Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The residual sadness of the lonely heart

David Brooks's new poem, below the fold, building off his encounter with a Kentucky senior citizen, capped his haunting column of September 21 (reported in my own piece here), as if the emotion couldn't be confined in prose. The work universalizes that moment into a statement of mourning, for the life you led in the 1960s on the Philadelphia Main Line, from which everyone that matters is no longer barbecuing in the back yard but distressed, divorced, alone. The immortality of suburban living promised by Brooks's old friend the suburban futurologist and now Trump backer Joel Kotkin suddenly seems unattainable; those green and family-oriented spaces, swing set and sycamore, mall and megachurch, the old Welcome Wagon, haven't conquered the fact that we suffer, grow old, and die. Thanks, Obama!

Image from Wikimedia Commons via CityMetric.

Suburbia Isn't Working
a poem
by David Brooks

Suburbia isn’t working. During the baby boom,
the suburbs gave families safe places
to raise their kids. But now we are in an era
of an aging population, telecommuting workers
     and single-person households.


The culture and geography of suburbia
are failing to nurture webs of mutual dependence.
We are animals who can’t flourish unless
we can’t get along without one another.
Yet one finds too many people thrust into lives
     of semi-independence.


These are not the victims of postindustrial blight
I’m talking about; they are successful people
who worked hard and built good lives but who are left
nonetheless strangely isolated,
in attenuated communities, and who are left
radiating the residual sadness
     of the lonely heart.
I'm fascinated by that insight that we can't flourish unless there are some circumstances under which we can't flourish, and the way it summarizes the human condition overall.

How can we nurture those webs to save ourselves from semi-independence? Overcoming postindustrial blight won't help; nor, obviously, will government. We're doomed to stay on that bench, with our residual sadness—sadness we haven't yet managed to use—sitting at the bottom of our hearts like the residual scum left ("who are left"—"who are left" in the third and fifth lines of the last stanza) after you've drunk a cup of warm milk, and yet so improbably radiating at the same time. 

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