I cannot bear any more facile critiques of American fast-living. It seems that everywhere I go, though especially at Stanford, people are always asking if they ought to slow down.
If we have to keep asking the question, we’ve already answered it for ourselves. But of course, we won’t change a thing. At least as students, we’ve willingly abided by a system of increasing competition which both shapes our pre-college experience and sets the norms on our arrival. Judging actions not complaints, we prefer the rushed life.
And while Stanford represents one extreme in fast-living, this is a broader, long-term issue in American culture. Ultimately, we don’t mind what we’re doing to ourselves, or it’s not a strong enough motivator for us to change.
Yet, there’s a much better and increasingly relevant reason to do so. You won’t catch it if you price a fast life only by self-sacrifice.
Like the rest of us, I sacrificed a lot to get into this school. At the time it seemed to me like I was only giving up personal freedom. Even now I am tempted by that belief, to think myself rewarded by discipline in a chargeless act of personal elevation.
Now, however, I realize that the real cost of admission was four whole years of presence and availability. Countless nights spent working late were not only stressful but also totally absorptive. It became far too easy to forget that, outside the study, the world was still turning.
Those years of toil were not free. Though Stanford is a self-affirming, isolated site for this “successful” life, I can’t help but notice what it cost when I go home. To be clear, I’m not saying I did any overt wrong, nor that my family is any worse off than the next. But there is no doubt in my mind that getting into this school diminished my capacity to support them.
My little sister keeps struggling with her homework, and someone else has always had difficulty staying healthy. Still, it never occurred to me that, as an A+ student and endurance athlete, my skills could have been used for something other than impressing an admissions office. Of course, that would’ve cost some self-advancement. In fact, to make myself truly available, it might have cost my admission.
That proved too steep a price. Now I’m not sure about it. Fortunately, in the national capital of merit-based selectivity, I can comfort myself with moralizations about deservedness and discipline. And I might if this wasn’t bigger than me.
Because in four years, a lot has happened that not only I, but the whole country has let progress. We don’t like to say it, because it requires a hard look at how we’re living, but America now suffers from fresh, deep social wounds. Those opened in our lifetime. Not by some out-of-our-hands structural phenomenon, but by what we have each prioritized.
Three problems in particular have, recently, grown out of control: Depression, obesity and addiction. They’ve worsened so much that America is, at this very moment, experiencing a lifespan decline, “an event that is nearly unprecedented for a high-income country in peacetime.”
In addition to these issues, one could also point to countless others which are simultaneously expanding. Most pertinent to us, perhaps, is the increasingly fierce competition for academic acceptances which, by its selective nature, more often shatters dreams than fulfills them.
Whatever you choose to include, the issues almost always share one thing: they are bio- or psychosocial. While they have clear physiological or mental effects, social factors (read: other human beings) can dramatically affect their course and onset.
How did this mess pass us by?
For one, immediacy is key. There’s a dangerous association between the news and the nation whereby when we read a statistic, we automatically add it to our conception of the country. However, we’d do better to interpret them as they relate to us and our immediate communities. For example, nationally rising obesity means that, locally, more people around you will struggle or are struggling to maintain weight.
Another factor is social availability. We’re less likely to notice the problems of others if our lives are set to overdrive. Not only does this perpetual time crunch reduce one’s capacity for empathy, but the associated stress diminishes our environmental awareness via activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Crucially, that doesn’t just mean literal vision. Social and ideological barriers are often thicker than visual ones. People might not ask for help with depression, obesity, addiction, or whatever else because each is seen as a moral shortcoming. This makes them fatally subtle or, appear benign enough that even when noticed they’re left unaddressed. But, people suffering from these things need and deserve help.
If there’s anything that’s more irritating than our intractable time complex, it’s language that moralizes suffering as deserved. In particular, the popular phrase “self-medication” implies that the root of obesity, depression and addiction is an inability to weather the daily difficulties of life, resulting in the use of deadly, but temporarily relieving “medicines.”
Tell me, are the rises in obesity, depression and addiction just correlates of a weakening public will? Clearly not. That conclusion could only be reached from within a culture which neglects, if not outright ignores the importance of social factors in life-building. Such willful ignorance, used for moralistic self-promotion and apathy towards the problems of others, could just as well be called self-medication.
But we don’t need any more blame or romanticization. Instead, we must divert our inward focus towards the remediable crises all around us. There’s optimism in that we can each do something about these problems in our daily lives.
Right now, the unspoken truth of American life is that there is always an opportunity to be a good Samaritan.
That doesn’t mean you need to give up your pursuits. Furthermore, it says nothing of any specific case. There are doubtless instances of the aforementioned problems that were unavoidable. We’ve all seen both missed opportunities and tragedy.
However, we are fooling ourselves and failing our neighbors if we pretend that massives increases in fundamentally social problems were inevitable, much less their continuity.
Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu.