In Ferenc Máté’s new book A Real Life, he asserts that what truly matters are family, good friends, and a true community. This is a telling indicator of his audience; people attracted to this book will relish their old-fashioned values being confirmed. Hence, Máté will be preaching to the already converted—unfortunately, because others should read this book to implement changes in our society. But even the already converted will find this book (termed a memoir by the publisher) fresh, given Máté’s examples, humor, quotable insights, and appropriate research.
The author warns about the direction contemporary society is taking. One of his first points is that gadgets negatively affect our lives. We are “enslaved by electronics,” especially Facebook with its fake friends (valued only for their numbers), and the cell phone, which favors the caller over the person standing right there. (The land phone provides at least a quiet place and more time to reflect.) The “more connected we are, the more detached,” he asserts. “Social networks reduce friendship to a commodity” with “friendships and companionships watered down or abandoned.” Friendships need time and patience to nurture:
Between 1979 and 2009 researchers found a 48 percent decrease in empathy and 34 percent decrease in perspective-taking—considering someone else’s point of view, and mainly caused by the inundation since 2000 of callous reality TV shows, the explosion of social networks and texting, which allow people to disengage from others at the click of a key. They blame these “physically distant online environments” for encouraging people to “lionize their own lives” and “functionally create a buffer between individuals which makes it easier to ignore others’ pain, or even at times, inflict pain upon others.”
In electronic chatter, words become road kill, belittling reality, as in phrases like ‘collateral damage’ for nonmilitary people’s deaths and WMDs instead of weapons of mass destruction. The proliferation of electronic communication has also resulted in no real mail/letters anymore and the impersonal, fact-filled, and often bragging Christmas letter sent to everyone. As a result of no face-to-face dealing with problems and fervor, we have become hardened. And this has consequences on the world, as Senator Christopher Dodd has noted:
Retiring Senator Dodd, who joined the senate thirty-six years ago, lamented that over the past two decades there has been a “stripping of the socialization, which is always what made this place function.” He remembers the late hours in the members’ dining room, where senators mingled, where he sat enthralled listening to the old bulls. “As a new member, you just sat there and absorbed it as they would rib each other and sometimes have a heated debate about a subject. It was as good an education as you could get about the place.”
Today, “there’s no one in that room.”
Máté is also humorous about gadgetry. The GPS allows for “relaxed brainlessness” and may cut down on marital fights, but a “lady in Ontario, Canada, obeying her GPS, drove miles into a bog, and another in England drove into a river.”
Among the author’s other points: We are in a “deluge of staccato bits of information.” Memory needs information to be thoroughly and deeply processed. We are also “changing ourselves to death”—homes and fragmentary jobs in our search for success, fame and perfection. As a sign of our success, an enormous house with more gear only feeds profits, not our desires. Steve Jobs, “the world’s gadget-god said blithely not long ago, ‘It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want.’”
“Can’t we just stop achieving for a while?” Máté wonders. To the “Grow Up To Be Somebody” dictum, he asks, “Is this a joke? Am I not somebody now? Should I grow up and be somebody else? Who? Elmer Fudd? Mary Magdalene? Attila the Hun?” Then there is the “Make Something of Yourself” advice. “Like what? A cup and saucer? Skirt and sweater? An oak dining room set? Give me a clue.”
So what should we be doing? We should live in a small community (Roseto and Venice, Italy are examples) where everyone stops to chat, and visits, as an extended family. Work could be time-shared, as in Germany. Businesses need to treat their employees like family, as does W. W. Norton, Máté’s publisher. Even in a city, a Victory Garden will bring the family together. “Happiness is doing,” (what we make by hand), and thus “contentment with one’s circumstances.” We need Sundays back, and need laughing time. The best things in life are free, i.e., nature. We need to value teachers, as they do in Finland. And we need to think “linearly, subtly, thoroughly.” And kids need to play, outside and with other kids, to get back their imagination.
Good advice for our times.