America, we need to talk. Our lack of deep communication is not only polarizing the nation, it is actually harming our health. Nowadays, depression, suicide, and dangerous drug use are all at epidemic proportions. When people don’t feel connected to each other, they resort to desperate measures. Of course, it need not be like this. We all want intimacy and connection. We all want more love and the feeling of belonging in our lives. So why are we feeling so polarized and separate from each other?
Part of the problem is that we have pretty much surrendered to WMD’s. No, not Weapons of Mass Destruction, but rather Widgets of Mass Distraction. The average person looks at their smartphone over 80 times a day. Twenty percent of the population regularly looks at their smartphone during sex! While the Internet can sometimes be useful for making connections, a thousand Facebook friends doesn’t really equal one truly good friend. With so many interruptions and distractions, true intimacy and deep connections can be hard to come by.
When I was a boy growing up, I was taught how to complain, blame and shame my brothers and sisters. I was never taught how to listen to them, empathize, or solve difficult problems with them. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. Now we have an entire culture and political class that only knows how to blame and divide. The classic line in the movie Cool Hand Luke rings true now more than ever: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” How can we create a United States of America when all we’ve been trained to do is find who is to blame and talk about how they’re evil or an idiot?
This “failure to communicate” has its roots in our educational system. In High School, I was told I had to take two years of algebra, and one year of trigonometry and geometry if I wanted to get into college. Despite training to be a psychotherapist, I never had to take a course in communication. That’s outlandish. I have never once used my higher math background, but I communicate virtually every waking hour in my life. Perhaps one reason our divorce rate is so high is because we’ve never been taught how to communicate effectively. Our collective lack of effective communication is now tearing our nation apart.
Nowadays, our educational system is largely spent preparing us to do things that computers can do a million times faster and better than we can. What a waste. At the same time, what we really do need to use in our lives—such as the ability to understand others and work through problems—is never mentioned in the classroom. Where are people supposed to learn this stuff? These “human” skills, often referred to as “emotional intelligence,” are the foundation of success in both the business world and in relationships. Yet, schools and employers don’t teach these much needed skills—so most people are pretty bad at them.
Recently, people have become worried they’ll lose their job to computers and robots. In fact, they should be worried. A computer can dig up relevant case information far better and quicker than a highly paid lawyer. A computer can even answer our calls and make medical diagnoses. What a computer can not do is build rapport with a client, gain someone’s trust, or guide someone in need. Unfortunately, most people can’t do these skills very well either! That’s a tragedy whose implications are vast on both a personal and societal level.
Because people are not taught “emotional intelligence” skills, we don’t feel nearly as good as we could. Studies show that true happiness mostly comes from feeling connected to those we care about. Yet, with a pervasive sense of separation infecting our culture, almost everyone feels like a victim nowadays. What is needed are people who can create healing through empathy, understanding, and moments of connection. Fortunately, intimacy is not hard to create if you know the right method. In fact, the basic technique is hidden in the word: in to me see. When we’re honest and vulnerable with each other, connection happens. We could all use a little more connection nowadays.
Although we now feel more polarized and separate than we have in decades, there’s also some good news. The “technology” of creating understanding and connection has grown in recent years. Skills such as empathy, trust building, and even kindness are all easily learnable. There are new methods always being invented that work amazingly well. Yet, our schools and the pace of our lives, along with our current media environment crowd out this learning. As individuals and as a nation we need to counter this polarization and, instead, focus on our common humanity.
About 700 years ago, St. Francis was quoted as saying, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive…” The necessity of trying to live his words are more important today than ever before. Fortunately, trust, kindness, and meaningful communication are what separate us from mere machines. Such human abilities will be the true superpowers of tomorrow’s world. We all need to unleash these skills of deep human connection now—before we descend into even more isolation and suffering.
Jonathan Robinson, M.A., M.F.T. is the author of the book “More Love, Less Conflict,” and the founder of FindingHappiness.com