Goodbye Armonk: Gratitude, Reflection, & Vision for a Prosperous Suburb 👋🏼🏘
My family is leaving Armonk, NY after 21 years. My intention for this letter is to mark the closing of a chapter by sharing some words that have been on my heart.
- 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
Armonk is family. I’m writing because I care. I acknowledge my limited connection to the community in recent years. Please feel free to approach me with feedback and responses.
I wrote this in Armonk, land that has long stewarded well by the Munsee Lenape peoples, who are still here.
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.
I have very fond memories of this place, its people and traditions. When I think of Armonk, I’m reminded of that heartwarming feeling of pulling into the driveway after a long day or trip out of town. The greasy slice of pizza after a Saturday little league game. Endless snow day laughter. Good vibes at family BBQ’s. Coming of age moments at rambunctious house parties. Getting dressed up for rites of passage events. A real sense of home. The geese, blue jays, cardinals, hawks, crows. Friends for life. Friendly local merchants. Lessons that continue to reveal themselves. Thank you. Thank you! 💙
I feel sad as I begin to unwind from it all. For what I’ll miss, and for what I realize I was always missing. I’m especially grateful for Armonk’s natural beauty; though I only recently felt inspired to explore it. I’m grateful for the academic and professional opportunities that Armonk provided me; though I don’t know if they are what my heart truly desired. I’m grateful for the relative sense of safety; though I bemoan the tradeoffs of suburban living. I’m grateful to have made it out relatively unscathed; though I’m saddened by the impact of drug and alcohol abuse, workaholism, mental and physical health challenges in myself and loved ones.
Like many, I have mixed thoughts and feelings about this place. When asked what it was like to grow up here, I generally shrug and mumble something like:
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.
We live in a time of great uncertainty, change, reckoning. The graphs don’t look great. Needless (?) to say, we are confronting the absolute limits of our economic system’s dominance of nature, both internal (our humanity) and external (the biosphere). The 6th mass extinction. A growing list of collapse scenarios. The meta-crisis (interconnected challenges we face) sits on top a meaning crisis (collapse in our ability to make meaning). The message is clear and frightening that we need to change our ways if we want to keep this thing going. Not only to imagine more equitable and harmonious systems that meet the needs of all people within the means of the planet (Doughnut Economics), but also to cultivate new ways of being in relationship to ourselves and each other.
I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but experts and prophets alike agree the pandemic is only a warm up for more catastrophic events to come. Whatever hunky dory vision of the American Dream we grew up with is evaporating. The conversation is shifting from how to “solve” these existential problems, to how to prepare ourselves and the next generation to navigate this time between worlds, with #resilience. And then begin the thousand year cleanup. Change is invited at all levels from personal to family, neighborhood to town, state to nation to civilization. Change is hard, and will inevitably happen to most of than by us. Change is easier in community.
What is the invitation for a resourced community like Armonk? Even if things were going to continue humming along with minor road bumps, what is Armonk’s role in what happens next? What’s working here? What’s not working here? What could be?
This I’ve actually been thinking about for some time, but didn’t have a context to express my ideas until our family started packing up to move. The words started pouring out of me.
PART I: First I’ll share some reflections on aspects of Armonk culture I found challenging, and know others have and do too, since every person I poll answers with the same thing: achievement, materialism, mental health.
PART II: Then I’ll offer a vision I had in 2018 for a more beautiful Armonk, and questions worth exploring around resilience, education, religion and spirituality, civic engagement, and purpose.
This is a long piece; marathon > sprint. I’m working on writing more clear and concisely. I’ve bolded key sentences to make it more skimmable (I know how it is). Please forgive any unconscious virtue signaling, speaking in absolutisms, or superfluous words. I’m a work in progress. Thank you for your trust, time and attention. Enjoy!
