Goodbye Armonk: Gratitude, Reflection, & Vision for a Prosperous Suburb 👋🏼🏘

  • For all readers, it’s an invitation
  • For current and prospective parents and youth, it’s a reflection of unconscious aspects of our culture, and inspiration for the path forward
  • For those who have also grown up here, it’s food for thought and an opportunity for healing
The famous Armonk Eagle (source). In many indigenous cultures, Eagles are symbols of great power, while North is associated wisdom, elder, and earth. Castle also has a quality of power. What is possible with the integration of wisdom and power?

Dear Armonk community,

It’s me, Andrew! 31, long hair, startup ethics guy, frequently spotted jogging on Rt. 128 by Wampus Pond. My family moved to Armonk on New Year’s Day 2001 during a snow storm (after a decade in neighboring Chappaqua, which this letter also applies to). I graduated from Byram Hills High School in 2008, and have since returned frequently, with a last hurrah six-month stay in 2021. I’ve sprayed shaving cream in The Estates on Halloween, been bullied in the Back of Town, smoked blunts at The Birdwatch after school, delivered for Made In Asia, ran for BHHS president on a meme campaign, experienced glory moments on the Varsity Tennis team, aided in the heist of a final exam, made out in the football field bleachers, hosted and ran from parties busted by the cops, sat in Wampus Brook Park with a sign offering Free Advice.

eh, suburbs, fine, uneventful. bubble. yaknow, lots of pressure of expectation. 3 stars? “SATISFACTORY” lol

I’ve done a lot of introspection over the years, but never put much thought into how growing up here influenced my personality, values, and how I make choices. When I get curious, I can start to glean how powerfully the culture here may have shaped myself and others, and how it’s an elegant microcosm for the challenges and opportunities facing humankind today.

🤑 PART I: Bringing Shadow Into Light [Achievement, Materialism, & Mental Health]

Senior year homecoming look

Designed to Achieve

Mark Henson: The Winner. The last man standing looks over his field of glory, death and destruction. Growing up, my ultimate concern was winning: first at games and sports; then academics, sex, and social life; finally business, self-actualization, and saving the world. What if yesterday’s ideas of success and prestige turn out to be a lousy deal for ourselves today, and a fatal deal for the world tomorrow? What if this same spirit of achievement that has united our community to date, is actually a major part of the problems facing humanity?

Get the good grades, to get into the good schools, to get the good jobs, to afford the good things, to have the good life for self and family, to repeat the cycle.

This recipe and orientation seems to have worked, for some, for awhile. But things are changing, fast, across the board, prompting some big questions such as:

  • What should kids learn in order to succeed? What is success?
  • What is a good life? What is a meaningful life? What ultimately matters?
  • Is raising kids in a safe enclave to succeed academically and professionally a good path forward for them, and for their kids? Is it a sustainable path forward for life on Earth?
  • What is one’s responsibility to people and planet?
We’ve made it. Will we continue to push the next generation towards the same finish line, to achieve something larger than life and lucrative, no matter the personal and collective costs? It’s a tragedy that the pressure of expectation embedded in our culture of academic achievement causes many children to settle for vapid life and career paths. I’ve written further on the topic of achievement culture.

Mo Money Mo Problems

If achievement is Armonk’s greatest value, I’d argue that materialism is that value’s greatest shadow. The darker thing that we don’t want to admit or look at. Except, we all see it here. Armonk is consistently ranked one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States, clocking in at #13 in 2018 with a mean household income of $330,455. Not necessarily the 1% (at least, not nationally). More like the 2–5% (5% would be $309,000). Well into upper class. Not necessarily “elite” but certainly elite adjacent. Homes cost on avg $1M here. Note: these numbers paint a socioeconomic picture that is not representative of all folks here.

