Our New Lives

We have a massive federal government that often seems too large or complex to act sensibly and quickly, and while recently there have been no violent revolutions, divisions are so severe that paralysis is standard. Despite this paralysis, government spending grows rapidly, and a crushing debt looms. We have educational institutions that are criticized for creating average or unqualified students at high cost. Schools are often embattled between teacher’s interests, administrators, parents, and politicians, and educational efforts seem pulled in so many directions that they seem schizophrenic.

Our economy is as easy to move ahead as a mule and as easy to anticipate as a bucking bronco, and in the past few decades many people have been completely thrown off and had to learn to carry their own packs. The plain reality for many people is that they can barely afford a rent payment, home ownership, a car, furniture, new clothes for the kids, daycare, college tuition, the electric bill, quality food, a short vacation, or tickets to a ball game or a movie.

The “growth economy” seems unwilling to grow lots of what we want it to, such as jobs for all the willing workers, workers for all the open jobs (ironic but true), a somewhat level playing field, good income for hard work, and services that don’t require us to skip our next credit card payment.

Each year the environment seems to act less like a friend and a little more like a sparring opponent. Weather swings back and forth, trouncing old temperature and storm records, and the idea of “normal weather” is becoming an oxymoron. Each year more people are finding out the hard way that they live in harsh climates where fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, ice storms, blizzards, rising seas, or flooding are a costly reality or continual danger.

If we’re lucky—and we may not be—crop productivity will continue to rise as our population grows, but that is possibly only due to the use of more chemicals and irrigation, which raise the cost of producing food. Most of the plants and animals that were abundant when Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt walked the landscape are no longer encountered during a typical day—now they’re often relegated to widely scattered remnant areas or little corners of land behind a preservation sign. And even there, they continue to decline. At the same time, our landscape is so full of irritating weeds and pest animals (such as starlings, quagga mussels, feral pigs, Asian carp, pigeons, raccoons, ragweed, poison ivy, knapweed, cheatgrass, rush skeletonweed, giant phragmites, Australian paperbark, and kudzu) that we hardly know what nature means anymore. In many places drawing inspiration from our contemporary landscape can require mental effort.

It would be nice through all of this if everyone could say, “At least I have my health,” but so many of us don’t. Many of our bodies, and even our children’s bodies, seem like they aren’t doing so great. We are often tired, heavy, forgetful, and with endless types of aches, pains, and maladies. Whether it’s some type of skin, sinus, eye, stomach, bone, joint, headache, hair, hormone, weight, sleep, anxiety, energy, attitude, viral, fungal, bacterial, or mood problem, one might wonder if we’ll someday run out of names for all of our syndromes and sicknesses, and run out of letter combinations for all the drugs that we’ll be taking to treat them.

Through all of these stresses, our families and communities should be supportive. If you are fortunate, your family is dependable, understanding, and respectful, and your community feels like part of your home—full of places and people you can count on. Whenever you have a real problem, someone is there (literally there) to help. Maybe you and a neighbor carpool the kids to sports to reduce your trips. Maybe another neighbor lends their pickup truck when you have to haul bricks from the garden center. Perhaps you don’t feel strange chasing your dog through neighborhood yards, because these are people you know.

Or, maybe these scenes seem like part of some old children’s story that is no longer realistic. Maybe like many people nowadays, the family and community you assumed would be there have slipped away. Maybe you have landed in a place where the family unit and neighborhood seem absent, broken, or only make matters worse.

Do you spend a quarter of your life running your kids around to activities, buying them things, driving to or from their mom or dad, following a divorce? Do you come home to find your kids sitting in front of a blaring TV, watching something you hardly approve of? Are you glad they are indoors, because if they were out, they might be at the neighbors’, whose kids have gotten into drugs? Maybe your parents or other family members are divorced with troubles of their own, and are unable to support one another. Have you become a caretaker for the sick in your family, spread so thin that you have nothing left for those that are healthy? Is your neighborhood too unsafe or unknown to take a walk at night? Do you have trouble finding time for your best friend, or the most important people in your life?

If this is your life, you might wonder how long you can continue. If some of this sounds like your life, you aren’t alone, and despite how it feels you are less alone with each year.

Perhaps many of us assumed the governments and institutions that predated our birth would simply work correctly, or that if they did have problems, they could be solved. But attempts to solve anything at the national level seem to lead to endless debate and antagonism. At the individual level, many of us assumed we could do our schoolwork, make friends, eat what mom and dad told us to, get married, have children, get a good job, work hard, have a satisfying life at work and at home, and have time and money to spare. Perhaps we put in our best effort, working hard and with good intentions, but ended up without a very good job, without a good income, with no home, without a sense of belonging in our neighborhood, few real friends, divorced, short on time (or very short on time), feeling powerless, feeling hopeless, without much energy or good health, and without any indications that all of this could possibly get better. The life many people expected from their efforts is MIA, and they just can’t figure out how to get back on track.

And so, on behalf of our nation’s founders, ourselves, our children, and their children, is this nation living up to its potential? Are the institutions, systems, and structures that frame our lives—from the largest to the most local—operating such that they are providing their highest potential value? Are they helping (or at least not preventing) other sectors of our lives from reaching their potential value? We might be able to close our eyes and force out an optimistic “yes,” but a critical inspection suggests that at best, the answer would be mixed.

At least in many ways, our institutions and organizations are not especially working as intended. Worse though is that the trend line seems pointed away from the goals originally envisioned, and new fault lines seem to be appearing regularly. Many people have an increasing skepticism that this ship is pointed in the right direction, or that it can be righted with the tools at hand.

In light of these growing problems, antagonism, and disconnections, perhaps the most realistic answer is “No,” despite the intelligence, innovation, and best intentions of the nation’s architects and many who have since followed, from many fundamental perspectives, many of our most critical systems are not meeting their potentials, and they are missing the mark by enough that we have large problems. More troubling, the trend lines are mainly negative, such that what looked like mere difficulties 30 years ago seem to be seeping in as existential threats that look ready to swallow us. These are the findings of one person from the sixth generation.

Maybe you accept the argument that our collective condition is now somewhat troubled and in decline. But that doesn’t explain why it is happening. If we don’t know why these downtrends are occurring, we probably won’t be able to fix them. Some possible causes of these trends follow next.