Since 1857, The Atlantic has been challenging established answers with tough questions. In this video, actor Michael K. Williams—best known as Omar Little from The Wire—wrestles with a question of his own: Is he being typecast?
What are you asking yourself about the world and its conventional wisdom? We want to hear your questions—and your thoughts on where to start finding the answers: email@example.com. Each week, we’ll update this thread with a new question and your responses.
Living a long life seems the obvious goal for most people, and many of them, like Dylan Thomas, raged against the dying of the light. Others—like the transhumanists that Olga featured recently—want to transcend death entirely.
Well, like most things, the answer is not a simple yes or no; it depends—on so many factors, some of which we can control (e.g. not smoking) and can’t control (e.g. our genetic make-up). If you’re in good health physically and have all your faculties and some purposeful work or hobby, or just something you really enjoyed doing, then maybe it might be a good idea to live a long life. But those are a lot of ifs.
Another reader, John, looks to human connections:
Health is essential to making survival good, but it also helps to have a caring partner, for companionship and support. I am biased, because at 81, I have my health and a good wife. I’d like to live past 100 if these conditions remain. But if I become disabled, chronically ill or alone, life is unlikely worth it.
Rita has a bleaker outlook:
Looking at my genetics, I’m starting to think I may live a long time. I’m not yet 70, but I can probably expect to go until 95 at least.
This doesn’t fill me with joy. Who’s going to look after me when my eyesight starts to crap out and I get weaker? Where’s the money going to come from to continue to pay my bills? These are not minor questions. Their answers, as far as I can see, are “nobody” and “nowhere.”
And anyway, it’s not as if I can look forward to hiking in the desert or exploring foreign cities in my extreme old age. Nor will many of us be directing films or conducting research in our nineties. What most of us can anticipate is day after day staring at a TV set, wondering if anyone is coming for a visit.
She adds, “That Atlantic excerpt you cited from 1928 nails it”—namely, “Any programme which has for its object the prolongation of life must also have, accompanying this increased span of life, the ability of the individual to engage actively and with some degree of effectiveness in the affairs of life.” Another reader, Bernyce, is also worried about infirmity:
After the age of 75, the human body declines—if not steadily, then in jerks and/or slopes. People begin to loose hearing, eyesight, and useful teeth, as well as the ability to digest food that may be ingested. A younger friend (74), living in an assisted-living facility because her son lives 200 miles away and she is no longer able to walk, says her companions say the food is delicious. She says the desserts are tasteful but everything else is flavorless and slippery. People who have loved ones to care for them may be more fortunate.
Watch the French film Amour. It is a short, beautiful, and painful glimpse of the end of life in a loving marriage. Even when we are not alone, the end of life is very difficult.
Here’s the haunting trailer for Amour:
At the somewhat advanced age of 88 (and I’ll be 89 in a few days), I’m tired. I think I’ve accomplished all I’m capable of and am ready to rest … permanently, I guess. Curious to see what, if anything, comes next. I’ll let you know.
Jim’s “I’m tired” reminds me of a similar sigh of acceptance that came from William Buckley during one of his final interviews, before dying at the age of 82:
The clip is worth watching in full, even if you’re no fan of the conservative figure, but it begins with Charlie Rose asking Buckley if he wishes he were 20 again, and he replies:
No, absolutely not. If I had a pill that would reduce my age by 25 years I wouldn’t take it. Because I’m tired of life. I really am. I am utterly prepared to stop living on. There are no enticements to me that justify the weariness, the repetition ...
Buckley goes on to quote Sherwin Nuland—a surgeon, professor of bioethics, and author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter—who once said, “The greatest enemy of older people is young doctors,” because they’re determined to keep you alive at any cost. This next reader would likely fight them off:
I am ready to go at 61. We have no problem helping our sick and injured pets, farm animals, etc. find final peace, and now people are beginning to evolve on this point too. Thank god. (Yes, I think god would agree.)
Let’s face it, after 60, folks begin kicking the ol’ bucket from normal end of life reasons. Seems the body remembers “hard” living in the early years. And this is okay. I’m reading The Razor’s Edge right now and that helps me understand.
As an 85 year old, I recognize that my usefulness is coming to a close.
At this time, I seem to provide joy to my children and grandchildren.
When I become a liability and need the constant care of others, I am content to have my life end, even if I have to take care of that myself.
At this time I do not need nor want that kind of care. But it may come soon, and I can face that comfortably.
John quips, “At 74, I have recently said to my adult children, ‘You know, this getting old is getting old.’” Sharon is a very longtime reader:
Dear Atlantic, magazine of my youth and age;
I believe that one’s life should be as long as one can make a contribution in some way. For me, personally, I wish to live only as long as I can be useful. At 72, and a few years before, I made the decision that when I felt I could no longer contribute in a tangible way, I will end my life.
