America is broken
“You’ll all pass,” I announced to my students at the beginning of the semester. “I want to live,” I added, giggling. I was joking, but I was also serious. A few months prior, a disgruntled former student shot to death his professor. I had just finished teaching next door. A half a year later, I am in a large conference room waiting for an active shooter training to start.
America is broken because it is lonely and depressed. I know this from my students. When I tell them to break into groups, they become paralyzed. Their eyes turn to the floor, and their bodies become invisible. I know nothing will happen unless I digest my command into a series of small steps. “Get up first,” I raise my arms to show how that can be achieved. “Then, turn to your left and introduce yourself to your partner,” I say moving to the side and smiling to an invisible person. Once they are in groups, the chatter is loud and animated. They love talking to each other, it is getting there that is difficult.
To better serve my students, I solicit anonymous feedback on what they like and don’t like about my classes. It was through this exercise that I first realized how much they value interaction with each other and how difficult it is for them to get it. Many blamed social anxiety, shyness, or a lack of confidence for their limited participation in my classes. But it wasn’t until I started volunteering with my students at a community garden, that I learned the full extent of the problem. Some said they had no friends. Others said their roommate was the only person they interacted with (perhaps out of necessity). Only few engaged in other activities on campus or had a caring home to go to on weekends and holidays.
This baffled me. For me, college was the best time of my life. It was during my college years that I gained confidence in my abilities, met amazing people who are still my friends, and stretched the limits of my comfort zone and imagination. But even though there is only 15 years of age difference between me and my students, the gap is monumental.
My students belong to Generation Z. They grew up with social media that brought damaging pressure to be and look better. They spent one of the most important phases of their lives at home on a pandemic lock down. And in addition to all other anxieties, they are facing climate anxiety.
But this crisis was decades in the making. Gen Z didn’t turn out this way in one generation or for any one specific reason. America has been disintegrating from its conception.
It started with the first settlers. When they arrived, they left behind their families, land, culture, a sense of belonging. No matter the reason for leaving home, the separation is always traumatic. This trauma passed on to their children and on to their children. Plus, all the hardships of a pioneer life. People experienced “prairie madness”, a psychosis triggered by isolation that characterized the lives of many pioneer women who often were left alone to take care of the homestead while their husbands went off to hunt or trade, often for months at a time.
The pioneer mindset made people tough and stoic at the expense of their health and mental well-being.
Next came the slavery. More damaged souls and bodies. This trauma, too, passed from generation to generation. Immigration and the same story. Wars created more trauma. Many war veterans are now homeless, poor, and forgotten.
As trauma accumulated, no new institutions were created to address it. America did quite the opposite. It incarcerated, locked people away in mental asylums, and kept silence on the rest. Instead of providing people with an opportunity to die in dignity, America created nursing homes, funeral homes, assisted living homes. We removed ourselves from death and each other. We don’t wash or dress our dead. We let strangers to prepare our loved ones for the last journey. In most cultures, this is the most disrespectful thing you can do to a dead family member.
We don’t even value the youngest members of the society. They are born stressed and sick because their mothers are stressed and sick. With no universal access to health care or day care, mothers don’t get the help they need. With no national food policy program, we feed even the most vulnerable ones the diet that no animal will choose for itself. The stress continues when the mother has to return to work only a few weeks after giving birth. This is where trauma continues. Babies develop serious health issues when separated from their mothers at such an early age. In many traditional societies, the baby is strapped to the mother until the age of three.
All this trauma creates resentment, anger, addictions, and further disintegration of families. The distance already has us living far away from our families and friends, but trauma makes it even worse. Distance makes us alone but trauma lonely. To be alone and lonely is not a good combo.
I feel alone and lonely. In twenty years, I’ve lived in six states, three countries, and two continents. It makes making new and keeping old friends difficult. I have no strong social circles to fall back on in times of crisis. I don’t even have a single person I could ask to take care of my cat when I want to go on a vacation.
While I wish my life was more connected, I realize that my students have it much worse. I don’t know what to do and I don’t even know if I can change anything in their lives. But I do know that they want to be more connected. To deal with this, I started offering extra credit for socializing. They did a book and clothes swap for extra credit. They received extra credit for attending university and community events. They got extra credit for writing about a classmate that impacted them the most. I tricked them into getting coffee with me, attended the events they participated in, and connected them to the colleagues they could benefit from. I emailed one student saying she was doing great even though she hadn’t said a word during the whole semester. The following week, she started talking in class and volunteering in the community garden.
I know what I am doing with my students can be considered outside the norm, unacademic, or even unprofessional. But I do know that if I don’t do anything, I will live with another generation of anxious, depressed, and lonely people.