🤑 PART I: Bringing Shadow Into Light [Achievement, Materialism, & Mental Health]
I will try my best to speak from my personal experience, acknowledging the multiplicity of ways that others experience Armonk / Byram Hills, and that my moving here in 5th grade would have been marked by a teenage loss of innocence regardless of where I was (though maybe not as much brand name clothing).
It has been fascinating to learn that some friends of mine are rightfully stoked to move back here when they have families, while others feel traumatized by their upbringing here and never want to return, for reasons ranging from boredom and pressure to succeed in a narrow sense, to bullying, racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia.
Net net, Armonk living was a pretty mixed bag for me. Plenty of good friends and good times, good teachers and good opportunities, along with the standard teenage gripes and awkwardness, + some run-of-the-mil existential angst. I recall frequently feeling bored and stifled, wondering what else was out there, what the meaning of it all was. It seemed like my life was designed to head in a particular destination, everybody around me was marching in this same direction, and there wasn’t much of an alternative in sight, so I might as well play the game, which I’ve learned to do well. I neither had words to express my feelings about that, nor much analysis as to why I was feeling that way. The internet had become an integral part of our lives by the mid aughts, but new ideas weren’t necessarily finding their way to me yet.
Armonk’s influence may be evident in my behavior upon leaving the nest, where I would step into greater freedom to make more of my own choices. After brute forcing my way into an ivy league school to study business (not because I authentically wanted to learn more, but because it seemed like the most prestigious prize one could win), I “let loose” to compensate for emotional and spiritual malnourishment in ways that felt totally normal at the time, though in hindsight I generously refer to as a self-absorbed dumpster fire of inflicting harm on self and others, and denying responsibility for my choices. I was the party promoter and social chair, the womanizer and sketchy friend, the slacker and phone addict. Blacking out 50+ times, as a reliable way to quell anxiety, feel recognized for whatever shenanigans ensued, and fill some unidentifiable hole of emptiness. I nearly didn’t graduate for academic and disciplinary reasons. I nearly died from alcohol poisoning one night. Another I was found on a bench at a train station in a different state. (Note: I was much more than these shortcomings, and have worked through much of my guilt and shame around them. I am just highlighting certain things to make a point)
The crazy thing was that this behavior was widely accepted at the time; even encouraged. Boys will be boys? Thankfully, a couple of miracles occurred post-graduation (namely living abroad at 23) that helped me slow down, detox, do some soul searching, and change some toxic behavior. A much needed re-balancing and shift towards wholeness. But I still had this underlying drive to win the conventional rat race, and Silicon Valley x California New Age culture greased this drive to the point of thinking that I was going to be The One to save the world. Twice, actually. Which caused as many problems as the college shenanigans: more burnout, risky financial decisions, injured relationships as I sought to be right and change those around me, amplified anxiety, adoption and promotion of muddy ontologies. The reparation process is ongoing. I regret some of the circumstances, but am grateful for the learnings.
Reflecting on how both of these cycles unfolded, I have to be curious about how the particular sub-culture of Armonk created or fueled the conditions for the person I would become. Of course I had plenty of other influences like video games, pop culture, ancestral trauma, family, religion, greek life and so on. Of course it’s common for more sheltered kids to reactively let loose in college.
For me, Armonk’s most potent influence was Achievement Culture. Our community values security, competence, hard work, autonomy, competition, rationality, fun and leisure. When in balance, there is nothing wrong with any of these things. When out of balance, things can get weird. Somewhere along the line, the story I internalized was that I had to do something BIG in order to feel complete, free, loved, accepted. Like make a billion dollars, achieve stratospheric recognition, or at the very least something prestigious enough for other families to reference at their dinner tables. And I had to do everything in my power to get there, regardless of the costs. How did growing up in Armonk seed or reinforce this story?
Designed to Achieve
From the child’s perspective, we did not choose to grow up here. Caretakers who moved there in the last three decades (not representative of all residents) made an intentional choice, largely driven by the quality of the public school education, ranked the third best in a county of one million people. In addition to clean air, water, and safety. By many accounts, that was a great choice, as the education system does well what it was designed to do. However, such an overemphasis on academic achievement has its hidden costs.