I was greatly miffed by an article by a know-all person of the psychiatric persuasion, who said that anyone who wished to end his or her life was depressed. In my opinion, that’s balderdash. My firm belief is that we should live only as long as we can help to decrease our particular footprint on the planet by benefitting others. My desire is to have 15 years of retirement, but if I can't meet my personal hook, I’ll discard that goal.
I think it is immoral to artificially prolong the physical existence of an individual who is in no more than a vegetative state. On the other hand, I believe that no one has the right to make that choice for another person.
Kent has some advice:
I think everyone should think about a long life, and when you’re about halfway there or within 30 years of being there, set yourself a goal of how old and how alert you want to be. It’s likely to affect your health and wealth by making you focus on more important things in life and your ability to experience them. The earth doesn’t owe anyone longevity so it’s up to you to figure out what and where and when you’ll take charge of your existence and final stages of life.
Kent’s note reminds me of my stepfather, who’s approaching 70 and has a really wise approach to the remainder of his life: Instead of focusing on how long he’s going to live, he’s focused on how short he can make the window of time he’ll be infirmed. By eating healthy, cycling dozens of miles per week, and generally keeping his stress low, he’s determined to shrink that final period as much as possible.
This next reader, Rachel, also looks to her parents:
I am compelled to write to you! That has never happened before.
In the last six years, I saw both my parents off this planet. Both were happy to go and did not overstay. My mother, always in good health, had hoped for some more years but fell ill. Once that happened, she did not want to linger. It was too physically painful.
My father simply grew lonely and disinterested, and he too welcomed the end. He actually asked me hasten it for him, but I reminded him it was against the law (!)
Now I have my parents-in-law. He is a priest whose life revolved around being connected to others and doing pastoral work but who has recoiled into himself these last five years and today makes no contribution to anyone, anything, anywhere. This is so wrong. He could bring meaning to people but has closed those doors.
My mother-in-law, who has had to put him into a home because she cannot care for him, spends her days wracked with guilt for having done so. While he abhors the thought of death (I thought he would want to go to his maker??), she welcomes it—to be relieved of her guilt.
But neither is dying soon. What kind of life is this for them and their families, everybody’s pocketbook, and the earth’s resources?
I am soon 58 and HAVE NO DESIRE to live long. My parents checked out at 87 and 89 and I would be happy to go sooner, while I am still making some contribution to the world and to my loved ones.
Emma contributes through teaching:
Life that includes giving, sharing, and caring for others is worth it. In contrast, life as a “parasite”—endlessly entertained by television and card games—is perhaps a more arrogant use of resources. Of course I can say this now, at age 75, the day I teach a Chinese emigre English, the day after I teach three little girls piano, and the day when I will soon perform music for fellow residents in our retirement community.
What will I say ten years from now, when all I hope for is to see my grandchildren safely through adolescence, and I have no energy to spare for what I do now, I do not know.
“If we are being quite frank, there are a few exceptional people who may have something special to give to humanity, but the vast majority of people are simply useless.”
Are the majority of people useless? If we only consider people who have made contributions to the world through their inventions, philosophies, scientific or medical research, political leadership, military or business achievements, etc., then I would agree that the vast majority of people would seem to be useless.
However, every person who has ever lived on the face of the earth has influenced or impacted the lives of those around them in ways we know nothing about, unless their life touched us personally. And then only I can know how they impacted my own life experience.
Some of the peoples’ influences were/are positive and constructive; some negative and destructive. But they all contribute to the evolutionary process of the human consciousness and therefore each person’s experience, which in turn influences the lives of people of succeeding cultures and generations.
The greater question to me is why we are here at all. What is the reason or need for our actual existence? But this gets into a philosophical discussion that could go on and on.
The initial wave of reader response to our question “Is a long life really worth it?” was overwhelming “meh, not so much.” But since then, many sexagenarians, septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians have emailed more enthusiastic outlooks on old age. Here’s Jim:
A thought-provoking discussion, but it really misses the key point. I turn 65 in a couple of months, but I don’t expect to “retire” at 65—or ever. I’m fit and healthy and having the greatest fun of my life at the head of a fast-growing business. In a quarter century, if still alive, I might have to slow down a bit, but there will still be something useful for me to do.
The founding pastor of our church has poor hearing and is almost blind, but a few weeks ago he preached a great sermon to celebrate his 100th birthday. He still contributes in other ways as well.
Not everyone can continue working, but there is a huge need for volunteers in areas that do not require physical agility. Unless totally senile—and that’s something that will never happen to most of us—we all have something to offer.
Maggie is a quarter century older than Jim but has a very similar view:
Life isn’t over because I’m not longer “useful.” I’m 90 and have spent the last decade trying to be okay with not always being the helping hand. Though my greatest joy has come from knowing I have touched another’s life by being helpful, I have to remember that I am still touching people’s lives as long as I am alive. I’m so pleasantly surprised that people want to be around me.
