MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - We Americans are a can-do people, surrounded by technological wonders that allow us to detach ourselves from nature. Here I am writing this in air-conditioned comfort while outside the thermometer tops 100. I have already lived longer than most people did before the Industrial Revolution, and I am pain-free because a surgically implanted titanium brace keeps my lumbar discs 4 and 5 in line. My longevity - and my mobility - are owing to technological success.
Still, our problem-solving culture can have a down side, and that is a certain coldness to people experiencing tragedy. We are "worshipers in the church of the machine," writes historian Loren Baritz about American culture. But machines have no feelings -- they know nothing of guilt, heartbreak, loss. When people face terrible suffering there is no deep well of American cultural wisdom for them to draw upon. People do find houses of worship that suit their needs, but even these islands of spirituality are influenced by the larger society. Often neither the sufferers nor those around them know what to say or do.
I was forced to think about this cultural helplessness recently when in a short period of time two terrible things happened to acquaintances. One was the suicide of a teenaged child; the other, the accidental drowning of a guest at a pool party.