I’ve tried to write this piece on many occasions. It has been difficult to get the words to come. Just when I think I’ve captured it, something else occurs to me. What follows is where I must leave it.
About a month ago, I had the most peculiar feeling as we went about our Sunday. As we drove down Route 10, we passed a bowling alley, a miniature golf place, a movie theater and an indoor recreation park. Their lots were just packed with cars. In years past, I might have remarked about how so many people were trying to eke out what remained of summer leisure before the start of school that week. Instead, I mused aloud, “Look at all the people trying to forget.” I had the distinct impression that everyone around me was trying to hold up the illusion that everything was OK, and that they were making a show of enjoying the weekend like they always do. This had to be my own perception, a reflection of how ill at ease I’ve been for months.
Tucked deep into side one of Eagles is a mournful ballad called “Most Of Us Are Sad.” It was written by Glenn Frey and sung by Randy Meisner.
Most of us are sad
No one lets it show
I’ve been shadows of myself
How was I to know?
Tell me scarlet sun
What will time allow?
We have brought our children here
Who can save them now?
Weeping woman try to smile
Like the coming dawn
Most of us are sad it’s true
Still we must go on
I have always loved the tune, but I’ve begun to hear it as a truism. I thought I was the only one.
Since that Sunday afternoon, as I interact with people, that song plays over and over in my mind. It doesn’t matter if they’re friends, acquaintances, professionals or strangers. They all seem to have the same need to express something to someone, anyone. It’s only when I answer the question “how are you?” honestly, that they suddenly open up. They explain with disarming detail why they too, are not doing very well. They seem relieved. It’s on their faces. They attempt to describe how their lives are in a confusing state of suspension. I’ve heard stories about spontaneous crying spells, hopelessness, unexplainable desperation, recurring appointments with doctors and specialists, people drinking more and earlier in the day, and frustration about how even the most mundane of tasks have become burdensome and difficult.
Many people have told me about how their jobs no longer make sense. This contention has not been confined to a certain kind of job either. People seem to be attending to their responsibilities, but they feel part of nothing. Goals are tentative. Plans are made with a dark chuckle and some variant of the joke, “if any of us is even still here…” I’ve heard that people are engaged in doing their jobs, but to a person are disillusioned with their management or their bosses. Decisions that affect them seem to be made haphazardly and with such obvious shortsightedness that impostor syndrome is less a quiet fear of the few and more a condition without remedy to which subordinates just throw up their hands. Workers have been so disempowered by ad hoc crisis management that they just roll with the ineptitude. Fewer of them than ever have qualms about proclaiming what problems are simply not theirs to solve. For the moment, the wheel still rolls. Some watch with incredulity as paychecks still arrive. They know it can’t last, but they’re out of energy to worry about it. The ambition and initiative that used to hang over the heads of American workers as a self-minded pressure to succeed and ascend have evaporated. Instead, they buy and vacation before this moment’s gone.
No one can plan beyond this point, but the dread smolders deep within our hearts. Even though there is only the present moment, this realization isn’t from some enlightenment we’ve all longed for. It’s that there is no tomorrow. It’s the sadness, the emptiness, the theft of spirit brought about by imprisonment or slavery. Tomorrow is gray chaos, from weather, to government, to the economy, to our own health and survival. Industries have thrived on doom for so long that it has begun to lose its effect. You simply can’t manipulate the dispirited with more fear. What else have you got?
As a customer, I perceive that very little seems ever to be done with care. It’s just enough, but no more. Lines and hold times are longer, the greetings and assistance more terse. Very few promises are made. It’s usually absolutely fine with everyone if you take your business elsewhere. Who cares? I don’t even feel compelled to complain and I used to get a lot of mileage out of that. I used to love playing corporate posturing about the customer satisfaction against itself. But now, as for the people you could conceivably complain to, what can they possibly offer you? That’s all over now. Customer experience has been reduced to luck. You’re lucky they had what you were shopping for. You’re lucky that there was gas and that the pump worked and that their credit card reader was functional. Be happy with that and just move on. You bought yourself one more day.
There are no rules. Who has the time or energy to enforce them? They aren’t even suggestions anymore. Where I live is supposed to be a smoke-free community, yet there are those who smoke pot in their living rooms, overtaking the nursery of a three-week-old baby next door. The property management can’t stop it. There are security cameras all over the place, but somehow no one knows who isn’t cleaning up after their dogs. I saw something in the news about how a crowd ran amok, destroying a Wawa in Philadelphia. Video everywhere, but no arrests were made. There’s nothing anyone can do. A car rally overtook Wildwood over the weekend and two people were killed when a vehicle turned over. Who could’ve prevented that? Actually, no one. Facts are endlessly interpretative. Most of us are left to endure almost anything, because in our hearts and minds, we’re alone and helpless.
Most of us are sad it’s true
Still, we must go on…
I can sense a pervasive a presentiment that eventually, the bottom will fall out. No one is coming to help. The unthinkable seems to happen daily, and that has poisoned our minds. But humans can’t live this way indefinitely. The cracks are showing, but the bridge still holds. We’ve seen empty shelves, but we haven’t killed for a loaf of bread yet. Are we seeing the writing on the wall? Should we be doing something? If so, what? Aren’t we doing all we can to keep up as it is? Will we be kicking ourselves because we didn’t act? These questions are unanswerable until it’s too late.
So we hold our breath. We get sick. Our nervous systems rebel. We drop out. We give less and less of ourselves. Compassion is just a little harder to come by. Even hit and runs are up because people are not really present at the wheel and just can’t handle consequences when they’re already at their limit. If we can only get away, maybe we can squeak by for a little longer.
This is breakdown. Spiritual breakdown. Societal breakdown.
It wouldn’t be right to paint this dismal portrait of American life simply to hold it up for clear viewing. As much as it pains me to consider the realities, I try in small ways not to throw up my hands. I continue to talk to the people I meet and I listen to them. I validate their feelings as much as I can. I recognize their struggles. I love to watch their faces brighten, if only for a moment. I try to get them to laugh or smile without dismissing what they’re telling me. On occasion, I receive heartfelt thanks. I like to believe that I leave them stronger, or at least encouraged.
For the people who are closer to me, I’ll call or write just to check up on them. I let them know that I remember what they said about how they were suffering. If what they said affected me deeply, I’ll tell them just that. Sometimes, just admitting freely to being emotionally fragile reminds them that what they’re feeling is OK, a perfectly understandable reaction to a life that has become overrun by sadness both overt and subtle.
Maybe we can’t really help each other, but I know we can break through a moment of isolation with relative ease. There is very little risk to that. Most of us are sad.