Friday, September 29, 2017

Loneliness in the Workplace

As one of the many minor victims of Hurricane Irma as she blew through Florida recently, depriving us of power for several days, I found myself relying on silence, relishing the absence of the media, but missing the Internet. Gradually, I became restless and anxious (When will this be over?). Perhaps the main feeling was one of isolation. No one could telephone us for more than a week.  I again realized how much we humans are social creatures who need communication.

So recently when Linkedin sent me a discussion of a topic raised by the Harvard Business Review about the serious problem of loneliness at work, I immediately identified. Even without the benefit of a power outage, I know that a writer, and anyone who spends much of the day looking at a computer screen, has a life of isolation.  Often solitude is essential for the creative spirit, for contemplation. So we need some solitude, some private time and space.

But being alone can also lead to the sad feelings of loneliness, of being dis-connected from others.  And many people I know either teach online or work online or, like the many employees I encounter in stores and restaurants, have no opportunity to have a real conversation.  I think of mail carriers, lawn cutters, and cleaners as well as the many widowed and elderly people who live alone, isolated from a community or family. Some say they barely speak ten words a day to another person.

The Linkedin discussion brought up some interesting reasons for our "epidemic," as the original HBR article called it.  Matthew Giarmo, a psychologist, writes that we value the number of connections we make with people on social media and elsewhere rather than the quality of these connections. They are often not real relationships.

In the workplace, he says, we are told that the less you speak, the less you risk "inappropriate self-disclosure" and "boundary issues" designed by the law to protect our privacy. In addition, the work itself is often scripted and designed by software and is more mechanized than it used to be. As a result, we are often disengaged from our work and our fellow workers. 

Another writer, an extrovert, tired of eating lunch alone, feels isolated because his job in IT involves forced relationships or the kind of artificial connections made by Facebook.  Another person writes that the demand for productivity and efficiency leaves little room for social interaction or thoughtful interchange with others. Corporate America fails to recognize that innovation is the result of the exchange of ideas, yet many companies have employees who feel unheard, lonely, and undervalued.

Add to this the fact that few people have more than one close confidante, one real friend who has the time to listen to them.  And the over-reliance on electronic devices, which, however useful, are no substitute for person-to-person exchanges.

No wonder we lavish money on pets: They seem to listen patiently and are not into productivity. No wonder we have problems with drugs and alcohol. No wonder relationships and marriages are often affected by the stress of employees, who may be productive but are unhappy and often unable, I suspect, to articulate why they are unhappy, the way those responding to this article have done.

I am glad that my first experience with Linkedin has been so revealing. I hope the online conversation leads to some solutions in the workplace.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Compulsive Higher Education

In the fine TV movie of "A Dance to the Music of Time," set in the 1930s, an Oxford don asks a new student, "Are you happy?"

He replies that he is not, that too many students are there to drink and have fun. Some things never change.  I can't imagine professors today asking such a question of a college freshman, in part because they already know, in most cases, what the answer is. They can tell by looking at their bored, passive faces or reading their lifeless essays.

They know what I observed for years dealing with thousands of new students at a large state university: that most of the freshman are there because it is expected--by their parents, their past teachers, their future employers, and their peers.  Not going to college (a four-year, preferably residential school) is not cool. It is supposed to be the dream world at the end of twelve years of compulsive education.

Frank Bruni in a recent NYTimes column  (9-3-17) talks about the loneliness of many new students at universities and their tendency to drink in order to forget.  He says what many of us know: that college is over-sold to students. From elementary school on, it seems, studying hard and getting good grades will mean acceptance at a good university, which will please the family and mean a chance at a good job--along with bragging rights by all involved.  And dropping out to learn about life, to see the world, to learn a trade is looked down upon.

This results in compulsive higher education. How often I have looked at the faces of freshmen who have come with high expectations having little to do with studying. In fact, they don't read much, or enjoy the life of the mind, probably because it's unfamiliar to them.

To return to Bruni's column: he says college in America isn't merely oversold to teenagers as a rite of passage. "It's a gaudily painted promise. The time of their lives!  The disparity between myth and reality stuns many of them, and various facets of media today--from social media to a secondary school narrative that frames admission to college as the end of all worry--worsen the impact."

No wonder there is too much drinking, some drugs, too many parties, reckless behavior at fraternity or sorority houses and too much depression.

A four-year college education is not for everyone, nor is it a fundamental human right. It is for those who have a career goal that requires the advanced study that our fine universities and colleges provide.

I am glad to see more and more young people taking a gap year to learn a bit about life outside the classroom. I would like to see more high school counselors promote technical programs that don't require a four-year degree--and more parents encouraging their kids to gain some life experience rather than landing, alone, in a college lecture hall with 450 other students, most of them prepared since early childhood for the great "college experience," which sometimes isn't so great.

Advice to parents: check out the drop-out rate at the colleges your kids plan to attend and explore some of the reasons for these drop outs.  Such data is not widely advertised.

Friday, September 1, 2017

How real is the past?

I visited my 96-year-old friend Mary last week. Although her bones are wobbly, she has lost none of her faculties. Her long-term memory is especially alive with stories of World War II and life on Long Island 60 years ago, and she comes alive in telling these stories.  She finds joy in "re-living the past" without being trapped by guilt or needing to re-hash old grievances.

When she said, "the past is not over and done with," I thought of William Faulkner's famous statement: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
This seems to mean that the present is unreal, that "right now" is always becoming the past and so does not exist.

I will come back to that. After seeing Mary, I happened to find a cache of old family pictures and high school memorabilia; and before finding a new home for them, found myself being pulled back more than 50 years, thinking of friends as they were then and convincing myself, for a time, that they were as alive to me--and as real--as the images of long-gone actors on the screen, which deceive us into thinking they are still alive.

It almost like the delusion that doomed the tragic protagonist in The Great Gatsby, who was convinced he could repeat the past, that somehow he could recapture Daisy as she once was, as if the intervening years had not occurred, as if he could extend his remembered past happiness into the present.  Poor Gatsby.

Someone said that the past is always a work in progress. I think of this often when I read biographies that re-visit familiar figures from the past and bring them "to life."  What is happening, of course, is that the reader (like the historian) is re-interpreting through the imagination a new version of what the past might have been.  Augustine, back in the 4th century, saw in his reflections on time in the Confessions, that memory and imagination are related, almost interchangeable.

All our experiences are filtered through remembered events as they become part of our past.  In saying this, I am neglecting my spiritual conviction, often called mindfulness, that tells us that only the present moment is real. God, Ultimate Reality, is revealed to Moses as "I AM." 

The contemplative mind, whether following Christian or Buddhist practice, pushes aside the past, which is as unreal as the future; in this way only the present moment, fleeting as it is, can give us access to the kind of timeless present found in meditation--and evoked by T. S. Eliot in his later poetry.

Many poets have sought those timeless moments "in and out of time" that hint at eternity, just as mystics try to find words for the inexpressible moments of union with the divine.  Great poets are mystics in the sense that, for them, past events, recalled by the memory and enhanced by imagination, live on in the mind and in their art, which is impervious to time.

So I think that it is to great writers, especially poets, that we must turn for a proper response to Faulkner's idea of the past, which I think of as a work in progress; it often tries to snare us into thinking that it's real.