Our Town: Five writers in search of a story

Our Town: Five writers in search of a story
Five writers talk about the state of the American mind

When my publisher Steve Blank asked me to join a Town Hall Meeting, I was happy to do so. It is not every night that I get to sit and chat with intellectual luminaries.

Steve Blank is a Pulitzer Prize nominee and publisher, Judy Epstein is a humorist who was an award-winning producer of The Bill Moyers Show, Michael D’Innocenzo is a Hofstra professor of American history and Andrew Malekoff was the director of North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center. And then there was me, a sport psychologist. We are the weekly columnists for the newspapers of The Blank Slate Media.

Our televised conversation touched upon the current zeitgeist in America with all our anomie, existential dread and rage. Here is what our free-floating conversation touched upon;
1) Judy Epstein began talking about the vagaries of these virtual meetings whereby the audience gets to see into your private space whatever it may look like. Since none of us are particularly well trained in set design, the background is invariably odd.

When I do these Zoom calls, I know that the light I use casts horrific shadows on my face and ages me more than my already ancient 73 years. And my bookcases in the background are unkempt and off-putting.

2) The impact of the pandemic on kids and adults in Nassau County was discussed. Andrew Malekoff remarked that the outcome of the pandemic can best be summed up with the word ‘loss.’

We all lost loved ones, a sense of safety and most importantly we all lost a way of life. What he meant by that is that we lost all the social structures that seem to be essential for mental health. We lost the very ordinary and every day social processes like kids getting on busses and going to school thereby giving parents respite. We lost sports activities which mean kids lost a chance to participate in physical and social activities. Kids also lost things like graduation ceremonies, proms, music events etc. And finally, we lost the chance to mourn with the removal of funeral processing.

3) Michael D’Innocenzo, our history professor also talked about loss of social connection and about how President Biden was quietly attempting to establish ‘communal cores’ or places where regular citizens would gather just to chat about things. This is what Starbucks so wisely capitalized on.

But alas if you go to Starbucks, you will not be engaged in café life in any real way but rather will be sitting at a long table hunched over and engaged in a conversation with your computer. Michael was making a plea for a return of the Third Place, a place which is not home nor work but a third neutral place to meet neighbors. The piazzas in Italy are like this but we have a critical lack of these communal environments in America. Michael said that meeting neighbors this way could remedy and overcome our paranoid divisiveness which now dominates our political and even our social life.

4) Our conversation turned to sports and over competitiveness in America. I referenced the Matthew Stewart piece entitled “The Birth of the New Aristocracy” where he outlined the wall that has been carefully built by the upper 10 percent of Americans who have invested huge dollars to live in golden zip codes, join country clubs, and have their kids attend only the very best schools. All this to guarantee that they will maintain their social status and standing.

Andrew Malekoff said this has produced major stress and anxiety in the kids today. Sport perfectly reflects this desperate effort to be on top and obtain pride in a society that seems to demand one must be number one or you’re a loser.

5) Finally Judy remarked that American value system seems to be that if you are not among the top of the top, you simply cannot feel good about yourself and must instead feel shame, anonymity and embarrassment. I think this kind of shame and envy may be why we are seeing such a rash of mass shootings over the last thirty years. This the winter of America’s discontent. The question of America’s core values which is never far from money, money and lots more money in order to buy stuff. Madison Avenue has done a particularly good job of commodifying and selling pride, status and happiness.

Abraham Maslow and Rollo May led a short-lived movement in American psychology called existential psychology which simply suggested that deeper values like beauty, growth, courage, mastery and self-actualization are far more meaningful than conspicuous consumption but alas existentialism was no match for Madison Avenue and the movement failed before it started.

6) The final discussion was Steve wondering about exactly how fragile American democracy is with Michael D’Innocenzo suggesting that indeed it may be as fragile as we all fear. My sense is that democracy will undergo changes but the system that is far more powerful than any political ideology is capitalism where ‘money talks and nobody walks.”

We talked about choking in sports, the role of the press in American life and even a bit about how the unconscious plays a big role in all our lives. If you want to hear the whole show I am sure there is a link on theisland360.com website.

