Transforming Our Lives In A Culture Of Disconnection

Ellen and her husband Ron feel they are clinging to the edge of a cliff — and losing their grip. Both in their mid-40s, they run the daily treadmill so familiar to career professionals today. Ellen is a busy senior level attorney in the corporate counsel’s office of a medium-sized company; her husband, a talented journalist. They are barely able keep up with very demanding careers, the long hours, and the challenge of raising three children with love and attention.

“A small thing like scheduling a plumber to come over becomes a nightmare” says Ron. “Balancing work and life? Forget it. Our work is our life.” “Work is very rewarding,” adds Ellen, “but sometimes I think they way we’re living is pretty crazy. I question what we’re doing it all for.” Both Ellen and Ron acknowledge that they feel chronically stressed-out and prone to collapse when they have “free” time. They know this can damage their relationship and their health. Both wish they could find some way to change their lives. But like most successful careerists of their generation, they have concluded that this is what being a responsible grown-up means. “We’re no longer the romantic idealists we were in the 60s,” Ron says, with a sad grin. “Eventually you have to deal with reality.”

There are many people today like Ellen and Ron: Successful but troubled, baby boomers now at midlife, as well as younger adults. Whether they live alone, or with a partner, they sound relatively self-aware, yet feel caught within a life that contains both elusive longings and a sense of entrapment. They often ask “How can I change my life? Is it even possible, at this point?”

They may seek out the latest books about work-life balance, organizing their time, and so on. Or they may fantasize about a dramatic shift in their careers or lifestyle. They may have an affair, or leave their partner for a new relationship. They may take up meditation, or be attracted to New Age “spiritual” teachings.

Public Lies and Private Truths

We can, in fact, change significantly during our adult years. We can become the “author” of our own lives. But the answer to how is not found in any of the above pursuits, which are essentially escapist and narcissistic. The 17th Century Japanese Zen priest and poet Hakuin Ekaku wrote, “Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away.” Well, the truth about how we can change is located right here, in our unchanging daily life themes, the kind that Ellen and Ron lament over. When we look closely, we see huge gaps between what we “know” and how we actually live each day.

These gaps between our inner, “private truths” and our actual conduct, our “public lies,” are the fundamental source of conflict among adults today. Partly our personal construction, and partly constructed by the culture, the gaps permeate our career and personal lives. Significant change and transformation begins with awakening to them and learning how to deal with them.

Without awareness, we don’t begin to change. We remain confused about what we really believe in, what we live for. Like Ellen and Ron, we are then unable to identify, let alone question, the values that underly our choices and our life conflicts, either at home or at work. We can’t overcome our conflicts or develop ourselves emotionally and spiritually without asking what do we really live for, after we strip away our “positions,” our “policies,” personally and politically. What is our real purpose? Not in the abstract, but in real time, in our daily lives and conduct.

For most of us, the experience of work and career development masks and distorts these questions because they provide template answers. The predominant values of our workplace culture — domination, power, and greed — shape our overall self-definition, affect what we seek in relationships, and define “healthy” emotional attitudes. This is why people who are relatively “normal,” psychologically — not particularly neurotic — can become emotionally disturbed by successful adaptation to their career or workplace. The attitudes, behavior, and values “necessary” for success, while supporting much that is positive, also carry a downside for many in the form of feelings of self-betrayal, debilitating trade-offs, anger, and the experience of living a lie. This can create outright psychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and unexplained physical ailments.

This paradox of normal people who look sick is part of the gap between our outer, public self, and inner, private self, produced by our careerist culture. In the years since I first researched this for my book, Modern Madness, this gap has widened because of the experiences of baby boomers entering midlife and midcareer. That is, the new midlife generation — men and women from about 35 onward — struggles with key tasks of adult development which only begin to kick in during the “middle” years. These are primarily spiritual, concerning the quest for meaning and purpose; for moral vision, for human connection and community. Because these reflect some of the old ideals of the 60s, the new midlifers experience, in effect, an intersection between the resurgence of failed ideals of the past and developmental challenges of midlife adulthood. The result is acute conflict between two competing themes: the steadily increasing workaholic culture; and the desire for a more centered, spiritually-based life, one which incorporates work into the pursuit of human community and connection.