The top Urban Dictionary entry for Armonk. What does this culture of wealth mean for those living here? Wealth can be harmless, but excessive wealth can be full of landmines, with possessions possessing us and relationships warped. America glorifies wealth. Interestingly, studies show that happiness tapers off after $105,000 in annual income, and some kids don’t even want their family’s wealth.
I wonder how severe the shocks to the system will need to be in order for us to seriously consider the personal debts our lifestyles have racked up to Earth for resource extraction, and to marginalized communities for stolen land, labor and lives. What will it take to see the connections between our personal choices and the interwoven crises? To acknowledge our complicity?
How to Create Safety and Security Without Accumulating Wealth. How much is enough and what comforts we are willing to part with in order to lead a values-aligned life? If you retire at age 65 with $5M in the bank, but the planet has risen 5 degrees in temperature, and half of your generation is houseless, how safe and secure will you really be? Money may hold power to create change, but do the ends justify the means? Whew, money stuff. I’ve wrestled extensively with wealth and class.
  • Does affluent suburban life exercise or atrophy our capacities for resilience?
  • What is the justification for climbing higher and higher when more of our neighbors are just trying to stay afloat? What is the role of the 2% who may have more flexibility to take social and economic risks? How might excess wealth create unintended consequences on the mental health of ourselves and family members?
  • Do we really want to go “back to normal” if that normalcy is only made possible through violence against people and planet, that is undermining our own ability to survive and thrive? (acknowledging it’s impossible to do anything without causing harm to some body or some thing some where)
  • How would we live our lives if the future of the planet depended on our behavior? Who can we look to for guidance? What are we willing to give up in order to create a more equitable and viable future? How can we transition to a more sufficiency-oriented lifestyle? What do we actually need?
  • How can we shift how we allocate our time, attention, financial and labor choices to be in more alignment with the world we want our children and grandchildren to live in? Do those in our position today have a responsibility to make different lifestyle choices?
  • What stories do we want people to tell about Armonk?
New Yorker Cartoon. What do we do when the well traveled main stream heads for a cliff? There’s no blame on anybody. It’s a culture we all feed. Like a mist that grows thicker with every acknowledgement of somebody else’s prestige. Yesterday’s best students, leaders and winners become teachers of what to avoid. Jobs that have long been considered “prestigious” or high paying are shrinking and losing their luster.

Mental Health as Wealth

Trigger warning: this section touches on suicide.

The rat race leads us to continuously exhaust ourselves to reach some finished line, that is always fleeting, if not illusory altogether. When John D. Rockefeller was asked how much money is enough money, he answered “just a little bit more.” I’m nervous about the nearly 50% of Gen Z planning to start their own business and invent something world changing, when the playbook is still solve an often desperately random market inefficiency to get rich quick, regardless of the negative externalities to life on Earth (including one’s own health). We lionize the venture-backed startup founder, but don’t talk about the accompanying loneliness and despair, or the pain on the backs of burnt out workers.

How can we nourish their inner world, so they can be more resilient as their outer world falls apart?

How can we help our kids better know and love their bodies, feel their emotions, regulate their nervous systems, practice acts of kindness? That’s what will prepare them to surf the waves of change. Want grater protection from the harsh realities and pain of the world? That’s only possible through greater isolation. The biggest irony of material success in the past, may be individual fragility in the future. Because we have the means to isolate, the change out there will remain more abstract than felt, hamstringing our motivation to adapt.

[interlude]

Thanks for staying with me so far. That was a lot. Examining the subtle dynamics of twenty first century suburban culture has helped me process my experiences from childhood, but I acknowledge that my process might not resonate with you. Please forgive me for any unconscious projections and judgements I’ve placed in order to cope with my own unresolved feelings. I don’t feel attached to any of the words here, as time and again I am humbled by how quickly my meaning making is updated. Which is one of the reasons I write: when I put my thoughts out there, I receive a diversity of reflections back, which help me refine.

🙌 PART II: A More Beautiful Armonk

In this section I share a vision I had nearly four years ago, offer additional questions to chew on, and propose some practical ideas to the questions: What makes a great town in the Anthropocene age? What kind of future do we actually want to live in?

😌

That’s nice, Andrew. But it’s just a vague hippie dream. Be realistic. You don’t really think that’s going to spontaneously just happen, do you? Who has the time? It’s hard enough just to make it through the day! You have no idea what it’s like to be a parent. As you keep reminding us, we’re headed for challenging times!

Resilience — Living in Right Relationship

definition: the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.

  • How can we cultivate the skills and awarenesses to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to challenging events?
  • How can we come into right relationship with the land and the traditional stewards of it? How to create a sustainable livelihood, in harmony with the health of people and planet? What does it mean to make an honest living today?
  • What lifestyle changes can we make today to not only prepare ourselves, but also demonstrate leadership that can inspire others? What other communities and bodies of wisdom can Armonk and its citizens draw inspiration from?
  • How can we make Armonk a more inclusive place to live for folks of all backgrounds, bodies, identities and abilities?
  • What is my role in The Great Turning (shift from industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization)? What is your role?
  • How can we enrich community fabric to remediate loneliness, nihilism, apathy, sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, addiction, reckless driving? What untapped gifts do we have to offer each other? What if a portion of the energy poured into achievement was funneled into research, experimentation and stewardship of our community?
Octavia Butler: science fiction author

Education— Cultivating Paideia

We can’t talk about how to best raise our children without looking at the school system. It’s the connective tissue of our community. The institution entrusted with preparing students for the future they will inherent. What and how education happens in Byram Hills Central School District matters a great deal.

