In Oliver Sacks’ posthumous book of short essays, Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales, he tells America that what we’re experiencing today “resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.” Sacks is also appalled at how we Westerners are “bringing (it) on ourselves.” (See 4-1-1. Books and click here for a previous column.)
Like many older Brits and Americans, the aging Sacks bemoaned people “totally out of touch with their surroundings” and “the complete disappearance of the old civilities.”
However, the young 1960s Sacks took plenty of recreational drugs himself, roamed the United States on his motorcycle, won weightlifting contests in California a la Arnold Schwarzenegger, and yet somehow morphed into a gifted, productive writer and medical professional.
The British-American neurologist accurately predicted the intensifying social pathologies leading to the prevalent human distress so obvious today in 2019. For example, Los Angeles recently recorded a horrible homelessness number — more than 59,000 humans without shelter in Los Angeles County, a 12 percent rise from the previous survey despite hundreds of millions of tax dollars spent to supposedly fix the issue.
The neurological symptoms that these city-bound individual adults display include pessimism, dystopian visions and a lack of faith, but mainly they suffer from depression, whether clinically defined or just feeling down all the time.
These are only words, but they breed as well as symbolize deep-seated anxieties about the immediate future. For some, it leads to paralysis and genuine mental illness. It’s a comprehensive lack of faith in a healthy future for their families and for themselves — essentially a loss of the American Dream.
At the end of the 19th century, we faltered upon learning that the “frontier” had disappeared (Turner Thesis); early in the 21st century we flail and wail, witnessing the American Empire’s rapid decline.
Readers in California and New York acknowledge the obvious challenge facing “the West” and, indeed, humanity. There are also many more associated problems needing human solutions, usually because they’re human-created (e.g. outrageous human overpopulation at 7.2 billion).
What about the vast herds of flatulent cattle heating the atmosphere and the thousands of tons of pig excrement befouling our Mother Earth’s fair rivers?
I agree with Sacks that today’s young Anthropocene American adults (millennials) surely battle depression and neurological crises galore. At the same time, rushing off into wild nature is the best of only a few helpful treatments.
The young see catastrophic climate change, increasing economic inequities, underfunded public health care and public schools, and failing liberal democracies symbolized by the humiliating brawl over Brexit.
The under-40s also cannot look away from constant local wars, including the Afghanistan war, Ebola spreading in Africa, China-Taiwan, Saudi Arabia-Iran, Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Iran, ad nauseum. We endure serial shootings across North America, such as the one in 2017 in Las Vegas (58 killed and 422 wounded), and collectively shrug while the young weep within and fear to venture outside.
Teaching humans for 46 years, and studying my students all the while, I believe that vigorous optimism acts as the essential key to personal “happiness,” or at least a modicum of contentment (or equanimity). An affirmative sociability and mindful demeanor can color every action and improve most situations.
The Internet’s overwhelming contact frenzy prevents us from having those precious bits of individual time to ponder, to mull over, to study … just what’s going on! Macro-world or micro-world of your individual relationships, when do you figure out how to proceed morally and positively?
After pondering — some call this praying and others meditating — we may then accept how battered our brains have become. Consider the tyranny of screens and video, our world of too many things and too many contacts, and the hideous suffering from being alone together so often.
The aging Sacks also experienced some of this in 2010 when revisiting Colorado Springs for the first time since the ’60s.
In describing his old stomping ground, he recalled his first “enchanted” U.S. encounter “when I was still in love with an America I had dreamed about … open, innocent, ingenuous, strong, open — as Europe had long ceased to be.”
But by 2010, Colorado Springs was awash with entrepreneurs and startup millionaires, and the resort bored him as a “false, plush Eden” while down below the immigrants and wage-slaves cleaned hotel rooms, cooked in the kitchens and toiled on the gardening staff.
Sacks still loved America in 2015, the year of his death, so he labeled all of this as a “massive neurological crisis.” Most readers can understand his direction and the nature of his sad prophesy.
The scariest cultural symptom of the crisis is the dearth of desire among the young. The U.S. birth rate is at a low ebb, dropping to 1.8 births per woman in 2016 from 3.8 in 1960. For a society to retain vibrancy and social health, the births per woman has to be about 2.1.
For many of the hardworking baby boomers, children of the so-called Greatest Generation, it’s heartbreaking to know young relatives who seem to have little get up and go, no overpowering “goals” and not much energy. They do, however, curate mellow pleasure for themselves, enjoy aromatherapy, beer and perhaps micro-hits of psilocybin or San Pedro.
When the young are weary-in-advance and wrapped in faux nostalgia, when they openly pine for the excitement of the late 1960s with all the demonstrations and great music, when they compulsively consume opioids/booze/Xanax/THC/cocaine/ayahuasca, then the worst collapse while the best work themselves to death.
“Just hangin’” (California-speak) becomes the norm vs. the workaholic Midwestern Protestant “gotta go to work and make money.” If you work on payroll or by dollars an hour, you’re a 21st-century fool or a creepy scoundrel.
Today’s resemblance to the 1930s horrors in Europe is valid, and an insidious “failure of nerve” afflicts both eras. Today, it’s that massive neurological depression that fosters wild faith in sports teams or Beyoncé, fanatic followers of various idiotic conspiracy theses and believers in rancid nationalism/white supremacy/racism/misogyny/American imperialism.
But all of these reflect fear, an attitude that the current political chaos actively fosters. Think of it: We’re told to fear Iran, to fear immigrants (especially with brown skin), to fear Muslims and to hate a woman’s basic right to control her own body. Most of all, we’ve been taught to fear, or despise, our own government.
The only response is a heightened and more animated awareness. Yet another study of 20,000 English adults shows that just two hours a week “in the forest” significantly improves energy and mental health (from The Guardian).
With this alert consciousness, the individual can resist the massive neurological crisis of our times by helping those less fortunate, joining positive groups and by voting wisely.
» Oliver Sacks, Everything in Its Place, his essay “Life Continues” (2015), p. 258 for the “massive neurological crisis” and p. 254 for loss of “civilities”; Qing Li, Forest Bathing (2018); D. Carrington, The Guardian, “Two-hour ‘dose’ of nature significantly boosts health — study.”
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Eternal Backcountry Return, has been published by Sisquoc River Press and is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.