I was pretty grim when I had to stop driving because a slight accident damaged the car beyond repair. My health also gave way and I was briefly hospitalized. It was a big adjustment. But now I am walking, exercising at the gym once a week, taking part in demonstrations, and forgetting about how old I am. I don’t see any other options.
In three weeks I will have my 90th birthday. I am certainly glad I did not die at 75. Since then, I have seen four more grandchildren born, two grandchildren graduate from college, and two from high school. I sold my financial advisory firm to my partners and helped start a new Trust Company, now serving as Regional Director and on their Board. I have had some wonderful trips and been able to enjoy sailing, tennis, and horseback riding up until two years ago. I have recently bought a set of golf clubs and look forward to enjoying a new sport.
Carol frames aging this way:
Everyone has three ages: chronological, biological, and mental. (The most important, by far, is our mental age.) I’m chronologically 81, biologically 65 and mentally 60.
Tony adds some perspective:
Consider this: Well into his 80s, Verdi [the Italian composer] was still at it; ahead were two of his greatest operas, Otello and Falstaff. And Michelangelo was still there, chisel in hand, well into his 80s. Problem is, we think it’s all over—but life, and sometimes ourselves too, always has a surprise in store.
Maureen calls old age “my blessing”:
I will be 70 on my next birthday! I have finally begun to live my truth. I am fortunate in that I have an appreciation for life that never occurred to me in my younger years. I love every sunrise and sunset. I enjoy watching the bunnies, hummingbirds, lizards, and butterflies. My grandchildren enjoy my company. I am my husband’s best friend. I have a deep spiritual connection. I take nothing for granted.
Life for me is beautiful—not because it is perfect, but because it is lovely even in its imperfection. I have made peace with my past and have no fears for my future. I am grateful for every moment! I will stay here on this amazing planet as long as I can.
Another positive outlook comes from Charlie:
Aging is not a sickness or a disease. No one yet has died knowing all there is to know and enjoying everything there is to enjoy! So why not try to be that first? Optimism, positivism, aggressiveness, regardless of your age, is what it means to be human. Cells may die and energy may lessen. But whatever is left should be used to live and love as fully as possible. We are always and ever in the process of becoming!
Joyce has some tips for healthy living in your eighties:
I read Ezekiel Emanuel’s article [“Why I Hope to Die at 75”] and agree with much of it; I certainly don’t want to have lots of effort made to keep me alive if I should unfortunately end up in a hospital and have no intention of any surgeries.
However, I am 83 and not hoping to die any time soon. I am unusually healthy for my age and do many things to remain so: I take no prescription drugs; I exercise regularly including weight lifting, walking and Tai Chi; I eat well, including fresh vegetable juice every day or so; I have good regular connections with family and close friends; I experience good art forms, including playing the piano, singing, movies, novels (currently my husband, who is 85, and I are watching the fine BBC series Lark Rise to Candleford and reading aloud together Margaret Atwood’s novel Blind Assassin).
Karen is 80 years old and wisely keeps her smartphone at bay:
I go for long walks every day it isn’t raining or unbearably cold. It is my job to keep myself as mobile and as healthy as possible. I don’t wear headphones or keep my phone on when I walk. I want to observe what wonders nature is revealing: sights, sounds, odors. I find the sound of the ocean is restful and restorative. As I near the end of my life, birds, otters, flowers, sunrises and sunsets take on extra meaning for I know I have a limited time in which to enjoy them.
And Nancy shares a great saying:
I am 79 and still teaching college courses—for another year at least, if lucky. Then for as long as I am able, I will continue to volunteer. As a good friend said, “You ought to be all spent up before you go.”
Here’s how an Atlantic author answered that question in September 1858:
Full of anticipations, full of simple, sweet delights, are these [childhood] years, the most valuable of [a] lifetime. Then wisdom and religion are intuitive. But the child hastens to leave its beautiful time and state, and watches its own growth with impatient eye. Soon he will seek to return. The expectation of the future has been disappointed. Manhood is not that free, powerful, and commanding state the imagination had delineated. And the world, too, disappoints his hope. He finds there things which none of his teachers ever hinted to him. He beholds a universal system of compromise and conformity, and in a fatal day he learns to compromise and conform.
But it wasn’t until the 20th century that scientists began to seriously study child development. In our July 1961 issue, Peter B. Neubauer heralded “The Century of the Child”:
Gone is the sentimental view that childhood is an era of innocence and the belief that an innate process of development continuously unfolds along more or less immutable lines. Freud suggested that, from birth on, the child’s development proceeds in a succession of well-defined stages, each with its own distinctive psychic organization, and that at each stage environmental factors can foster health and achievement or bring about lasting retardation and pathology. …
Freudian psychology does not, as some people apparently imagine, provide a set of ready-made prescriptions for the rearing of children. … The complexity of the interactions between mother and child cannot be reduced to rigid formulas. Love and understanding cannot be prescribed, and if they are not genuinely manifested, the most enlightened efforts to do what is best for the child may not be effective.