The Myth Of Work-Life Balance

The major illustration of this conflict of themes is the struggle for work-life “balance,” by far the most frequently-voiced complaint of career professionals today. Increasingly reported in the media, the quest for work-life balance has spawned a variety of attempts to achieve it, from self help books, to corporate work/life programs, to medication.

But the fact is, work/life balance cannot be achieved. The reason is that our larger culture puts human development in the service of economic development, which makes “balance” impossible. That is, within our culture life serves economic development and business success, rather than the other way around. We overidentify with work. It defines our worth and purpose. And our reward system and cultural values all support the mantra, “We live to work,” even when the negative consequences of this — for individuals, productivity and long-term success organizational success — are visible to everyone.

For example, research consistently shows that workaholic activity is less productive and efficient than more moderate, steady output. And a recent study of senior executives’ career paths found that one of the five major factors in derailment or failure is a life in which a person’s work dominates everything else. All very ironic, because these situations are found to directly affect the internal functioning and economic success of an organization, not just the personal lives of individuals. It would be a major shift in our culture — at the level of the individual, the organization, and public policy — to begin placing economic development in the service of human development. It would mean, for example, using the accumulation of capital to increase well-being, justice, and democratic institutions, Until then, our lives will continue to feel split and unbalanced, no matter how much we try time management, juggling schedules, or popping the latest anti-depressants. Some are trying to raise a public dialogue about these themes. Multimillionaire philanthropist George Soros has raised questions about the role of capitalism now, in the aftermath of communism. And Ted Turner has, as well, in discussing his decision to contribute heavily to the UN. This is also part of increasing dialogue by such groups as the Social Venture Network, the Business Enterprise Trust, the Impact Project, and others who are rethinking the purpose of business development and the creation of wealth in society.

A Culture of Disconnection

Something massive works against such shifts. There is a link between the lives we live and the culture that surrounds and shapes us. This is where the individual and the cultural, the personal and the political, intersect. Seeing it can turn our growing crisis into a new opportunity. Our personal choices, including our rationalizations and self-deceptions, are all part of our adaptation to social and political constructions, and to the shared values of our culture. They are taught to us by our families, and reinforced by the workplace.

That human development serves economic development is no surprise, because it is part of a broader experience of disconnection within our culture. We all experience disconnection in our lives, and at multiple levels: Separation and disjuncture between mind and body. Between people. Between the human community and other life systems on the planet.

On the individual level we experience ourselves as disconnected parts, unrelated to each other (my “sexual problem;” my “stress problem”). We can espouse democratic values, yet be authoritarian and controlling in our personal relationships. We can argue on behalf of a committed intimate relationship, yet rationalize an affair. And we relate to other people as detached objects, unrelated to ourselves. Or as inferior to ourselves. On the larger stage, we see disconnection in the worldwide practice of torture, the systematic killing for ethnic/political reasons. The numbness to the underclass, and flagrant corruption in emerging economies.

These are all violations of what we now know to be a scientific and spiritual reality. That is, new research in modern physics confirms what Buddhists and some mystical traditions like the Sufi have always claimed: there is a fundamental unity and connectedness of all life, of all matter. Both physically and spiritually, we are one. Any departure or disruption from connectedness creates problems and dysfunction at all levels. It’s not so much that disconnection produces sickness; it is sickness.

Shifting Course

So what can we do? As we head towards the millennium, major shifts within our culture are accentuating all these issues, both in the workplace and our personal lives. The most major is the impact of the aging 80 million men and women of the baby boomer and, more broadly, the “60s generation.” Already, this new midlife generation occupies 60% of all senior management positions in the US. Their issues are going to dominate public policy, organizations and private lives for the next 20 to 30 years. And this is why the new midlife generation holds the key to leading a major shift in what we live for in our society.

