Separated Americans

People divide across police lines, air waves and cyberspace. They are pro-life or pro-choice. They are for free speech or religious freedom. They are for gay or traditional marriage; justice for young black men or law enforcement; gun-rights or gun-control; immigration reform or protect the borders; fracking or the environment; evolution or creationism; the 99% or the rights of business; Obamacare or repealing it. In all these ways -- and more -- we separate ourselves from each other, often loudly, sometimes violently.

We divide ourselves by what we read, what cable news we watch, and -- as the 2009 book, The Big Sort, shows us, by where we choose to live. We want to be around people who think like we do, look like we do, pray like we do, and vote like we do.

The separateness is not just external and spatial. We are divided inside and psychologically as well. The pace and pressures of our lives fill many with anxiety. The lives we are so good at filling up are not, in the end, fulfilling. We get high on the action and noise out there yet cannot find rest and silence in our own souls. Wall Street analysts routinely work 100-hour weeks yet, according to the CDC's National Occupational Mortality Surveillance, those who work in financial services commit suicide at a rate fifty percent higher than the national average. College students report that anxiety is the most prevalent mental health problem reported on campus; depression is number two. Lawyers, known for long hours and extreme work pressure, report depression at 3.6 times the rate of occupations generally. We earn vacation days we don't use and take work with us wherever we go. We are never out of touch, except perhaps with ourselves. Children are subjected to a choreographed schedule of self-improvement activities "essential" for getting into a good school and a successful career. In our striving for happiness and its trappings, for ourselves and our children, too many of us seem to end up only with the trappings.

"Sin is separation," the Christian theologian Paul Tillich wrote over fifty years ago. He warned us that in modern life we are too often separated from each other and from our true essence. The result, he said, is fear, anxiety, and meaninglessness in life.

In the world out there, many who shout at those who think or act differently view themselves as religious people. But is their anger and self-righteousness an example of religion at work? Others subscribe to a secular morality, but are they practicing the values of toleration and love which they claim do not need religion to foster them? In what religious or moral tradition is loathing and hatred at the sight and sound of those with whom we disagree a model of right conduct?

In the world inside us, our constant striving for more seems the hallmark of self-indulgence, not of an integrated and healthy personality. David Brooks, in his recent book, The Road to Character, calls our self-absorption the shift from the Little Me to the Big Me. Somewhere humility turned into hubris and the scales of our lives became unbalanced.

If separation is sin, integration with others and within ourselves is the solution, for which we bear individual and collective responsibility. It may be human nature to create dividing lines between ourselves and others, but it need not be human destiny. If Lincoln could proclaim "with malice toward none; with charity for all" at the end of the murderous Civil War, cannot we find love enough for each other to calm the fires of our uncivil fighting? If we are broken selves, cannot we reset the limbs of our lives?

We may not clearly see the way forward, but we can acknowledge that the path we are on is a detour from wholeness. We have greater material wealth, freedom of religion and expression, and safety from external threat than any other nation on earth. Yet rather than acknowledge this, using these gifts to build bridges with each other and within our fractured selves, we seem intent on shouting out our displeasure with each other and feeling resignation with the very lives we have created.

We have come to look for policies, programs, and politicians to fix what ails our society. We have come to think that the right job, the right salary, or the right medications will fix our personal struggles. Perhaps it is a revolution in our hearts, not in our politics or pocketbooks, that will end the sin of separation that is such a danger in our lives.