Yesterday, in this piece on Hamlet and Harry Potter, I wrote this:
Here is the interesting question…when a life has been lived with a sense of deep mission - as in either Hamlet’s or Harry’s case - and that mission has been fulfilled, what is the purpose of the life, thereafter? […] Perhaps this is why monarchs, old generals, popes, entrepreneurs, mother-hung rock stars and CBS newsmen can never willingly retire and live out their days. Without their sense of mission, life has no thrust and parry, no vivacity, no purpose.
Because I have a bit of a nudge-streak in me, I decided to send that last bit to a few acquaintances at CBS, including Dick Meyer, whose columns I frequently find so interesting, I must comment - even though my commentary sometimes lead to sticky debate.
Meyer wanted to know what “Mother-Hung” meant and then - with what I suspect was a fresh-mouthed double entendre - he pointed me toward his latest piece, The Lonely State of America, which comments on this recent study on social isolation in America.
Now, you know I take every “study” with a grain of salt for two reasons, firstly because everything is always in flux, nothing is static, and life is unpredictable, and so today’s “study” can be tomorrow’s hoo-ha, and secondly because whenever a “study” is given full-trumpet fanfare in the press, soon all the big and little laws based on the study are upon us, for better or worse. Sometimes I think studies - interesting as they are - are done for no other purpose than to excite legislation, but I digress.
Meyers writes that this study’s findings “should scare you.” These days “scared” is how every “study” wants you to feel, so fear is useless. I would say this study should make us more thoughtful, than scared.
Meyer has a book in him, I think, on the subject of the splintering of the American community into sharp, narrow shards - a theme he often returns to, sometimes in vague ways. I can see where this study would be of intense interest to him. He writes: I do suspect that this study overlooks one simple contributing factor, the decline of real geographic communities — places where people grow up where their parents grew up, where non-nuclear relatives live near by, where friendships and acquaintances go across generations.
Explaining social isolation will be controversial, but not as difficult as repairing it.
In primitive and survival-dependent societies, social isolation was basically impossible. But modern societies have never been without chronic existential worries about isolation and loneliness; it is one of the defining marks of modernity.
I urge you to read his whole piece - I don’t agree with all of it, of course - but it is well worth your reading and passing along.
Meanwhile, in answer to his question:
Mother-hung. People who spend their whole lives either trying to please the mother or to replace her missing love. I’ve noticed that a large number of rock stars (and other celebs, to be honest) either lost their moms early in life (Madonna, Bono, John Lennon, Rosie O’ Donnell) or had bad or complicated relationships with their mothers (Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland…Bill Clinton!) I’ve always thought that for these folks public adoration was the “mother replacement,” and one reason why these people can never stop or retire. Lennon let go for a while, but then again, he had Yoko as his “mother,” so…there you go.
Which is actually kind of an interesting correlation to Meyer’s piece. These people, lacking mothers, look ever outward and require enormous adulation, but it’s all long-distance adulation - the length of a playing field or arena, via video, CD, radio - it’s not personal or warm. Just think of the gazillion stories of stars who had the love of the distant world but lived in private hells because they had no one to talk to, no intimacy in their lives. Look at Marilyn Monroe - she was the most wanted woman in the world, yet the night she died, she couldn’t get anyone to even talk to her on the phone! John Lennon was able to put it down, and be a family guy baking bread, when he finally had familial intimacy.
I will have to read this study to see if it considers the disintegration of the family into single-parent or “blended” units, or the “both parents working, here is your “quality” half-hour of “together time” before you go to sleep, sweetie” phenomenon of the past 20-30 years. Because that could well be a factor.
We have now had several generations growing up with either missing parents or well-meaning but “barely-there” parents. A lot of what we learn regarding intimacy we learn from Mom and Dad and Grandma. If they’re barely in the picture, from whom will we learn it? The Nursery school teacher? If we have a society with intimacy issues (and I would define it thusly, rather than as loneliness issues), I’d wager it is because we have a society wherein intimacy has been pushed aside for the progressive lifestyle ideas which preclude learning the skill. The folks who are demanding free, government-provided child care are not helping society learn intimacy and interdependancy (even though - to be fair - in their minds, they really ARE, they believe they’re preaching “it takes a village” interdependancy - but that is not intimacy, that’s social duty, and social duty always ends up being humorless, perfuctory and expedient).