Growing up in Chappaqua and Armonk, it seemed to me like there was implied consensus around a shared north star:
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?
Like many suburbs outside economically prosperous cities across the country, Armonk’s recent history is marked by the migration of a professional class. A great education system, combined with secondary factors like a reasonable commute and safety, supported a McMansion construction boom in the 90s that attracted an increasingly upper class demographic, shifting from doctors, lawyers, accountants and IBM employees to executives, celebrities and athletes. A marked class shift. Largely first, second, and third generation Americans with an immigrant spirit of upward social and financial mobility, creating an ever better life for the next generation.
But to what end, and why? In his book Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz describes the current generation of [elite] strivers as “driven to achieve without knowing why.” Why, actually? The epigenetic trauma of displacement? A society that instills a belief that your self worth is your net worth? A pervasive scarcity mindset that there is not enough for everyone?
There’s a story in Judaism about hard work:
The great master Levi Isaac of Berdichev was walking his usual route in the marketplace. Along came a man rushing madly to somewhere and bowled the master over.
“Why are you running so fast?’ asked Levi Isaac as he got up.
“Well,” said the man, “I need to make a living.”
Levi Isaac asked, ”Why are you working so hard to make a living?”
Well, no one had ever asked our mad dashing friend such a question, and he was at a loss as to how to respond. “Well,” he stuttered–and then a lightbulb went off. “I am working so hard in order to make a living for my children.” It seemed to be a fine answer, and the master wished him good day.
Twenty-five years go by. Again the master is walking on the same path in the marketplace. Again, he is bowled over by a rushing passerby. Masters are consistent, so the same conversation ensues. And again it concludes with the man saying, confidently, “I am rushing so much in order to make a living for my children.”
Levi Isaac looks deeply into his face. He realizes that this is the son of the man who bowled him over twenty-five years ago. Turning his eyes heavenward, he asks God,
“When will I finally meet that one child for whom all the generations labor so mightily?”
There are plenty of reasons to be grateful for the achievement culture that got us here: many of us would not be reading these words had it not been for those generations of families working hard to create a better life for their posterity, and the amazing contributions to society that have expanded freedom and reduced suffering. I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, writing these words on the sacrifices of many who have come before me, who didn’t need to think about the environmental or emotional impact of their choices (cut the Boomers some slack! they mostly didn’t know. we need their support to get through this, not their contempt). Friends in the cultural wilderness are often impressed that I grew up in New York, acknowledging that it engendered a resolve and creative capacity to take action in the world. I cherish that.
Welcome to 2021–Western civilization is dying, and we are doing everything in our power to keep it alive, even though it’s driving us straight of a cliff. Paradoxically, the achievement culture that helped the previous generations create a better life for their families, has suddenly become deeply entrenched in killing the planet and our ability to survive on it. We are simultaneously guilty of this, and innocent for not knowing until now and having few alternative options for how to live. It’s nearly impossible to fully unwind from our economic system.
Can we afford to ignore the costs of high achieving career paths that uphold a destructive paradigm? Is putting such immense pressure on our kids to achieve–whether to redeem family sacrifices or keep up with the Joneses–worth it if it means a diluted existence on an uninhabitable planet? Are Armonk’s values sustainable? Who are they sustainable for?
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.
Perhaps the best reflection of Armonk’s shadows can be found on Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary, which describes Armonk in various definitions as “a very fake place. many people are very superficial, and rather snobby. people have wealth, but little class for the most part.” | “full of people who own a bunch of useless items” | “many people who live there hate it there”|“a town where many people who are seemingly dissatisfied with their lives complain about the miseries of suburbia over the internet.”
