Charlotte Ashlock

Why We Leave Friends Behind

September 1, 2010 Social Change 9
My friend Morgon graduated a year ahead of me, and has suffered deeply from missing all his college friends.  He has posted many notes on Facebook about how much he misses everybody, the sadness of us all moving in different directions.  His most recent note made me really start to think.  Why are we always leaving friends behind?  
.
Morgon’s private misery is part of a bigger sociopolitical problem.  Humans are built to live semi-permanently in friend and family groups, but the modern U.S. of A. is not arranged to accomadate that.  Job and school tensions pull us to different locations all over the country.  My times with my extended family have been the most meaningful times of my life, but I only get to see Grandma and the cousins once every couple of years or so.   If the breadwinners wanted good jobs, they had to move out of town.
.
The Bard diaspora is especially severe because Bard College is not located in a job-rich urban area.  However, all new graduates suffer some version of this problem.  Morgon wrote in his Facebook note that his dream was, “to come home every day to my lovely wife, and then on the weekends be able to go out with our friends and have a good time.”  I’m pretty sure that’s everyone’s dream.    My impossible dream is to live one day in the same town as everyone I love.   But the chance of all my friends moving to the same place are close to zero.  Even being my brother’s next-door neighbor (which is a little plan my brother and I have) is going to be difficult.
.
So WHY?????
.
Now this is where I get political!  *rolls up sleeves*  Some companies have a formal policy of forcing their employees to relocate every couple of years.   The literal reason for this is to keep the employees from having a social life.  Because if you aren’t distracted by a social life, you put your max energy and attention into your job.   Each move is disguised as a promotion.
.
But even in the absence of active malice like this, things still seem to structurally work out in terms of a large number of moves.   I suppose it could be the result of hyper-specialization; you have to move to the geographic region where people with your speciality are needed.    It also has to do with how local economies are very non-diversified.   Unless you live in a big city, your community is going to have only a very small number of industries.   If you want the flexibility of choice, you will need to move.  I suppose those are two sides of the same coin.
.
Sociological studies have shown that Americans are less connected and involved in their communities than average, and community involvement (measured in a variety of different ways) has been steadily dropping ever since the end of WWII.  (See John Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone.)   This is something I have observed on a personal level as well.  Except in certain school settings, where people tend to be more relaxed and friendly, people feel very awkward talking to one another and have trouble reaching out and making friends.
.
In European countries like Holland (and in Bard, for that matter) it is perfectly acceptable to sit down at a table where someone else is eating and begin a conversation with them.  In most places in America, however, that would not be considered normal; it would be considered creepy.  It takes outright courage to fight the social restraint of polite isolation and speak out to someone.
.
So WHY????
.
Part of it is the workaholism which is fast approaching a national tradition.   Social interactions take quite a bit of energy. If you are spending all your enegy on work, adding a social interaction on top of that can be very taxing.   So maybe that’s why the courteous thing is often to assume a person wants to be left alone; the de facto assumption is that they are exhausted.   However, social interactions with people you know well tend to be much more relaxing; it’s people you know less well who wear you out.  The cycle of moving, and moving, and moving means that you are constantly forced to connect with strangers rather than relax with friends who are like family.
.
Does it have to be this way?
.
If companies can convince you to be workaholic, at the price of being social, then they make more money.  The famous American cliche is the business executive who “is so busy making money he has no time for his family and children.”  This is often followed up by a disapproving remark about how Americans are so greedy, shallow, and materialistic.   In America, we deeply believe that each individual is in full control of his/her own choices, so and praise or blame for actions must fall on the individual alone.  I however, choose to see the business executive’s perverse decision as the result of certain societal forces.  It’s not that he cares more about money than about his family.  It’s that companies compete better the more money they make.  So the companies who are best at brainwashing their employees to focus on money rather than family, are more likely to survive.   It is, in fact, incredibly painful for the business executive being so brainwashed to go against his essential human nature.   Yes, he has made bad choices, but he is also a victim.
.
You might laugh at the idea of “brainwashing” but I remember my experiences from being a knife saleswoman.   We had to attend these weekly trainings and pep rallies, the sole purpose of which was to convince us, that selling knives was a bigger priority than anything else in our lives.  My best friend remarked disapprovingly that I was becoming money-minded and commerical.  However, it was more a question of me feeling obligated to listen to my boss and follow his advice.   They frequently used a classroom setting and we have been conditioned from the very earliest age to obey anyone who is at the front of a classroom.  Did you know that schools were originally modeled after factories (right down to the bells) and were designed to accustom children to the discipline of factory life?   A lot of public schooling is about instilling in us the habits necessary to be a good little slave to the economic system.
.
So the unhappiness of a recent grad who says, “I miss hanging out with my friends on the weekends,” is shared by the vast majority of Americans.  It’s not the result of misfortune or poor choices.   It is the result of vast economic and political forces that have been shaping our lives ever since World War II, or even before.
.
The economy should serve humans.  Humans created “the economy,” it’s one of our very earliest forms of technology.  All technology should serve human beings.   However, in some perverted Matrix-like reversal, it’s human beings who become servants of their technology– particularly their financial technologies.    The economy should serve humans, but we live in a world where we sublimate our human needs and desires in order to become the perfect servants of the economy.  It’s gotten out of control, to the point where the Economy is even senselessly devouring the natural resources future generations need to survive.  Environmentalists, with their individualist bias, always blame greed and personal human choices.   But it’s not about bad personal choices– it’s about the ABSENCE OF COLLECTIVE CHOICE.
.
So they tried communism, and it didn’t work.  However, what we’re doing right now is clearly not working in a number of ways.  I say it’s time to try something new, something different (a new form of capitalism?)  I’m still working out what.  Going back to the wild and renouncing modern technology is not the answer, but business as usual can’t possibly be the answer either.
.
So these are the thoughts I shared with my friend Morgon.    He urged  me to make my thoughts public, and added, “I think part of the problem was a real lack of preparation from Bard. They prepared me well for some things by educating me, but they never prepared me to leave the playground. I don’t want to leave the playground. I want life to be a playground.”
.
My response to that is, WHY CAN’T LIFE BE A PLAYGROUND?   Clearly, we all have to earn our livings, carry out our duties responsibly.   But why do we have to stop the enjoyment of learning?  Why do we have to stop sitting at random tables and starting conversations with strangers?  Why do we have to stop decorating trees with colored string?  (Okay, maybe that’s something they only do at Bard.)  Why?  Shouldn’t Being An Adult mean the power to shape your life into the form you desire?
.
Thoughts please.
.
I love you all.