According to this view, children weren’t miniature adults, but they were preparing for adulthood. Growing up was a process that had to be managed by adults, which made the boundaries of childhood both more important and more nebulous.
A few years later, in our October 1968 issue, Richard Poirier described the backlash to a wave of campus protests as “The War Against the Young.” He implored older adults to take young people’s ideas seriously:
It is perhaps already irrelevant, for example, to discuss the so-called student revolt as if it were an expression of “youth.” The revolt might more properly be taken as a repudiation by the young of what adults call “youth.” It may be an attempt to cast aside the strangely exploitative and at once cloying, the protective and impotizing concept of “youth” which society foists on people who often want to consider themselves adults.
What’s more, Poirier argued, idealism shouldn’t just be the province of the young:
If young people are freeing themselves from a repressive myth of youth only to be absorbed into a repressive myth of adulthood, then youth in its best and truest form, of rebellion and hope, will have been lost to us, and we will have exhausted the best of our natural resources.
But how much redefinition could adulthood handle? In our February 1975 issue, Midge Decter addressed an anxious letter to that generation of student revolutionaries, who—though “no longer entitled to be called children”—had not yet fulfilled the necessary rites of passage for being “fully accredited adults”:
Why have you, the children, found it so hard to take your rightful place in the world? Just that. Why have your parents’ hopes for you come to seem so impossible of attainment?
Some of their expectations were, to be sure, exalted. … But … beneath these throbbing ambitions were all the ordinary—if you will, mundane—hopes that all parents harbor for their children: that you would grow up, come into your own, and with all due happiness and high spirit, carry forward the normal human business of mating, home-building, and reproducing—replacing us, in other words, in the eternal human cycle. And it is here that we find ourselves to be most uneasy, both for you and about you.
Decter blamed this state of affairs on overindulgent parenting: Adults, she argued, had failed their children by working too hard to protect them from unhappiness and by treating their “youthful rebellion” with too much deference.
The next decades’ developments in child psychology gave parents new advice. In our March 1987 issue, Bruno Bettelheim stressed the importance of letting kids guide their own play, without parents pushing them to obey rules they aren’t yet developmentally ready for. And in our February 1990 issue, Robert Karen outlined attachment theorists’ recommendations for how to “enable children to thrive emotionally and come to feel that the world of people is a positive place”—standards measured in part by a baby’s willingness to explore apart from its mother.
Were these parenting styles encouraging kids’ independence, or failing to push them hard enough? A generation after Decter, in Lori Gottlieb’s 2011 Atlantic piece “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” she also worried about parental indulgence:
The message we send kids with all the choices we give them is that they are entitled to a perfect life—that, as Dan Kindlon, the psychologist from Harvard, puts it, “if they ever feel a twinge of non-euphoria, there should be another option.” [Psychologist Wendy] Mogel puts it even more bluntly: what parents are creating with all this choice are anxious and entitled kids whom she describes as “handicapped royalty.” …
When I was my son’s age, I didn’t routinely get to choose my menu, or where to go on weekends—and the friends I asked say they didn’t, either. There was some negotiation, but not a lot, and we were content with that. We didn’t expect so much choice, so it didn’t bother us not to have it until we were older, when we were ready to handle the responsibility it requires. But today, [psychologist Jean] Twenge says, “we treat our kids like adults when they’re children, and we infantilize them when they’re 18 years old.”
In Hanna Rosin’s April 2014 article “The Overprotected Kid,” she lamented the loss of independence that once helped kids come of age:
One common concern of parents these days is that children grow up too fast. But sometimes it seems as if children don’t get the space to grow up at all; they just become adept at mimicking the habits of adulthood. As [geographer Roger] Hart’s research shows, children used to gradually take on responsibilities, year by year. They crossed the road, went to the store; eventually some of them got small neighborhood jobs. Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year. But these days, middle-class children, at least, skip these milestones. They spend a lot of time in the company of adults, so they can talk and think like them, but they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant.
Yet how exactly do you measure “true” independence and self-reliance? And what’s the final milestone that marks the transition to adulthood? Decter suggests it’s settling down with a stable career and a family. But in Julie Beck’s 2016 Atlantic piece, “When Are You Really an Adult?,” she places that rite of passage in historical context:
The economic boom that came after World War II made Leave It to Beaver adulthood more attainable than it had ever been. Even for very young adults. There were enough jobs available for young men, [historian Steven] Mintz writes, that they sometimes didn’t need a high-school diploma to get a job that could support a family. And social mores of the time strongly favored marriage over unmarried cohabitation hence: job, spouse, house, kids. But this was a historical anomaly. …
Many young people, [psychologist Jeffrey] Jensen Arnett says, still want these things—to establish careers, to get married, to have kids. (Or some combination thereof.) They just don’t see them as the defining traits of adulthood. Unfortunately, not all of society has caught up, and older generations may not recognize the young as adults without these markers. A big part of being an adult is people treating you like one, and taking on these roles can help you convince others—and yourself—that you’re responsible.
