Me and some friends of mine from the Chicago Ethical Humanist Circle were sitting around at a local coffee shop last Saturday talking about all sorts of things as was our habit. Eventually the topic came up of assisted living facilities. One of the people made the comment that assisted living facilities had become a vehicle for adult children to throw off responsibility for their aging parents. Every time this person visited someone who lived in such a place, the question was asked about how their children were. The usual response was that they hardly ever see them. To paraphrase the movie from 2007, the United States is increasingly becoming no country for old people in general.
It used to be in more traditional societies that one of the major reasons that couples had children was to have people who would take care of them in their old age. But in the United States and other societies strongly influenced by modern technological living environments, that idea no longer prevails. The Americans, in particular, as is commonly known, are obsessed by youth. They want to be young forever. So, anything that reminds them of getting old, including their own parents, must be shunted aside. Advantages of age like experience and wisdom are simply ignored.
Yet, in my opinion, there is another factor at work here. We are all living in the experiential vacuum created by modern technology. In many previous articles, I have delved into some of the extreme defenses that people use in order to deal with the effects of the experiential vacuum. Addictions including overeating, drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex and video games. Depression is a way a person has of setting up his own numbness as a way of counteracting the numbness generated by the experiential vacuum. Think of it as setting up controlled fires to burn away the brush around one’s home out West in order to prevent a wildfire from burning it down. And there is violence both directed at others and directed at oneself. The mass murders are a perfect way for a person to pull out of his numbness. And self-destructive activities like cutting wrists are a perfect way to feel alive without killing oneself. Of course, one can get an incredible charge, albeit temporary, from committing suicide. Both the planning for it as well as the actual act.
However, there is another strategy that is not so directly destructive. The key word here is directly. One major way of dealing with numbness and the experiential vacuum is just to keep moving. To keep moving from one’s own volition and to spend only a minimum amount of time in a state of rest which is the same as floating randomly in the vacuum. Such constant movement is not natural and qualifies as a constant abrasive friction. In particular, moving through constant new experiences and not remaining stuck in old ones. This is why people today frequently change jobs and spouses. The adjustments that one has to make as a result of these changes create an ongoing flow of abrasive friction to keep a person from sinking back into numbness.
But although a person can change jobs and change spouses, it is more difficult to change parents, unless a person has grown up with adoptive parents. Most people have just one set of functioning parents. And in most cases, the parents did at least an adequate job in raising their children. However flawed some of their decisions were with regard to raising their children, in most cases, these parents don’t deserve to be abandoned, in the way that so many are in today’s modern technological world, and particularly in the U.S. And yet this is precisely what is happening.
I have said before that the people today who are gradually modeling themselves after the machines that they use are paradoxically becoming increasingly incapable of properly absorbing the organic stimulation they so desperately crave. And this includes the organic stimulation from their parents, the love, concern and support from them. In truth, they are one of the few sources left available for grounding and organic bonding in today’s world. Rather than give their children grounding and bonding, parents today simply slow their children down so that the latter become more and more vulnerable to sinking again into numbness and the experiential vacuum. Parents today represent a kind of experience of grounding and bonding, emotional security and emotional intimacy that is beyond the capacity of most people in today’s modern technological world to appreciate and absorb.
I don’t have an easy solution to this problem except for people to gradually reduce their connection to modern technological devices, particularly the consumer technology that occupies so much of our attention and so much of our time. And since this is not likely to happen any time in the near future, our elder parents are going to continue feeling abandoned and floating in an emotional vacuum.
© 2022 Laurence Mesirow