Distraction and complacence draw the bottom line of the North American lifestyle. In the words of the satirist, Juvenal: “Everything now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.” Give the people something to eat and a form of entertainment, and you can almost guarantee the eternal silence of their thinking. Juvenal used this metaphor to describe his people’s lack of political charge, and their inability to rise as critical thinkers. While this still applies today, as thousands of youth would sooner watch an action film than engage with information about the dozens of real-life wars, it also applies to our day-to-day struggle in forming connections with one another. Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are.
We sit among groups of people for hours at a time: socializing, associating, entertaining. This often involves some sort of intoxication, be it alcoholic or, more simply, an intoxication with simplicity: basic, superficial conversation. We do not think of those moments as character building. We do not consider that, as an hour in a university classroom could effectively influence our behavior for the rest of our lives, so can an hour among our chosen acquaintances. We waste time, hinder and tally until our most significant human interactions begin amounting to mindless activities. We contend with the forces of habit, drive ourselves deeper into surface relationships, and learn nothing about each other. As we choose to be blind to universal truths, political sciences, and human affairs, we also choose to be blind to individual truths, internal conflicts, and human natures. We are satisfied only by bread and circuses.
As a woman, I often reflect on this and sense, with rising panic, a longing for a more intricate connection with my surroundings. What is a city so full of people, yet so bereft of togetherness? What is a group of human beings, sitting so closely together, yet attuned to their Iphones, Ipads, and Macbooks? What do I really know about you, person who sits beside me every day in a crowded classroom, person who walks with me to the bus stop, person who complains incessantly about the weather? What interests you, truly, more than the weather? Where is your soul, your humanity?
In search for answers to such questions, I often find myself positioned at the center of the table: ready for dissection. I seem to think that an unreserved portrayal of myself might distract from the core distractions: it might remind people to speak to one another, to delve into one another, to dig a little. Dig a little deeper. Unfortunately, a phone may ring, a text may arrive, or a song may play that drives attention away from the girl experiencing dissection. The result is an endless sum of dismantled parts, unable to lift itself off the table, and unable to entirely sink into it. Who does she become, this dismembered woman, this art project? Who is she, missing pieces, emptied out and refilled with promises of more bread and more circuses? Distracted, bewildered, complacent.
Juvenal’s frustration with the keen human ability to turn a cold shoulder was woven into a system that encouraged sustainable silence, much like the system we live with today. His intention was to remind his audience of the details that they often miss: the truths that they bypass because they seem too complex for the average layman; too difficult to think about. Here, I break this grand frustration into a much smaller part: how can I ask my fellow citizens to raise their eyes, today, towards a broken Syria, an occupied Palestine, a forgotten Armenia, when they do not raise their eyes high enough even to look, for one moment, at each other? How should I expect of you, my friend, to carry the burden of another nation, when you do not even attempt to carry your own burden, but rather fill your life with distractions to protect yourself from reality? I cannot. I can only ask you to recognize the effects of this circus: see that you do not see, and only then will you be able to open, ponder, grow, and connect. Connect with yourself, connect with me, connect with them.