So, adults: What convinced you? Many readers have discussed the topic already, and we’d like to reopen the call for your stories—this time with an eye to the gaps between what it takes to feel like an adult and what it takes to be seen as one. Did you feel you’d become an adult long before you got treated like one? Or have you passed the markers of adulthood without quite feeling you’ve fully grown up? If you’re a parent, when did you feel your kids had grown up, or what will it take to make you certain? Please send your answers—and questions—to firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I was 11, my mother died. My father had become blind a few years before, from a rare form of glaucoma. He had no choice but to allow me to do things that are normally done by an adult, such as budgeting and paying bills, cooking and cleaning, and other various things. He had to talk to me in an honest way, and make me understand things and rely on my judgement in lots of matters. Other adults did too. I was never a child again after my mother died and my dad knew it.
Another reader’s mother also died at a pretty young age:
I became an adult when my mother died and my dad started dating four months later. I was 20 years old. Once he had a new woman in his life (whom he is still married to now) and essentially a new family, I was out. We had really started to be at odds the year before, when I had started to do things my way instead of his way. He had pretty much taken for granted that I could make it in this world without his advice or anything.
For this next reader, it was boarding school:
I’m not sure the end of childhood is the sort of thing that one can pinpoint; seems to me there were rather a number of distinct rites of passage. The first was when I went to boarding school, around age 10. When my parents dropped me off that first day, I knew I was on my own. Calling home to say they should come get you was not an option; my parents made this pretty clear, but it was not necessary. I knew.
Another reader had to go abroad to step out of childhood:
When I was an exchange student, my father came down to visit. There I was, living independently in a foreign country at 17. I could speak the language fluently and had to navigate us for him.
I was 18 and turned down an Ivy League school and, using my own money, moved to Italy to live with my 25-year-old girlfriend. I think my parents would say I became an adult when, at 26, I handed them a copy of my will and let them know I had been chosen to deploy in a war zone as a civilian alongside a joint counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency military unit. Strangely enough, they weren’t happy with either bit of news.
Rachael was 18 and had just started college:
I received an offer for health insurance in the mail. It went to my home address, and my mom was absolutely thrilled at the notion that I would be off her employer-supplied (but expensive) health insurance. I began paying for my own health insurance at that time, but I also let her know that I wouldn’t allow her to claim me as a dependent on her income taxes anymore. I paid my own expenses (insurance, college, etc). I laugh now when I think of “kids” still being on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26.
This next reader is almost 26:
I became an adult in the past year or so, when my dad learned how much was in my savings account and I mentioned my credit score in the context of considering new car costs. I think my parents assumed up to that point that I was just scraping by and blowing my money irresponsibly, and they were impressed with the degree to which I was caring for myself.
I think calling my dad and asking for advice has helped him to see me differently as well. There’s something about discussing investments and trying to decide on insurance plans that I would assume makes it hard to keep seeing your kid as a kid.
Another reader also nods to financial independence: “I became an adult when I began to pick up the check for my parents by surreptitiously passing plastic to the maître d’ early in the meal.” This next reader entered adulthood in a brutal fashion:
I was 20 and began working at the same factory as my father did. He was in maintenance as an industrial electrician. There had been a summer program for employees’ children and I worked out well enough that I was hired at the end of the summer. He was proud that I carried my weight.
However, three years into it and just after my 23rd birthday, my hand got caught in a take-up roll for a large paper machine and I was flung around like a rag doll. With both femurs and my left ulna, left radius, and left humerus broken, I spent months recovering.
But I kept a good attitude, believing falsely that I would be back to my normal self. My dad told me that he could never have had such a good attitude having gone through what I did.
This next reader also defined his adulthood alongside his dad’s admiration:
I became an adult when I joined the ROTC program my freshman year of college to appease my dad. He got a glimmer of pride in his eyes, saw it as me taking initiative, and was proud that I seemed interested in serving my country. I wasn’t really; I only did it to get him off my back so I could do drugs and other hedonistic things in college. But it was good to have his approval for once and no stress.
The first moment of adulthood was rather mundane for this reader: “Probably the day Mom asked if she could come to my apartment 45 minutes away to use my washing machine because hers was broken.” For another reader, the moment was different for each of his parents:
For my dad, I’d say the writing was on the wall around the time I was 16 and it became apparent that I was physically stronger than he was. He maintained the power of the purse for a few years after, but, considering that it was at about the same time when he’d occasionally offer me a beer, I’m inclined to accept that I was an adult in his eyes.
Mom? Damn, who knows what she really thinks about anything, but I’m guessing she first fully acknowledged my adulthood not through any of the accomplishments or milestones, but when, in 2003, I bought her a car and she therefore had a tangible symbol that could be seen and acknowledged by others.
