Tag Archives: Sociology

Lonely in a Crowd: The Dangers of Modern Social Isolation on Health & Relationships

busy street in New York City - Shutterstock

It’s not always about what it looks like. It’s not about what YOU perceive to be the ‘correct’ response to a particular life scenario. Modern adulthood, by its very nature, isolates humans from one another, depriving them of support and resources that people crave, need, and which help them live longer, healthier, more satisfying lives. We should collectively try to do something about it. But in the meantime, we must simply look out for ourselves and one another. (Image/Shutterstock)

One of my newest friends and favorite people just moved about a four-hour drive away.

He might as well have moved to another planet, in the context of how much we’re likely to hang out in the future.

He was my partner in crime—both professionally and socially at the office. He sat just a few feet behind me.

Now, it’s just shut-down computer monitors and an empty office chair. Today’s the first day of work where he wasn’t here and I knew he wasn’t returning.

Hearing the news a few weeks ago that he was leaving bothered me. More than you’d think. Like if you’d asked me to predict how I’d feel about a bunch of random life scenarios, I’d have rated my friend at work leaving the job and moving away as being a less-impactful thing than I think it is.

It occurred to me while driving alone several hours on a weekend road trip that I’ve become more sensitive to goodbyes since my divorce. At least the kind you know are forever, or damn close to it.

I think I’m more sensitive to ‘loss,’ and that I’m tired of ‘losing’ people and things that matter.

My wife.

Half of my son’s entire childhood.

My in-laws.

Many of the friends we’d made together as a married couple.

Family. Every single moment from that day to this one that somehow seemed Less Than because everything was just a little bit off.

The future I’d imagined in my head.

Dignity.

Confidence.

Hope.

Yourself. The person you believed yourself to be when you looked in the mirror or sat silently and alone in your thoughts in those moments before sleep.

But also, this is just THAT time in life. For many, many people.

I’m 39-years-old. Many people in my general age range have families and growing children, and growing responsibilities and time demands. They have pets. Demanding jobs.

People living just a few doors down or on the other side of town might go months without seeing each other. They don’t even mean to. It happens by accident. Just because they both got busy.

Habit. Routine.

And friends turn into acquaintances. And then strangers.

People have threats bombarding them from every possible angle—particularly as parents.

Many people my age grew up in a time and place where you could leave the doors unlocked at night.

And now?

Most of us won’t let our grade-schoolers ride bikes outside of our neighborhood.

It feels like kids are learning too much, too soon. They’re the first generation to grow up with access to mobile devices AND prevalent Wi-Fi.

With the wrong keystrokes, and no parental controls, my 10-year-old could learn anything he could think to ask. How dead bodies look. How to do certain kinds of drugs. What happens at an orgy. How to do dangerous stunts that have killed other children. How to use profanity like a comedian to make hundreds of people laugh and applaud. He could read about child rape. He could watch a video of some racist cock trying to convince others that the value of a human being should be measured by their skin tone. Or some homicidal maniac encouraging children to arm themselves and hurt others.

21st century parenting is a total shit-show, but I’m reasonably sure that’s been true for every generation of parents who had to face new challenges without anything resembling an instruction manual on how to navigate it effectively.

BUT.

We are dealing with something on a scale never before seen in human history that exacerbates all of this and brings greater intensity to negative life situations, like a friend moving away.

Everyone is dealing with this—not just parents.

Sometimes, It Takes a Village

Someone with a better grasp on sociology than me may want to correct me, but I’m of the very strong belief that for virtually all of human history until, like, five minutes ago (50 years, at most?), most people in human society, regardless of where they lived—city or farm—experienced life the way people in tribes and villages did.

We didn’t have digital or even amazing telecom infrastructure weaving in and out of every small- and mid-sized town 40 years ago.

People HAD to speak in person, or mail a physical letter to even communicate with other people.

Neighbors knew each other. They frequently knocked on one another’s doors to borrow an egg or a cup of sugar.

If one of my neighbors I don’t know knocks on my door and asks to borrow an egg or a cup of sugar, I’m going to tell them I don’t have any (even if I do) through my locked screen door, and assume they’re plotting my murder.

And I seriously live in a ‘nice,’ ‘safe’ neighborhood where, honestly, I’m probably the scariest person because I’m a single adult male who lives alone and probably in their imaginations collects flea market-purchased taxidermy and eats a lot of Hot Pockets. (*shakes head no*)

Seriously.