 

9 Responses

  1. Eileen says:

    Charlotte,
    I worry that you are oversimplifying the “post-playground” real world to the extent that it makes your argument problematic.

    Let me try to work out what my thoughts are.

    1) The Bard diaspora is (significantly) a product of the Bard influx: The vast majority of Bardians are not from a commutable distance of the college. And it is rare to have more than one or two other students from one’s high school also attending Bard. So the rest of us all willingly left our home communities to create a new one (for about four years) in the middle of nowhere, NY.

    Meanwhile, many of the folks from my high school who went to state universities already knew handfuls of the other students going in–their own other high school classmates. And while they also made new friends, by attending a state university they made friends with students who also (overall) were residents of the same state to begin with. The more things tying someone to an area, the more likely they are to stay. Face it: once “we” graduated Bard, how many people were still there to tie us to the area? (Answer: potentially a decent number, but fewer every year that we’re gone.)

    Additionally, the Bard population (and I’m about to make a dangerous generalization) generally wants to be active in the world, so I know more Bardians than folks from my high school who have decided that they need to suddenly move across country from Bard/their home states (New Orleans, San Fransisco, Arkansas, New York City, etc., just to name a few specifics) because of certain artistic, political, or vocational drives.

    2) I am an extremely social person–when I am around persons that I want to be social around. But I am an introvert. I do not like other people deciding to invade my time and space without my implicit permission. I do not care if I am at Bard, or on the NY subway, or eating lunch in Paris. I do not want to be approached unless I indicate that I am comfortable with that idea. No one is simply entitled to converse with me.

    And introversion is not abnormal at Bard. But, because Bard was such a small community, we knew many, many of the folks who were around us every day. So it became much easier to sit with people outside, perhaps, a “core” group of friends–that girl from class, the boy from Comic Book Club. But they’re not strangers–if nothing else, we knew that they were Bardians, which meant we could guess a certain set of generalities about their personal desires, politics, and interests.

    Additionally, smaller towns in the USA, particularly ones drawn together by a central church or community center, are more likely to establish traditions of talking to neighbors, community activities, etc., than cities. In fact, religious hubs still serve as important support systems throughout the country. (The question then being, how can one establish a community when one is an “outsider” to the community church?)

    3) All jobs are not like knife-selling. (Most jobs are not like knife-selling: there are many people who believe Cutco/Vector knife sales amount to little more than a scam [source 1=”and” 2=”several” 3=”other” 4=”sites;” 5=”I” 6=”don't” 7=”know” 8=”how” 9=”accurate/in” 10=”date” 11=”any” 12=”of” 13=”this” 14=”information” 15=”is,” 16=”and” 17=”I” 18=”don't” 19=”plan” 20=”to” 21=”discuss” 22=”whether” 23=”or” 24=”not” 25=”I” 26=”believe” 27=”this” 28=”sale” 29=”routine” 30=”is” 31=”a” 32=”scam” language=”http://www.radified.com/blog/archives/000055.html”][/source].)

    Also, the vast majority of jobs don’t force employees to relocate every few years. Most jobs are situated in one area, and if a person wants to move, it may or may not work out that they can stay in the same company/industry.

    I, personally, work in retail, for a large bookstore chain. A customer came in and asked me what I thought of a particular book: I told her I really wasn’t impressed with it. I stopped the sale of that book, but kept my integrity, and earned the customer’s trust. I have not been tasked with any personal sales quotas–not for the products we sell, not for email captures or memberships or credit cards, or any of the rest of it. I do not earn any commission, ever. What I generally try to do is assess what a customer needs, and see if I can match that need with something I can offer.