Ouch. Most of these reflections are more than a decade old. Before iPhones, Teslas and Equinox. Of course, this is not everybody in the town, and plenty of local people do wonderfully altruistic and selfless things with their time, money, and labor. I believe people generally want to do good in the world. But those who contributed to these definitions were sensing something real to them. They are the 1 and 2 star reviews, giving voice to something important in our community organism. How do we feel about these reflections? What would we want to change?
In previous generations, the question of “what’s enough?” may not have been seriously entertained. But today it’s an existential inquiry. The global average per capita CO2 emissions for a top 1% income earner (just $32k annual) is 107 times that of somebody in the bottom 50% (UNEP). Yikes. That’s Armonk. That’s me. That’s likely you. Really, it’s the “developed” world. God knows what the multiple actually is for some of us in Armonk — 1,000x? 10,000x? How can we take responsibility for disproportionately perpetuating climate disasters and economic inequality? I think of all those miles I’ve flown with pride. My karmic credit card is maxed out. The rest of the world is praying we will change our ways. Something’s gotta give. What are we willing to change? Let go of? Denounce?
What legacy do we want to leave? I often think our grandchildren will want to know what choices we made today. I think about how one billion humans may be displaced by 2050, and wonder if I will environmentally, socially or spiritually be able to afford to live a McMansion(s) life with multiple new of every thing every time I ruin it or the styles change, in order to herd my kids into elite educational and professional paths that are exacerbating our planetary crisis. I’m saddened that anybody feels inspired or pressured to sell their soul for the chance to be a 1% earner/consumer while the world burns around them because of their behavior. That seems like a sinking ship.
I’m not against wealth. I am for awareness of unnecessary suffering in pursuit and as a result of wealth. Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE a million dollars right now (I want to create an ecoversity retreat center in the Hudson Valley, to support this transition I speak of). I very much enjoy nice things and experiences! It’s totally okay to desire resources and security. I think the invitation is to set boundaries around how we make that wealth, and remember that having it won’t necessarily solve our problems, but make us more of what we are.
And then there’s the resilience factor. A friend Micah Daigle recently offered that abstract wealth is the ability to meet one’s needs and desires by paying people for goods and services, while real wealth is being able to meet one’s needs and desires directly or through community. If the economy collapsed, the latter would persist. It’s worth asking:
- 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?
Mental Health as Wealth
Trigger warning: this section touches on suicide.
Whatever, wealth has had critics since time immemorial. Big whoop, we want the best for our kids. No need to be so sensitive! Where the rubber really meets the road for me is the exploding global mental health crisis. I don’t need to share the statistics. It’s the pandemic on top of screen addiction inside a culture of individualism nestled in a worldview of separation. The younger generations are disengaged at work, manipulated by corporations, victimized for their self expression. Deeply in debt, working more hours and more jobs for less pay and less security, struggling to achieve the same standards of living as their parents, operating in psychological and physical precariousness, all while being told that if they just work harder, meritocracy will prevail, and they’ll begin thriving (Millennials have become known as the Burnout Generation).
And in a community like Armonk, this is exacerbated by a hyper fixation on perfectionism and future success in a singular way, to the detriment of present well being. An implicit story that the most important thing in life is is to meet an impossibly high level of achievement in a flawlessly rapid timeline, or else something is wrong with you. That bigger and more are the way. Except when it comes to girls and their weight, with intense pressure to live up to narrow standards of beauty, manifesting as eating disorders and low self-esteem. And now with the proliferation of ever-refined social media, everybody’s perfection is mainlined into developing nervous system hundreds of times a day. Anybody else feel like all this striving for somebody else’s idea of perfection is EXHAUSTING?
If a family’s income or generational wealth gives them the ability to live a certain lifestyle, this swirl of endless growth culture can create pressure on the child to pursue a life/career path that will enable them to maintain that level, but ideally to surpass it. To regress might be shameful, dishonorable, tragic. Which drastically narrows the menu of options of disciplines to study (has to be practical!), lifestyles (has to conform to our way!), and ways to serve (has to make money!). Which can force children to deny their emotions and hearts’ yearnings, experience unnecessary struggles with anxiety and depression, and yield poor choices for themselves and the whole. Sometimes, no amount of money in the world can reverse that impact.