“Children should not be designed or worked upon as objects manufactured to our ideals.”

Paraphrasing from his book, Zak argues that today’s students have become objects to be designed for optimal social and economic efficiency through standardized testing, ADHD diagnoses and stimulant prescriptions. Such oppressive, coercive and unjust education systems facilitate disempowerment, distortions of personality, and the forfeiture of self-actualization (check, check, check for me). A student becomes someone they would not have chosen to be had they know what was possible and been empowered to choose. This historical moment poses questions such as:

  • What are schools for? Who do they serve? What kind of civilization do they perpetuate?
  • How can we prepare children for forms of life we cannot anticipate? Is rote memorization of “official knowledge” valuable, relevant, fun?
  • How do we confront the almost unimaginable design challenge of building an educational system that provides for the re-creation of civilization during a world system transition? What and whose knowledge ought to be preserved in the educational systems of tomorrow?

Religion–ReMembering the Wisdom of Tradition

Mark Henson: Paintbrush Warrior

Civic Engagement–Everybody is a Leader

Any citizen can step into leadership now. We can choose what happens next. We vote everyday for the town we want with our words, dollars, choices and ideas. What would a Renaissance of civic engagement look like? Where’s the Armonk 2030 initiative, the Indigenous People’s Day committee, clothing swaps, composting training, mutual aid network, hundreds of people stretching together daily in our parks? What if we empowered our youth to re-imagine the place they call home? What if local government included youth in their decision making? I believe in our youth because they are less calcified, corrupt, cynical. Less black and white, more shades of grey. Let’s give them some power. Somebody start a foundation to sponsor civic leadership initiatives! Another to support youth artists! Another to empower activists! Another social entrepreneurs! Let the support flow to those who are going to safely lead us out of the desert.

Grace Lee Boggs: author, social activist, philosopher, and feminist

Purpose–Self & Community Actualization

What would it look like if the “paid for” was taken out of the equation, or simply de-prioritized to reflect the realities of class privilege? Who are we lifting up as role models? See here for my favorite self reflection questions.
Wampus Pond: my favorite place in Armonk :)

☕️ Last Call

Mark Henson: New Pioneers. We are at a major choice point. Will we make the shift from global to local, outer wealth to inner wealth, me to we, bubble to interconnection?

Continuing the Conversation

  • Discuss with your friends, family, classmates and teachers! Share the piece in groups and forums. What tickled you? What challenged you? What inspired you?
  • Feel free to contact me with your reflections and feedback (andrewmurraydunn at gmail dot com). I’ll be in and out of the area until December and would be happy to discuss the material here with individuals or groups, virtually or in person. Bonus points for a hike; show me your favorite spot!
  • On Mon Nov 1st from 8–9pm ET I will be hosting a Zoom call for those connected to Armonk (current or former resident) who are interested in discussing this piece. Please register here and come with kindness and reflections to share.
  • On Wed Nov 3rd I will be hanging in the gazebo at Wampus Brook Park from 3–6pm, weather permitting.
  • Subscribe to my email newsletter to read past essays and receive future ones
  • Consider returning the gift if you feel like you received substantial value from reading this writing (Venmo: @andrew-dunn)

Offering Support

This year I’ve supported several friends going through career transitions, and dipped my toes into college and high school mentorship. I would like to make myself available to support those who feel aimless, stuck, constricted, overwhelmed. Younger versions of myself. As well as any adults interested in making a shift in their lives. I’m a decent listener and am delighted by questions. It brings me great joy to connect others with what they are looking for. Feel free to email me for:

  • 1:1 Mentorship to students who feel aimless, stuck, constricted, overwhelmed. Parents who want the best opportunities for their kids, and see how those best intentions are stressing them out. Office hours. Life advice. Lifestyle transition support.
  • Workshops on purpose discovery, self knowledge, creating an expanded sense of possibility for studies, career, alternative lifestyle.
  • Entrepreneurship Coaching. Nearly half of American high school students think they will start a business that will change the world. But neither the existing economic approach nor the startup lifestyle is sustainable. How to create and live in a more ethical way? This is my main shtick.

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Regenerative Tech | Business | Culture | Life. Co-founder @getsiempo, Digital Wellness Collective, @Wharton Wisdom. www.andrewmurraydunn.com

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Andrew Murray Dunn

Andrew Murray Dunn

Regenerative Tech | Business | Culture | Life. Co-founder @getsiempo, Digital Wellness Collective, @Wharton Wisdom. www.andrewmurraydunn.com