You wouldn’t say “My family is sick and dying, but my life is good.”

You wouldn’t say “Everyone at work is in danger, but my life is swell.”

So I’m confused by the latest nationwide poll in which most Americans say they are happy with their lives, even though the country is in trouble.

Hello? This is like saying “My car is about to go off that cliff, but no worries, I’m wearing my seat belt.”

Perhaps you saw this latest study. It was splashed across the pages of USA Today, a newspaper that always has considered investigative reporting something you do with a phone and a questionnaire.

Still, this study was, in a strange way, educational, for it revealed something that seemed quite lost on the USA Today people. Hypocrisy. And desperation. The pages showed picture after picture of “average” Americans, working moms, students, graphic designers. (Have you noticed how every poll concerning average Americans now includes at least one graphic designer? What did we do before these people?)

Anyhow, all these folks were saying things like “crime is getting worse” and “schools aren’t doing their jobs.”

And then came the poll, which showed these same people were satisfied with and optimistic about their lives. Never mind that the nation was heading down the toilet.

Sorry, folks, but that little toilet ride is going to have a few passengers. And it’s not all going to be “them” — if you catch my drift.

It’s not my problem

Let me give you a small example. On the same day this study came out, the Army revealed that it is having a tough time keeping its ranks. Enlistments are down. The active duty force is falling below desired levels.

“Too bad,” most of us say, “that’s someone else’s problem. The Army is a nasty place anyhow. They ought to treat women better. They ought to stop having all those scandals. It’s their mess and they should clean it up. My life is good.”

Well, sure it is — until we find ourselves in some kind of international disaster, and suddenly, you look to the Army, and you find the Three Stooges.

One people, one nation.

Take crime. You say you know which kinds of people are criminals, and you move away from them, from their lousy neighborhoods and their lousy habits. Their problems are not your problems. Your life is good. But one day, you’re in your nice neighborhood at a bank machine and you feel a gun pointed in your back. And suddenly your problems and their problems intersect. Now what?

One people, one nation.

Take wealth. You invest in the stock market. Companies improve their bottom lines by “downsizing.” You don’t care about the fired workers. Not your concern. Your stocks go up. Your life is good. But one day, the head of your company knocks on your door and says, “You’ve just been downsized.” Bye-bye. See you later. Someone else’s stock just became more valuable.

Suddenly life is not so good anymore.

Everything is connected. Your future cannot be good if your nation’s is lousy. It’s like trying to stay healthy in a flu ward.

What me, worry?

To me, this USA Today study is only further proof of America’s two saddest trends: alienation, and blame.

Let’s face it. We are bombarded with rich, thin, beautiful people on our TV sets, and because our lives are not like that, we feel alienated from the
“norm” (which is not the norm at all). And because our politicians are such a collection of liars, wackos, publicity-hounds, crooks and perverts, we feel alienated from government. And because the world now comes to us through a computer, we needn’t get out and talk to people, not even to shop or get money from a bank teller. So we are alienated from our community.

At the same time, we are unhappy with so many things. How hard we have to work. How much we have to pay in taxes. How pro athletes have such cushy lives, how rich people buy their way out of justice. So we start blaming people. We sue. We keep lawyers popping out of law schools, and we look to make up for a hole in our lives by filling it with what someone else has.

And pretty soon you see that we are interconnected even when we don’t want to be. We are bound like sticky glue, stuck together as if on flypaper.

There is no “us” or “them” when it comes to a nation’s future. There is only “we.” I am not making speeches here. History proves it. Anytime the rich try to push aside the poor, the poor revolt. Any time the few try to crush the masses, the masses rebel.

One people, one nation. The only way really to be optimistic about America’s future is if you plan on getting involved, volunteering for community projects, sharing time, money, advice, concern.

Otherwise, you can pat your back and say the country is going to hell in a hand basket. But I’m here to tell you, it’s a pretty big basket. Plenty of room for you.

Mitch Albom’s weekday radio show — “Albom in the Afternoon” on WJR-AM (760)
— will be live all week from Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans.

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