Is mental health the hidden cost of raising kids here? A wellbeing or personality tax? I’d argue that it’s the water we’re swimming in, endemic to late stage capitalism. And it’s pretty thick in these parts. In the West we tend to individualize sickness and put the blame on the person who is ill. Conversely, in eastern and Indigenous cultures, curiosity is brought to that person’s emotional state (e.g. when was the last time you danced or sang?), and what’s going on in the environment and the community level. One system isn’t necessarily better than the other — they are complementary; better at certain things and worse than others. But it begs the question: how are we doing as a community? If we are to be measured, as Gandhi famously offered, by how well we treat our most vulnerable, how are we showing up for those 1 and 2 star reviews? In exploring the clusters of suicides that plagued the sister town of Palo Alto, CA, The Edge of Success asks how we can offer amazing academic opportunities to our kids, without crushing the life out of them?
What is the connection between drive for success and trauma? A friend David Sauvage believes that trauma is often behind success, status, and achievement. Success is fine but gets problematic when one’s definition of it relies upon external signifiers of value. He invites us to ask: what is really driving us? Often it’s validation from somebody, e.g. approval from a parent, so they can tell their friends about it and those friends will respond “omg!” or feel relaxed knowing that we are doing what we need to do to survive. We get a hit of that feeling of being special, awesome, accepted, mattering. A high to soothe a lack of love and recognition for our true self or gifts, or whatever it is that originally so disconnected us from ourselves. Addiction to this breeds a a culture of achievement that reinforces that trauma at every turn by lionizing those who are extremely successful, who we then follow by disconnecting from ourselves even further so we may achieve a similar level of success. A culture of achievement addicts.
Another friend Simon Mont invites us to ask what are we following? We may take a prestigious job thinking that we are following our calling, only to later realize that we were following our need to validate our sense of worth through the admiration of others. Or the pressures of capitalism, our fear of scarcity, the patterns of our traumas, or any of multitude of impulses running through ourselves. We need to be cautious, because a lot of what passes for “leadership” nowadays is really just skillful following of things that should not be followed.
It’s hard to know how much of my generalized anxiety disorder has to do with nature (inherited trauma common to assimilated, white Ashkenazi Jews living in the US) or nurture (all that I’ve mentioned here, which I believe amplified the former). I recall in my teens and twenties, the times when I was getting the best grades or earning the highest salary coincided with the greatest difficulty getting out of bed in the morning and most intense existential angst. During my senior year of college I welled up with tears dreading the likelihood of going to an office for the next forty years. Thinking that I didn’t have much of a choice, I felt the immense pain of a perceived decrease in freedom and potentiality. Even if there were socially acceptable therapeutic interventions available to me, I don’t know if they would have broken through my inclination to hide such feelings from those around me, lest I risk my job security or reputation as somebody “doing well.”
If there’s one thing I want to communicate in this whole piece, it’s a request to be more gentle to each other. Already, everybody is fighting an inner battle we know nothing about. The battle is only growing. Kids must have compassion for parents, parents for kids, siblings for siblings, ourselves for ourselves. As the climate gets weirder and job/financial markets tighter, our survival instincts have already started kicking in to double down on control, scarcity, and tribalism. Which may lead to even more pressure on our youth to perform. I’m not a parent, but I think that is the moment we need to rise above our paleolithic emotions and choose greater acceptance, abundance, trust and love. Always more love. Ease up on them. Hold then tight. And if they resist, ask yourself why, and explore therapy together. Normalize family therapy. We’ve lost too many amazing ones and we risk losing more, especially those who are most misunderstood: the weird, strange, crazy, sensitive and magical. If we’d do anything for our kids, are we willing to try something different? How can we embrace individual differences? How can we make it safe to be different?
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.
