In the Heartlessland of America

Sometimes we get so caught up in the speed of everyday life, we don’t take the time to ponder what’s happening around us. As for me, I feel like I’ve been going about my everyday business with blinders on. It’s embarrassing. I feel like I’m extremely slow on the uptake.

Maybe this time too many things happened on too many fronts to ignore the message:

Our society is becoming increasingly heartless.

It’s becoming so bad, I cringe when I listen to the radio, watch TV news, or pick up a newspaper. But, it doesn’t stop there. Events at work and encounters with a variety of people all demonstrate a huge disconnect with heart… with our basic humanity.

As a golfer I’ve followed and admired Tiger Woods. Now, he’s been crucified. A simple story on his screw-up would have sufficed, but the drive for headlines, money, and recognition, reporters have lost their hearts and lynched Tiger for their own benefit. Of course, the same sort of lynching took place with President Clinton, but not so much with the governor of South Carolina and the many others who have made some sort of “social transgression.”

Buddhists have a slogan, which goes something like this:

“don’t seek benefit from the misfortunes of others.”

This slogan has to do with how we can practice being compassionate or how we can practice living with heart. I wonder how many of these same journalists have had affairs or have acted in ways that may have been inappropriate, hurtful, or unethical?

At work, many of my colleagues were becoming increasingly alarmed and worried about one our colleagues. He wasn’t showing up to teach classes, wasn’t turning in final grades, and became impossible to contact. Then, the administration stepped in and fired him. When some colleagues pleaded to have him put on sick-leave and to get him help, the response was basically “we’re following policy.” As we found out later, he was suffering from severe depression and the medications were adversely affecting him. His wife (from a very different culture and with little English language ability) could not advocate for him. He, his wife, and his children are now without income and health benefits. How does “policy” address the needs of human beings? In this dramatic case, five people were treated with heartlessness and damaged in ways we have yet to see.

At the scale of our government and probably more significantly at the scale of corporations, we see huge collections of heartless people running the show. These people make decisions and take actions based on self-interest, money, and power, not for the good of people struggling to survive in an increasingly complex and challenging world. In fact, the policies created to run a society or corporation serve mostly to decrease flexibility in dealing with individual human beings. “Zero tolerance,” “cell phone service contracts,” “disclaimers,” “photo radar,” “Roberts rules of order,” and the millions of others all serve to create a rigidity that doesn’t allow for exceptions or for individual circumstances. It’s the “letter of the law,” not the “spirit of the law.” Neither the individual nor the society as a whole is valued. Only the “good” of the rich and powerful is considered.

This neglect of the individual and of the society has resulted in our inability to care for our poor and sick, for our children, and for our elderly. This neglect also has produced an education system that serves as political capital for leaders at all levels of scale, yet fails to meet the needs of most of its students. Even those who score well on tests are left without self-confidence and feelings of self-worth, without essential social skills, without abilities to think deeply and critically, and with little if any creativity. From a very early age, children adeptly observe and learn about social interactions. They are tremendously curious and think in surprisingly complex ways, while being unboundedly creative. By the time they reach grade 6, their self-confidence, social skills, curiosity, complex thinking, and creativity have been reduced to little more than memories of the adults who knew these children 6 years earlier. By this time, heartlessness has begun to take root, as modeled by a system of schooling steeped in heartlessness within a society without heart.

We care more about the “material goods” than about human beings. These “material” goods range from the ephemeral, such as test scores, achievement, power, our own self-images and desires, stock market “indices,” and ratings and statistics of all kinds, to the more concrete but “immaterial,” such as money, houses, cars, and goods of all kinds. In this materialistic world, there is no room for making connections to oneself, to others, to the delicate environment in which we live, and to the wonderful world of ideas.

(originally published December 30, 2009)

About Jeff Bloom

I’m a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.

This entry was posted in Connections, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply