My daughter went back to college on Sunday at the end of her spring break, after complaining at great length—both on her Facebook page and to anyone who would listen in real life—that it had been the most boring week ever. The source of her misery seemed to be that many of her friends didn’t have their spring break at the same time. Meanwhile, others had to work, or went out of town, or had other things to do besides keeping her entertained. Just before sulkily throwing her suitcase in the car, she declared that she hated her college because it bored her to tears too.

Later that evening, while I was mindlessly working Sudoku puzzles because I didn’t feel motivated to do anything more useful with my time, it occurred to me that my daughter and I both felt unsettled because of not having as many familiar people around. Of course, we have very different personalities. My daughter is extremely social and would happily spend her entire life on the phone or out with her friends, preferably both at the same time. I have always enjoyed quiet activities like reading and gardening. I’ve never felt much of a need to have other people entertain me. Still, as both Mark and Zygmunt have pointed out, introverts often have strong family relationships and friendships, although with fewer people.

Not long ago, after talking about it for a while, my mother and stepfather finally sold their house and moved to a southern town where some of their friends are happily retired. I can’t say that I blame them, after the cold winter we just had. And I never really spent a lot of time at their house anyway, even though it was only a few miles away. We’d get together for lunch sometimes, talk about whatever came to mind, and maybe show off some new plants or commiserate about what the deer and rabbits had been eating. I haven’t been feeling consciously depressed about their move, or about my daughter going off to college and leaving me with the empty nest; but I’ve been left with a general sense of dislocation, as if a familiar stream had started running outside its banks.

I feel as if I shouldn’t complain, when so many people my age are burying their parents or dealing with serious issues with their children. What are my trivial midlife worries compared to that? Just bringing them up in the course of writing this post leaves me thinking, for a moment, that perhaps I’m being as silly as my daughter sounded when she was whining about her tragic spring break.

Last week I was talking on the phone with my mom, and we got onto the topic of kids going off to college and family members ending up in different places. “That’s just how it is,” my mom said, in her usual matter-of-fact way. “They peter out after a while.”

When I look around at all the angst in today’s society, it seems likely to me that the lack of connection to a particular place or tribe has a lot to do with it. Before the modern era, the usual pattern was to spend one’s entire life in the same small village or nomadic band. Friends and family members didn’t routinely go different ways as they do today. Of course, they didn’t live as long either, and we do have modern technology to keep us in touch; but there really is something missing from our lives when our in-person relationships “peter out.” We might do better to acknowledge those feelings and what they represent, instead of just dismissing them as trivial.

on 03/16/11 in featured, Society | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Dan Haggard says:

    It’s interesting that you talk about it in terms of the tribal connections we would have once had. Such connections would have been so strong that such a move by family members would have been unthinkable (abstracting from the other societal, technological differences that make such moves possible).

    And indeed the kind of ‘meh’ feeling that seem to accompany it in many people is quite extraordinary. What is it about modern life that breaks down the vitality of such relationships so that they feel so dispensable to many?

  2. Gwen McKay says:

    Dan, it may simply be a failure of imagination. Now that we’ve gotten so used to transitory relationships, I think it’s likely that many people in the modern world can’t even picture a different way of life.

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