My mind does not share the quiet and stillness one normally would expect with today’s social distancing and quarantines. It is filled with a whirlwind of kinetic thought, debating how we got here and where we are going, between our focus on the me and our irresponsible neglect of the importance of we, between experiencing the relative solitude of the now and imaging the alternatives we can create together for the future.
So last week I laced up my running shoes and stepped outside, yearning for the endorphins and rejuvenation that come with a moving meditation. As I pitter pattered down the street to the bottom of the hill, I faced a choice — turn left as I usually do, or turn right onto an unfamiliar path.
I turned right, and suddenly started to receive a chorus of “Hello!”s and “Hi!”s from one person after another. Mothers with their strollers, fathers on bikes with their kids, twenty-somethings without their phones. Over the eight miles of smiley greetings and sweat, I quickly realized that choosing the path to the right represented much more than a new running route; it was an experience filled with joy and true community, and intimated a moment of making choices anew, one we will all share as individuals, as society, and as a planet.
Earth has compelled us into our corners right now, on a time-out, and from there we each have to decide whether to turn left back onto the path we have mindlessly trotted down for years, the path that brought us here, or turn right and chart a new path. Left is the past, and with it a relentless need for more, a comfort in speaking with our thumbs instead of our voices, and too often shooing away the responsibilities that come with freedom. Right is a new future, one where family, health and human connection supersede consumerism, where the planet’s needs reign and we actively participate in keeping her, and us as a collective civil society, together.
As I approached the bottom of the hill the next day, I chose to turn right again, a deliberate expression of the philosophical challenge facing us all. How did we get here, and where should we go after this is all over? Who have we become, and who do we actually want to be? Should we take the path to the left, the straight shot back, or turn right, as daunting as it is, and forge a new path home?
We can be intimidated, or we can tackle the choice head on.
The I — On Individuals.
There is no way around it — we have lived multiple decades catering to the I, the me, the mine. From car pick-ups to phone names, customized vitamins to prepackaged meals for one, selfies to solo vacations, there has been a seismic shift in society away from the collective and to the individual. The ‘W’ in we has been flipped and cemented it into an ‘M’ for me.
This ‘me-dom,’ has seemed efficient, effective, and utterly exhilarating, but for many of us, it has translated into being unseemly spoiled. Technology has abetted getting virtually whatever I want, from anywhere in the world, mind you, when I want it, same day or two weeks max, guaranteed; seeing who I want, when I want, even if I am late, or decide to cancel, even if all I am doing is laying on the couch instead. I. I. I. Me. Me. Me. It is almost embarrassing.
Have any of us even realized how self obsessed we have become? How me-centric?
From Direct To Consumer everything, to millions of photos of our own faces and most mundane moments, to personalized mirrors to exercise with, it is a wonder we even like our own company anymore. I mean, we instinctively roll our eyes at the self absorbed story teller at a company cocktail party, but what about when it comes to ourselves?
All this me-centricity has had us practicing social distancing on an emotional level for years, though we may not have been aware.
Social media has replaced in person hang-outs, apps have substituted energetic interactions, and fingers have silenced voices. Too often, we choose emails over family meals and flaunt Jomo, or ‘joy of missing out,’ as a respected phrase. We eat isolated in our cars and keep our noise cancellation headphones on all the time, even when the only noise being cancelled is life itself.
As I pitter pattered in social isolation toward the bottom of the hill, I asked myself: Is our angst of late rooted in what we cannot have, or is it, perhaps, that we are realizing that what we voluntarily created is not so great after all?
Consumerism has in many ways replaced citizenship, meaning we too often value ourselves and others by toys and things rather than by responsibility for a greater good. Many of us have proudly flaunted this identity. Yet, as our access to markets and restraints on consumption persist, we are forced to wonder if, in fact, we need it all. Is enough not enough, or is enough, enough?
Additionally, it is now imperative that we conserve what we do have. We have to decide more carefully how much we are willing to consume if we know there might not be more. Eat the five pounds of vegetables over a few days or juice and shoot in one swig? Keep the manicure one day longer or take it off just because it is not as shiny as it could be?
It is more than just consumerism. For example, Immanuel Kant once taught that the greatest sin of all was to reduce one another to a means to an end, to treat people as tools and instruments to get what we want. So the question arises — has a super connected, self-congratulatory world filled so many with such a thirst for fame, accolades, and fortune that the overarching culture has ignored and ingrained an acceptance for using one another? Or even more dramatically, has the core ideal for social interaction increasingly become less about a person’s worth as a fellow human being and more dependent on the individual’s utility?
Over time, we were becoming a society market more by complaining than loving, more digital liking that living, more hiding than hugging, more buying than giving, more feeling ostracized than feeling free.
The moment has arrived to evaluate new paths and reassess our values as individuals — individuals in relation to our internal selves, to our families, and to our society as a whole. New paths, new worlds, await.
The We — On Society.
America has long been defined by its civil societies — its abundance of non political organizations — families, neighborhoods, charities, houses of worship, volunteer organizations — that operate alongside government and the market. All very tangible, palpable, real.
Unfortunately, the slippery slope of clicking vs acting, scrolling vs doing, has threatened the civil societies and structures upon which we survive, and in doing so, weakening our civic impulse.
As we learned as kids, rights come with responsibilities. In recent years, this basic rule has become an abstract concept we all too easily eschew, yet it is the ethos of what has always kept us as a society going. Our society and its structures rely on civic responsibility, the ‘dues’ required from each one of us I’s to make the ‘we’ function, but the digitization of these fundamental pillars of our society can erode our ethical sense to engage and act in the most meaningful ways.
We have become far too comfortable outsourcing some of life’s most basic responsibilities — cooking, cleaning, and caring for elders and family — turning the essence of human existence into a set of profitable businesses. We are often happy to click on a heart icon in support of, or opposition to, a current event. But leave the house and get out hands dirty in it? Not always.
This collective series of clicks has shifted the dynamic of power away from us, the I’s responsible for maintaining the ‘we,’ to a cloud in ether that increasingly has little loyalty or responsibility to anyone or anything except its own algorithms. By digitally washing our hands of our basic civic responsibilities, we have given our power as humans, and society, away.
Now, sheltered in place, we notice the nuances that could portend a seismic shift. Witness how we clamor now for the survival of small businesses and spread petitions for mom & pop shops, while for years we have chosen convenience over a sense of loyalty, or even obligation, to others. We have voted with our dollars and time, paying 20% more to speak 20 words less via a delivery app rather than call the restaurant ourselves, even if the restaurant’s bottom line was dependent on our voice. We relished the double click rather than a double ring on a neighborhood store door. We stepped away from parks and bars, choosing swipes and illustrated thumbs-ups as preferred interactions. In effect, we let ourselves believe the responsibility was not necessarily ‘mine.’ Or so we thought.
As we face the choice to turn left or right, we must honestly ask ourselves, have we tried to eat the cake and have it, too? Have we willfully, click-fully, diluted our civic core? Should we consider a turn to the right, and reassess our relationship to and for society as a whole?
The Us — On the Planet.
Let’s be honest — Earth needed a vacation.
At the end of the day, we have been more comfortable abusing her than observing her beauty, quicker to take from her than to give back, happier to consume than reflect and constrain. But even before this pandemic, more of us had begun to listen and to act, not just protesting climate change but creating and advocating for renewable sources of energy, as well as adapting behaviors to realistic limits on resources and practicing mindful community responsibility.
Now, as we stand and stare, the crisis has accelerated that way of thinking. We see wildflowers sprouting in new locations and wildlife meandering down empty, quiet roads. We celebrate photos of a healing ozone layer, measures of lower carbon emissions, and breaths of cleaner air. We clamor with joy like children at videos of dolphins and fish swimming free in once polluted canals and ports. Birds’ have reclaimed their stage from the noise of airplanes and cars and their chirping seems to talk directly to us, as now we have the time to actually listen, and smile.
Nature’s relief is palpable. And as I look around on my run, I see how happy we are, as well, which only makes me wonder.
Running down the same hill yet again today, the message from this moment in time was crystal clear. We can come out of this current turmoil and return to how we were — that is the easy route — or, while placed on time-out, we can reflect on where we have been and who we would like to become. This is more challenging, but in the words of historians Ariel and Will Durant, “The past is the present unrolled for understanding; the present is the future rolled up for action.”
We overdid the era of convenience and on-demand, of selfies and instant gratification; we barreled straight through excess while too often leaving a trail of moral and physical debris in our wake. But now we have a chance to deconstruct what we have learned and reconstruct who and how we want to be.
We need to bolster our citizenship from consumption to participation, converting the kingdom of I into a kingdom of we, and lean into the sentiments we so value at this moment — family, health, freedom, faith, nature, and fresh air. We must consider a new turn. If we do not, if we come out of all this unchanged and revert down the same path, we have failed as a species.
There is a crossroads coming up on us. We should prepare for the choice we make.
But first, let’s thank Earth for going on vacation, giving us this opportunity to stand and to stare.
*Title inspired by the poem, Leisure, by William Henry Davies.