A Tale of Two Cities, A Tale of Two Countries

This past week I learned that our city’s high school spent $140,000 on a coffee bar. And that teachers and students alike can order drinks on a mobile phone app, to be delivered to the classroom. I suppose the Carmel students deserve no less.

The very next day I read about the suicides in Madison, Indiana, just a two-hour drive south. According to the New York Times story, captioned “Suicides, Drug Addiction and High School Football,” Madison has been hit especially hard by the opioid crisis. Jefferson County, where Madison is situated, has the highest suicide rate for any Indiana county — a rate that’s more than twice the state average and 3.2 times higher than the national rate.

On the surface, Carmel High School and Madison High School couldn’t be more different. Parents of Carmel students worry whether their sons and daughters will be accepted by Harvard and Stanford Universities; parents of Madison students worry whether they’ll find their sons and daughters hanging from a tree.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course. Not all Carmel students are headed to the Ivy League or other elite university, and not all Madison students are addicted to drugs or headed off to prison or the mortuary. Yet the contrast is real. Stark, in fact.

The Madison story took me back, to the days growing up in one of the poorest counties in Pennsylvania. It’s not that we thought of ourselves as poor. We didn’t, and we weren’t. But we didn’t have a lot. Most of our parents had working-class jobs or were farmers; very few were professionals or had extra cash to spare.  We never took vacations. We didn’t even dream about Ivy League schools — in fact, I don’t think I even knew what the Ivy League was. We didn’t have a lot, but we had enough. Fortunately, one of the things we didn’t have was drugs.

I suppose there were some around, but, honestly, if I had wanted to use drugs, I would have had no idea where I would have gotten them. I didn’t know of anyone who took drugs, much less anyone who was addicted to them. Hell, I barely knew anyone who drank. I suspect it’s different today, even in that secluded, rural county I knew as home. No, I know it’s different today.

I never returned home to live after heading off to college. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how detached I had allowed myself to become to the reality of so many of the kids who were growing up in places like my small rural high school.

I had become a professional and lived in areas populated by professionals and corporate types. That had become my new normal and, unbeknownst to me, I had become blind and oblivious to the transformation that had been taking place all around me. It wasn’t until I was appointed by Governor Rendell to be Secretary of Community and Economic Development that I become aware of the scales that had formed on my eyes.

It was then I traveled to the far reaches of Pennsylvania. To places I hadn’t been in decades. Or had never been. It was then I saw the depth of rural poverty in my native commonwealth — in America. And encountered the plight of the multitudes who had slipped into a life of chemical dependency. I wondered how I could have been so blind.

And now I’m living in a city that delivers lattes to its high school students. While Madison parents are trying to keep their kids out of prisons and graves. And while parents are being bankrupted by the crushing cost of rehab. (See this Wall Street Journal article titled “After Addiction Comes Families’ Second Blow: The Crushing Cost of Rehab.”)

But it’s not only Madison, of course. People are doing drugs everywhere, even in upper-crust Carmel, Indiana. And kids are dying by their own hands everywhere. Perhaps not at the rate that Madison is experiencing. But at an unacceptable rate just the same.

And so I wonder, what is happening to America? What is leading to such widespread drug addiction and abuse? Why is our country’s death rate increasing?

It’s not happening everywhere. In fact, I’m aware of no other developed country that is experiencing an increase in its death rate. America is an outlier. Something is going on here that isn’t happening elsewhere.

I have my own theories as to the root causes of this decay. And you probably have yours. But they’re just theories. They’re not solutions.

Things like this are hard to fix. Very hard. But I worry that we’re not trying. Or that our efforts are feeble at best.

I fear we’re more concerned with our ideologies than solutions. I worry that we simply don’t care about each other enough to try to fix what ails us.

Meanwhile, the contrast between the two cities — between the two realities — becomes more stark by the day. And the casualties mount.

How will it all play out? I don’t know.

What can I do about it? I don’t know. But I know we should be trying. Harder than we are.

What is our future as a country if these trends aren’t reversed? I don’t know.

But it’s hard to think it will be good.

Anti-Social Media

There’s a lot of talk about the harmful effects of social media these days. Even some people who have been instrumental in developing and promoting the sites have been speaking out. Loudly and often. As I earlier mentioned, I’ve also witnessed, up close, the insidious, addictive power of Facebook and other so-called social media sites. It’s caused me to take a fresh look at the phenomenon.

I’ve concluded we’ve got the term wrong. There’s nothing social about social media sites. In fact, they tend to be anti-social. So let’s frame the issue right and start calling it what it is: anti-social.

All the mental health statistics in our country indicate my conclusions are sound. They’re all going in the wrong direction. If you don’t believe me, it’s not hard to find the data; look for yourself. Or talk to a counselor at any school. Or a nurse at a college. I guarantee you’ll be shocked by the amount of anxiety, depression and other psychological symptoms our young people are experiencing (as well as adults). In short, the degree of alienation and anxiety felt within the populace is unprecedented.

Check out our suicide rates, too. And ask yourself why there’s a positive correlation between Facebook use and depression.

And then check out any Starbucks or restaurant the next time you’re out. Observe how many people have their faces glued to their smart phone and how little face-to-face conversation is taking place.

I also can’t help think how we used to not have mass shootings like we do now. It seems to me that it’s connected to a national psychic pain, a condition that seems to be aggravated by our disconnectedness which, in turn, is exacerbated by our technology (as well as other factors, such as our obsession with money and things and our disregard for the weakest and suffering among us).

I could go on with one example after another that supports my thesis — that these supposedly social devices and programs are actually having an anti-social impact. But my purpose isn’t to convince. Rather, it’s to share my decision and perhaps spur parents to question whether their kids are being helped or hurt by all the new technology that dominate many lives.

That’s not to say technology is inherently bad. It isn’t. But it is to say it’s important not to lose sight of our real goal: happiness and fulfillment. If we assume the unfettered use of technology will make our lives (or the lives of our kids) better, then we may be making a grave mistake.

I confess I’m glued to my iPhone and computer too much. I’ve recently taken one step to help rectify that, by deactivating my Facebook account. Today, I deactivated my LinkedIn account, too.

It’s not that I’m going to swear off digital technology. I’m not. I’m not trading in my iPhone for a flip phone and I’m not swearing off Twitter (at least not yet). But I’m going to focus more on the things that lead to happiness and a sense of fulfillment and purpose and less on the distractions.