This morning I was reading a random section of a book I wrote in 2013, “Remembering America.” In the final chapter, I wrote these words:
“America has become a disjointed, sectarian, broken land where neighbors don’t last because nobody has neighbors anymore. Not really. Not like we did.
…The extent of our interaction with our neighbor is when we wave hello as we pull out for work in the morning. We don’t know them. We don’t know what brought them here to this community. We never find out where they’re from in this country, or where their family is from in the world. We never learn their son’s middle name and if it has some family history. We have never tasted their mother’s homemade bread, or borrowed a cup of sugar, or shared a glass of tea on the front porch on a summer evening. Great people with great stories live 30 feet from us and we never find out anything about them until we read their obituary one day unexpectedly. Then we pause for a moment, wince at how we should have reached out to them, and wish we had that chance now. Then our cell phone rings and we are dragged back into the tyranny of the urgent and returned by our digital wardens to the prison of upward mobility.
…America was founded by neighbors. She was built by neighbors. She ascended to unbelievable heights because we were a nation of neighbors. We were a community. We were fiercely independent in the ways that mattered. We worked hard, got things for ourselves without the government helping us, took no handouts, but gave them when we saw a need.
…Nowadays, we live in the age of talk-radio, and social media. Nobody sees the face behind the voice and nobody really cares to. We can call Rush or Sean or watch MSNBC and become angry, bitter, and violent towards the other side –whichever side that might be- and we don’t feel even the slightest twinge about the slow death of our human spirit because we are detached from everyone else. Our sense of humanity is slipping because we aren’t interacting with humans anymore. We aren’t neighbors anymore. Twitter and Facebook have become poor replacements for summer cookouts and get-togethers, and having a beer with your neighbor while sitting in lawn chairs in your driveway on a summer evening.
…We don’t drive down the street at the end of the workday, and see the neighborhood, and attach a funny story to each address on each mailbox. Nobody waves to us as we pull up. If they do wave, it’s reflexive like swatting a fly. They don’t call out our name as we get out of the car. They don’t amble over casually with a lawn rake still in their hands and ask us how we are and remind us that the big game is this weekend and oh yeah…Me and Jim and Pat are getting a truckload of manure for the gardens if you want to join in. They don’t come over with a tray of cookies or a pot roast, or some free tickets to the circus that someone at work gave them, but they can’t go and they knew your kids would just love the circus. And they knew those kids by name.
…I wish we were still like this…like neighbors. Because we’d have a much better America. We truly loved each other, and you simply can’t be mean to those you really love.
…They were really our neighbors. We were a real community. We cared deeply about each other because we’d had so many years together. Time was our bond. It fostered love and endeared us to each other in ways that we have never found since. Ways that Social Media erodes.
…..If only we could somehow capture this again. If only we could somehow become friends like we were then. If it was safe enough to drop our guard and lower our defenses and let ourselves care deeply about the people whose houses we drive past each night as we pull up in our driveway…maybe we could see that America again. If we slowed down and learned the amazing stories that make up the people on our street, if we became their friend, maybe we could have a better America again. How could we not? How could we not make this place better for everyone if we returned to a place and a time when we knew each other…when we loved each other?
I wrote these excerpts and that book four years ago, in a Panera in Franklin, TN. I was homeless, lonely, lost, and desperate. I have a home now and a job. But in so many ways I still feel like the person I just described Homeless, lonely, lost, and desperate. I crash-landed on this new planet and found an America so different from the one I grew up in as to be foreign to me. I have allowed myself to crawl into my digital hovel, and sequester myself from the world. If the isolation and alone-ness are doing this to my heart, then surely it is doing it to us all. We’re all isolated now. All digitized. We text message our kid because it’s easier than going upstairs and knocking on her bedroom door. We have verbal fistfights and spew anger and venom because those “people” aren’t really people to us. They’re profiles. Avatars. Facebook accounts. People who would never hate anyone find it easy to hate someone online because to them…they aren’t really real. And then, sadly, that worms its way into the real, tactile world. A President becomes an object of hatred and wrath and the target of assassination threats because he’s no longer flesh and blood. He’s just that guy with the “POTUS” Twitter account. He’s not a dad…a grandad, an American. He’s a series of internet code. I can hate him, or adore him and it means nothing in the real world because he’s not real to me somehow. The same goes for everyone I disagree with. You think the first amendment allows Nazis to march? Then you MUST be a Nazi! Then I hate you!
That’s easy when I’m just a miniscule picture in the corner of a thread on Facebook. It would be harder for you if you sat in my living room and flipped through my photo album and saw the picture of my best friend Rich, when we were just 18 years old and hanging out together at Wildwood NJ. You’d see my handsome friend happens to be black. You’d hear in my voice, the admiration and love I have for him, and you’d never even have to ask me –or yourself- if I was a racist or a Nazi. Because you’d know me…and you’d have your answer.
I decided this week to end my Facebook presence. I may also end my Twitter account. I’m not sure yet. I’m going to spend the time I spent on FB, writing more things like this. Searching for the America I grew up in and chronicling the expedition. I’m going to rekindle the friendships I had as a child and as an adult and maybe add a few faces to that list. I challenge you, gentle reader, to do the same.