Skyline of the Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake just after a cloudburst

Yesterday I heard an interview with an American journalist on NPR. She has spent most of the last 8 years in Afghanistan reporting on the war. In the process she developed a deep affection for the country and its plight, so much so that she just couldn’t bear to stay and watch as bad decisions and misguided policies have made things worse.

For the last few months she has been living on Cape Cod. Instead of reveling in the exquisite summer of that breathtaking landscape she has been restless and dissatisfied, stewing over her discomfort in being back in what was once her homeland. Her turmoil is more than missing the adrenaline of a war zone, she said. It is how much the United States has changed since she last lived here.

“Everyone I speak with now is deeply unhappy with the way things are going in this country. Everyone. They each have a list of what they think is broken, and their concerns vary. But every person I speak with is convinced this country has severe problems and that we are headed in the wrong direction.”

That is my experience as well, and it was brought home to me recently during a recent trip to the west. Two of my most spiritually-inclined friends live off the grid in the wilderness of New Mexico, and they announced to me quite unexpectedly they were very optimistic about the future. It stopped me in my tracks. I hadn’t heard that kind of optimism from anyone. For years. At that moment I realized the deep divide between life 10 years ago and now. If I had polled my friends about their view of the future just 5 years ago, I would have seen a reasonable bell curve distribution ranging from “life is great!” to “everything sucks”. Now that response would just flatline.

Is this just a case of “end of the American empire” blues? The twilight of our self-professed hegemony and “best country in the world” mythos? Is it generational? Is it a proclivity particular to progressives and liberals (like me and 99% of my closest friends)? Is it a larger story, a global pessimism that transcends national boundaries or political beliefs? Maybe a case of e) all of the above?

I keep thinking about the cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien who spent 20 years living with indigenous people and learning about how to live from those who seem to do it with more joy than we do.* She was a keynote at a psychology conference a few years ago and told a thousand therapists, “You think you know all about addictions? Well maybe not. We live in a culture that harbors addictions so large you probably don’t even see them.”

Here is her list:

1. Addiction to intensity and drama.
2. Addiction to the myth of perfection.
3 Addiction to focusing on what’s not working.
4. Addiction to having to know.

This past week has been all about #3 for me. Every political update on MSNBC, Facebook and Twitter (and particularly exemplified by the hashtag firestorm of Jeff Jarvis‘ “#fuckyouwashington” last weekend) has been about what’s broken, what isn’t working. And yes, it does have an addictive quality to it. You get good at finding what’s broken, and what’s broken gets very good at finding you. It’s a reinforcing loop.

Being a hermit or doing a “Jonathan Franzen” (he wrote The Corrections wearing “earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold”, and for Freedom he shut down his Ethernet port with Super Glue) are options. But is it possible to shift to another lens for viewing the world? I am tired of feeling hopeless. Maybe that is part of the old wisdom that things sometimes have to get worse before they can get better. The saturation finally forces a shift.

No answers here, just a public pondering of what it will take to move out of this weather pattern.

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* Angeles Arrien’s Four Fold Way, culled from her experiences living with several different indigenous populations:

1. Show up and be present.
2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning for you.
3. Tell your truth without judgment or blame.
4. Be open to outcome, but not attached to outcome.

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