Driving along the highway from Worcester to my home in Maine is a monotonous, mind-numbing experience. The gray roadway stretches for miles; the same trees, the same fast-food joints, the same cars driven by the same men and women in the same business suits seem to populate mile after mile. This three-hour drive gives me lots of time to think, as I pass through the world, observant but isolated in my little car, a black tin can on roller skates.
Everything along this route screams "SPEED!" The straight lines of road, signs, intersecting bridges and tall bare pine trees funnel cars along at breakneck speeds. Signs advertise restaurant drive-throughs and gas station and toll booth speedpasses. Conveniently, airplanes now monitor drivers, so that when they go beyond the silently understood speed limit of 80 m.p.h. they neednít be slowed by the process of getting a ticket. When police are on the road they donít target speeding Mac truck bullies, those mammoths of interstate commerce, but rather drivers who dare to fly along with the big bullies of the road. Nothing insists on a moderation of speed, nor on the interaction of the driver with another human being. Speed, ease, convenience and immediacy are emphasized.
We all speed along to our final destination, not slowing to search and understand our surroundings. But then, why would one want to slow down amidst this ugly journey that we have created for ourselves? The ultimate goal in such a commute is to get from point A to point B in the shortest time possible, with the least amount of interaction and distraction. We cut each other off, we drive recklessly, endangering those around us, give the finger to those whoíve angered us. Truckers seem to delight in dwarfing my tiny car as they tailgate; horns blare and rage is in the air.
My muffler fell off once while driving home and became lodged into the bumper, dragging and sparking as I drove. Pulling off at an exit I felt certain that someone would stop to help me dislodge the red hot metal, or at least offer some advice. The closest thing to help that I got was a man who stopped across the street. He pulled a towel out of his trunk, threw it across the street to me and then drove off. No words were exchanged, he didnít even bridge the three yard gulf of the road that separated us. I wasnít invisible, people saw me struggling with that rusty lump of muffler. They rubber-necked and watched the spectacle of young woman vs. automobile in their rearview mirrors. So why didnít they stop? Why couldnít the towel throwing man walk over to me? Why was every one so afraid to get involved? Was it that the race to get from A to B precluded any delays? What would the extension of a helping hand, the allowance of one car to merge in front of another, or patience in a traffic jam have cost these commuters?
I think of the experience of driving and it frightens me to realize how much it parallels life. Like driving, modern life has become a lonely assault on the senses, overloading some, neglecting others. Everywhere I go, information impales me in a barrage of messages. A state of numbness seems to be the only way to handle this noise that is without sense, both on the road and off.
I flip through a magazine or turn on the television to distract myself from my own life. Commercial follows commercial as I flip through the 70+ TV stations provided to me by the University. A line of womenís athletic apparel appeals to the "inner goddess" in me, while a vitamin brand promises bountiful energy and inner peace for the woman "who does too much." Well, thatís definitely me.
I think of women from my grandmotherís generation who, when they started questioning the meaningfulness of a life of housekeeping, were numbed up with valium. For them, it was a male dominated medical institution that subdued the questions. For my generation, the problem is not the emptiness of housekeeping. It is the soul-less corporate enslavement, the 60 hour work week suffered simply to maintain our health plans, our investments and our lifestyles. We seem to be our own worst enemy, self-medicating through herbal supplements and shopping sprees. After all, itís been a hard day, a long year, an unrelenting life. I deserve this coat, I am owed these sunglasses.
Car advertisements on TV would have me believe that happiness, love and a moonlit state of Zen can be achieved simply by driving their car. If cars donít do it for you, another ad shows "real" people in a meditation class as they focus on e-trading and find ecstasy. By simply eating a particular cereal in the morning I will not only have the fortitude, but also the time, to scale sunlit rocks in the American west.
What is interesting about these advertisements, these thirty second reflections of a life desired, is that they show happy people smiling and in groups, enjoying each otherís company. Some dance and sing while others flirt at a party. All have a vitality that viewers of these ads seem to crave, a fullness in their lives that is obtainable, fortunately, through purchase.