One barrier to a path of change that is both visionary and practical is the absence of models that combine both. Moreover, members of the new midlife generation often feel that they have created a new version of their parents’ lives, which feels depressing and immobilizing. There is some truth to this that needs to be faced. The new midlife generation was the first to attempt a shift away from the traditional, authoritarian-based family structure, in which relationships are based on domination, and in which emotionality is distant, detached, and often conditional upon submission. This attempted shift towards greater openness and more authentic relational connection was a positive underpinning of the social, political, and cultural upheavals of the 60s. But those upheavals failed. They didn’t transcended old ideological splits of right and left. They didn’t result in a coalescence of support of full human rights, economic freedom, and shared power — all of which would serve human development.

Part of the failure was because those of us who were young adults at the time never came to terms with the powerful legacy of our families, our own traumas and distortions. We ended up reenacting versions of our parents’ lives. And one cannot create in the public realm what one cannot do in the personal, as the novelist Doris Lessing portrayed so brilliantly in her Children of Violence series.

The current “20something” generation has been damaged by this, on the receiving end. They recoil from the gap between ideals and practice they see embodied in their parental generation, and are wary of intimacy, as well. On the other hand, they possess a healthy skepticism about the career culture, and can identify its negative parts more clearly. In effect, they have absorbed the legacy of the 60s generation in positive ways, but don’t know how to use this legacy to change. They want to be successful in work and in life, but fear they will lose out if they try to combine success with personal values, as well.

The danger is that some of the young adults, frightened by their futures, are seduced by images of strong, authoritative parents, leadership figures who show no conflict or equivocation. This, of course, confuses principled action and self-definition, which is rooted in connection, with old-style domination and disconnection. This confusion underlies the new fad among some young adults of smoking, drinking martinis, and espousing political views that actually conflict with their values. They are trying to act like the decisive parents that they didn’t have. But without a larger vision, combined with self-awareness, there can be no real growth or development.

The new midlife generation — with its latent ideals — is uniquely poised to lead a shift which the younger generation of careerists can contribute to, as well. The challenge is learning what supports significant change in people’s lives. Increasingly, many members of this generation want more integrated, less material lives. They want to move away from the workaholism of our culture and towards more spiritually-based values. They want to cultivate greater relatedness with family and the human community in general. We see this, for example, in the increasing numbers of midlifers who give of themselves through volunteer service, precisely because of the need to connect. In short, many midlifers want to reclaim and act upon the positive values associated with the 60s, such as community, optimism, and authenticity.

The new midlifers have already changed their assumptions about aging. They are well versed in the new research which shows that, contrary to what we used to think, physical and cognitive abilities do not necessarily decline with age. With proper diet, exercise, and preventive medicine both our lifespan and our overall vitality can and should extend through an elongated “middle years” period. But midlifers don’t know how to build upon this new knowledge to change they way they actually live — their relationships, values, commitments, and choices.

“How Can I Change?”

There is an old Buddhist saying that if a person wants to see into the future, just look into a mirror. The way of life we engage in each moment, each day, steadily shapes and determines who we become down the road. Our conflicts, as well, always reflect something about our choices, values, and decisions — our overall “practice” of life. And these, in turn, reflect the larger society’s values and definition of a “successful” life. Knowing this can allow us to rethink and perhaps redirect the “path” we choose to be on. While we can’t alter the past, we can awaken more fully to who we are and how we got this way, and use this awareness to shift course, now, in the present.

There is much to the Buddhist and other Eastern perspectives that can aid us in the quest for change and spiritual growth. In fact, one of the reason Buddhism holds such appeal to Westerners (it is the fastest growing religion in the US today) is that many of its perspectives and practices embody the key elements of initiating change in human life.

