straight-forwardly, I thought, it would be them. But the answer came back: You’d better not come. And it gave a reason I don’t think is real. But it was…polite.
I can think of good reasons my friends would disinvite me. What kills me is that I don’t know. I just wish they would tell me, and then, even if failed, we’d be in it together, and I wouldn’t feel so alone. So abandoned. As if they read my letter and decided I was no longer fit and sent back a standard form: “We thank you for your interest. The position has been filled.” Side of the dusty road, severed ties whipping your face.
Who hasn’t felt that way?
It’s when we turn away without having told the truth to each other. We are polite. We give and take a way out. We think we spare feelings, and sometimes we are, but more often than we care to admit, we leave behind a human being who knows, consciously or not, that he wasn’t worth the bother of dealing with.
Lying courtesy is for strangers. Navigation. Avoidance of drama.
Loving honesty is for brothers and sisters. Connection. The joy and pain it brings.
I have a feeling that’s eating away at me that our sibling circles are getting very narrow.
So what do we do? Am I proposing we discard courtesy and semiotics and just blurt out whatever is on our minds at all times, flood everyone we meet with everything we are? No, of course, not. There’s a good measure to everything. The question is, what is the good measure?
I have noticed a slightly different tendency in very big families and very small towns, the kind that Hollywood comedies make fun of. We tend to say they are meddlesome. They often argue more and gossip more. They are also more honest and less lonely. Less afraid of becoming involved with each other. Less afraid of being exposed. These are subcultures that are by nature more interconnected. Perhaps, we can all use a bit more of that, to some sort of balance. To a point where we practice kindness born of loving honesty, not courtesy born of avoidance.