Monday, September 28, 2015

Are You Afraid of Yourself?

Some pieces of information have come together recently to lead me to the conclusion that people are more and more becoming afraid of spending time with their own thoughts.  They seem to dread facing what’s in their heads.

The first sign was a message on a neighborhood e-mail group when construction workers broke ground for a new branch library.  One neighbor complained that it would increase traffic and possibly draw an undesirable element to this part of the city.  Besides, she said that she had no use for a library and found reading boring.  (I guess the Internet to her is just one long series of cute puppies and kittens.)

That was a little hard to believe, but not too unusual.  Next the post office delivered a card from my cable company telling me in large red letters to AVOID BOREDOM, by signing up to take my entertainment with me everywhere.  Now I like entertainment, but everywhere?  Don’t I want to have a little quiet time to think?

Apparently I am a minority for considering that based on the number of people I see in public who can’t put their phones down, much less turn them off.  This phenomenon is most visible among teenagers, which is why I was very surprised to hear on a television health segment that 60% of high schoolers reported binge drinking.

That was shocking, but also wrong.  Actually, the CDC reported last year that although alcohol is “the most commonly used and abused drug among youth,” and that “people aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States,” a reputable survey showed that 35% of these youth reported drinking some amount of alcohol in the last 30 days and 21% binge drank – binge drinking being defined as men consuming five or more drinks and women drinking four or more drinks in 2 hours.  “Around 90% of alcohol consumed among under-21s is in the form of binge drinking.”

Well, 21% is better than 60%, but the National Institute of Health (NIH) published a study (done on rats - no teenagers were intoxicated) with findings showing a strong link between binge drinking during adolescence and impaired cognitive functions later in life including effects on learning, memory, impulse control and making decisions.  With more than 1 in 5 teens setting themselves up for long-term cognitive problems, what that means to our future healthcare needs, not to mention our nation’s future in general, I’ll leave for you to think about.

All that reminded me of an NBC story from a number of months ago about accidental deaths.  The number of overdose deaths “have doubled in the past 14 years and now more people die from accidental overdoses than in road accidents in most U.S. states.”  Overall, more people die accidentally from drugs than from car accidents and more than half of those deaths are related to prescription drugs.

When I lump these seemingly unrelated events together I begin to wonder if Americans are afraid of being alone with their thoughts.  Reading is not as enticing as zoning out in front of the TV.  It takes more concentration and effort.  That can seem boring.  If I am encouraged to take my entertainment with me, the advertisers must assume that I am incapable (or afraid) of amusing myself for even short periods of time.  Their assumption is borne out by the millions of teens who, even with easy access to this 24/7/everywhere music, movies and other entertainment, feel the need to drink themselves into oblivion.  And much of the rest of the population finds solace in prescription pills.  Are these all attempts to numb ourselves against the terrible prospect of some unexpected thought popping up?

It seems like what is called for is a little discipline, choosing to occasionally deny the instant gratification, and perspective, appreciating what we have and rediscovering all the wonderful things about our lives.  This self-induced isolation, drawing away from the outside world without seeming to acknowledge the inner world, is a scary symptom.

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