Another problem, of course, is that intimacy has been defined downward, especially for our young girls, to mean little more than a “hook-up.” This is something Buster talks to me about. Children, but especially girls, are being sexualized at ever-earlier ages. The sexual messages begin very young in television commercials and on the clothes-store racks, and most of Buster’s generation grew up watching Friends and Sex in the City and thinking that this was what life was: a series of sexual encounters with no emotional attachments, no repercussions, no pain, no loss of oneself.
Sexualized early, many girls are either overly jaded or mistrustful and remote. Buster says a troubling number of girls his age are sexually hyper-active, but unhappy and lonely - they cannot make good, healthy connections with respectable young men, because they don’t “get” the guys who open car doors for them and who look for a relationship to be about more than a “hook-up” or perfunctory oral sex. (A romance recently busted up because Buster wanted a real relationship, and the girl, a nice-enough kid, simply did not know what that meant!)
While the girls are untethered and confused balls of sexuality, too many boys are learning to see the girls not as young women to be respected, admired and (in a chivalrous sense) looked after, but as disposable spitoons for their disregarded and misunderstood sperm. I’ve heard my sons and his friends complain about it - that their generation is very screwed up about how to relate to each other, that too many of both gender have no idea what self-respect is, that they treat themselves, and each other, badly. They crave intimacy but have no idea how to achieve it when they’ve been raised to throw everything - their virginity, their standards, their drive to succeed (it’s not cool to get good grades) - their potential, their very selves away. You cannot learn or achieve intimacy if you’re busy conforming to the Culture of Now - what Flip Wilson used to call The Church of What’s Happening Now - you’re too busy just trying to keep up.
This is not an overnight problem, it’s yet another fruit of the sexual revolution and the world-tilting sixties - the overcorrection to the 1950’s.
Meyer makes the excellent point that “In primitive and survival-dependent societies, social isolation was basically impossible.” True. When my husband and I were growing up, Grandma lived upstairs and auntie down the street, cousins all over the place and that mattered, but I don’t think that’s really the issue. I think this study is quite right that much of it is a matter of time and the incessant demands of the beeper, the cell phone, the freaking unending email (my husband literally has nightmares about the non-stop email at work that keeps him from full productivity, and sometimes keeps him stuck answering it all night instead of interacting with us). The demands of the workplace, and the fact that the work day no longer begins at 9 AM but as soon as the first cell-call rings through as you step out of the shower, may well be unhinging and destructively distracting us, as perhaps illustrated in this horrific story. It could well be that the work-demands are so out-of-control that when people finally end their work day they say, “just leave me alone, and give me a little space, fer cryin’ out loud!”
But I think there may be other trends which answer this worrisome report and can provide some reassurance and reason for optimism. Last year we read, to the horror of many feminists, about the growing number of women - ivy leaguers and others - who were actively planning to leave their careers and the work force for set periods of time to have and raise children. They were including parenting in the career plans, being smart enough to recognise that if they wanted kids, they’d want to raise them, themselves. It goes without saying, they were also hoping to marry men who could help them achieve that goal. Sometimes both parents must work, but more and more we’re seeing younger parents decide that one parent will stay home while the kids are young or - as with my nephew and neice - working in shifts so that the kids are always in the charge of one parent, rather than assorted sitters and caretakers. And now - just like back in the day - Grandma is moving in with them. The pendulum swings.
If there is going to be a correction to all of this mad fruit of the “do your own thing” era, it will take TIME and undoubtedly it will anger some who insist that any correction is a dramatic over-correction. But I don’t doubt there will be a correction of some sort. Humans need each other, we will find a way back. Intimacy can be re-learned and re-captured, and it will happen on a parent’s knee, or through a Grandfather’s gentle wisdom.