Where the nation is now: looking into the funhouse mirror
In America today, we are living in an age of extreme excess and imbalance. Most do not see it, of course. We cannot see it, because nearly everyone has “drunk the well water” and regards it as normal. Even those of us who do consider this excess warped or perverse may still feel a certain amount of it to be unavoidable or inevitable: “Go along to get along,” in so many words.
But this excess and imbalance is not simply a matter of the country’s unbridled consumerism. Fueling our excessive purchases and collective philosophy of “living large” — otherwise known as “the American way of life” and famously termed “not negotiable” by President George Bush Sr. — is the other side of the coin of modern excess: working slavishly hard and feeling we need to keep busy all the time. For without these twin talismans of ambition, we could not pay for nor would we feel compelled to indulge in the overbusy, overconsumeristic lifestyle so many of us believe we should have.
Even with them, we still cannot afford some of our unrestrained purchases, and so with the addition of debt-fueled spending we can add “overextended” to the description of our outsize appetites. Below is a representative roundup of the most typical items in the nation’s lifestyle that keep us indebted to what we could call the four “O”s of overwork, overconsumption, overbusyness, and overextendedness.
Shush, now! Better not diss any of this stuff when the natives are around…
- Large, voracious, gasoline-gobbling SUVs and pickup trucks. So popular have these piggish beasts become that the Ford Motor Company now plans to stop producing all passenger cars except the Mustang and focus almost exclusively on SUVs, light trucks, and crossover utility vehicles. It’s no longer enough for us to be overweight ourselves. No indeed, our cars must be so as well!
- New vehicles leased or purchased every few years that can strap us financially and keep us on the payment treadmill continually, even though much cheaper used cars would serve just fine for many. But we must have that shiny new-car smell, and impress others (and ourselves) with the dollars we have spent!
- Heavily debt-financed houses twice as large as those several decades ago. Not only do these oversized dwellings chain us to worries about going underwater on the huge home loan when real estate markets head downward, they take significant extra time to maintain. But that’s okay! I must have me my McMansion to go along with my McBurger and Supersize-Me cola!
- Home remodels, along with the attendant disruption to our lives, sometimes for no other reason than just to obtain a new look or keep up with the Joneses. “Hey babe, you’ve gotta see what the neighbors did with their new kitchen. It’s time we did something for ourselves like that too!”
- Huge flat-screen TVs to justify our sedentary, flab-reinforced, spectatorship-driven home lives. Gotta be able to see me them pimples and pancake make-up on big talking heads!
- Lawns that we manicure for no particularly good reason — since few these days actually use them for play or other significant activities any longer. Nonetheless, we maintain them with ever-more-resource-wasting and costly power tools: Riding lawnmowers and gasoline-powered weed-eaters, as well as the latest scourge on the urban soundscape, the piercing, grating, full-throated, sound-blasting, uproarious whine of leaf-blowers. See how macho me be gunning that glorious, growling, gasoline-sucking motor with me trigger finger! “Hoo boy, look at them leaves blow! Golly gee, does that concrete driveway look like a million bucks now, Mabel!”
- Expensive, several-hundred-dollars-a-pop smartphones now regarded by many as an absolute requirement — as opposed to cheaper models, that is — and that function as a status symbol as much or more than they do as a functional device. “Boy, I’m such an important dude, I’ll bet everyone’s just dyin’ to hear what I have to say yakking here in the grocery store aisle blocking traffic!”
- Needlessly obsessive “clean-freak” attitudes about bacteria driven by the advertising industry, which leads to an overzealous level of weekly toil achieving a nearly medical grade of home sterility that does more harm than good by stunting our immune systems. (See the Hygiene Hypothesis and Is Over-Cleanliness Plaguing Our Kids with Allergies? among the many articles available on this topic.) “Look at that tiny little speck on the edge of the bathtub, I can’t stand it! Eww, there must be a zillion germs there!” Spritz, spritz, wipe, wipe, scrub, wipe, scrub scrub. Spritz, wipe…
- Wasting time running to the doctor or emergency room for antibiotics anytime we get the flu, or even colds, which is worse than cutting butter with a chainsaw. (Colds, of course, are caused not by bacteria, but viruses, for which antibiotics are completely ineffective.)
