"Sealed Away From Others"

"Sealed away from crowds, we let the media teach us what other segments of humanity are like and, as a consequence, cannot help but expect that all strangers will be murderers, swindlers, vain celebrities, crooked politicians, and pedophiles, a trend that reinforces impulses to trust only those very few individuals who have been vetted for us by preexisting networks of family and class."

-- Swiss author Alain de Botton

The following is an excerpt from Alain de Botton's essay, "Improvable Feasts," in the August 2010 issue of Harper's. Botton is the author of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009), among other works.

"Modern society does not help us to put forward our more dignified sides. The public spaces in which we typically encounter others -- commuter trains, jostling pavements, shopping malls, escalators, restaurants -- conspire to throw up a demeaning picture of our collective identity. It can be hard to keep faith with humanity after a walk down Oxford Street or a transfer at O'Hare.

"Our capacity to hold on to the concept that every person is necessarily the center of a complex, precious individuality is placed under potentially unbearable stress in the degraded settings where our meetings with our fellow citizens unfold. To interrupt the anonymity of a park with a remark on the pleasantness of the season will usually appear either insane or louche.

"We do our best to shield our senses and retreat into private cocoons. We wield our technology -- our cars and our computers, our Internet deliveries and our credit cards -- to spare us all but minimal contact. Sealed away from crowds, we let the media teach us what other segments of humanity are like and, as a consequence, cannot help but expect that all strangers will be murderers, swindlers, vain celebrities, crooked politicians, and pedophiles, a trend that reinforces impulses to trust only those very few individuals who have been vetted for us by preexisting networks of family and class. Capitalism is committed to fracturing and dissolving our communal ties; it would rather we didn't know our neighbors, lest they detain us on the way to work or make us less likely to seek comfort through the purchase of new cushions. Its desired citizen relies on the companionship of BBC World and The Economist, the nourishment of room service, and the contents of a roller case in an airport hotel in Abu Dhabi or Shenzhen.

"Formerly, we got to know people because we had to ask them for as well as offer them help. Charity was an integral part of pre-modern life. It was almost inevitable that one would, at some point, have to request money and be asked for some in turn in a world without a health system, unemployment insurance, public housing, or consumer banking. To be approached by a sick, frail, confused, homeless, or lost person did not immediately inspire one to look the other way and assume that one could pass on the responsibility to a government agency. Theologically, the capacity to respond to the distress of others was held to be central to one's claim to being a true Christian...

"The noise and activity of urban restaurants typically suggest a refuge from anonymity. With people in such close proximity, laughter ringing into the night air, we may trust that the barriers between ourselves and others will be eroded and our more heartfelt experiences shared and affirmed. But in reality, the restaurant makes no moves to present us to one another; it has no mechanisms for dispelling our mutual suspicions or for dissolving the clans into which we are segregated. We leave the restaurant much as we entered it, the venue merely reinforcing existing distinctions between friend and stranger. Like so many venues in the modern city (nightclubs, bars, art galleries), the restaurant rubs us up against people yet does nothing to connect us to them -- as if we had forgotten that real community has precious little to do with just cohabiting a confined space. At our tables, we overhear anecdotes of our fellow diners and yet discover nothing of their souls. At best, our latent curiosity will find issue in a glance at someone's graceful face or, more often, their tempting side order."

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