The world is going berserk, but inner peace is possible
A study published in the journal Nature and conducted at the University of Heidelberg gained attention around the world for what it concluded about the psychological effects of living in urban environments. Previous studies showed that people living in cities risked experiencing anxiety and mood disorders at a much higher rate than non-city dwellers from 29 to 39 per cent more. The German study, published five years ago, tried to find out more specifically, or rather how, physiologically, this was so. To that end, researchers examined the brains of 50 people, some of whom lived in big cities, some in the country, while they were engaged in challenging mathematical exercises. Among city dwellers, the study found, the amygdala, a set of neurons lodged deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe, went into overdrive during the experiment, meaning that urbanites are hyper-susceptible to stress, presumably because they experience so much of it. Confronting stress regularly doesn’t seem to immunise you against the effects of more of it.
To all but the most flamboyantly neurotic residents of Manhattan, who feel that anything more than 25 minutes spent in the woods will devolve into a horror movie, it is clear what is unnerving about metropolitan life: both human and vehicular congestion and the pollution, aural and environmental, to which they give rise. Our biggest cities are plagued by housing shortages, egregious displays of income inequality, status anxiety, inadequate schools and ailing infrastructure. This, if we allowed our imaginations to be colonised by stories like the one of a Minneapolis bridge collapsing over the Mississippi River nine years ago, killing more than a dozen people, would mean we would rarely travel over water or under it. In pedestrian friendly cities, there is the worry of pedestrian fatalities. In New York, in the summer, you will always find a contingent of people worrying about air-conditioners falling out of high-rise windows and killing them.
These are merely the baseline triggers of distress. We can add to them the potentially catastrophic twin threats of terrorism and climate change, fears against which neither money nor position provide much of a buffer. Crime has plummeted during the last two decades, but a shattered relationship between the police and the public has replaced it as one of the country’s most pressing civic problems. The last eight months have passed as a calendar of tragedy: Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Orlando, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Nice. Terrible things can and do happen anywhere, of course, but they have been happening with greater frequency and rippling devastation in major cities.
Will this cause a retrenchment from the opportunities that cities offer, an exodus? It is possible, but current demographic predictions have the world’s urban population surpassing 6 billion by 2045. In 1990, there were 10 “megacities” in the world, meaning cities with inhabitants of 10 million or more. By 2014, that number had nearly tripled. Within the next 15 years, the United Nations projects, there will be more than 40 megacities. By 2050, about 70 per cent of the world’s population will be urban. After 9/11, you often heard people talk about leaving New York perhaps it was safer to live in the country. Some people did move, but the population of the city has grown over the last 15 years in Lower Manhattan, it has doubled. And since 9/11, the city has witnessed one of the most aggressive real-estate booms in its history.
Every generation surely finds cause to believe it is living with more dread and turmoil than the last. In his epic poem, The Age of Anxiety, published in the 1940s, W.H. Auden seemed to recognise this, “Now is the age of anxiety,” he wrote. But we could reasonably ask how, individually and collectively, the urban psyche might be managed during this particularly tense and fractious time.
On a certain level, the culture is engaged in this management reflexively. One way to understand a widespread cosmopolitan trend like the farm-to-table movement, which has taken over culinary life, is to see it as a sublimation of our apprehensions about a world in which terrible threats to our survival come from maps. The appeal of the locavore life, the chalkboard menu, the craft-paper tablecloth, the cream from the cow that lives in a meadow no more than 108 commuter minutes north of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is the illusion of a controlled intimacy we’ve lost in a world where public space seems so imperiled by the maniacal expression of distant values and ideologies. The hunger, for derivation, has been literalised.
In some ways, we may even be turning away from some of the anonymity the online world affords. The digital economy has given birth to dozens of online meal-delivery services during the last few years. You can order meals from restaurants several neighbourhoods away, or you can receive a recipe with all the pre-measured ingredients to make a dinner yourself. A new company, called Umi, imagines that if you don’t have time to make dinner yourself, you might want to have a neighbour make it for you. Not too long ago, I attended a street fair in my neighbourhood in Brooklyn where a middle-aged woman, an eager home cook who lived a few blocks away, handed me a small bag of granola she had made as a sampling of what she might do if I signed up with the service. Immerse yourself too deeply into the world of online retail and you can exclude yourself from a good deal of everyday human interaction, but here was a model that tried to, or might at least might help, promote relationships among people living relatively close to one another who might otherwise be strangers.
On the face of things, ordering a plate of rigatoni from someone you don’t initially know, either through the kind of online apparatus that might flourish in an affluent neighbourhood or the informal cooking networks that can arise in poorer ones, might seem to have little to do with disaster preparedness or coping with the uncertainties of a tumultuous world. But academics and city leaders who have dealt with acute crisis agree that those areas of a city that fare best are those neighborhoods where social connections are strongest. This was true in Chicago after a deadly heat wave in 1995, as the sociologist Eric Klinenberg discusses in his book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. And it was true during the blackout in New York in 2003, according to Peter Madonia, a top aide in the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now with the Rockefeller Foundation.
When something terrible happens, you need to be able to rely on those near you. For their part, municipal and other local leaders need to communicate effectively during times of crisis to reduce panic. In terms of what can be done to that end during the course of more ordinary life, leaders can help us edit down our worry list. Two years ago, when the arrival of Ebola was causing concern, Mayor Bill de Blasio, in New York, handled the moment with great equanimity and reason, refusing to stoke fears (Gov Andrew M. Cuomo talked instead, at one point, of the possibility of casual transmission on subways, a notion based in uncertain evidence and one with no potential to soothe.)
After the killings in Orlando and Nice, many civilians might find comfort in an approach to counterterrorism that, beyond the purview of foreign policy and law enforcement, incorporated some of the work of social service agencies. In each of those mass killings, the perpetrators had a history of domestic violence. Is there a way to divine what sort of abusive personalities might be prone to extreme acts of violence? Can they be helped before they act? The “see it, say something” aphorism deployed in New York City after 9/11, mostly for the purpose of registering lone packages in mass transit, might be broadened to include getting people the help they need. Are we sufficiently investigating how much can be done on the mental-health side in terms of prevention?
Given that horror repeats itself, that faith in our political institutions is low, that new ways to kill people (weaponising trucks) are devised too often, it can seem almost irrational not to worry. But maybe, inner peace experienced at least sometimes isn’t as elusive as we think.
New York Times
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