Clearly attempts at true happiness are made, or wished for. Why else would every hip marketing campaign focus on the alternative-spiritual-herbal-Zen high guaranteed to be achieved through the acquisition of their product? But it seems clear happiness canít be found through accumulation, as evidenced by the millionaire who bought, and lost, love on national TV. The thrill of acquisition is transitory, temporal. The latest technology is old by dinner-time, and if we are to find fulfillment in acquisition we will never catch up. The ever expanding pit of desire in our guts will never be full. Self actualization cannot occur through ownership. The most one could hope to achieve is an identity affiliated with objectsóBob the Lexus owner.
I drive on, thinking about the isolation I felt on the side of the road as I cursed the Volkswagen exhaust system. I was a pariah to the passing motorists because I had pulled myself out of that automaton race, stopped alongside the track, interrupting their unthinking lemming-like progression towards the end. The looks on their faces werenít ones of concern, or even of hurry. They were angry. Angry at me for confronting them with my humanity, my vulnerability and my need for help. They were angry at themselves for their paralysis, which they most likely forgave with a reassurance that someone else would surely stop. The phenomenon of crimes witnessed but uninterrupted shouldnít shock. It seems painfully obvious to me not only that we are on our own in this world, but also that such a statement fails to inspire the anger or frustration that it should. Isnít this why everyone carries cell phones, so that they can be immediately contacted, yet invulnerable to immediate contact? They can get help without relying on the generosity of a stranger, and can protect their closely guarded isolation.
The primacy of the individual in this culture prevents the formation of a true community. We are all so busy guarding our property, boosting our identity and flashing our badge of exceptionality that close contact with another being is threatening. Such contact, such communal support, would seem to erode the walls of importance that we each have erected. Community thwarts the hierarchy of good, better, best. This horror of community isnít new, it exists even in our nationís creation myth. The Native Americans brought a turkey casserole over to greet their new neighbors. To show thanks, the Pilgrims served them with an eviction notice. Today, we focus on multi-culturalism, which, while it purports to forge community bonds, still emphasizes and celebrates individuality over nationality, external qualities over internal ones.
The ludicrous proposal to teach Ebonics in a California school district so as to boost the morale of young African-American children is just one example of the destructive extremes of this countryís individualism. While such a policy might have made the children feel good as youngsters, I canít imagine that they would appreciate it working for six dollars an hour with substandard English. We use this shield of individualism to avoid responsibility and difficulty.
Perhaps a better solution for that California school district would be an investment of time and money into both parent and teacher education. That and the recognition that the ability to communicate effectively is not a white racist trait, but one that we all must possess for our community to work. However, this money represents a commitment on the part of taxpayers, many of whom donít have kids in school, and who, therefore, donít feel they have a responsibility to give their hard-earned money away. Nor need they donate their precious time to the community. "Let them take care of their own problems." Some would most likely contest my even thinking about this issue. After all, I am just white middle-class kid from Maine. How could I possibly know what another state might need? The similarity of the human experience disappears in the face of individualism.
All this is not to say that we should band together and lose our sense of self, though I think we have in fact done this. I watch the students on campus and observe that, despite their perceived individualism, most are simply trying to follow a set philosophy. Most have given up the struggle to find who they are and how they fit into the community. Like gang members, they use their dress as a declaration of identity and affiliation. You have the granolas and the jocks, the alterna-teens all pierced in exactly the same fashion, and the trendsetters. Externally a message is conveyed by each group: life is a high, a party, it sucks and it is so uncool.
Each condition, isolated individualism, and self-effacing group identity, stifles the true and fearless expression of self. These conditions protect the person from criticism, but they also prevent them from living exemplary lives.
I have an octogenarian friend who always emphasizes that he "did it on [his] own with hard work, not like the lazy people of today." But what if he had had a community backing him? Would he have achieved even more? Would the trip have been less lonely and bitter for him? When I achieve in school, it is not just my desire to learn that propels me. The encouragement of my professors and the pride of my family also push me further. While they help quiet the internal critic that rages inside me, they also help me to see beyond who I am today.
