The Inner Lives of Americans

The title of this post is something of a trick: if the pandemic has revealed anything about Americans, it is that all too many of us are utterly empty inside. When a true crisis came, we had no inner resources to drawn on.

Viewed in this light, all of the maddening and terrifying social phenomena of the past several years in a land we used to call, without irony, the last best hope of mankind, begin to make sense. A person with an active inner life, be it spiritual, creative, or intellectual, is far less likely to fall prey to a cheap and obvious demagogue like the Very Stable Genius than one who seeks to fill his leisure hours with entertainment “content” that is produced with all the loving care that goes into a hot dog, or one whose concept of pleasure begins and ends with shopping. If you have a secure sense of who and what you are, one that does not depend utterly on your position in the social hierarchy, you aren’t likely to get all hot and bothered when other people move up and down the rungs, even whole groups of others. Which is not to say, of course, that anyone can have a rich inner life in complete isolation from other people. But the quality of American friendships and family relationships has become as shoddy as the quality of the Chinese-made products we “consume” because we are unable to make things anymore. Everything is transactional: the self-help literature encourages us to ditch other people, as soon as they don’t serve our “needs” anymore. Not incidentally, the hollow and atomized personalities that are now everywhere are also utterly unable to distinguish between truth and propaganda.

Once the pandemic broke out, Americans’ vacant psyches and frayed social bonds were put to what our money guys have been calling a “stress test,” and the results, it is fair to say, have been appalling. From the public tantrums on airplanes and in retail stores to the deluded narcissism of tens of millions who don’t care that their fellow Americans are dying of a plague they are helping to spread, and don’t believe it will ever happen to them, to the increasing tempo of senseless gun massacres in our schools and shopping malls, it is clear that American society is in an advanced state of total breakdown. That’s part of the reason why reassurances that “we’ve been here before” within living memory, during the unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, do so little to reassure. As soon as we were locked up in our houses, staring at the four walls and the faces of the people we claimed to care about more than anybody in the world, personal and societal disintegration set in.

I do not know of any remedy for this social and psychological catastrophe. Restoring an atrophied human soul seems no more hopeful of a prospect than regrowing brain cells that have been starved of oxygen. But to begin to comprehend a threat is to begin to relieve its terror.

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