Human beings have adult challenges.

They can range from small-appliance repair and the inability to reach something on the top shelf, to emergency childcare or transportation to a hospital.

And I think it’s EASILY demonstrable that back in 1980 when there were 100 million fewer people in the United States, MORE people knew one another and were interconnected on a personal level.

Basically, when life was HARD, on a minor level (small repair) or a macro one (death in family or major illness) the majority of people were surrounded by people who would help shoulder some of that load.

You can still find pockets of this.

School communities.

Big families.

Churches.

Soldiers.

Social groups.

Team athletics.

But many of us? By virtue of our age and life circumstances? What existed for us in our youth going to school, and probably even young adulthood, can disappear gradually and without warning.

Until life gets hard on a minor level or a macro one—and not only are you lacking people willing to help, but perhaps you’re having trouble finding anyone you’d even want to talk to about it.

I’ve shared this before in Could the Loss of Tribe be Jeopardizing Your Marriage, but it’s worth sharing again. I can’t explain any of this better than it’s written in this excerpt from Why Growing Up Is Hard to Do (But Why the World Still Needs Adults):

Isolation and the Loss of Tribe

“For most adults, the period of life they are most nostalgic for is high school and/or college. The longing for this period is usually chalked up to a desire to return to a time when they weren’t so freighted with life’s responsibilities. Surely that is part of it, but I think the real reason we miss our youth is often overlooked: it was the last time in our lives when we experienced a sense of “tribe.”

In high school and college, most of us had a group of great friends we saw on a daily basis. Many of us ran with a “gang” of guys, that sometimes joined with a posse of gals, forming a coed tribe that was enormously fun to hang out with.

Then, folks grew up, paired off, got hitched, and had kids. Few adults see their friends on a daily basis; the lucky see each other weekly, and for most, scheduling times to get together isn’t easy. It is then no wonder we get nostalgic for our younger days; it represents the last time our lives resembled the primordial pattern.

In hunter-gatherer tribes, male gangs hunted and battled together. Female posses raised their kids together. Everyone lived and worked together each day with dozens of others. Burden and joys were shared. One’s whole identity was tied up in being part of this tribe.

Today, we have never been more isolated. Many folks don’t even live near their extended kin, and the nuclear family is increasingly marooned on the desert island of the suburbs. Men (and women) go off to work in a cubicle with a bunch of fellow employees they may feel no real kinship with. Many women spend all day enclosed in the four walls of their home, cut off from all other humans, save their inarticulate toddler. Many people, male and female alike, are lonely and unhappy because they are without a tribe.

The heavy and undesirable weight of adulthood is often mistakenly chalked up to the burden of adult responsibilities alone. But the problem is not adulthood itself, but how it is currently being carried. The weight of earning a livelihood, and rearing one’s children, which was meant to be borne by numerous shoulders, is now supported by just a pair. Husband and wife rely on one another for all their emotional fulfillment and practical needs. The strain is more than an individual, or the nuclear family, was meant to bear.

So, (another) reason it’s hard to grow up is that the weight of adulthood feels hard to shoulder when you’re carrying it alone, instead of with a tribe.”

There’s Probably Not Anything Wrong With You

Sometimes people write me, and their focus isn’t on their marriage or romantic relationships at all.

Sometimes, they’re simply looking around and trying to figure out how everything got heavier and darker and lonelier without them noticing until one day they realized they were the last one standing in the room.

They grew up surrounded by friends in school. Perhaps by extended family at regular weekend get-togethers.

They bonded heavily with their closest friends in high school and college.

They stayed connected with many of them after school, because they were still the people with whom they wanted to swap tales and share life happenings.

But then.

Dating.

Marriage.

Daily life.

Homeownership.

Parenthood.

Financial responsibilities.

Adulthood.

Relationship struggles.

Isolation.

And maybe no one understands, right?

Because it doesn’t look and feel the same for them.

They have two friends, and they love their two friends, and you’re being ungrateful or simply not looking on the bright side because you’re not demonstrating the proper mindset or gratitude for the friends you do have.

It’s not even about what you have or don’t have. Maybe gratitude can help. It usually does.

But there are REAL consequences to a person’s subjective perception of how connected or isolated they are.