It’s emphasis on the immediacy of life — that it occurs here, in this moment, not, as Peter Matthiessen has pointed out, in “regrets of the past or fantasies about the future” — is energizing. It’s emphasis on combining action with clear human values and human connection stimulates hope. And its concept of karma — the accumulated consequences of the lives we have been living — points the way to change. Its perspectives refute the conventional view that development ceases with physical maturity, after which we encounter what one 45 year old described as “the long slide home.”

One important teaching of the Buddhist, as well as Sufi, per-spective is that change cannot occur in piecemeal fashion. We may become partly aware of what fuels our conflicts, but lack a vision of how to be different. Or we may create a picture of changing ourselves in some way, but be unable to apply it because we remain unconscious about conflicts which immobilize us. Or we may simply be too frightened — or too comfortable to change. Change that is not systemic and grounded in full learning is neither deep nor sustaining.

Significant change requires putting our deeds in synch with our words. Walking the talk. It is a process of restoring and building healthy connections, at all levels. First, within ourselves, as an integrated mind-body system; and between ourselves and the “outside” realms of humans and other living systems. Actions which support and affirm the reality of connection are synonymous with health and growth. Those that violate or undermine it are destructive and pathological. People who are able to change themselves in significant ways are engaged in three interlocking struggles which support healthy connection.

Developing A New Awareness

The first is waking up to what drives our lives, our professed ideals, and our conflicts — behind all our denials, rationalizations, and social fictions. Awakening means facing and rectifying our unexamined or unresolved conflicts that have contributed to the experience of “living a lie” that so many men and women experience today. We are largely unconscious about most of these. They are the products of old childhood and family-based conflicts which we typically repeat and reenact as adults. As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead — in fact, it’s not even past.” In addition to old traumas, the consequences of wrong paths taken or fear-based decisions also impede us.

Awakening to painful personal truths is frightening. It might mean confronting feelings of deep self-loathing. Or recognizing shame about expressing our needs, perhaps because our parents affirmed only the desires they approved of. Or facing up to a character trait we have been blind to, like arrogance.

Pauline, a marketing executive, saw that she was chronically drawn to relationships in which she felt invalidated and unaffirmed — both with lovers and bosses — just as she felt as a child, when she was treated indifferently by her mother and rejected by her father. Facing the distortions and self-deceptions that fuel our conduct means opening ourselves to the rage, loss, and disappointment that has accrued, both from what was done to us and from what we did to ourselves. But if we turn away from this hard work, we seal our fate. Like Pauline, we will reenact old themes over and over, telling ourselves new versions of old lies (“This time, with him/her, it’s going to be different!”).

Awareness also includes learning about our biological inheritance and temperament, and seeing through the cultural and gender attitudes we acquired as we segued from children into adults. The latter are powerful because they shape our entire mentality about the two most potent conflict areas of adulthood: success and relationships. Our culture teaches us to define both in terms of possession and control — having it or submitting to it. These are features of our culture of disconnection.

We equate life success so much with career position that we become devastated when we lose it, as anyone who has been downsized out of their job can testify. And regarding relationships, men learn to fear emotional closeness, erroneously thinking that detachment means strength. Women learn that submission or wanting to be “swept away,” romantically, will make them feel affirmed and recognized. These attitudes don’t reflect different planets. They are learned, and “normal.” But they are also perversions of health. Healthly relations require full, open, emotional engagement along with clear self-definition and boundaries. Not being hidden or submissive. Not assaultive or dominant.

When we awaken to the full truth about ourselves, something astounding happens: compassion flows forth. Both for ourselves and for others. But compassion alone does not lead to change.

Creating New Perspectives

We must also create new ways of seeing and thinking about our current life situations. This means envisioning in concrete ways what it would look like to behave differently in our relationships, when dealing with conflicts, when making choices. This shift is akin to what is triggered by stories in the Sufi tradition, and through Zen practice, when one learns new ways of “seeing.”

Envisioning alternative scenarios and emotional attitudes frees up the energy necessary for change. We can do it in different ways: We might imagine ourselves in a play or film, and then visualize scenes in which we behave differently from our usual pattern. Or we might create different ways of “reading” our life story, like interpreting a novel.

