Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Stressful Contact

Like other animals, I experience a noticeable increase in stress when eating with strangers. Phone calls or unannounced visits have the same effect. Thanks to caller ID and voice mail, my wife and I can screen out telemarketers, and we generally ignore people who come to our door during dinner.

As a volunteer in political campaigns, I’ve been on the other side. Few phone calls and knocks at the door are answered. I can sympathize, which is why years ago I discovered that I would never be a successful salesman. Yet, like an insane person, I keep hoping for a different result.

In a culture that has sacrificed community for trade, it seems like the only way to get anything done is to use methods that increase the stress in people’s lives. This leads to inevitable backlash: Issues and candidates become just more products that someone’s trying to get us to buy, and campaign volunteers get blocked by the same barriers we erect to keep out other salespeople. To fit through the shrinking holes in people’s armor, the messages become so distorted as to be practically meaningless.

Perhaps the loss of quality and imagination in our cultural artifacts and social discourse is merely a consequence of this trend and the distorted values behind it. If, instead, we re-established smaller communities with familiarity that diminished stress, and like the hierarchy of communities that originally defined our country made our collective decisions by interactions between representatives of these communities, we might actually get people more engaged in public life – the main prerequisite for a vibrant and healthy society.

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