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The Loneliest Nation on Earth
To all appearances and by all standards the Johnsons have a wonderful life. They own a house in a nice suburb with four bedrooms, two baths, and a rear entry two-car garage. Their house is surrounded by a six-foot fence to provide privacy for an in-ground pool, barbecue grill, and patio furniture. Bob and Karen have two children--a boy and a girl. Each of them has a college degree; they both work and have a combined household income well above the average for their community. Most important, everyone in the family is in good health.
Yet if you could enter the hearts and thoughts of Bob and Karen Johnson, you would discover that they have dreams and fears no one else knows about. While they have never voiced it to anyone, there is an increasing sense of isolation, distress, and powerlessness growing inside of them. In a nutshell, the Johnsons have done a fine job "keeping up with the Joneses," but they still are not happy.
How could this be? The Johnsons are living the American Dream. There are so many people who are less fortunate. Actually, this personal dilemma, which is quietly gnawing away a sense of contentment in the Johnsons, is a national epidemic--and their experience is no surprise to sociologists and pollsters. George Gallup Jr. concluded from his studies and polls that Americans are among the loneliest people in the world. This seems unbelievable when you think of the availability of transportation and the billions of dollars of discretionary money available for entertainment. Americans can buy so much activity--how can they possibly be so lonely? Today more than three-fourths of the American people live in metropolitan areas, and more than two-thirds of those live in suburbs. We are surrounded by more people than ever before in the history of our country. With these undeniable benefits in place, how could a Gallup Poll rank us among the loneliest people in the world?
Let's take a closer look at the story of Bob and Karen. Eight years ago Bob took a job at an office located in a growing suburb. Although this took them further from their families, both Bob and Karen had agreed that it would still be feasible to fly home on occasion because they were making more money and the airport was in close proximity to their house. Bob and Karen both rise at 6:30 a.m. Bob rushes to leave the house at 7: 00 to beat the rush hour traffic; doing so allows him to get to work in thirty-five minutes as opposed to fifty-five minutes. He opens the door leading into the garage, hits the garage door opener, gets into his car, and pulls out of the driveway. He spots his new neighbor taking out the trash and waves to him with a forced smile on his face. As Bob drives down the street, he reminds himself that his new neighbor has been in the neighborhood now for two years, and he still can't remember his name. This thought lasts for about five seconds before the radio is turned on, and Bob's mind now turns to the matters of the day.
Karen has worked out an arrangement to be at work at 9:00 a.m. so she can drop off her two children at school at 8: 15. There is the usual rush to get herself and the two children ready and out the door by 7: 55, but on this day she manages to pull it off. With the same ritual precision, Karen makes her way to the car and starts heading out the driveway when one of the children announces that he has left a lunch inside. The easiest move for Karen would be to go back in through the front door, but she sees her next-door neighbor, one of the few retired people in the area, beginning her yard work for the day. While Karen would love to catch up with her elderly neighbor, she is afraid if they engage in a conversation the children will be late for school--and then she'll be late for work. So rather than risk being late, Karen makes her way back to the rear entry garage, opens the door with the automatic opener, and goes inside. As she grabs the forgotten lunch from the kitchen table, she realizes she has forgotten to set the security system. Once this is accomplished, off she goes again.
Bob and Karen encounter an average day at work--nine-and-a-half hours at the office, completing only four-and-a-half hours of real productive work. Both will bring home bulging briefcases, in the hopes of sneaking in another hour of work after the children are in bed. At 3: 30, the children go to their after-school program and wait for Mom or Dad to pick them up.
It is 5:00 p.m., and Bob absolutely must leave the office if he is to pick up the children on time from the after-school program. As it often goes, Bob doesn't leave until 5: 20, and he gets trapped in a ten-minute traffic jam because of a stalled car on the freeway. He arrives at the school thirty minutes late. Everyone is just a little edgy.
Bob and the kids pull into the rear entry garage at 6: 15. Bob turns off the security system, ensuring that no one has tampered with their home while they have been gone. Karen arrives at 6: 30. The first order of business is dinner. Bob and Karen agreed two years ago, with a little help from a family therapist, that with Karen's return to work to help pay the bills, sharing household chores was going to be a vital part of suburban life; Bob would need to share the load with her in the evenings.
While the children watch television, Mom and Dad are working together to heat up a tray of frozen lasagna and garlic bread. After dinner, the dishes are cleaned up, the mail is perused, homework papers are checked, and the children get ready for bed. It is now 9:00 p.m. The children are a half hour late getting to bed, but it was the best they could do. At 9: 15 Bob and Karen finally sit down. They are exhausted, really too tired to talk, so the television gets beamed on, right in the middle of some prime-time drama. They both watch television until the news is over, look at their briefcases for a moment, and agree to let the work go undone. Finally, at 11: 30, they make it to bed. A couple of words are exchanged, mostly businesslike talk concerning tomorrow's details. As they close their eyes, they both ponder how easy this day was. The remainder of the weeknights will be filled with sports practices, games, music lessons, and some evening meetings at the office.
The next day the family rises again to engage in what has become a way of life for five out of the seven days of their week. But now, the weekend has arrived!