Jane, a media executive, was deep into another troubled rela-tionship, and thought of herself as “the problem” because of her “chronic insecurity.” With help, she visualized a different perspective. She pictured her insecurity not as a deformity but as an experience that arises when her intimate partner withdraws from a conflict. Seeing her insecurity as something that occurs within a particular relational context — partly her; partly her partner — opened a new window. She immediately saw parallels in chronic conflicts she experienced with certain co-workers whenever she was part of a work team. She became more open to seeing her own role, its roots, and how she would want to change. It broke the logjam.

We can also shift our perspective about success, beyond career and conventional definitions of position, power, and money, and towards a broader view of “whole person success.” Such a shift can help us at times of crises. Michael, a successful senior executive, lost his job after a merger and became depressed. With help, he was able to redefine himself more broadly and flexibly, as an aggregate of capacities and resources that he could “reconfigure” differently to help find another position — and, to help value himself more fully.

The most important shift of perspective, though, concerns death. Our culture teaches us to hide from it through denial or fantasies of perpetual youth, This inhibits the will to change our lives, because embracing change means embracing the insecurity of life…and therefore death. Directly embracing the reality of death is a psychic tonic. It stimulates new energy and sense of urgency about life. It pushes us to clarify what we are living for and do something about it, right now. People faced with life-threatening illnesses are often catapulted by this encounter into deciding what truly matters in their lives, and then acting on it. This complements research which shows that people who maintain a cheerful, upbeat perspective on life value each moment with concentration, attentiveness, and strength of purpose. They are more fully alive, engaged with life.

Just as compassion emerges from awareness, wisdom emerges from new perspectives. Wisdom is the capacity to see things as they really are, not as we wish them to be. This sets the stage for the third element of change.

Cultivating New Life Practices

This is the hardest of all. New life practices are actions and shifts in our way of life. It involves our entire way of life, not just part of it. Our life practice embodies how we actually live — our conduct in relationships, the values we act upon, the choices we make each day, each moment. They are all branches of the same tree. And our practice is ongoing. Like practicing a musical instrument, an art form, or sports activity, what we practice becomes stronger. What we don’t, weakens and withers away. All our insights, thoughts and values are meaningless unless we put them into action, unless we make them real.

We can help ourselves create new turning points by placing ourselves in new situations or relationships that stimulate or require the new practices we want to strengthen. Bob, a management consultant, did this through volunteer work in which he had to practice compassion and giving. He had become aware that he felt arrogant and superior towards others, and didn’t like it. He decided to strengthen the capacity for connecting more equally with others.

Mark was a sociology professor who tended to be hidden in his relationships, appeasing others too much and then resenting it. After becoming disgusted with his behavior in a series of faculty meetings, and working to develop the necessary emotional awareness and perspectives, he struggled to become more direct and authentic his relations — creating appropriate boundaries, and disengaging from relationships in which he had been the appeaser.

Significant change never comes without a price. All the con-sequences of our past remain a part of us forever. When we make real changes in our lives, we still have to deal with consequences of the past, both now and on into the future. They don’t disappear just because we are changing. We must take responsibility for them — as well as learn to forgive, both ourselves and our parents. We may have been damaged by ignorant, abusive, or narcissistic parents. And we may have harmed ourselves, as well. We might have failed to act ways that were possible for us, even within the limits imposed by our family upbringing, social class, or level of awareness. But the failure to integrate our past and accept responsibility for dealing with it, including forgiveness and compassion towards ourselves and others, results in frozen lives and social deterioration.

Dealing with the consequences of our past does not lead to a dead end. Each moment is a new crossroads, a new point of con-vergence between our history and socialization on the one hand; and a new opportunity to rectify past mistakes and change our lives right now, on the other. Our personal karma always exists just at this moment in time. How much it will continue to imprison us depends on how well we embrace and integrate it, to create new freedom and action.

And keep in mind Yogi Berra’s sage advice, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”