Redefining relationships

By Martin Jan Stránský

July 11th, 2007

Are the walls we’ve built around ourselves leaving us stranded?

In the Czech Republic, summer is a unique time of year.

First, it is directly associated with the mindset of the communist era, specifically a time of year that inhabitants fled their homes to their own personal hiding spots — the beloved chata, or country house. Sheltered from the prying eyes, ears and regulations of the Bolshevik state, they could talk in security, grow their own prized vegetables and fruits, and work on their “personal” home away from home.

It was a season of escape to an idyllic countryside, in which one could find an apolitical niche.

Most of all, it was an opportunity to reminisce with old friends and to meet and form new friendships. It was a time when the constancy of certain positive human traits was affirmed, and with it, optimism for a better future or at the very least, a sense of control over one’s present.

Even though many summer friendships were disbanded upon returning to the city, there was always next summer to look forward to.

Today, 17 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, our frustrations continue, this time with the slow pace of change, ineffective politics and ever-prevalent corruption.

But, just as before, summer is here to lure us away. And, just as before, as we tend to our cucumbers before going off to the local village hospoda (tavern) for a beer, the unpleasant realities of our culture are forgotten.

We Czechs are fourth in the world in mobile phone ownership per capita, and first in all of Europe regarding the number of text messages sent. We avoid dealing with each other face to face, instead texting merrily away, especially if there is an error on our part or if we have bad news.

“Will not make the meeting” reads the text message, without further explanation. When we call the other party, a recorded message tells us the recipient is “unavailable.”

Along with Belgium, we lead all of Europe in divorce, at 60 percent.

Should we pass away in Prague, more than half of us will not be given any sort of adequate burial ceremony. Instead, our ashes will simply be interred and forgotten. The same fate awaits more than one-third of those who live outside of the capital. Our deaths are either a bother or an issue not to be contemplated in a nation with the largest number of atheists per capita (almost 75 percent) of any democracy in the world. We simply don’t believe.

The things we do believe in are the things they can’t take away from us — our culture, our hockey teams and our beer.

We are also near the top of the ladder regarding smoking deaths from lung cancer. We live as we please — should something happen to us, well, that is what the state is there for. We lead the world in number of doctor visits per year — an unbelievable 17 visits per patient per year.

Going to the doctor takes time; the state covers the time away from work. The doctor gives us our prescription, which, by law, cannot be refilled, so we must see the doctor again. One way the communists “cured” unemployment was to keep everyone occupied. The past lingers on.

We also rank near the top in the number of high-speed auto fatalities in Europe. Laws and regulations regarding the speed limit do not interest us, since the law generally is not enforced here. Besides, with our politicians telling us that the new norm of behavior is to “act like a real man,” why on earth should I drive under the speed limit when I have a brand-new Škoda Octavia?

As a result of our intrinsic industriousness, the country and its people are experiencing a financial renaissance via increased investment and productivity.

The whole family now goes on regular “outings” to the mall just to keep pace with the new materialism. Paradoxically, these advances, from mobile phones to fast cars, are strengthening our negative character traits, chief among which is the distancing of ourselves from reality. For example, due to a history of subjugation, we Czechs simply do not like to give or receive bad news. Now, we simply sit in front of our plasma TVs and text our worries away on our phones — consideration and interpersonal relations be damned.

We communicate less and less with our spouses, our children and with God. We divorce, we separate, we isolate. Our deceased are to be forgotten.

It is this present culture, emerging from a disparate past, that prevents us from realizing that both our national identity as well our own success hinge on one and the same thing: how much we have helped each other and how much we interact with one another. What then, does friendship mean for such a society? Is it a relic of the past, or is it the new foundation stone upon which to build?

– Martin Jan Stránský is a physician, and publisher of The New Presence, a political, social and economic journal published quarterly in the Czech Republic.


The Prague Post11.7.2007

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