This next reader’s parents need grandkids before truly considering her an adult:
I’m a 31-year-old married attorney homeowner with no kids. I don’t think my parents look at me like an adult. I don’t think they will until I have kids. This is most obviously manifested in my parents’ constant amnesia of me being a lawyer. They will be having discussions about some legal consideration, I’ll weigh in, yet my opinion is given no weight whatsoever. Though maybe I’m just being whiny that they aren’t taking me seriously. Is that the same thing as not seeing me as an adult? They seem very proud of me, but that doesn’t seem akin to viewing me as an adult either.
Jason might never become an adult in his parents’ eyes:
In some ways, my sister and I will always be “kids.” My mom will randomly start doing things to my hair or bring over something like saucepans that we already have and don’t need. My dad critiques my yard and is always convinced something is wrong with my car (there isn’t, Dad, it’s fine!) I just laugh at this stuff, though; it doesn’t really bother me.
It bothers Doug, though; he finds the topic a “sore spot”:
I’m not convinced my parents believe I’m an adult. I’m 32, the youngest of three, the second most-educated (sister has multiple grad degrees), and the highest earner. I’m constantly getting asked if I’m saving enough or if I need help with anything. Meanwhile, I never ask for help, but both of my older sisters constantly need help. I’m the one who made sure my dad got power of attorney for my grandmother before she totally lost it, and who opened college accounts for my nieces and nephews.
Henry David Thoreau is something of a poster child for solitude. In his essay “Walking,” published just after his death in our June 1862 issue, Thoreau made the case “for absolute freedom and wildness … to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society”:
We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.
Thoreau himself was “a genuine American weirdo,” as Jedediah Purdy recently put it, and solitude suited him: His relentless individualism irritated his friends, including Atlantic co-founder Ralph Waldo Emerson, who described Thoreau’s habit of contradicting every point in pursuit of his own ideals as “a little chilling to the social affections.” Emerson may have had Thoreau in mind when, in our December 1857 issue, he mused that “many fine geniuses” felt the need to separate themselves from the world, to keep it from intruding on their thoughts. Yet he questioned whether such withdrawal was good for a person, not to mention for society as a whole:
This banishment to the rocks and echoes no metaphysics can make right or tolerable. This result is so against nature, such a half-view, that it must be corrected by a common sense and experience. “A man is born by the side of his father, and there he remains.” A man must be clothed with society, or we shall feel a certain bareness and poverty, as of a displaced and unfurnished member. He is to be dressed in arts and institutions, as well as body-garments. Now and then a man exquisitely made can live alone, and must; but coop up most men, and you undo them. …
When a young barrister said to the late Mr. Mason, “I keep my chamber to read law,”—“Read law!” replied the veteran, “’tis in the courtroom you must read law.” Nor is the rule otherwise for literature. If you would learn to write, ’tis in the street you must learn it. Both for the vehicle and for the aims of fine arts, you must frequent the public square. … Society cannot do without cultivated men.
Emerson concluded that the key to effective, creative thought was to maintain a balance between solitary reflection and social interaction: “The conditions are met, if we keep our independence, yet do not lose our sympathy.”
Four decades later, in our November 1901 issue, Paul Elmore More identified a radical sympathy in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which stemmed, he argued, from Hawthorne’s own “imperial loneliness of soul”:
His words have at last expressed what has long slumbered in human consciousness. … Not with impunity had the human race for ages dwelt on the eternal welfare of the soul; for from such meditation the sense of personal importance had become exacerbated to an extraordinary degree. … And when the alluring faith attendant on this form of introspection paled, as it did during the so-called transcendental movement into which Hawthorne was born, there resulted necessarily a feeling of anguish and bereavement more tragic than any previous moral stage through which the world had passed. The loneliness of the individual, which had been vaguely felt and lamented by poets and philosophers of the past, took on a poignancy altogether unexampled. It needed but an artist with the vision of Hawthorne to represent this feeling as the one tragic calamity of mortal life, as the great primeval curse of sin … the universal protest of the human heart.
Fast-forward a century, and what More described as “the solitude that invests the modern world” had only gotten deeper invested—while “the sense of personal importance” gained new narcissistic vehicles in the form of social-media tools that let us “connect” online while keeping our real, messy selves as private as we choose. Which is not a bad thing: In some ways, the internet looks like the perfect way to achieve Emerson’s ideal balance between independent thought and social engagement.
A considerable part of Facebook’s appeal stems from its miraculous fusion of distance with intimacy, or the illusion of distance with the illusion of intimacy. Our online communities become engines of self-image, and self-image becomes the engine of community. The real danger with Facebook is not that it allows us to isolate ourselves, but that by mixing our appetite for isolation with our vanity, it threatens to alter the very nature of solitude.
