Thursday, December 24, 2009

Losing Contact

Like everyone else, my world view is limited and filtered by my own experience. Like everyone else, when there is no available, reliable research I form opinions based on my particular, atypical experiences.

Based on surveys, I have to accept that about twenty percent of adults in the US smoke. My personal experience says it is about five percent because the group of people I interact with day to day are generally non-smokers and the smokers tend not to smoke around me.

I bring this up because I feel a cultural change, but have only the most personal and anecdotal evidence. It strikes me that, day to day, I have less and less genuine human contact, both physical and emotional. I am sure some of this has to do with time of life, particular circumstance, and the softening effect of memory. Despite this, I feel there is a genuine cultural change for the worse in the United States.

Years ago when our family was smaller and very young, we moved to Oregon. This was to a small city. We arrived with nothing but the names of some friends of friends. During the three years we lived there, we developed a set of close friends and companions. I was trying to work as a musician and formed contacts in that community. We formed bands of convenience and played the local taverns and coffee shops. There were day jobs for money, but we spent as little time as possible there because our real lives were elsewhere. I helped people build additions, move, attended births and birthday parties and do all the other quotidian things without the thought of payment or trading labor. We were just in it together. There were parties and saunas and music and love. I don't remember censoring what I thought or said with these people. I'm sure that some folks were put off and probably pulled away, but there were enough left for a small community.

I contrast that to my current situation. My monetary work takes virtually all of my waking hours. Due perhaps to a poor choice or poor opportunity, my commute is quite long. A typical day involves getting up at 5:10am. By 5:30 I am in a spinning class at the local gym. After that I shower, dress and commute to work. At work there is no real communal area and I typically eat lunch alone at a nearby shopping mall. My day is largely spent in work meetings, large and small. Although I am constantly talking with people, it is all work related. I do not get home until about 7:00pm, quite exhausted.

At work, I do not speak freely. Some time ago I made a small, very bad, joke on an email received by everyone in our office (probably sixty people). Some people in management thought that such a joke might be construed by someone as offensive. As far as I can tell, no one actually complained, but some folks fantasized they might. I read and re-read the message and could find no basis for any rational complaint, but I complied with the request to send an apology saying that such communication had no place in our office.

I am more aloof than most people and I see friendships develop and grow in the workplace but I am guarded. I simply do not trust that the organization has my or my colleagues best interests in mind. As a manager, I try to protect the people who work for me, but the day may come where I am asked to do things that injure them. Most of my bosses seem to accept the notion that the primary purpose of our work is to monetarily advance the organization as a whole. I like the people I work with. I respect them. I think the institutions we have created force us apart rather than bringing us together.

In the past few years sending work off-shore has been a common topic of management discussion in several jobs I have had. It generally occurs as almost a spreadsheet computation: cost of labor versus inefficiencies in communication and the cost of developing requisite skills in people far away. In talks about pay we speak of being competitive. Work benefits are a way keep talented people from defecting to other jobs. There are career development programs and birthday reminders, but I feel the underlying sentiment that we are not dealing with friends or even people, but with labor units. Labor units that should be developed and trained and respected, but the basic notion is economic utility. The purpose of the organization is to earn money for the owners. In my current job, the owners want good economic results so they can cash out by selling the company to someone else.

Frankly, I do not think economics should form the basis for our work lives or any other part of our lives. We require money to live and our lives must make sense economically. Work must make money, but that does not mean that money should form the basis of work. Work can be centered around helping others. It can be centered on a common sense of purpose and making something bigger than one person. It can center on doing things no one has done before or better than anyone has ever done them before. It can provide community and a way to help each other.

My reaction to my work brings me distance rather than closeness to others. This is, of course, my reaction. Others may react differently, but I do not think my experience is uncommon.

I sometimes look at movies as a window onto different times and places. A couple of good examples are the original (1951) "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan".

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a good story but mostly I like to contrast the everyday life that is portrayed with current life in the US. A human looking alien is loose in Washington. This apparently well educated and intelligent may chooses to live in a boarding house where he finds good middle class folks. (As a side note, Thomas Jefferson, Jon Marshall and Aaron Burr all lived in boarding houses while in Washington DC.) A single mother and her son (12 years old?) live in the boarding house as well. Within a few days the mother trusts the new boarder well enough to have him look after her son. The son has the run of Washington and is allowed to roam by himself. This setting is not the point of the movie and I do not believe that reviewers of the time commented on the lives portrayed. This was simply the texture of the time.

"God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan" is the story of some remarkable Sudanese men. Due to war in Sudan, thousands of children were forced to flee, without any adults, across thousands of miles to refugee camps in Kenya. In Kenya they lived in refugee camps run by the UN where they created their own goverment and were schooled. Their lives were confined to the camps and they developed an extremely close knit society based on personal contact, trust and loyalty. The film introduces us to several of these young men given the opportunity of moving to the US. These are remarkable people. When we meet them they have not only survived their epic flight from Sudan, they are also remarkably well educated. Each speaks at least two or three languages.

For them, the US is a land of opportunity and provides a chance for more education and money that they can send to their community back in Kenya. It is not particularly mentioned in the film, but you see this group of men who completely depended on each other in Kenya become a fragmented group of individuals who share the same apartment, but spend no time together. Their communal life is simply shattered by the reality of contemporary American life. I do not believe that they would choose to go back, but as an observer the tragedy and loss are stark.

It is about time for me to change my life to bring it more closely into line with my values. More on this later.

1 comment:

Seppie said...

It does seem harder to create and maintain community here and now that it was in the late 70s/early 80s in Oregon. This is something that I've struggled with since we moved to FC, and finally, after three years here, feel like I'm making a bit of headway. This is despite the facts that my work hours aren't as long as yours, I have forced contact with people due to kid activities, and that we moved here with the advantage of having family and family/high school friends here. People seem exceptionally busy and exhausted most of the time, and social networks are pretty far-flung. And, as you know, I'm a joiner at heart, so it's not that I'm sitting home in my shell. It was easier when my kids were babies and I wasn't working full time, but I don't think that's the whole story. In Cheyenne I had several very close friends, with whom I did the kinds of things you name here. With PWP I got some of that, but now that I'm no longer a single parent, I've maintained friendships but the community is unavailable to me. Will and I have tried having monthly potluck dinners, and I've started a book club, but it seems like a long slow process of gelling disparate friends into a cohesive group...