Don’t get me wrong. When I meet somebody or spend time with clients, friends, family, or brand new acquaintances, I enjoy the experience. I’m generally positive and supportive. I relish moments of real connection. To me a stranger is just a friend I haven’t yet met.
But something has been shifting. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s society. Probably it’s both. My attitude is morphing into: “I love meeting and spending time with quality people.”
What’s a “quality person?” My answer is this: people who get it. They get the basics, such as: “life is more than my following my base desires,” “if it is to be it’s up to me,” “I am to love and support others,” “I continually learn and grow.” Many do indeed get it. But many, it seems increasingly, don’t.
I see it whenever I drive. So many drivers are distracted, unfocused, neither courteous nor considerate. I mean, when a light turns green and there’s a line of cars behind you and the drivers all want to get through the light, hit it! Some leave gaps so large it seems that they’re doing it on purpose to piss people off. No, usually they’re just that clueless.
It is a reflection of our times, I suppose. It’s everywhere: restaurants, malls, crowds of all kinds. By virtue of the miracle of the digital age, so many are physically proximate but mentally distant. It amazes me to see groups of friends out presumably for a fun night, but instead their heads are down in their smartphones, and they invest their attention not in their companions but elsewhere. It is just plain sad when it’s a couple on a date.
My attitude likely comes with age. As we grow and mature, more and more of society’s doings strike us as superfluous, even misguided. The immature, regardless of age or era, are ruled by emotion. They’re self-indulgent. The immediate trumps the long run. They abandon their personal power in the illusion that it is someone else’s responsibility. They naively expect life to be “fair.”
I find myself struggling for patience for people who have the mindset that is an outgrowth of these limiting beliefs. I suppose it isn’t accurate to say that I don’t like them; I just wish their lights were on. Sometimes I fantasize about doing what Cher’s character in the 1987 film Moonstruck did – slap the person hard and shout: “Snap out of it!” (It didn’t work for her; it wouldn’t work for me.)
It isn’t completely their fault. For decades now, schools from Kindergarten through grad school indoctrinate a certain type of thinking as much as they teach students how to think freely and creatively for themselves. Education performance has been declining for 40 years. Well-meaning but misguided programs teach to the test as though this is a remedy. Teachers themselves lack context and a brand of group-think is limiting the capacities of multiple generations.
This effect has reverberated throughout society. With the onset of the digital age, many game-changing innovations have been created. The world is smaller and more connected as we can find detailed information about almost everything almost instantly. But something is being lost, too. Information and knowledge is of little use without the context to perceive why one thing matters over another. As the speed of society has increased, people less frequently slow down for careful consideration. An important part of social interaction, a part that serves to glue us together, is atrophying.
The degradation manifests itself in many ways. Some of it is visible. Americans are physically flabby. You’ve most likely seen the stats. 69% of adults over 20 years of age are considered overweight, 36% are considered obese. This is in one sense a symptom of the wealth that our society has created. Nobody wants for their next meal. Or even the next snack. But I suspect there is something more here too.
The blight is largely invisible. If we could quantify a similar scale with respect to mental health, the stats would be worse. People exercise their minds less than they exercise their bodies. Master Jung, the martial arts master who founded the school where I first studied, used to say: “If people had the same level of control over their body as they do their mind, most would be unable to walk.”
He said that in the 1970’s. That insight has stayed with me my entire adult life. If anything, it’s worse now. We’re distracted. We don’t think things through. We don’t even realize that we can control our minds. We imagine that it is up to others to deal with tough issues. This is extremely dangerous.
It is dangerous for our souls. It is dangerous for our families, communities, organizations, and our nation. It is dangerous for the cause of freedom. Why? Two reasons: 1) It coarsens society, and 2) It opens the door for despotism.
As I write my heart aches along with those who have seen the story for the loved ones of those who were shot on live television in Virginia. The perpetrator appears to be a disgruntled ex-employee of the news station. He suffered from the effects of a coarsened society. All those limiting beliefs I mentioned earlier? He had them.
There is plenty of outrage in the media for an act like this; more so because of the drama of it happening on a live broadcast, the fact that it happened to media members, and that it serves the cause of those who want more gun control. There is a suspicious lower level of outrage for the thousands of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East who are systematically being persecuted and killed in horrific ways. For that matter, the horrors of the systematic harvesting of baby parts committed by Planned Parenthood and revealed in a series of covert and shocking videos do not seem to be gathering as much collective interest either.
Rhetoric in this presidential campaign season is focused as usual on jobs, illegal immigrants, Islamofascism, government regulations, and various program initiatives. All are important, yes. But they are also distractions. Rarely do we hear discussions about what matters most: the care of our spirit.
That coarseness we’re talking about? Some of it is behind the political rise of Donald Trump. He takes no crap. He suffers no fools. He is unafraid. He says what he really thinks. Americans are so starved for leaders with these qualities they are willing to overlook or accept traits that would be political poison in a different time. This leads to the second danger.
When people feel desperate and their care for others is diminished, they take drastic actions. They will tolerate if not support outright immense cruelty and injustice. The last thing we need is a demagogue. But this is precisely what happens when minds and hearts shut down. People want an easy answer and a strong personality in a leader can embody one in their minds.
What we really need is the opposite: to think more clearly and be more loving. I suppose this means that I can’t just be dismissive and only seek people who I deem “quality.” I’ll have to continue to try to engage in as meaningful way possible everybody I meet. Oh well; life isn’t supposed to be easy.