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The Slow Slide Into Familia Dysphoria

There is a much-used metaphor of a frog in a pot of water that is slowly being warmed on a burner. So imperceptible the water warming that the lounging frog never jumps for its safety but rather dies from the scalding hot water. If one were to observe this event, our growing unease would likely parallel the rising temperature until we become agitated, even outraged on behalf of the frog. If allowed and the frog still alive, we’d quickly remove the pan from the heat and return the frog to the wild.

Today, moral outrages appear more frequent and accompanied with a passion bordering on rage. An image sparks a need for street justice. Demands are made for dramatic changes. Then life returns to its normal humdrum with school, work, and play taking up most of our day. There is an ebb and flow to this phenomenon, which I’m afraid is accelerating with unknown consequences. Just how hot will the rage get? Will someone, anyone, know when to turn down the burner? So we grow uneasy- agitated. For some, this unease is accompanied by depression and anxiety.

Dysphoria- Dysphoria is a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction. In a psychiatric context, dysphoria may accompany depression, anxiety, or agitation.

Around many dinner tables today, we best not discuss our political opinions. Like walking on eggshells, one poorly phrased sentence can upset the gathering if not the stomach. Uncomfortably, subjects are changed as we search for an antacid. At a more subtle but insidious level, we now sit amongst our own flesh and blood, if so blessed, with a sad question. What has gone wrong?

In 1960, Willmoore Kendall, a Rhodes Scholar, author, and distinguished academic, wrote that “presidential elections cannot become the central ritual of our system without destroying the system.”

Today, nearly everyone we bump into has a story to tell of family dysfunction. Stories abound of political passions held with such certainty as if they are the only essential things of value. Political slogans or campaign signs have replaced the family photo on the proverbial fireplace mantel.

I know a family I dare not ask about the wellbeing of a child. The daughter and mother are no longer speaking. Maybe it was with the son. It doesn’t matter. The differences in their world view had become so profound, ideologies so tightly held, they can no longer be in the presence of each other. They are estranged.

Another tells of his father so insistent on changing a sibling’s mind, he can not let it go. The father has conflated political agreement with respect, and he’s demanding respect. And I know of a grown woman who’s elderly father still browbeats her over who to vote for.

That old belief in the love, strength, and security of having strong family bonds becomes speculation of who will show up for Thanksgiving dinner and who will not. Or who will leave in a huff? Our unease bewilders us, having never considered such a set of circumstances. For some, Thanksgiving, the day that historically celebrates family and our many blessings, will be a time of lament and loneliness. And that is before we consider the accommodations made to the pandemic.

It appears that millions of young and some not so young Americans have or are about to severe the cord and suspend with family ties. Angry, misunderstood, and some lounging in self-pity, they now must find affirmation in tribes or communes of the like-minded. They hope meaningful human connections can replace the family unit with a growing number of ‘likes’ and ‘followers.’ It is easy to conflate a ‘like’ on social media with an act of actual caring and a ‘follower’ as a close friend. But genuine caring comes from a different place entirely. It starts from the pain and euphoria of bearing a child that becomes love and duty and shared history, the stuff families are made of. It does not come from a simple ‘click.’ Reliance on social media as our main connection to our fellow human will slowly, imperceptibly, lead to loneliness.

There is ample scientific evidence that ‘loneliness’ leads to premature death. The CDC accumulates data on why people die with studies showing a devastating correlation between loneliness and dementia, heart disease, depression, and suicide. Yet, many don’t recognize their loneliness. It comes upon them slowly, imperceptibly- then it’s too late.

So what has gone wrong? I think what Mr. Kendall wrote way back in 1960 provides a clue. Our culture has become obsessed with believing that presidential politics, and politics in general, is the only thing that matters. I hope he is wrong about it ‘destroying the system,’ but he may be right.

I happen to agree with Mark T. Mitchell, who wrote in a recent essay, “Like all things of significance, the starting point is modest, even seemingly insignificant compared to the scale and noise of our current political circus: we must begin with the places we inhabit. To heal the nation, we must return home.”

I would add that to return to a place of familia tranquility, we all need to take responsibility and examine our own personal contribution to the dysfunction. In an honest act of inner-reflection, may we find the grace necessary to forgive those who have hurt us and the grace to forgive ourselves.

Then, perhaps, we can again enjoy each other’s company.

This Thanksgiving, give thanks for all the important relationships in your life. Then eat and eat some more, and laugh uproariously! For it was C.S. Lewis who wrote, “Humour is…the all-consoling and…the all-excusing, grace of life.”

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