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Matthew Stokes: Isolation and Exhaustion make for Personal and Political Headaches

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Journalists and analysts are always evaluating what has brought us to our current social and political moment.  There are a lot of answers, some good and others bad. It’s reasonable to look at the economy in terms of pure numbers, or to look at educational outcomes as a window into America.   Neither are a bad idea, but I don’t think the tell the whole story. My hunch is that the condition of so many Americans is encapsulated in two words: loneliness and exhaustion.

It’s not a cheery topic, nor is it one that easily solved. Admitting we have these problems is an essential step to rebuilding a strong civil society.

Loneliness is part of the human condition, dating back to the Garden of Eden.  It is something that we can never truly eradicate. What should trouble us is the extent to which the business of our lives, undergirded by technology, reinforces loneliness.  

Let me confess my own bad habit. I love podcasts and regularly listen to a handful devoted to politics and theology. The problem emerges when listening in the car transitions to walking into the store with earbuds and all of a sudden I’ve made it through Target lost in my world of important news but scarcely acknowledging anyone else.  We’ve all done something to that effect, and even with a family that loves you deeply, you realize you’ve spent all day in technology and now find yourself without having interacted with anyone else outside your home. Some days that’s fine and even healthy, but day after day it becomes a recipe for alienation.

I recently heard one parent talking to another about their neighborhood full of children, all of them inside and isolated on the tablets and video game consoles.  The parents enjoy the quiet but eventually realize there are no laughing or screaming kids, no horseplay in the front yard, and the neighbors don’t know each other all that well.  Kids only know their parents, and not only do they lose a sense of respect for other adults, they also miss the emotional security that comes with other adults in their life who know and care about them.   As these kids grow into young adults, they will look for meaning and connection. If they have not be given these things as children, how much more will they need them as adults?

Adding to this isolation is a gnawing sense of exhaustion.  Everyone is incredibly busy. I just entered my late thirties, and for most of my peers, these are the peak earning years.  I understand why an attorney or small business owner work long hours. The problems are with our other commitments – charities, school, youth sports and other extracurriculars.  These things are not bad. They are almost entirely good. Put together, it’s all just so much. Dress up day at school, often for a cause. Random event at school with parents invited.   Practice for sports two nights a week. Write a check for this, make a donation for that. All of it is fine, and yet when you add it all up, none of it is. The problem is that the complexity of modern life is exhausting, which causes so many people to simply shut down and seek refuge in something else – food, drink, or most often, that stupid iPhone.

Complexity is a problem because it benefits those with the resources to navigate it.  That includes the wealthy, but it also includes those who are creative or have a schedule that allows them to work through all the offerings each week brings.  For everyone else, it can mean a series of overwhelming compromises that leave one feeling like a bad citizen or a worse parent. Of course life has also been about choices, but the choices we currently face are numerous and pronounced.  Don’t believe me? Most of us didn’t play travel baseball growing up. There was no soccer academy that cost $1,000 with an additional three hundred bucks in practice uniforms for eight year olds. This is not “get off my lawn” talk. This is the stuff of emotional and financial exhaustion that is partly to blame for tearing into our civic life, as everything becomes an obligation.  Nothing is done out of joy for parents and kids, and the high economic cost is serving to either bankrupt families or price out the lower and middle class kids who would most benefit from the social capital they could derive from all these activities.

The solution is not more or even less government.  This is not a problem of public policy, but of civil society and individual choice.  The only way to alter this trajectory is for individuals and parents, in particular, to say “no!”  Leave the iPhone in the car when you go to the store. Don’t buy your kid a tablet, and work to convince educators that most kids can learn to write and read without one.  Play sports, by all means, but find a way to be competitive without being so high strung. Let’s reconstitute our lives within our own community. Specialization is great for adults in the workforce, but it’s driving our children into a place they ought not go.  We are the only ones who can stand athwart the intensity of this social moment and yell “Stop!”

Let us do that. In the end, our children and neighbors will thank us.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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