- Such over-fearful, misdirected behavior has now begun to backfire by creating antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria impervious to nearly all forms of antibiotics (and deadlier) so that an increasing number of people cannot be successfully treated due to these medications’ overuse. “Honey, little Johnny just sneezed again, I’m really worried. It could be an emergency, there’s that nasty bug going around! You weren’t doing anything, were you? Can you take him to the ER for me? Please? now!!”
- Spending for books bought to be read on tablet computers, rather than shared for free via public libraries, which are now falling by the wayside in droves (but a huge windfall for Amazon and other electronic booksellers). Not to worry, though!
- Gym memberships or pricey home workout machines for physical exercise rather than simpler activities like walking, running, swimming, and bodyweight training, the latter formerly known by the now-musty term calisthenics. “There’s just no way I can exercise by myself. Without that personal trainer down at the Y, I just don’t think I could do it! I know I can’t, I know I can’t, I know I can’t! Shoot, I guess I have no willpower whatsoever!”
- All sorts of costly activities we enroll kids into now, rather than having them simply play outside with other children, as was done by generations past. Not to mention expensive dental work for perfect, faultless smiles.
- Computer snafus and incompatibilities that cost us 22 minutes a day on average in lost productivity at work, which translates to 91 hours a year. (How much time is lost to computer issues at home isn’t clear, but the picture probably isn’t any prettier on a proportional basis.)
- Computer use itself can be a pit of quicksand that sucks us into spending far more time than we might intend when we originally sit down to complete some task. Not to mention Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media often keep us from doing other things we supposedly “don’t have enough time for.”
- Rapidly cycling clothing fashions that drive more frequent purchases and larger wardrobes today, compared to previous generations who had many fewer items they got much more life from.
- The almost sinfully high tuitions required today for a college education that students and their families nonetheless seem to fall all over themselves in the willingness to acquire, saddling students with debt that sometimes chains them to decades-long repayment schedules. (Recent data shows that only half of students had repaid their loans in full within 20 years of beginning college.) But college education is still worth it for most kids, isn’t it?! “Heck, yes, you betcha! I’m sure Mary will be moving out of our basement any day now, trust me!”
- Preposterous, back-breaking health insurance costs going through the roof, but without which one might be one big doctor bill away from bankruptcy. And which can sometimes be the case even with health insurance.
Are we having fun yet?
Some even proudly quote the jokey motto that supports allegiance to the perceived goodness, or perhaps irony, of this two-sided coin of both slavishly working and consuming — or at least always keeping busy no matter what: “Work hard, play hard!”
Meanwhile, those who haven’t partaken of the country’s collective psychosis are belittled and labeled in various ways: as lazy, undisciplined, unambitious, unmotivated, slow-moving, lackadaisical, slothful. Or even denigrated for being poor, as if the majority of poor or low-income people are so simply because they are lazy. (If this is what you think, I’ve got news for you: quite a few work two or even three jobs to make ends meet these days.)
Over and above our excesses in spending and consuming is our addiction to overbusyness — the inability to slow down and simply enjoy the moment. As a result, whether well-off or poor, most of us paint ourselves into a corner with much less time for relaxation than needed to live in a more humane way.
We are undisputed champions of greedily biting off more than we can chew: Routinely late for appointments, conversations cut short, often comically so, “Hi! Bye! Sorry, gotta run!” grabbing meals at drive-through fast-food windows between errands so we can eat while we drive, operating on inadequate sleep, always rushing yet held up in traffic, doing two or three things at once, talking on the phone and driving, texting and driving, talking on the phone while pushing a shopping cart or walking the dog, little time to kick back even at home, or even when we do, watching TV while playing an electronic game on the tablet computer at the same we pretend to listen to our spouse talk. (Can you say addicted and rude?!)
And always at the beck and call of communications devices that were supposed to make our lives easier and save us time but only demand more of it, always threatening to interrupt anytime we might be trying to relax.
How did things get to be like this? How did we get to be so incessantly, obnoxiously busy? Living life almost as one continuously unfolding series of fires to be put out or queries to be instantly responded to?
In Part 2, I’ll offer an answer to that and, to expand on our examination of how overbusy American culture is, outline the evidence suggesting that the hours we work both on the job and doing chores at home are far from normal for the human species.
With such insights to clear the mind, it’s easier to dump the guilt and take a more open-eyed look at strategies for doing less — to find more balance in life. And doing so is as much a sea change in outlook as a change in pace.