Kids: You are not your achievements, your money, the things you do for money, the things they afford. You are way more than that. You have unlimited potential. You are enough. You don’t have to do anything. You are loved. You are love. You are beautiful ☀️
Adults: There are no easy answers here. Perhaps this is our unique paradox to wrestle with: how to create the best life for the next generation, without crushing their souls, resilience, people or planet. Maybe it’s one we’ve been wrestling with since time immemorial. The seemingly impossible integration of polarity. The holy balance of the yin/yang, masculine/feminine, shakti/shiva, worldliness/holiness, being/doing, left brain / right brain. Referenced in every symbol on those COEXIST bumper stickers, the most powerful and enduring symbols humanity has generated.
Whether you’re asking how to meet your material needs in a way that is aligned with your values, or your business / the economy is asking how to create value without causing any harm, we face this dilemma from cradle to grave. And regardless of when or where we grow up, we respond to what we experience as imbalance, and that creates our life path. Challenges inspire purpose. “Evil” motivates “good.” In every dimension of life, at all scales of life, we bring awareness to what is out of balance, and then work to shift it back into balance in the appropriate way. Again, and again. As we always have. Energy vibrating back and forth. Back and forth. As above, so below. As within, so without.
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.
While I was clearly challenged by Armonk, I also appreciate how those challenges inspired me to make choices that led to this moment, which I’m pleased with. So it’s all perfect in a way, although not without its new challenges, that will shape me in mysterious ways. The full outcome and nth order consequences always yet to be revealed…
I’ve felt scared to share all this. I’m afraid of how it might change how you see me and relate to me, especially those who I’ve known for decades. Will you see me as a whiny, entitled millennial? Will you avoid what comes up inside you when you read this and avoid me? Will you be afraid of giving me feedback and slowly disconnect? Will you give harsh feedback that doesn’t hold me in the dignity of my messy process of learning to be human? I hope that our relationship can hold the messyness, and we may be able to have open dialogue about whatever this stirs in you. I pray that I will be received for the love and integrity I am trying to bring to the path I’ve been given.
The second half is much rosier, as I believe it’s important to both deconstruct and reconstruct. I am bursting with hope and try to give as much of myself to creating the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. It doesn’t have to suck. It can be joyful. We might even come to find we are more prepared than we realize.
🙌 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?
In January 2018, I received a vision for Armonk’s future during a deep meditation session. It’s hard to put into words or remember all the details, but I recall it feeling so true in my body that it brought tears of joy to my eyes. I saw the possibility of:
Flourishing individuals, families, and community. Children coming alive, discovering their gifts, bringing their fullest expression forward, cultivating healthy lifestyles. Families and friends using vacation time to tend to unprocessed trauma. Beautiful threads of love and healing, weaving the fabric of our social relationships into a beautiful tapestry.
Joyful, educational, and supportive interactions between neighbors, generations, and unlikely friends. Strangers saying hi how are you (and actually meaning it!) on the street, friends stopping by for tea, block parties open to all.
Excess resources flowing naturally to the areas of greatest need. Mass divestment from extractive investments, consumption, and labor choices. More holistic notions of wealth/money/success to include all types of capital (financial, social, physical, material, emotional, spiritual, etc), in moderation–not a major imbalance of any one over the others.
Extracurricular activities expanding from lowest effort x highest resume value, to passionate learning and service and creativity for the sake of it. New opportunities for apprenticeship and mentorship. Stipends for educationally active parents. Basic income guarantees for all.
A shared motivation to leave Armonk better than we found it. Not merely to be a consumer of it, but a co-creator. A race to the top for creating more love and kindness and joy. New “success metrics” focused on fulfillment over achievement, service over self-promotion, health over wealth, how one makes you feel over their SAT scores and net worth at 10 year reunion.
The potential of Armonk as a role model for upper class achievement communities. An equitable and inclusive place people rave about living in for its culture of authenticity, care, and connection.
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!