The new isolation is not of the kind that Americans once idealized, the lonesomeness of the proudly nonconformist, independent-minded, solitary stoic, or that of the astronaut who blasts into new worlds. Facebook’s isolation is a grind. What’s truly staggering about Facebook usage is not its volume—750 million photographs uploaded over a single weekend—but the constancy of the performance it demands. More than half its users—and one of every 13 people on Earth is a Facebook user—log on every day. Among 18-to-34-year-olds, nearly half check Facebook minutes after waking up, and 28 percent do so before getting out of bed. The relentlessness is what is so new, so potentially transformative. Facebook never takes a break. We never take a break.
The same year, Brian Patrick Eha also noted the changing nature of solitude—particularly the kind of solitude achieved by wearing headphones in public. “We are each of us cocooned in noise,” he wrote, “and can escape from one another’s only when immersed in our own.” For both Marche and Eha, the problem with technology is not its tendency to isolate people so much as the way it works to prevent us—through a sense of connection or simply through distraction—from fully experiencing that isolation and all it entails.
And as the author Dorthe Nors explained in 2014 for our By Heart series of writer interviews, a full experience of isolation has serious benefits:
The artistic process unfolds in the lonely hours. That’s when the work happens. You have to control the creative energy that you’ve got. You have to discipline yourself to fulfill it. And that work only happens alone.
Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you. And then the “too much humanity” feeling is even stronger: you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.
For Nors, like for Hawthorne, solitude not only enables personal reflection, but also grants access to some deeper, more universal strain of human feeling. That’s the same lesson that Nathaniel Rich, writing in our latest issue, took from the story of Christopher Knight, who spent 27 years living utterly alone in the woods of Maine:
Since his arrest in April 2013, Knight has agreed to be interviewed by a single journalist. Michael Finkel published an article about him in GQ in 2014 and has now written a book, The Stranger in the Woods, that combines an account of Knight’s story with an absorbing exploration of solitude and man’s eroding relationship with the natural world. Though the “stranger” in the title is Knight, one closes the book with the sense that Knight, like all seers, is the only sane person in a world gone insane—that modern civilization has made us strangers to ourselves.
Yet a total withdrawal from civilization can’t be the answer—nor, at a political moment when empathy and understanding seem ever-more-urgently needed, can walling yourself off from other people’s ideas be wise. In February, Emma Green offered this critique of a new book by Rod Dreher, a conservative Christian thinker who calls for like-minded members of his faith to withdraw from public life into communities of their own:
Dreher wrote The Benedict Option for people like him—those who share his faith, convictions, and feelings of cultural alienation. But even those who might wish to join Dreher’s radical critique of American culture, people who also feel pushed out and marginalized by shallowness of modern life, may feel unable to do so. Many people, including some Christians, feel that knowing, befriending, playing with, and learning alongside people who are different from them adds to their faith, not that it threatens it. For all their power and appeal, Dreher’s monastery walls may be too high, and his mountain pass too narrow.
So, tell us about your experience: How do you incorporate solitary reflection into a 21st-century lifestyle? Can you see communitarian benefits in spending more time on your own—or, on the other hand, point to what society loses when more people spend more time alone? Please send your answers (and your questions) to email@example.com.
Polished, soft-spoken, and a self-styled moderate, Jared Kushner has become his father-in-law’s most dangerous enabler.
Jared Kushner, the second-most-powerful man in the White House, is quite a bit smarter than the most powerful man, his father-in-law, the president. Donald Trump possesses a genius for the jugular, but he evinces few other signs of intelligence. He certainly displays no capacity, or predisposition, to learn. His son-in-law, by contrast, appears to have sufficient analytic acumen to comprehend that the country has been brought to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic. Kushner might not be the brightest public servant in American history—he is a Harvard graduate who is also a leading symbol of college-admissions corruption, and a businessman with a substantial record of failure—but he has shown flashes of effectiveness in his time at the White House. Because he projects a facsimile of capability and because he shows, at irregular intervals, a seemingly genuine interest in governing, he is also an exasperating mystery.
Zvikorn, whose bio on the site describes an Israeli teen into sports history, has made more than 2,300 edits to Wikipedia articles over the past few years. “The main reason I edit Wikipedia is a strong belief that every person on the planet has the right to access the accumulated knowledge of humanity,” he wrote. “Today it is only getting more important for mankind to find out the truth and not be exposed to believe fake news.”
WhatsApp diplomacy seems to have worked for the Trump administration.
This morning, Donald Trump announced the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Israel is also committing to not annexing the West Bank. The agreement will shock those who thought the portion of the Jared Kushner portfolio devoted to peace in the Middle East consisted of a single briefing folder filled with printouts of Wikipedia articles. But there were signs that this agreement was coming, and that the Trump administration would be uniquely suited to making it happen.