    And I am relocating based on personal desires, and the chain is making it possible for me to transfer without any particular problems.

    4) Life can be and is a playground. If people get too caught up in the past, they forget that the only thing we have control over is the present. I missed my friends–so I am moving to be much closer to some of them next week. If you want to, go decorate a tree with colored string. We are not any different now that we aren’t at Bard. There are no new limitations. Just, we no longer have a crowd of hipsters/hippies/free-spirits at our backs, egging us on.

    • Thanks for all your interesting comments! I certainly didn’t mean to imply that all companies are evil. There are many great companies which treat their employees well. The forced relocation, or forced workaholism companies do exist though, so it’s important to think about them.

      • Eileen says:

        It’s something that I’ve given a lot of thought to. For example, if you look at how many Bard students end up in NYC (and certain other cities as well), there are blocks that have many Bard alums all living together or mere apartments from each other. It’s all in how we prioritize (and what resources we have to work with as we prioritize).

        Meanwhile, I have been living for a year at home–and spending quite a bit of time with folks from my high school. But that has to do, again, with some choices I made, and some priorities I had to work with.

        But we can’t give up on the real world! After all, all the rest of the Bard alums are out there, too.

  2. I meant to imply in the close of the blog, that the real world could be somewhat like a playground, if we were committed enough to creating desirable experiences for ourselves. I’m glad you think that too…. But as you pointed out, it’s harder if you don’t have a community of free spirits behind you, cheering you on. In college you automatically get handed a community. Elsewhere, I think you have to work harder to build it. And I do think economic conditions do contribute to shredding of community fabric.

    • Eileen says:

      The thoughts that I posted, for whatever they add to a general discussion of causes of and thoughts about the Bard “diaspora” on an academic level, do not in any way alter the fact that I do miss the Bard community. I miss taking classes. I miss being minutes from most of my closest friends, rather than hours.

      But I’ve been really upset about–not your post, but the topic you’re discussing. And here’s why:

      To some (great) extent, we choose our priorities. Dan and I are moving back to Bard presently. It’s not the same Bard–most of our friends were in ’09 and ’10, though there are certainly interesting folks still around. I will be taking chorus at the college again.

      So I am now–now that I have a little bit of money saved up, and a job in the area–dealing with the fact that I deprioritized 1) living near Dan, 2) living near my closest Bard friends (and I am still doing so, as my closest Bard friends are not at Bard presently), 3) being in a community that actively supports and is interested in artistic expression and social justice FOR A YEAR (yelling for emphasis).

      That was a choice I made because I was prioritizing 1) the job that I was able to get that seemed not-soul-crushing 2) the safe haven of living at home while trying to figure out how on Earth anyone can afford the real world on about 75% of a “living wage.”

      The real world is befuddling. Bard teaches us all of these great ways to think about the world, but because it’s not a trade school, we don’t come out tradeswomen. So we bumble around and get a lot of things wrong (and a handful right) until we figure out what we actually want (and can allow) our priorities to be.

      I’m nervous about being back in the Bard area because it won’t be the same. I won’t be a member of the Bard community. But, Dan and I did too much of this past year four hours apart; I’m not letting that happen again at this point.

    • The bits about the real world as a playground is the most interesting part for me. When I pull my finger out I’ll write something on my blog about ‘Work as play’ which I don’t think should be the most difficult achievement in the world, but its frowned upon, thought of as un-profitable and a waste of time. I’ve decided at least in my current job I intend to mess about and not let it define my life, because it doesn’t.

      In England too people are addicted to work, achievement and they allow themselves to become consumed by it, which equally means moving away from friends because they feel they should. I think its a huge problem illustrated well by Bertrand Russell in ‘In Praise of Idleness’ when he talks of how many people are not educated in spending their leisure time well. If people felt real value and happiness outside of financial success I’m sure they would be more inclined to be around people they love, but earn less. Earning and spending less is also a way in which the human rape of the earth could begin to be tamed.

      I forget how fortunate I am in my network of friends here in Oxford and elsewhere. I know many artists and musicians who earn very little but ultimately are enjoying their lives and doing what they love. The pressures of finance are felt by everyone but strangely, I feel them less as I grow older. Perhaps its because I know myself more.

      Sorry this isn’t very well written, got some other bits to do.

  3. Peter says:

    Good to see that you’re taking our ‘be neighbors’ vow more seriously than our ‘no candy’ vow 🙂

    And if it weren’t for the fact that a week ago a Bulgarian girl was complaining to me and a friend of mine about how weirdly distant social life in North America was compared to Bulgaria, I totally would not have even believed you about the Netherlands thing.

    • Your faith in me is touching, brother. That Holland thing was confirmed from multiple sources. Holland is also one of the world’s happiest countries. Coincidence? I think not.

      Like I would get that wrong after a YEAR OF RESEARCHING INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY

Leave a Reply