our national disease?

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the difference between self-reflection and self-absorption; about when self-absorption becomes pathological, both for individuals and for nations. I'm still a long way from any conclusions, but the overwhelming evidence is, I think, that in America self-absorption has become pathological for the nation as a whole as well as for many, many individuals. A disease of the well-fed person, the healthy body, the free citizen, the rich nation.

By pathological I mean that self-reflection has reached the point of self-absorption and created sort of a "black hole," if you will, where no outside stimuli gets in to alter behavior or thought patterns or extend knowledge. Self-absorption is pathological when it paralyzes a person, or a country, locking in self-defeating behaviors. It's also pathological when self-absorption damages others, whether it's others within one's local community or others globally.

We watched Beyond Rangoon last night, which is a movie about the political upheaval in Burma, about the massacres that took place there, about Aung San Suu Kyi and her bravery and how her bravery affected the American doctor in this movie. About how the doctor was on a vacation in Burma to try to find relief from her suffering brought about by the murders of her husband and son, and how she found release--not by dwelling on herself, looking only inward and "reflecting" on her pain, but by noticing and trying to help heal the pain and suffering of the people around her.

One of the points it brings out is how little Americans know about what's going on in the rest of the world unless it's featured in living color on TV.

Which reminded me how shocked I was when I learned that the war in the Congo has killed more than three MILLION people in the past five years. I try to be aware of what's going on in the rest of the world, but I missed how horrific this war is until I read about it a couple of months ago in, I think, the New York Times and in an article about conflict diamonds. Three MILLION. No TV coverage of it--but there is no oil in the Congo and these are not "people like us."

On an individual level, I've watched an acquaintance spend the equivalent of half a work week--each and every week--attending various self-help groups and therapy. For years. And become more and more paralyzed, looping constant "what ifs" and afraid to take a chance that might be the wrong decision for her. Not living. She finally, after nearly seven years, made a decision (hedging even this one), but has lost so much in the process that she is worse off now than she would have been had she not stop drinking and binging. I suppose self-absorption can lead to self-addiction--lord knows I've seen enough of it. There's a thin line between recovery and pathology, I think. Recovery from anything is paying as much attention as you have to in order not to relapse or become ill again, but not more attention than you have to. Part of recovery should be moving on. I've seen too many people make recovery a hobby, an excuse for not fully participating in life. It's nice to have support, but birds never learn to fly until they leave the nest. The over-examined life is not being lived.

And then there's the self-absorption engendered by our white, American culture. Where children have it drilled into their heads that they have rights, but where there is no corresponding emphasis on the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with these rights. The dissonance between the notion that we're a nation of individualists and the relentless drive to have the same possessions and look the same and blend in with everyone else yet be unique. Where parents are too self-absorbed to rear their children and instead pay lip service to some perverted notion of self esteem, throw as many baubles as they can afford at their offspring, and call it "good parenting."

In "It's Emerson's Anniversary and He's Nailed 21st-Century America," (New York Times, May 4, 2003), Adam Cohen concluded with:

Individualism run amok, transformed into a cruel self-absorption, is a good description of much of American life right now. Republicans, using the rallying cry "It's your money," are promoting a $550 billion tax cut that would take health care from sick children--a modern echo of Emerson's "wicked dollars." In foreign policy, the rhetoric is equally self-regarding: "You're with us," we tell the world, "or against us."

In the private sector, the self-absorption is every bit as naked. Enron and Tyco executives seem almost unable to see their shareholders--or to conceive that assets that belonged to them cannot be shunted into private partnerships. Wall Street analysts gloat in e-mail about sending out bad stock recommendations that mislead the public --people who, they might say, "do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong."

Emerson liked to call his essays "lay sermons" and, defrocked or not, he was a minister to the end. But his writings on individualism speak not only to our highest natures, but to our lowest. Two hundred years after his birth, Emerson the secular preacher still matters not because he has all the answers for how we should live, but because he so intriguingly reflects who we actually are.

So what is the prognosis? I don't know. I don't even know if pathological self-absorption is truly a widespread problem, or if it just appears to be. I do know that part of the answer doesn't lie in becoming a monk or retreating from the world, but in becoming more aware of the world and the part we play in it. At least giving equal time to the "what can I contribute?" aspect of living our daily lives as to the "what's in it for me?" aspect. Balance.
Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 05/04/03 at 10:17 AM
Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.

<< Back to main