John McCain, though a politician, for a short while attempted to battle that oozing sore of American complacency with his belief in the ability of Americans. While the self-congratulatory advertisement of his truth-telling struck me as disingenuous, it was with delight that I watched public support for him grow. He seemed to be the closest America had come to a true leader in a long time. He claimed to be showing the faults and strengths of America in the hope that we would be inspired to change. Americans seemed to be sick of the flattery and pandering that establishment politicians had served them for years. They seemed to want to hear that our country could improve, that their hard work and sacrifice were needed. Despite the growing economy, a new car in the garage and a cruise next month, they were dissatisfied. More importantly, they were not alone in their sense of dissatisfaction.
Then the overwhelming responsibility of action that this dissatisfaction called for hit home. The straight talker celebrated one month became the Trojan horse of the Democrats the next. He was tossed aside as voters scrambled to the security of the status quo. Despite their unhappiness, the voters were too afraid to leave their familiar existence. Yes, they were tired of a tainted political process, but they had bills to pay and retirement to think about and it was all too complicated for them. What good would it do to back McCain, heíd just lose in the long run, and they feared that they would as well.
Fear limits people in both their public and private endeavors. If it were possible, fear would have them limit other people too. People seem to respond to my study of literature with anger. "What are you going to do with that?" "Oh, sounds like a real breadwinner." My favorite, asked not with curiosity, but with derision is "Why?" I can only think that it is fear for their own future, and a jealousy of what they perceive to be my freedom from this fear, that angers them.
A couple of years ago I had the sobering experience of taking three semesters off from my university studies. For a while I worked as a receptionist in the sales office of a large insurance company. One sales representative in her late thirties would take every opportunity to remind me of my inferior position. Sheíd leave me her mug to wash and ask me to skip my lunch break to do work for her while she lunched with clients. She spent an eternity lecturing me on how I should "maximize my earning potential." She said that she regretted listening to those cute, naive little ideals that she had in her twenties; that I reminded her of herself. She, too, had good grades and thought that she could change the world. Now she only makes two thirds of what she could have. Had she only had some one tell her what she was now sharing with me she would be happier now. I think she felt she was helping me by passing on her "wisdom." I found her attitude so appalling that I quit my job that week.
It is horrifying that such people exist, or rather, that people allow such attitudes to take over them. No amount of money would make this woman happy. She was so concerned with cutting others down that she was blinded to the goodness in them and in the world. She had bought into the advertised promises of fulfillment and couldnít understand why she still felt so awful. Her greatest generosity was "opening" my eyes to the "evils" of hope and idealism. Her donations to charity were calculated moves to save on taxes. Nothing genuine came out this woman! She failed to see her power to change the world through generosity of spirit and resources. Her example inspired me to act immediately by rejecting her vision of the worldóa sort of negative leadership through example, perhaps her biggest contribution to the world.
So, where is the hope in all this? Why and how have I resisted becoming a lemming? The questions I ask fill me with an angst that has outlived my teen years. It is lonely asking questions with no answers, and frustrating to find that people younger than me have already surrendered to apathy. Asking questions is also thrilling. For me the meaning of life lies in those brief instances of comprehension that come when I am looking for answers. Before I can understand what I am seeing the picture fades, leaving me reassured that I am on the right track and inspired to continue the search.
I call these flashes of comprehension the Big ĎCí. It is my Holy Grail. When, and if, I ever hold the Big ĎCí in my hands it will be the end. I will have seen the face of God, understood the immensity of the universe and the meaning of human existence. What more would there be to live for if all my questions were answered? Boredom, if nothing else, would kill me. I hope the questions continue to haunt me.
I did finally get my muffler dislodged. By then it had cooled off and I was covered in grime. I threw the mangled wreck in my trunk, wiped my hands on the towel and roared off, continuing on my journey.