WASHINGTON-April 4, 2013-“Although the connections are not always obvious, personal change is inseparable from social and political change.” Harriet Lerner, author
The American cowboy rides off into the sunset alone and unafraid. His horse and a six-shooter are his constant companions. He needs only a campfire and a can of beans for nourishment of body and spirit, as he stares into the stars of the night, gathering his strength before he rides at dawn, alone.
This is the current, albeit slowly changing, concept of the basis of being an American. Solitary, individualistic, heralding the self-made successful, and forging alone through the maze of adulthood. This is also one reason why Americans are, in so many areas, unhappy and feel disconnected. For a musical overview, take a listen to the 1966 song, “Solitary Man,” by Neil Diamond.
Americans can live in a neighborhood for 30 years without knowing, or in many cases, even meeting and introducing themselves to a fellow neighbor. Robert Frost wrote “Good fences make good neighbors,” implying boundaries, privacy and discouragement of social interaction.
Yardsticks to measure this ideal of American culture can be seen in the response, or lack thereof, when one divorces, losses a job, gets in trouble with the law, or publically declares they feel depressed. Most are cast socially adrift to deal with their issues alone or with very few.
When a loved one passes, a social circle arrives with food, condolences, sympathy, and attendance. Then, just as quickly, disappears and leaves the saddened to grieve alone with casseroles. The same phenomenon applies to those grievously injured or struck by illness. There is an initial outpouring of love and friendship, then it is back to their workaday lives, leaving such victims alone in their struggle.
In many cases, the visits to Mom or Dad in assisted care grow less frequent and the eventual graveside visits, perfunctory.
The American penal system is so attuned to the impact of such an existence, they condemn the already socially confined to what is known as solitary confinement. This popular form of punishment was designed with full knowledge that removing a prisoner from their social circle is psychologically damning.
According to the American Psychological Association, perpetuating the autonomous ‘lone cowboy’ myth is to perpetuate individualism in an unhealthy fashion. America needs to look to our Latino and Asian brethren for an alternative sociality, which includes sense of family.
Most American families now have working mothers and fathers to make ends meet, creating a generation of what is known as latch-key children. These are children who arrive home from school to an empty home awaiting the arrival of family members who come home at differing times. The children are then assigned to continue engaging in computer games or any activity to occupy their minds.
The parents are tired and find free time difficult to manage. Often when they do, they assign themselves “me” time, subtracting from the already limited family time. The family fabric is ragged from lack of family structure and interfamilial community and sociality. As time goes on, children begin to feel disconnected.
Eastern Asian cultures place family and community first and foremost. It is traditional and customary in many Eastern Asian cultures to disregard the “me” concept and consider the effect of self on the totality of family and, by extension, community. The self is not a primary consideration. Family and community are valued over of self-considerations.
Americans struggle for personal gain, self-improvement, self-accumulation, and self-aspiration to personal success. By contrast, Asians take into consideration whether their efforts have a positive or negative impact on their community and family, regardless of personal gain. They believe their families and communities breathe and act as one. They do not practice a trickle down sociality.
These same Asian communities commonly practice Buddhism as a religion. Buddhism is relatively gender equal and promotes peace. It recognizes sources of suffering and works to eliminate such sources.
Buddhism promotes humble, considerate and righteous social interaction, while eliminating greed, hatred and ignorance. It promotes growth of spiritual values, recognition of the right to life of all sentient beings and, most of all, enlightenment.
This basic overview of a complicated religion such as Buddhism is not to promote it as superior or inferior to any other religion. This illustration is to showcase the influence of Eastern Asian religion as incorporated into their sense of family and community as consistent with their religion.
Latino culture is also strongly focused on family and community, but through their primary religion, Christianity. The Latino culture focuses away from self in the same fashion as Eastern Asians. If Americans, who are also primarily Christian, do not share the same family and community hierarchy, where did America go wrong?
Consider that Latino and Asian cultures address personal issues with family and cultural partners within the communal group. Those with difficult issues consult their family or reach out to those in their immediate social circle for personal advice and emotional assistance.
In America, we go outside of our family and immediate social circles for personal advice and emotional assistance. We go to mental health professionals.
Americans lack the social infrastructure found in other cultures. This disconnection leads to individual disassociation, loneliness and isolation, as well as fostering depression. Although electronic social media helps to fill this gap, it is not a panacea and is not a substitute for true social and community interaction.
Is this to say in a broad sense, Americans are selfish? No. America is the leading country in the world that offers assistance to global partners. However, it can be said that locally, “good fences” need large, swinging gates.
Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based writer and a member of the American Psychological Association and the Association for psychological Science.