Like so many others, we found ourselves in a state of shock at the news coming from our homeland a short time ago that yet another in a series of senseless mass shootings had occurred. Our emotional reactions have ranged between disbelief, grief and anger. We are proud to be Americans and that conviction further heightens our despair for what appears to be a cancer lurking within contemporary American culture.
The proliferation of and an apparent fascination with guns in America is very troubling. But focusing just on the guns themselves may miss the much larger issue; is there a compelling personal deficit that is driving so many to feel the need to have ready access to weapons? Feeling a need to have lethal force accessible for personal defense, or worse aggression, strongly suggests the presence of fear, alienation and a symptom of societal dysfunction.
American culture is highly complex and as such, sociologic patterns are more of a matrix not readily reduced to cut-and-dry factors. There is much to admire in American energy and an impression of a ‘can do’ approach to life. At core may be an American abundance of a sense of ‘Individualism’ and self-confidence.
When things were going well, Americans were naturally at their best. Self-assertion, competition, drive and self-confidence can produce results when opportunity and possibilities are available. Americans are so accustomed to taking positive potential for granted that when the playing field is altered, we may be left in a state of confusion and disorientation. America now seems on the rebound from multiple, yet probably related, assaults on ‘who’ we are.
Life in the United States is outwardly projected as one of relaxed pleasure. It may still be for an increasingly smaller segment of our society. In reality, quite the opposite is how many other individual Americans currently seem to perceive their lives. There have been multiple examples of the failures of institutions, including financial, political and even religious, to live up to and honor the trust that has been invested by citizens. The economic collapse brought on by those who felt little restraint to curb their own greed has brought serious distress into the lives of those whose trust was betrayed. Cynicism has become a prominent theme of our time.
Over the past thirty years, a sense of optimism, once taken for granted, appears to have faded into the background for many. Younger Americans are now reporting they no longer have expectations of matching, let alone improving upon, their parent’s standard of living. Many people now feel exposed and vulnerable. Feeling wounded, many seem to be in a psychological retreat looking for a place to hide. Self-protection appears to be dominating a sense of community.
American inherent reliance on individuality may have a counterpoint. The question of the moment is whether our sense of connectedness to others may have suffered in the process? A life at a fast pace may not leave much time for investing in more direct interpersonal bonds. Our fascination with electronic social networking is an efficient way to keep up with what is going on, at least on the surface, with a number of acquaintances. If it weren’t for social media we would have much less of an idea of what was going on in the lives of our extended family and grandchildren. Actually, in some cases, what is happening in the lives of a few extended family younger adults may be more than we wished we knew.
I hope electronic social media does not seriously supplant actual, face-to-face social interaction; the forming of more direct, in depth bonds of friendship and with it improved capacity for empathy. Is the euphemism of “Friends” used in social media a distortion of the actual reality? After all, how many so-called ‘Friends’ on Facebook are really Friends? In the book Alone Together (Basic Books, 2011) by Dr. Sherry Turkle, a social psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she explores on-line, social networking and texting with the effects they are having on both social relationships and society at large. Dr. Turkle suggests, in discussing having Internet ‘Friends,’ “They can provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, without the demands of intimacy.”
With the growing urbanization of the modern world, anonymity may be displacing a more direct sense of belonging and a sense of common connectedness. Perhaps American lust for ‘Individuality’ has had an unintended consequence of impeding our capacity for connectedness and the benefits of relying on others. Are we becoming afraid of intimacy or just in the process of loosing the knack of how to go about it?
Having now reached the eleven-month milestone as residents in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, we are still very early in our capacity to fathom this new culture. Among the Italian characteristics we have come to respect is the capacity for resilience. This town in central Italy has had a very different history than the United States. History is long and deep here. Because of its strategic location, the Italian people have been subjected to more than their share of invasions and occupations. Then there is the diverse nature of this long peninsula that has significant differences in economic resources and the cultural-social personalities of its peoples. Italy is still struggling to find a common identity. As a so-called unified nation state, Italy is almost one hundred years younger than the United States.
Staying close to the soil is part of the soul of this community. These people have taken ‘root’ into ground they are standing on. There has been much less of the ‘boom and bust’ enterprise turmoil that seems to be part of who Americans are. These are a people who have felt little need, or opportunity for that matter, to be very mobile. We are finding our experience here to provide an interesting study in contrasts to what it has been like to be Americans.
Against this backdrop, here in Ascoli we witness the traditional Italian sense of the ‘Campanile,’ referring to identifying home with the ‘bell tower’ of the town. Italians bond strongly with family and then outwardly to encompass their immediate community. Mobility in many of its manifestations has not been common here so many family generations are in evidence staying close to their roots. Can this lead to a degree of ‘insularity?’ Probably, but staying close to home and to the supportive social relationships that are part of it, has been the foundation for a sense of security for these people. These are people who have learned and actively practice relying on one another. Maintaining a functional and vibrant interaction with those immediately around them is who the Italians have instinctively become.
In an early Blog, we commented on our fascination with observing Italians interact with each other. We have witnessed an interpersonal spontaneity and immediacy that we find very appealing. As we began to widen the circle of Italian acquaintances, we have become absorbed in the naturalness of greeting not only in words but also with an embrace. Americans do have an easy informality in their verbal social interactions but Italians take that one step further by having ‘intimacy’ being physically demonstrated in a manner that provides a direct, interpersonal experience of acceptance. In the reduction of physical separation it seems personal separation is also reduced. Direct social conviviality and connectedness is a core component of Italian Society.
However concerned our Italian neighbors are about the present economic situation, we do not sense a depth of fear leading to significant estrangement, alienation or the disastrous social consequences that seem to be affecting America. We cannot help but wonder if the deep commitment we find in Italians to stay directly, interpersonally connected might be a very significant factor in how Italians are responding. What appears to be growing indications of American social estrangement, personal isolation, and even dysfunction may have become aggravated by one of the highest ratios in disparity of societal differences in economic resource sharing in the developed world. Additionally, Italians do not have ready access to wholesale quantities of the means to exert lethal force as a process to vent frustration. And then, Italians have a shared social responsibility that results in illness not having the additional concern of potential bankruptcy directly associated with it. Reduced personal anxiety and reduced means to act out violently – now there is a concept!
The economic situation in Italy is not very promising at the moment. But we have come to suspect they have a far greater wealth resource at their disposal in their sense of reliance on interpersonal relationships. America may well be experiencing a breakdown of essential societal connectivity. Apparently neither deliberately contrived political polarization nor failure to address further expansion of economic disparity is helping the situation. We wish the Italian inherent zest for connectivity could be exported. Feeling more comfortable in being connected into the social structure that surrounds you is a great way to build a secure base of confidence to succeed.
Note: The photo above is of the Mayor (Sindaco) of Ascoli Piceno, Guido Castelli, interacting with a citizen on a Saturday morning in a square. The ability to have relaxed easy access to an elected official has to increase a feeling of ‘connectivity.’
Very astute observations! As you say, there are a number of complex reasons why American society has seemingly “devolved” into a place where this kind of rampant mass killing can happen with no swift and unified response from the government.
I look forward to talking more with you about your observations and experiences when we re back in Ascoli later this summer!