Loner culture

PHOTO TODAY’S ZAMAN, CEM KIZILTUĞ

December 21, 2012, Friday/ 17:52:00 / ISTANBUL

I am devastated as I write this column during a visit back to my home state of Michigan in the US.

 The massacre of first graders at a Connecticut elementary school last week has hit my native country hard. Now that the initial shock has worn off, America has a desperate urge to prevent these mass shootings from occurring again. There have been far too many this year alone. Solutions range from banning guns to arming teachers. After the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, all schools have lockdown drills regularly, to prepare students if a shooter should enter their school.

When I was a student we only had tornado drills.

It sickens me to no end. Every aspect of normal life has seen an attack. The workplace, places of worship, shopping malls, schools -- no part of society has been left untouched. Why is this type of violence so prevalent in America? Numerous theories abound. While I agree with those who think that guns are the biggest problem, there are also several other factors about America that need to be considered. We can’t classify the shooter as a terrorist. Terrorists kill, but for an ideology. These shooters have had no ideology.

Like most expats, I take a lot of issues that happen in my native country to heart, due in part because I have to explain the cultural differences to my friends and family in Turkey. This has caused me to look at my native country in a more critical light. America is a culture that feeds the “loner.” What is a loner?  It’s a recluse, someone who prefers to be alone, an outcast. From birth through to adulthood, we as Americans are conditioned in our society to be alone.

I didn’t realize this until I started to pick apart the differences as simple as those between my Turkish and American classrooms when I was a teacher. My first and second graders in America had discipline. Running the classroom was cake. A kid that finished his or her work early would pick up a book to read or do some solitary activity. In Turkey, my first year of teaching was a disciplinary nightmare. The kids couldn’t do anything themselves. I also could not do activities where one kid was featured. Everyone had to be involved, or no one could be involved. The concept of “do your OWN work” was alien to them. Whoever finished first would help his classmates, which by American standards is considered cheating.

Frustrated, I had to re-evaluate my tactics. Once I analyzed this, I noticed some interesting things. First, while my American students had remarkable self-discipline, there was a lot of bullying, even at the kindergarten level. Individual achievements were prized. After eight years of teaching in a Turkish school, I had not one (nor did any of my colleagues, to my knowledge) incident of bullying. Their sense of community was different.

While the mental health services in Turkey leave much to be desired, the community generally helps the families of people with a disorder. The US has better mental health services, yet little help for the families comes from the community. In Turkey, I have seen how friends help out their family members, neighbors or others in the community with a child or family member with a disability -- most of the time without asking. Dinners are brought, people help out with driving to doctor appointments, hospital stays, cleaning the house, etc. Whenever help is needed, Turks are there without having to ask.

Making  your own way

In America, our solitary lives are more than just pleasurable individual pastimes like reading, running or listening to music. These peaceful solitary activities are difficult for many in Turkey. America’s independent spirit has its benefits, most notably in innovation. By placing value on your personal achievement, it takes away familial and community restraints that in my opinion hinder creativity in Turkey. After becoming adults in the US, we are encouraged (many times forced) to make our own way. We pay for our own education, work, start families, all with minimal support from our community. Instead, we are praised for doing things ourselves. Universal healthcare is almost non-existent because everyone should theoretically take care of himself or herself. Guns are a part of our society because we should protect ourselves. We need to create little, independent fortresses where we keep to ourselves, pay for our own healthcare and protect ourselves with legal, private arsenals.

While this seems extreme, it is a popular viewpoint in America. Popular enough that it inhibits drastic, much needed changes even in the midst of this most recent tragedy. Asking for help is a sign of weakness. People in America are wondering why the shooter’s mother didn’t ask for help with her son, as she obviously needed it. My theory is because it is so hard for us Americans to ask for help. Friends and family will placate themselves by offering to assist someone in need, when they know they will be let off the hook with the expected response of, “Oh, we’re fine, we don’t need help, thanks.” We need to stop offering help and start doing. We need to not brush off people who want to help and start accepting assistance. No one can do everything alone. We Americans are generally a caring, kind people. We need to work on those strengths and love our neighbors directly a bit more, instead of just donating to charity when convenient, so we can say we “gave back” to the community.

I have lived in Turkey for 10 years and continue to be overwhelmed with the support I get from my Turkish friends and family. Still, I have a hard time asking for help when I desperately need it, like during my bout with postpartum depression. I hid it from outsiders, and barricaded myself socially. Those closest to me didn’t let me go, but even they were not privy to my darkest times. I didn’t have to tell them how bad I felt. I could have just accepted their offers to come over and make food for me, help me clean or watch Eren so that I could shower in peace. I had this unrealistic expectation that I could do it all, but realized too late that there was no medal at the end of my self-inflicted race. I hope that my fellow Americans realize this, too.

American men have it especially hard, as they are expected to appear stoic and unemotional. I have seen my own father cry only twice in my lifetime. My husband, Can, and I struggle because I am still uncomfortable with his outward show of emotion. I am not used to it, and it is a root cause of some of our problems, such as when he gets sick. He won’t stop complaining, and I just beg him to “man up” and take care of himself. By expecting people, especially males, to constantly appear indifferent, it also makes it hard for the community to ascertain when someone needs help. On the shooter, friends, neighbors and family are quoted as saying how “quiet” he seemed, how “normal” his mother seemed. Obviously there were other problems. We enabled a society that made it easier to hide, especially in this situation where things were definitely not OK.

The grief, outrage and general emotion in the US encourage me that Americans haven’t become too desensitized. I also have started to reach out to friends and others via social media that have dropped subtle hints that they are struggling. I don’t want them to feel like they are alone. We all need to care just a little bit more. It might not change much, but I believe it can make a difference. The tragedy in Connecticut demands that we Americans search our souls and make some changes. I hope to do my part by showing I care about my fellow world citizens just a little bit more. Let’s check on the loners regularly, encourage a global society to take care of and help each other as a community.

*Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at [email protected] for comments or questions.