What’s actually most important has been lost

How poor we are in our affluenza.

We’ve lost community, that intermediate layer of support. So we need more support from family, that most basic/immediate layer. But the kids go off to college and they don’t come back.

At one time it was family-in-homestead. But now it’s a far-flung network of visitations. We are not even cognizant of how thin the support is in these “enlightened” times.

What’s my family? Well, at first it’s my mother and father, my siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. Then it’s my spouse and kids. And then their kids.

Originally: there was no spouse. For the kids, no mother-and-father dyad. Which is to say that there was no nuclear family. It was what we call extended family: Your mother was key, of course, but then it was siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and all their children. There were exogamous friendships. There were special boyfriends or girlfriends. Those were the basis for matings. But not for nuclear family.

The Old Ways: Homestead, extended family, clan-within-tribe.

A theory is that the nuclear family became a norm when private property became a norm. A man works, he accumulates property, he wants heirs. He offers wealth to a woman so she’ll become his wife and produce heirs. Most families were farm-based or had a plot of land with a simple house in the village.

The nuclear family involves partnering. The paradigm of property (or, at least, income), the intensive work required, makes partnering both desirable and necessary. It used to be that the man got family and heirs, the woman got material sustenance. Now affluenza standards require two incomes. Just two people trying to support a modern suburban mini-homestead all by themselves is pretty burdensome.

And the partnering Significant Other relationship is too intense. Attention and affection are unnaturally exclusive. Support is tenuous. And then the kids move away.

Affluenza standards include the norm of going away to college. In 1940 six percent of men and four percent of women (essentially only the elite) had completed four years of college. Now it’s a standard to be “highly educated” in order to take advantage of all the “career opportunities” in the wide world.

Our domain of experience is now the wide world. For all intents and purposes our choices are unlimited. That’s a folly of a value. So free. Or, perhaps . . . rootless and hypermobile. Relationships to people, places, jobs tend to be ephemeral, superficial. Commitment is thin. Partnering is difficult: dependent, yet tenuous and fraught. So much so that 30% of “households” now are people living alone.

Someday the story will be written:

In the million-year-long species history of humankind there was a tiny, sad slice of time called “modernity” during which:

* With little sense of place or community people went off most days to work for institutions.

* With little sense of place or community their children went out into the wide world never to come back.

* * * *

I have enough faith in human sagacity to believe that, after a period of wandering and disorientation, we’ll find our way back Home. A turning point will be dated to the 1960s, when it began to be appreciated how we’ve lost more than we’ve gained during this strange-sad slice of time called “modernity.”

A co-editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a Green movement activist for almost thirty years.