My recent readings have lead me to an epiphany of sorts. The books in question are not related to each other in topic: Jon Katz’s book about relationships between people and dogs, The New Work of Dogs: Tending to Life, Love, and Family (2003), and The Smartest Kids in the World – and How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley (2013). The information in both of these books really opened my mind to the connection between community (or lack of it) and personal freedom.
When a community is tightly knit, the people living in a neighborhood know one another by name. They know whose children belong to which family. In communities where schools perform exceptionally well, there are high expectations set for children academically, and these same children perform very well. Both children and teachers are given a lot of autonomy in these countries (Finland, Poland, Japan, etc.)
When people know their neighbors, they feel safer, and therefore they trust one another more. They trust their children more. Children who are given more freedom (even dogs who are given more freedom, according to Mr. Katz, are smarter, more independent, happier, less anxious. They are better able to meet their own needs and know their own natures.
The intensive increase in our use of technology and domesticated animals in order to meet our needs for connection and affection has drastically impacted our communities and our personal freedoms. Think about it. Children in the United States lead highly controlled lives. Parents orchestrate childrens’ schedules with the rigor of executive secretaries planning a CEO’s full calendar. Children don’t run outside to play; they have play dates. Even dogs have play dates and are not free to run, explore, pursue their sexuality or predatory natures.
If the lack of community is dumbing us down, it is also making us feel lonely. As time goes by, we are losing our social skills. Social media causes people to lose touch with one another on an intimate personal level. The art of storytelling, dinner table conversation, letter writing, spontaneous get-togethers, creative work are all in danger. My experiences with on-line dating have revealed that most people end up feeling frustrated and lonely. Are we idealizing and putting the perfect imaginary mate up on a pedestal, unable to see and appreciate the reality of one another, with qualities and flaws? Have real relationships become exotic and somehow “unreal”, unapproachable? Have many of us become addicted to the process of looking for love or friendship because alienation and attachment issues have taught us to fear proximity and relationship?
I feel it is important to address these questions very soon, for the well-being of both humans and the animals we care for. Jon Katz addresses the importance of this issue for dogs and humans in his book. He says that when dog’s real needs are ignored, in some cases the animals may become aggressive, neurotic, and impaired in various ways, which may cause problems for humans.
The population of domestic animals, in particular dogs, has risen dramatically and exponentially over the last couple of decades. This is disastrous in more ways than one. Countless animals are euthanized daily, even more so because improperly socialized or poorly trained dogs are difficult to live with. Humans who have unrealistic expectations of pets may abandon animals who no longer meet their needs for love or affection. When humans meet their own needs with their own kind through community and culture, the freedom of animals to be themselves is greatly widened. Tolerance and culture are intimately linked.
Don’t we want our children to be more self-sufficient, more intelligent, better problem solvers, more creative in their thinking? It seems to me that we want to protect our children from life, and what we are giving them is a virtual world, encapsulating them in a bubble of social media and games. We are so afraid to let them live out their real lives that we are potentially suffocating our beloved children and depriving them not only of their freedom but also of their potential to relate to others and to feel happy and safe. I believe that true self esteem is born from the freedom to experience life, the freedom to make mistakes. We become ourselves within a group, bouncing off the resistance of other personalities, of other real people.
I do hope that the desire for true community, without idealization, will, out of necessity soon be reborn into American culture.
Living without the support of community is stressful, and as technology has progressed, social culture has weakened. Job security is gone, and we can only rarely rely on others for help if needed. However, when we are willing to re-create a social contract and support one another without suffocating each other with useless psycho-babble, we can be happier, more free, and more creative. Let’s liberate our kids and our pets from our fears, from overpopulated social calendars, and not enough high expectations. L