Ever meet a stay-at-home mother of four kids who soaks in adult conversation like someone dying of thirst in a desert?

Ever meet someone who lives in New York City, but doesn’t know anyone with whom they have a meaningful interpersonal relationship?

Ever meet an elderly man who lives alone, but spends every day out with friends, or traveling, or participating in some retiree life adventure?

There are no rules.

There are not life circumstances that automatically mean someone should, or should not, feel disconnected from the life they long for.

This affects people. Powerfully. It matters.

Maybe thoughts like this have been gnawing at you. Maybe this idea has been painfully pecking at your marriage or dating relationship. Maybe you just feel kind-of shitty and don’t really know why.

And just maybe, it’s because you’re a perfectly healthy and normal human being whose life circumstances has deprived you of things known to positively affect human life and health.

You’re not alone.

There’s nothing wrong with you. Your spouse isn’t rejecting you because they crave social connection or spending time with other people.

You’re good enough. You matter.

There’s just a little something missing. And if you recognize it, and take steps to do something about it, who knows what tomorrow might bring.

Probably something rad.

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The Marriage Paradox

dead rose by wolfman570

(Image/wolfman570 – Flickr)

They had a chance encounter on 5th Avenue in New York City.

The boy and the girl in the movie I was watching.

They were two old friends who crushed on one another growing up together in Texas. He was an aspiring novelist attending the University of Texas. She was going to Yale, after abandoning her childhood dreams of being a creative artist.

They reconnected over dinner and drinks, catching up from the years apart.

He was a dreamer. And his hope and optimism was contagious and inspiring. His belief in her and encouragement to chase her dreams moved her. It made her feel good. She was in love.

In a later scene, we see the young woman having dinner with her mother, where she reveals her plans to leave Yale, return to Texas to attend the University of Texas, and marry this boy from back home.

Her mother was mildly amused, but mostly incredulous and discouraging.

“Keep seeing him if you have to. Live with him. I don’t care, but don’t marry him,” the mother said. “I understand what you see in him. I get it. I do. He’s the opposite of your father. He’s a romantic. But he’s also very fragile. I saw that when his father died.”

She paused for a moment, accepting her daughter’s angry glare.

“Don’t do this. You’ll regret it and you’ll only hurt him in the end. What you love about him now, you’ll hate about him in a few years. You may not realize it but you and I are a lot more alike than you think.”

“You’re wrong,” the daughter said. “You and I are nothing alike.”

“Really? Just wait,” the mother said. “We all eventually turn into our mothers.”

Why Do We Marry?

The first time, I mean.

Is it because we love someone so much that we can’t stand the idea of living without them?

Is it because we love how they make us feel? Or how we feel being seen together?

Is it because we love what they do for us? What they provide?

Is it because we want to have children, and we identify who we think will make the best mother or father to our future kids?

Here’s what I feel sure about: Pretty much NO ONE gets married, spends a lot on the wedding, pools their financial resources and material possessions, and has children together with the intent or expectation that it’s going to end in horrible pain, and potentially cost a lot of money, and in the BEST of cases, costs half of your children’s lives, and in the WORST, costs much more time than that OR involves unsupported parenting to children whose other parent is almost never around.

The most generous divorce stats say that marriages end about 40 percent of the time, but I still like to say marriages fail “half the time,” because it feels truer and because I don’t think marriages are successful simply because two miserable people who hate or cheat on one another haven’t technically divorced.

Therapist Lesli Doares said it best during my first interview with her on her podcast radio show, discussing HuffPost content. I’m paraphrasing, but she said something like: “They have a section for Weddings and a section for Divorce, but there isn’t any information about actual marriage.”

Even the most beautiful, inspiring and successful marriages feature two people who will be sure to tell you how hard it is: “It wasn’t always easy! We didn’t always like each other, but we always loved each other!”

WHY DO WE MARRY?

We mostly suck at it. It’s mostly hard. So, why?

What other Important Life Thing do we collectively fail at more than marriage?

Another Tragic Ending

More time passes for the young couple in the movie I’m watching.

After a few years together, the lustful, feel-good stuff had disappeared, and her husband hadn’t written the next Great American Novel and she started to lose faith in him. She started pushing him to go back to school to study something more financially sustainable.

