GUEST COLUMN
The Living Dead

September 1992By Thomas H. Naylor and Magdalena R. Naylor

Thomas H. Naylor is Professor of Economics at Duke University. Magdalena R. Naylor is a psychiatrist.

We are living in the midst of a spiritual crisis of unprecedented proportions. The de­mise of Communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union have unmistakably exposed our psychological vulnerability. (We have no idea what we want to be now that the cold war is over.) Our nation suffers from meaningless­ness, which in turn leads to separation, alien­ation, and, ultimately, despair. Those who are alienated are detached from their government, their basic beliefs, and eventually themselves. Drug abuse, alcoholism, sexual abuse, teenage suicide, and violent crime are all firmly rooted in meaninglessness.

Prosperity and the availability of too much leisure time have given us more freedom than we know what to do with. Although many mental illnesses can be traced to meaning­lessness, countless people experience vacuous lives without any of the usual symptoms. Even though we live in a period of great prosperity, Walker Percy warned that it is the Time of Thanatos — a time of the living dead in which “people who seem to be living lives which are good by all sociological standards... somehow seem to be more dead than alive.” As Percy said, “There is something worse than being deprived of life: it is being deprived of life and not knowing it.”

Many who are physically alive appear to be spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually dead. The living dead can be found every­where: glued to CNN News hour after hour; reciting religious creeds on Sunday mornings in which they do not believe; playing golf at the country club, working on an assembly line; saying “Have a nice day”; playing bridge; feigning interest in mindless bureaucratic jobs; sitting through uninspired classroom lectures; watching the Washington Redskins on televi­sion in the neighborhood sports bar.

In an attempt to avoid the pain and suffer­ing associated with separation and meaning­lessness, many Americans seek meaning through a life based on having: owning, ma­nipulating, or controlling material things, wealth, and other people. They think they can consume their way into a state of never-ending self-actualization without paying any psycho­logical price for their life of unrestrained plea­sure. Those in the having mode want to hold on to what they’ve got at all cost. They live by the slogan, “I’ve got mine, Jack.”


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