I enjoyed my participation in Steve Blank’s marketplace of ideas and we all owe him our gratitude and thanks for having the good will, courage and the energy to put all these shows together.

So thank you Steve Blank.

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  1. Ditto.

    Also, considering the continued specter of antisemitism all around,
    here’s putting a few other things into a slightly different perspective—

    Nazis/Nazism (def.)

    Greedy for power and mass murder
    With a penchant for being ruthless
    To promote the “greater good”—
    Such a ghastly low bar to appeal to.
    It’s a trademark, they were not happy otherwise.
    The abyss grew, consuming the world,
    It was foolishly absurd to expect otherwise.
    Many Nazis responsible for World War II
    Are now gone, but don’t let that disappoint,
    There’s a Neo-Nazi living near you, determined as ever.
    Frustrated, seething, plotting to gain control,
    Dangerous to all that’s counter and complicit.
    We understand them perfectly.

  2. Thank you, Tom, for making sense of our sensitivities! Just want to add that I do not believe you are anywhere near 73, and your bookcase looked quite “well-kempt” from where I sat. (As did everyone’s.) I very much enjoyed sharing time with Steve and my fellow columnists, in the “third space” provided by Zoom. I do, however, hope that next time, we can do this… in “real life.”

  3. I would like to encourage you to correct a couple of factual errors in this article.

    Abraham Maslow was a founder of humanistic psychology. Existential psychology is often considered a breach of humanistic psychology when it is used as a label for the third force psychologies (see https://existential-therapy.com/humanistic-psychology-and-existential-humanistic-therapy). However, Maslow generally is not considered a leader of the existential psychology movement. You are correct that Rollo May was a leader of this movement, as was Jim Bugental. These two are considered the founders of the existential-humanistic branch of existential psychology, which is sometimes referred to as the American School of Existential Psychology. As these movements in psychology emerged together as part of the third force in psychology, Maslow did influence existential psychology and was influenced by it. Both were part of the Old Saybrook Conference that served to help solidify and provide structure for the humanistic and existential psychology movement. Yet, it is an error to suggest Maslow was a leader in this movement.

    The more significant error is stating that existential psychology was “a short-lived movement in American psychology.” Existential psychology is still alive and well. It has been an influential force since 1958 when the book ‘Existence,’ which was edited by May, Angel, and Ellenberger. Its influence decreased in the 1980s and 1990s, but its influence grew again starting in 2001 with several significant publications. Thus, existential psychology has been an influence in psychology for 63-years. There is much evidence of its continued influence. Schneider and Krug’s book ‘Existential-Humanistic Therapy’ has been among the top-selling books at APA Books, the publishing company of the American Psychological Association. There are several schools that continue training students in existential psychology at the doctoral level including Duquesne University (APA Accredited), Point Park University (APA Accredited), the Michigan School of Professional Psychology (APA Accredited), the University of West Georgia, and Saybrook University. Seattle University has an influential existential Psychology Masters program that recently won a national award. Existential psychology courses are still taught at many other universities, including the University of Denver. There are two well-established training programs that offer certifications in existential psychology as well: the Existential-Humanistic Institute and the International Institute for Humanistic Studies. In the last 7-years, there have been two World Congresses of Existential Therapy that had many representatives from the United States participating. The Third World Congress of Existential Therapy will be in Greece and it is likely that the fourth will be in the United States. One of the final candidates for the president of the American Psychological Association presidency, Kirk Schneider, is an existential psychologist. He is on the ballot for APA president again this year. Irvin Yalom, one of the best-known living psychologists, is an existential psychologist. Terror Management Theory, which is a very influential movement in social psychology, is an existential approach to social psychology. Numerous books have been published on Terror Management Theory (TMT), including the Worm at the Core (2015), which was written to translate the ideas of to a lay audience. The 2003 documentary, Flight from Death, was also primarily focused on TMT.

    I could go on, but hopefully this sufficiently demonstrates that existential psychology was not a short-lived movement but rather is a continuing vibrant movement that has been influential since the 1950s.


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