After growing up in a wealthy family and unquestioned financial security, she was dissatisfied with the couple’s humble apartment. She wanted more. And she was afraid she’d never have it if she stayed married.

Her: “You have to realize this isn’t working. We’re not right for each other. I wish we were, but we’re just not.”

Him: “What do you mean, we’re not right for each other? We’re perfect for each other.”

Her: “No. We’re not. We would be if we didn’t live in the real world. I need a life that is more structured and I need a future that is more structured. I want to be the person that you want me to be but I just can’t.”

Him: “But you are. You are. Just stop.”

Her: “I really wanted to be this person that you thought I was. I really did, but I’m just not that person. I just don’t have your kind of faith in things. I’m cynical. I’m pragmatic. I’m a realist.”

Him: “No, you’re just afraid. We’ve been through this so many times.”

Her: “No, I’m not scared. I’m unhappy. I’m just really, really unhappy.”

Later, she meets a guy in one of her grad school classes and develops a close enough relationship with him to ask him to drive her to an abortion clinic where she terminated an early pregnancy she hadn’t yet told her husband about.

We see the crying, confused, scared young woman, wet from the rain, clinging to this other guy while sitting inside his parked car outside of the clinic.

And then through the windshield, we see the husband, headlights shining on him, standing in the rain, taking in the moment, and his wife sees him, and cries even more.

End of scene.

End of marriage.

The Paradox: Because We’re Human

Some people believe the easy answer is to simply not get married and discourage others from doing so. Great. Have fun with that.

I admit to being as cynical about marriage as I’ve ever been, but I still believe the world needs marriage.

And even if you disagree, I hope I can appeal to your inner-pragmatist, because regardless of how good of an idea you consider it to be, 95 percent of adults are either married, formerly married, or plan on marrying in the future. The simple math is that almost everyone gets married anyway.

But why?

Everyone will have their own individual reasons for doing so, but I think the simplest explanation is that everyone thinks they’re supposed to.

I think the majority of people in the world do almost everything they do because that’s what they believe they’re supposed to be doing.

From our earliest memories, we saw married people, families, or young people dating and exploring the possibility of marriage. We see those same stories play out in novels, on TV, and in music.

And marriage crosses religious and cultural boundaries, so we see it everywhere. All over the world, you’ll find countless examples of two people who felt attraction for one another (or part of an arranged marriage) and now live in a committed partnership that both people expect will last the rest of their lives.

People get married because, for them, getting married is a personal goal.

People get married because they want to have a family and believe that’s best accomplished with marriage as a foundation.

People get married because they feel social pressure to do so.

People get married because they’re afraid of being alone.

People get married because they believe sex outside of marriage is a sin and they REALLY want to have sex and not feel shitty about it.

People get married because they want a financial partner.

People get married because they want to be with someone who makes them feel safe, or special, or a bunch of other good things.

And, of course, people get married because they love someone more than they love themselves and crave the opportunity to love that person every day for the rest of their lives.

Why do people get divorced?

Because their expectations weren’t met.

Someone broke a promise, or someone FELT like a promise was broken.

Two people failed to communicate in ways the other person could understand well enough to adjust whatever behaviors or mindsets needed changed in order to save it.

Because their feelings changed. About their spouse, or maybe about someone else they should have never gotten so close to, or maybe just about themselves.

People get divorced because they were dishonest with themselves before and during marriage.

People get divorced because human emotion is very powerful, and we pursue what feels good and avoid what feels bad, which means our marriages are screwed once bad feelings seep in.

People get divorced because of hedonic adaptation. That’s the psychological phenomenon we experience when awesome things stop feeling awesome once we get used to them. Hedonic adaptation is why we get sick of eating the same foods even if they’re delicious, or hearing the same songs even if they’re amazing, or why we feel dissatisfied with our homes, cars, clothes, paychecks, and everything else as we get used to them.

The people who made us feel the best we’ve ever felt stop making us feel that way. Because they change AND we change.

The people who made our bodies tense, our hearts race, our privates scream to touch theirs… they become the people that bore us sexually.

Maybe because of emotional reactions to their behaviors. Or maybe just because we’ve known them long enough. You know the phrase: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”? I’m pretty sure that was coined by someone who never got tired of having sex with the same person because of how rarely he or she got to see them.

People get bored and angry and disappointed and resentful and ashamed and feel shitty. About their partners. But maybe mostly about themselves.

