Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Should Calgon really take me away?

We had dinner at my wonderful friend Mary Ellen's house last Friday, along with our medieval arts teachers. Great food, good conversation.

At one point the discussion turned to the social repercussions of earbud-itis, a disease which plagues many teens of today. Mary Ellen commented that we are raising a generation of individuals, who isolate themselves in their interests instead of interacting with others. The teachers lamented the decline they've seen in kids' ability to resolve problems with one another. I observed that that's not surprising when parents "fix" sibling conflicts over which TV show to watch by buying each child a television. The discussion raised a question that lingers in my mind:

Why do we as a society put "make the problem go away" higher in our list of priorities than "build conflict-resolution skills in our children"?

Why do we heed the "I can't take this!" earworm that pops into our brains during so many of the rough spots of parenting?

Why are we so afraid of conflict? Why do we let our fears overwhelm the obviously better choice to invest in our children and teach them healthy coping skills?

Why do we as a society give up on problems so easily?

I'm not sure I have any answers here. But I'm interested in what makes us wimpy. I can see why a medieval serf would want Calgon to take him or her away. I can see why someone in the midst of a war zone would wish the same. But why do we?

Thoughts? You're welcome to speak up.


  1. i agree that our society is afraid of conflict..afraid to expose the conflict in our own families and homes. that kind of constant subtle repressions leads to anxiety, and loss of self esteem especially in younger people, because they are not seeing that it is normal to have conflict, to struggle, to work through things, instead of just putting the plugs in.
    we have the rule that when we are hanging out as a family there are no earplugs, ipods, etc. just be there!

  2. as usual, i'm of two minds on this. i agree that building conflict-resolution and coping skills is needed, and that the "take me away" attitude avoids that. but not every problem needs to be solved, or solved-right-now. sometimes it's good to go-to-bed-and-tackle-it-in-the-morning, do-something-else-and-approach-this-later-with-a-fresh-perspective, or (like a bad fart) just let the thing dissipate. that's where the calgon comes in. i'm totally with you that that's a bad approach for *all* conflicts, but it certainly has its place in the repetoire.

    this reminds, oddly, of the rosh hashana/yom kippur litiurgy. one of the passages repeated several times at various points during both services blesses the day itself, and notes its meaning of the day: "on RH it is written, and on YK it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die... who by sword, and who by beast... who shall be tranquil, and who shall be troubled..." etc. leaving aside the troubling theological implications of the former set of "whos" (and there are, of course, many interpretations on this, among the most discussed and parsed sections of the service) i focus on the latter. generally we think of being at peace as a good thing, and of being troubled as a bad thing. but turning this notion on its head, we get "who shall be complacent, and who shall be motivated..." seems to me that sometimes it is a BAD thing to be at peace, to fail to speak up; and to be "troubled" is good for that inspires us to make things better. these to me are the "calgon moments" of which you write.

    love you, julia. thanks for troubling me a little this morning, and making me stretch my brain. :-)

  3. @Liz, back atcha with thanks for troubling me!

    I agree not all conflicts need to be solved immediately; our brains don't naturally work at the pace of the stimuli of the world around us. Sometimes we assume that because we have an immediate problem we're required to come up with an immediate solution. I also think many of the stresses we carry around are voluntary (see Crossword puzzle parenting).

    Your comments on tranquility raise a different thought: tranquility as an external condition is different from tranquility that comes from within. Perhaps we get the two confused. Certainly we are less threatened by conflict when we have substantial inner peace.

    @Maggie May, I think you're right that our society has come to expect that lack of conflict is the norm. Which means that sometimes we go into a low-level panic thinking we're doing something wrong if there's conflict in our lives. Conflict *is* normal.

  4. Conflict is unavoidable. I have a slightly tin ear when it comes to my own presentation of self. As a result, I probably end up in conflict situations more than need be. That said, I'm learning to embrace them, to be the one that goes where angels fear to tread.

    I guess I really should go over and complain the next time the neighbor blows his leaves at 8pm.

  5. I think we want to be "taken away" because consumer culture is constantly telling us that we deserve to be indulged, that each of us is so special we deserve our own special experiences, and these experiences are obtained by purchasing. It's an insidious lie! I started writing a series of articles about this (keep meaning to get back to it): Tastes Like Somebody Loves You!

    One chapter of social historian Stephanie Coontz's amazing book The Way We Never Were explains how consumerism got such a central role in American "culture". Chilling!