Alienation Nation

One of the plagues of modern life, as Hegel and Marx pointed out, is alienation. We are alienated in several ways. First, we are alienated from each other. Economist, Jane Jacobs believes we are heading into a new Dark Age, because of the collapse of community. We don’t know our neighbors. We drive long distances to work and the car has become indispensable to get our groceries over here, get our children to school over there, and we spend much of our day in a maze of scattered and disparate locations all connected by sterile asphalt roads. We are scattered physically as well as spiritually. This creates a separation from the rest of our fellow travelers through life. While I know many of the people in my ward, other than at church we don’t interact much. We don’t work together, dance together, or play together. We see each other only on Sundays and that is spent mostly in the rush of programs and programming that allows for few conversations and little in the way of being humans together. We are polite, but hardly even know each other at any level of depth.

Second, we are alienated from nature. We’ve lost the ecological connection between the cycles of life and death. Our food comes in nicely wrapped packages. The fact that an animal was involved in our hamburger has been completely masked by the Styrofoam tray and plastic wrapping. The fact that an animal gave its life so you could barbeque your steaks is given nary a thought. Our alienation from nature runs through every aspect of our life. For example, What phase is the moon in right now? Do you know? When was the last time you saw the stars? Our city lights block and hide these centering lights so that our night sky has been blanked out into a damped void. To our ancestors the sky was a source of wonder and meaning. The seasons were marked by the passage of signs and portents in the sky. It defined the pace and rhythm of their lives. They defined celebratory rituals and gatherings that marked passages through life’s pace and transitions. To us the seasons pass only with a sense of convenience or inconvenience. Do we have to use the air conditioner or the heater this month? Do we have to scrape our car windows? Do we get to ski yet? There is no harvest. We have abundant food at our fingertips all the time. Why look up when we have a calendar? Yet our evolutionary history is embedded in these cycles. Does the loss of our relationship with the nature’s round have anything to do with the anxious fatigue that defines our life?

In addition to the lost of the rhythms of nature, we have lost touch with the ecological fabric of the earth and its process. We are protected and isolated from birth, death, and the renewal of life. Only 5% of us live on farms where the relationship of earth’s ecology is more obvious. Now we live in houses with a few house plants in an artificial ecology (that depends principally on us remembering to feed and water the poor thing). But the great dance of life passes largely unnoticed. We see a few birds, put out some bird seed to see a few more, but the great intricacies of nature’s interrelationships are hidden and masked by our 20th century life style. Once again we are alienated from our evolutionary heritage. Our lives are poorer thereby. We live in a dearth of alienation from all the things that our physical bodies were evolved to cope with, interact with, and enjoy. How can this not affect our spirits?

Modern life seems to broker a kind of sterility. There’s been a hermetic separation from our biological heritage that creates a spiritual famine of sorts. I believe that spirituality is enhanced by our relationships with each other and with nature. The way of being that modern societies have created a kind of transcendental poverty. I feel this within my own neighborhood. There is no where I go that I feel the sense of community I long for. Maybe I’m looking for something that has never existed, something out of a Frost poem where we lean on shovels and talk over fences, where we hold dances that bring communities together for more than just quick interactions in hierarchal institutional structures. Maybe those times never existed. I’m not sure. But I do feel the need for a deeper more connected life with the rhythms that more clearly define deep biological and spiritual needs that modern societies seem to mask. I crave more meaningful rituals that celebrate the seasons of life. I feel the need to belong to something more than the contingent boundaries that define my workspace or ward boundaries. That this may be impossible scares me. What has happened? Does anyone else feel this?

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5 comments to Alienation Nation

  • Very intersting post. I understand the feeling of disconnection, especially with neighbors. But I guess it doesn’t affect me too much spiritually because 1) I don’t think there ever was an ideal society free of institutional heirarchies, 2) more quaint societies only ever worked if everyone was “the same”, and 3) I’m not interested in trading the survival rates of my children for a more aggrarian yesteryear.

    But the ideal is a strong one, to be sure.

  • Cap

    “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to five a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the brief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever’”

    I have this taped in the front cover of one of my poetry books, and I have always wished I could honestly write something like this from experience. That time period brought a sense of peace that I feel has been, in many ways, lost.

  • I agree. It’s true on so many ways. I think in preparation of food if nothing else. Meat is what comes in packages from grocery stores and vegetables from the food isles or cans.

    I think it would be very helpful to people to be hungry enough to want to have to kill their meat – whether they want to be vegetarian or not – so they can understand that basic drive in nature. And to have a garden and have to weed it, water it and see what’s involved.

    And of course actually being in nature and see nature as it is (and not as it is disneyfied) is so important.

    But more and more of the world (let alone our nation) are solely found within urban/suburban areas where they don’t have that basic connection with nature. It’s completely alien.

  • Rich Knapton

    I concur. That was beautifully written and extremely well expressed. But in the language of this old farm boy, it is pure bull shit. [Is that too strong?] I say that with respect because of what I have learned from you in the terrific piece in Zygon. I don’t discount your feelings of alienation. It’s the back to nature element I dismiss.

    It doesn’t matter if the meat we’re eating was cooked in a new convection oven or an open hearth. What is important is who we are eating it with. We are social animals who need social interaction. Our progenitors the primates are social animals. Well except for orangutans. I think that’s where my linage comes from. Early hunter/gathers moved in groups. Early farmers livid in communities and commuted to the fields. These communities evolved and the polis was born.

    As I intimated, I grew up on a farm and if there is one word that describes farm life it would be ‘isolation’. Why do you think farm granges developed. They were socialization centers providing us the basic need of social interaction. “Back to Walden Pond” is overblown sentimentalism. We don’t need to relate to earth’s ecology. We need to relate to other human beings. We commute to work, work, commute home and then get on the internet. That is true alienation.

    I have an associative disorder. I makes it hard for me to relate closely with people. Nevertheless, I made it a point to meet my neighbors. I would wait until they were outside then walk over and say high. We would chit chat for a bit as they got to know me and I got to know them. When new neighbors moved in I met them; and asked them if we could help them with dinner since they were so busy. Found out they were LDS. I told them how to get to church, alerted the ward leaders of their arrival. He works at Boeing and she wants to get a job checking at a store. Found out about their family, etc. Another neighboring family is composed of two young people who are expecting their first child. They like, in the summer, to go out to their cabin each weekend. I have a table saw so helped my other neighbor to build his fence. [They do help make better neighbors.] We have neighbors in back of us who have a chocolate lab. Often they will call to see if our dog can play with theirs. We’ll bring our dog over and chit chat a bit. We have taken our dogs to the river and let them play.

    These are not heavy interactions. It’s more like hi how are you doing and talk a bit. But it is a hell of a lot more connecting than stringing a hog up and gutting it. So if you are feeling alienated go meet your neighbors. It’s your heritage.

    Rich

  • steve

    Great thoughts one and all!

    Rich, you’ve inspired me. I’m going to do it. I know two of my neighbors but there are several kiddy-corner from me I don’t know at all. It is a great place to start.

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