It’s so hard when you realize you’re not the person you wanted to be and your life hasn’t turned out the way you’d expected.

It’s so hard when you wake up in a shit-festival of a marriage, and your life doesn’t feel like your own, and Jack and Nora are sharing their amazing-looking photos from another fucking vacation where everything about the photos represent everything your life is not.

It’s so hard when you see people in love on TV, while your spouse ignores you but lights up for other people. It’s so hard when you hear about good things happening in your friends’ marriage when your spouse is ignoring you sexually in favor of late-night internet porn or romance novels and detachable showerheads.

It’s so hard being an adult.

Because you thought you’d wake up one day and FEEL like how you imagined all the adults to feel when we were kids. When we’d finally have our hormones under control, and mature into the kind of person who always did the right thing and made a lot of money and could buy and do anything we wanted.

It’s so hard being an adult because it’s so damn disappointing when you realize you made all that shit up in your little-kid head and none of the adults actually knew what they were doing either. They just faked it the best they could for our sake just like we’re doing now for our kids.

We tried the best we could to be who we thought we were supposed to be.

So we got married. Because that’s what we’re supposed to do.

But there was so much we didn’t know.

Like how this thing that was supposed to make us feel good could make us feel so bad.

We didn’t know what we wanted back then isn’t what we’d want later. We didn’t know people would start acting differently. We didn’t know the holidays wouldn’t feel like they did when we were kids. We didn’t know how to imagine life without the people who die, or move away, or just stop calling.

We didn’t know so much would change.

We didn’t know so much could change.

People don’t know what to expect.

We say “I do” with the best of intentions only to realize everything we signed up for is some bullshit we don’t actually recognize. Because our partners have let us down. Or because WE let us down.

People don’t know HOW to be married when they decide to get married.

But maybe we can change that.

With so much at stake, I think we have to try.

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Do People’s Feelings Matter? That Depends.

Plutchik-wheel-591x270

I once wrote that feelings are bullshit.

Except I wrote it more dramatically: “Feelings. Are. Bullshit.”

That probably seems rich coming from a guy who frequently writes emotion-based stories and whose only success as a blogger has come from a series of posts validating emotionally damaged wives’ feelings and warning husbands to ignore them at their peril.

Because of a technical glitch, an 18-month-old post titled Love is a Choice was re-posted to my Twitter feed over the weekend after making a small edit to that post and hitting the Update button.

A reader saw the tweet, read the post which included my “Feelings are bullshit” claim, and asked a challenging, but fair question: “Matt. I just read your post on ‘Love is a Choice.’ Do you still feel this way about feelings?”

Human emotion is a fascinating and complex thing.

I don’t think I need to rattle off the litany of wars, romances, terror attacks, artistic creations, revolutions, epic social or cultural changes, marriages, divorces, friendships, or nearly every single notable thing that’s ever happened, instigated by human emotion.

By day, I am a marketing professional.

As everyone in this profession or who has watched Mad Men knows, connecting with consumers emotionally is the ultimate key to getting them to take desired actions.

In most respects, emotion drives our choices and dictates how we feel at any given time.

Emotional bonds change everything.

They’re the difference between some stray animal, and a beloved pet that becomes part of the family.

They’re the difference between a random adult and child, and an adoring father and son.

They’re the difference between two strangers walking by one another on a crowded street, and those same two people sharing beds and homes and lifetimes after meeting and connecting.

“Do you still feel this way about feelings?”

What I Meant

Despite my affinity for the written word, some conversations are best had in person, because in a rapid exchange of information, clarity and understanding can win the day.

In this case, I can understand how my “Feelings. Are. Bullshit.” declaration could cause some bristling and heartburn.

I’ll try to be clearer.

Because how people feel dictates their entire human experience—literally determines whether them being alive is a positive or negative experience—considering the feelings of those around us when we say and do things is what separates the dicks from the conscientious. People who suck from people who are cool.

“But wait a minute, Matt. Are we REALLY responsible for how OTHER PEOPLE FEEL? Is it REALLY our problem or responsibility?”

I’ll be on both sides of this argument for the rest of my life, depending on the situation.

While I’m a MAJOR free speech and anti-censorship advocate, I applaud the State of South Carolina for pulling the Confederate flag from government property.