Saudi Arabia is not officially party to the agreement, but its relationship with the UAE is so fraternal that we should assume that it eagerly approved, and that the UAE will represent its interests in Israel as if they were its own. The Trump administration deals with these countries through the same personal channels, which look opaque and corrupt to us because they are. A few months ago, a Saudi academic told me that Trump was easier for him to understand than for me, because I live in a country where nepotism is a crime, and he lives in one where it is the system of government. The idea that a president would appoint his son-in-law to manage the most sensitive aspects of his administration offends me. To a Saudi, he said, it is just how things get done, and there is nothing mysterious about it at all.
Short of an outright constitutional crisis, a lot could still go horribly wrong.
A brazen refusal by the president to leave office is surely a nightmare scenario. But even if President Donald Trump were to lose and accept the results on November 3 or soon thereafter, he could nevertheless wreak significant damage during the period between the election and the inauguration of Joe Biden—endangering the incoming administration, at best, and actively sabotaging it, at worst.
Presidential transitions are perilous even in normal times. With each inauguration of a new president every four to eight years, the executive branch undergoes a massive overhaul; more than 4,000 new political appointees flood into federal departments and agencies, including 1,200 senior officials who require Senate confirmation. The minute a new president is sworn in, his administration assumes responsibility for everything from nuclear launch codes to pandemic response, economic policy, and counterterrorism—at the very moment when the government’s capacity is most diminished. At the Defense Department alone, the nation’s largest employer and perhaps the world’s most complex organization, the top 59 senior civilian leaders, from the secretary of defense on down, are political appointees requiring Senate confirmation. A private-sector company would be crazy to emulate this approach, yet the security, the health, and the prosperity of Americans depend on its success.
American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase.
If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world.
Why having a woman vice-presidential candidate is historic—and painful for young feminists
The morning before Kamala Harris became the Democratic nominee for vice president, I met Amanda Litman at the Javits Center in New York City, a mammoth building near the Hudson River made almost entirely of glass. Four years ago, Litman spent Election Night here, waiting excitedly in a holding area with other staffers on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The intended metaphor was not subtle: Clinton was to declare her victory as America’s first woman president beneath a literal glass ceiling, shattering the most notorious gender barrier in politics.
When Clinton lost, Litman, who served as Clinton’s email director, felt more than just professional defeat. She believed the election was about proving that a woman similar to herself—often described as too ambitious, too much, or too loud—could succeed in America. “If you had asked me the next morning, ‘Will we ever have a woman president?’ I would have stopped crying hard enough to tell you to fuck off,” Litman told me. “It felt unimaginable.”
India’s and Turkey’s leaders are turning buildings into battlegrounds for nationalists.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has acted on his yearlong quest to restore the historic Hagia Sophia, once a Byzantine-era cathedral and museum, as a functioning mosque. Three thousand miles away, in India’s northeastern city of Ayodhya, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has fulfilled a similar promise, last week laying the foundation for a new Hindu temple on the ruins of a 16th-century mosque where Hindus believe an ancient temple once stood.
Yet the transformation of these sites marks more than a simple manifestation of religious adherence. At its core, it represents a concerted effort by Turkey’s and India’s leaders to galvanize support from their religious and nationalist bases, even if doing so comes at the expense of their countries’ religious minorities. Even more fundamentally, it is changing how these two countries see themselves, demonstrating a simultaneous recasting of once-secular republics into fully fledged ethnonationalist states.
A virus has brought the world’s most powerful country to its knees.
How did it come to this? A virus a thousand times smaller than a dust mote has humbled and humiliated the planet’s most powerful nation. America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.
In the first half of 2020, SARS‑CoV‑2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID‑19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million.
A dangerous wildfire driven by hot, windy conditions has prompted hundreds of evacuations.
Just north of Los Angeles, a wildfire near Lake Hughes grew to 10,000 acres within merely a few hours yesterday. The rapidly growing blaze prompted the evacuation of hundreds of nearby homes as firefighters rushed to contain it. High winds, hot and dry conditions, and steep terrain have driven the fire’s growth in the Angeles National Forest.
The coronavirus could change lingering cultural assumptions about what makes for a full and happy life.
A few weeks into the pandemic, a meme circulated among some of the mothers I follow on various social-media platforms. “Check in on your friends with little kids,” the words in a tiny black serif font on a light-pink background read, followed by a fairly long list of things parents with young kids couldn’t do, including “go for a run by themselves,” “peacefully read a book or start a new project,” and “go to the bathroom by themselves.” This innocuous-seeming post caught my eye because it felt like a cry for help. My friends were getting honest about how hard it is to raise children right now.
I also read it as an indirect plea to not take my child-free privileges for granted. I don’t know what it’s like to parent a young child, let alone parent in a pandemic. I can imagine it, but like most life-altering experiences, it’s one of those things you have to live to truly understand. I’ve always been ambivalent about whether I would have children, but as I entered my early 40s, I started exploring the possibility of having a child on my own. And then the pandemic happened.