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We can now recognize that the fate of the soul is the fate of the social order; that if the spirit within us withers, so too will all the world we build about us.
In these last years of the twentieth century, we have reawakened to the concept of soul--it seems as if every other book published has the word soul in the title. The theme of these books is that we have lost touch witha depth and substance in life, that we are searching for ways to reclaiman experience of aliveness and authenticity and find a way to return to the good life.
People feel an emptiness, a sense that life isn't all it could be. Albert Schweitzer called it our "sleeping sickness of the soul."
Why a sleeping sickness of the soul? Is it because we have sold our soul for comforts and conveniences, for status and success? It can be painful to examine our lives, but, there are people out there creating a new vision, creating a way of life that involves an awakening of the soul.
The American A Sleeping Sickness of the Soul
You know of the disease in Central Africa called sleeping sickness . . . There also exists a sleeping sickness of the soul. Its most dangerous aspect is that one is unaware of its coming. That is why you have to be careful. As soon as you notice the slightest sign of indifference, the moment you become aware of the loss of a certain seriousness, of longing, of enthusiasm and zest, take it as a warning. You should realize that your soul suffers if you live superficially.
"Repression of the life force" is a diagnosis I believe would fit most of theemotional problems people present in therapy."
Let's look at some facts about life in America today.
First, there's no time:
- Couples spend an average of twelve minutes a day talking to each other.
- We spend forty minutes a week playing with children.
- Half of Americans don't get enough sleep.
We feel like we are constantly rushing. And for good reason: as a society we are working longer hours than we ever have before. Harvard researcher Juliet Schor has estimated that we are working one month more per year than we did twenty years ago.
Even one month doesn't seem like it could be right. Those averages tell us little about individual lives. Some people are working fifty or sixty or seventy hours per week. And it depends how you measure it. Is it just the hours at the office or all the things you do at home--the calls you make, the paperwork, the hours spent worrying in the middle of the night? Whatever the real hours are, for most of us, it's too much.
It's not just the lack of time. We've lost our joie de vivre. Our life force is repressed. There's so little that we feel passionate about, so little that brings us joy. We don't laugh much or sing or dance much.
Although our lives seem normal to us, when you look closely they appear bizarre. Yet we accept the unacceptable. We show no surprise about these daily features of our lives:
- Instead of spending long hours over dinner with friends, we eat with one hand while we're driving.
- When making a call, most of us would rather get an answering machine than talk to a real person.
- People are falling in love and courting through the computer.
Small towns vie to have prisons built in their area in order to secure jobs.
People are always shocked when I tell them about something I read about Japan--about young couples hiring a family to visit the couple's parents. The young couples are too busy, but the parents need to save face, so they would rather have a hired family visit than none at all.
Everyone groans and says, "Oh, that's awful." But then I say, Look at our culture. Some of the things we do must look just as bizarre to others. Perhaps it would seem strange to another culture that we have to pay people to listen to our problems.
Our bizarre behaviors manifest themselves in some basic disorders such as sleep deprivation, depression, loneliness, boredom, and violence.
Here is a basic, essential, pleasant, human activity that we neglect. More than 100 million citizens are seriously sleep-deprived. One half of adults don't get enough sleep. At first this sounds like a minor problem--it's just sleep--but sleep researchers argue that sleep deprivation contributed to such disasters as the poison-gas leak at Bhopal, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez.
But even more than accidents and injuries is the day to day feeling of exhaustion and flatness. When you don't have enough sleep, you just can't feel fully alive. Lack of sleep may contribute to another one of our problems: the prevalence of depression. We even have a new disease--chronic fatigue syndrome.
The National Institute of Mental Health says that almost 16 percent of the U.S. population is judged to be suffering from a major mental illness or substance abuse, with severe mental illness more common than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. And these are just the people diagnosed by insurance companies as needing treatment. Many millions more are just plain depressed.
What is depression? The mental health profession defines it as feeling sad or empty, with a loss of interest or pleasure in ordinary activities, including sex. There is decreased energy, sleep disturbance, eating disturbance, feelings of hopelessness and pessimism, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, irritability, thoughts of death or suicide, chronic aches and pains. The National Institute of Mental Health says it's the way 17.6 million adults experience life. In any one year, 10 percent of our population is clinically depressed.
Since World War II, depression has increased dramatically-- some say there is ten times as much depression as before the war. One indicator is the growth in the prescriptions of antidepressants like Prozac. In 1993, 5 million people in the United States were using Prozac.
The sense of the bizarre grows when we discover that Prozac is increasingly prescribed for children, even children as young as three years old. Some estimates find that since 1992, prescriptions of antidepressant drugs for children have quadrupled.
More and more, Prozac prescriptions are written for people who are suffering from what is seen as normal life stress. The symptoms include not eating or eating too much, not sleeping or oversleeping, poor concentration or difficulty making decisions. Who doesn't identify with these? It sounds like just plain unhappiness. One survey found that 48 percent of Americans experience these symptoms.
In 1991, an ad was placed in the Village Voice that said, "Are you depressed? Do you suffer from fatigue? Inability to concentrate? Have trouble sleeping or eating? If so, contact . . . "
There were thousands of phone calls.
Depression is second cousin to loneliness. More people live alone in this country than ever before. In 1950, only 10 percent of households consisted of just one person, but by 1994, 24 percent of households had only one person--which means that 12 percent of the adult population lives alone. A 1990 Gallup poll found that more than 36 percent of Americans say they are lonely.
But it's not just living alone, it's that we don't gather together just to be together. I often ask people how much they sing. Try it. What you'll find is that people sing, but they are almost all singing alone in their cars or their showers. And they dance alone. All by themselves in their living room. What does this mean? Here is a basic human activity that people have done throughout history as a source of joy and community, and it has almost totally disappeared from our lives.
And all of this goes against anyone's better judgment, for we know that loneliness is bad for us. Healthy people who are isolated are twice as likely to die over a ten-year period as healthy people who aren't isolated. Isolated men are four times more likely to die of all causes at any age than less isolated men. People with heart disease have a poor chance of survival if they are unmarried and don't have a confidant.
We know there should be something more. Everyone wants friends, but you hesitate to ask people over, fearing that they are too busy or that you will appear too needy. As if needing friends were some sort of a weakness.