I don’t know whether this is fair or not (and fairness REALLY matters to me), but I simply give a MUCH LARGER shit about the feelings of black Americans who view that flag as a symbol of racism and oppression than I do about the feelings of southern whites who see it as an important symbol of their heritage.

To demonstrate the depths of my hypocrisy, I’m a Cleveland Indians fan, and much like Washington Redskins fans, and fans of other sports teams which use Native American names and symbols as mascots, I make the same argument as the rebel flag supporters about keeping the teams’ names and mascots as is. I find it unreasonable to suggest that because I root for my favorite baseball team, I am somehow mocking or belittling the heritage of a particular group of people, or that I’m insensitive to the atrocities they suffered centuries ago.

I imagine some people flying the Confederate flag feel exactly like that.

I don’t know.

But I do know that how people feel is at the very heart of both debates. And that there doesn’t always appear to be a clear-cut right or wrong thing to do.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that I am RESPONSIBLE for another person’s emotions. I can write a sentence or a blog post, for example, that will yield dramatically different responses.

I recently wrote a post joking about a drunk guy inappropriately touching women at a party one night several years ago.

Some people thought it was hilarious.

Others thought it was serious subject matter, and that my tone and treatment of the story was in poor taste.

Am I responsible for those emotions? I don’t know.

This is Why Husbands Have So Much Trouble with Emotion

Emotion and human behavior is not one-size-fits-all. Everyone is different.

But I believe that men share many traits with the vast majority of men, and women share many traits with the vast majority of women. And I believe that allows us to make generally true statements about how the two genders behave.

To that end, how women feel will often be the ultimate factor in whether a marriage lasts, whether a couple is sexually active, and whether children grow up with divorced parents.

And on paper, I might agree with a guy who says that’s too much power for his wife to wield, and inherently unfair, as she accepted him as a young man, and then rejected him later when her wants and needs changed after years of marriage and raising children.

But life isn’t on paper. Not the nitty-gritty human relationships, anyway. Those are on the front lines of the human experience.

And if a husband listens to his wife’s cries for attention and pleas for help and begging for changes that will allow her to feel emotionally safe and secure, and ignores them, or tells her “Sorry! I’m not changing!” then he gets what he deserves when she inevitably leaves, and increases the odds of infidelity about 14 trillion percent.

The reason men are so cavalier about their wives’ emotions is that they literally don’t know. Most men NEVER feel as their wives do, but more importantly, the story of why their wives feel that way doesn’t register with them because it seems totally insane to a man that X caused Y. X didn’t even faze him, so it doesn’t make sense that THAT is the reason she’s hurt and crying right now.

Most men don’t realize that their wives and girlfriends are fundamentally different than them. But men DO understand emotional pain. It’s just triggered by different things. If you find a man who has experienced intense emotional pain, and you can clearly convey that this other thing made the women in their lives feel the exact same type of intense pain, THEN it will finally click in his brain.

At least, that’s what worked for me.

So, Wait. When Are Feelings Bullshit?

Glad you asked.

Feelings are bullshit when you exchange wedding vows and promise forever, and then use negative feelings about the relationship later as a reason for ending the marriage, only to go out, start a new relationship and repeat the cycle all over again. Because (with the exception of abuse, addiction, cheating, and other dysfunctional horribleness) the cycle WILL repeat all over again.

There are no such things as perfect relationships.

They say marriage is hard work BECAUSE of all the times that are hard.

Sometimes drivers next to us make us want to run them off the road.

Sometimes people who disagree with us on emotional matters make us want to punch and scream.

Sometimes we wake up in the morning and don’t feel like working out, or going to our jobs, or paying bills.

Sometimes people are MADLY in love with someone, and then hate them a week later.

Sometimes our kids make us so angry that we wish they weren’t with us. Usually, within five minutes, or just one really nice hug, we’re back to being totally smitten.

Feelings are VERY fickle things. Constantly changing. Thus, dangerous things to put in charge of everything that happens.

People do drugs and drink excessively because it feels good.

Married people fuck people they’re not supposed to because it feels good.

Parents neglect their children because they don’t feel like taking care of them.

Human emotion? Particularly in our close, personal relationships? They are one of the most important things for us to monitor and manage. Absolutely.

But sometimes?

When we have responsibilities? When we feel tempted or lazy? When we’ve made promises?

Doing what we, in our dumbest, weakest human moments, feel like doing is just about the worst idea imaginable.

