Is our society unravelling?

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Is the decline of service clubs a symptom of social unraveling? 

Last week's Forest Park Review had an article about the service clubs in town like Kiwanis and the Eagles which stated that all of them have declined in size if they haven't already closed or merged with a club in another village.  The same is true for the churches. 

So what's going on with these voluntary associations?  Who's to blame for the decline?  Is it the fault of the clubs for not keeping up with the times and attracting younger members?  Is it the residents of Forest Park who are into themselves and have lost a sense of civic duty?  Or is it something bigger than that, something in our society? 

That there is an unraveling going on is clear to me as George Packer contends in his book The Unwinding, An Inner History of the New America.  "The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before—freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce. . . .[but]his much freedom leaves you on your own. . . .Alone on a landscape without solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of success and salvation."

"Research portrays Americans as increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely," writes psychologist Sherry Turkle in Alone Together.  The Center for Disease Control reports that the suicide rate for adults 35 to 64 has risen by 28%.  In 2010 more people killed themselves—38,000—than died in car crashes.  According to the U.S. Census 41 percent of first marriages, 60 percent of second marriages and 73 percent of third marriages end in divorce.  Since 1980, the number of deaths related to drug overdoses has risen over 540 percent.  There were nearly 506 homicides in Chicago alone in 2012.

And here's an interesting statistic/symptom.  According to the American Pet Products Association's (APPA) new 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey, the number of U.S. households that own a pet has increased by 2.1% to an all time high of 72.9 million.  The survey shows that pet owners are extremely consistent with attributes they consider beneficial to pet ownership. The top benefit of dog, cat, bird, small animal, and equine ownership remains companionship/love/company/affection. 

Americans are increasingly insecure, isolated, and lonely yet, according to a Nielsen poll, we choose to watch TV an average of 34 hours a week and sit in front of all screens—TV, computer, smartphones, I Pad—a total of 8.5 hours a day!

Here's what Turkle wrote about a woman named Molly who says she finds community in confessional sites. "Her view of 'community' is skewed by what technology affords.  Although she claims that on confessional sites she has met 'good people,' when she gets feedback she doesn't like, Molly leaves the site so that she does not have to look at the criticism again.  Communities are places where one feels safe enough to take the good and the bad.  In communities, others come through for us in hard times, so we are willing to hear what they have to say, even if we don't like it."

" I hear a certain fatigue with the difficulties of life with people," she explains.  "Once we remove ourselves from the flow of physical, messy, untidy life—and both robotics and networked life do that—we become less willing to get out there and take a chance." 

"The American condition is one of deepening privatism," Parker Palmer states in The Promise of Paradox.  "Affluence draws us into ways of living designed to protect us from the sight and sound of one another."

"Community," he continues, "is less like utopia than like a crucible or a refiner's fire, not least because easy access always means the collision of egos.  But those who can survive the dissolution of their [romantic, utopian] dream and the abrasion of their egos will find that the truth of community is richer and more supportive than fantasy can ever be.  For in community, one learns that the solitary self is not an adequate measure of reality, that we can begin to know the fullness of truth only through multiple visions." 

Palmer acknowledges that creating and maintaining committed relationships in our competitive, mobile society is a challenge. "It is difficult to find or create relationships of duration and reliability in our kind of world."  But, he adds, "such realism quickly becomes pernicious: every time we act on that assumption, every time we gird ourselves to go it alone, we create more of the same."

Palmer and Turkle and Packer seem to be encouraging us to swim upstream, to go against the flow of privatism and do the hard relational work of associating voluntarily in a service club or a church or some other association for the common good. 

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