“Do you still feel this way about feelings?”

I didn’t explain myself very well the first time. And maybe I didn’t this time.

But, the answer is: yes.

I do.

Sometimes what we choose to do is infinitely more important than what we feel like doing.

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Thermometers vs. Thermostats: You Don’t Have to be a Bystander

(Image courtesy of iowa.gov.)

(Image courtesy of iowa.gov.)

The black smoke was unmissable against the stark gray backdrop of winter.

Something on the back of an RV had caught fire while parked at an interstate travel plaza and rest stop just outside Elkhart, Ind., which is—ironically—where most RVs are manufactured.

I stopped the car and pulled out my phone, called 911, then hit record to capture video of the burning RV. I figured the explosion would be awesome if the fire reached the gas tank. A handful of cars pulled over too and the other travelers joined my gawking. Why do we like to watch things burn?

“God, I wonder if the owner knows their vehicle is on fire?” I asked.

Everyone around me shrugged.

And then it dawned on me that someone might be inside. Seemed unlikely. But possible.

“No one’s in there, right? Could someone be sleeping or showering?”

More shrugs.

I took a step toward the burning RV. Then hesitated. Then stopped.

Naw. They’re totally inside the building grabbing food or a cup of coffee…

I kept filming.

Minutes later, the fire trucks arrived, sirens screaming. And that’s when I saw it. Movement in the RV’s windows.

An elderly couple stepped off their RV—the combination of smoke filling up their RV and the sound of emergency workers pulling up next to them had woke them from an afternoon nap in the RV’s bedroom.

I took a deep breath and made eye contact with the guy next to me. I could see the same look in his eyes I must have had in mind.

“Oh my God. There were people in there.”

They lived.

What was presumably their home away from home burned to the ground in front of them. A total loss.

But one thought haunts me: What if they hadn’t woke up?

And I just stood there.

Doing nothing.

We Are Often Thermometers

It’s called the “bystander effect.” It’s a sociological phenomenon researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley observed and studied in the late 1960s and wrote about in The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?.

Sociologists say the presence of other people creates a “diffusion of responsibility.” It means people feel less pressure to take action since the responsibility to do so is now shared among everyone present.

But we also feel a need to behave in “correct and socially acceptable ways.” When others around us are doing something or not doing something, our brains take it as a signal that a similar response is most appropriate.

In other words, we often act like thermometers. We simply reflect the current temperature of our surroundings. As thermometers, we have no other function.

We Should Be Thermostats

I was listening to the guys at Inspiring Awesome talk about this. Thermometers versus thermostats. I liked the metaphor.

A thermostat ALSO can tell you the current temperature. But more importantly? It can serve as a change agent. If something is wrong? If something needs fixed or adjusted? The thermostat can begin the process of making things what people want or need them to be.

I just stood there. Being one of those assholes with a video camera even when a little voice inside me was telling me there was a chance lives were at stake.

But I didn’t step up.

What if they had died in there?

Another time, there was an 80-foot tree in our back yard with a failing root system. My neighbor told me they had spent years trying to convince the previous owner of my house to have the tree removed. I didn’t want to spend $2,000 to have it removed, so much like the former homeowner, I did nothing.

One night, a large storm system that days earlier had been a Gulf of Mexico hurricane blew into our neighborhood.

Tropical storm-force winds blew down the massive tree. A couple neighbors saw the giant fall. I felt the impact sitting on my living room sofa. When I ran to the back window, I saw it laying across our back yard, a totally destroyed garage beneath it.

But that’s not the important part.

The important part is that we had our three-month-old son sleeping in our upstairs bedroom. And I lose my breath every time I think about the wind blowing in his direction that night.

Because of a couple thousand dollars.

Because of apathy.

Because of carelessness.

We are so careless. With our health. Our safety. Our hearts. Our human relationships.

We are often thermometers. Just people getting caught up worrying about what other people think.

But we should be thermostats. Change agents. People who do something because something needs done. Because something can be done. And we can do it.

That family stranded on the side of the road with their vehicle hood open needs help.

That person sitting alone might want someone to say hi.

I don’t want to make any more stories about that time I could have done something.

Things DO NOT have to be this way.

Don’t wait for the person next to you to start running toward the fire. Just start running.

Maybe they’ll come too.

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