I know, words are just words, and I know that words create worlds. I regret not making a greater effort to live into these words and inquiries during the time between that vision and today. And, I’m proud of the little ripples I have made. And, I know these things are already happening in little ways. Deep bow to those who are holding this vision with me (whether you know it or not) or are ready to rock. The future depends on the articulation of a new vision of humanity. Of what is possible for the planet and everyone on it.
It’s a time for creativity, courage, faith. If not now, when? If not me, then who? The good news is that Armonk has lots of smart people and resources. Which are not necessary to innovate and make change (think Gandhi vs. Bezos), but are super helpful. It’s as if we have the way, but do we have the will?
Resilience — Living in Right Relationship
definition: the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride, folks. Civilization as we know it is dying (as they all do), and something new is being birthed. Every institution, every organization, every relationship will change in response. The transition will not be easy. It will take a lot of courage for us to stand in this moment. Everybody is needed. Everybody has an important voice. The most dangerous thing we can do is cling to the status quo. We might do well to invest in cultivating greater resilience. As the Greek poet Archilocus observed, “we don’t ever rise to the occasion so much as we sink to the level of our training.”
Some of the questions I’m wrestling with include:
- 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?
It’s not just about having enough food in the event of supply chain collapse. It’s about shifting our relationship to the natural world, on the personal and collective levels. A U.S. Department of the Interior study found that the average American child can identify 1000 corporate logos, but can’t ID 10 plants and animals native to their hometown. What does that say about what we pay attention to? If we don’t attend to something, we tend not to care about it. What would it take to inspire every family to start a garden and collaborate on a farmers market? Could we grow our own food and feed each other in the event of a supply chain breakdown? What other things could we learn to craft ourselves so that we are less reliant on importing things from far away? What does it look like to be more reliant on each other?
It’s a tall order. We need to learn, relearn, and unlearn how to be in this planetary home. Perhaps we might look to the original stewards of this land for guidance. Through learning about and integrating Indigenous knowledge and perspectives, we stand to gain a richer understanding of the world and our role in it, whether how to be in a healthy relationship with the Earth or reconnecting with the traditional ways of our own ancestors that we have forgotten as a result of colonization and assimilation.
It’s also about making sure everyone is healthy; physically, mentally, and spiritually. Has access to real, healthy food. Is exposed to mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and non-violent communication practices. Can make sense of a polluted information ecology, and integrate multiple perspectives. Has access to therapy and trauma healing modalities. Sees neighbors as a part of their circle of care, treating them with respect, dignity, and empathy. We’re going to have to get much better at sharing and communicating. At doing community. Not just to be polite, but vulnerable in reaching out for help, creative in exchanging or gifting value, and courageous in intervening when one lacks the capacity to help themselves. We’re all just walking each other home.
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.
I’ve advocated for education reform at the business school level and for technologists, but admittedly have little understanding on how the public, New York State, secondary education system works. My intention is not to blame the teachers or administrators at BHHS, but point to larger trends and possibilities. Most of my analysis comes from thinker and educator Zak Stein’s Education in a Time Between Worlds:
“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?
When social systems are in periods of rapid transformation, the role of schools becomes contradictory. They teach knowledge that is no longer relevant, socialize individuals into roles that no longer exist, and provide the mindsets needed to continue ways of life that are rapidly disappearing. In 2018 it was estimated that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. The same year, the UN IPCC report warned we only had twelve years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C.
Zak believes this planetary transition provides an opportunity to transform into an education-centric society in which the free development of each individual is the condition for the free development of all. He envisions an educational system freed from all subservience to economic considerations and entirely dedicated to the furtherance of human potential. Non-coercive and creatively cooperative inter-generational exchange.
“Our school systems need to be repurposed and redesigned, transformed into unprecedented institutions that are a combination of public libraries, museums, co-working centers computer labs, ad cooperative child care centers. Funded to the hilt, staffed by citizen-teacher-scientists, these public and privately supported learning hubs would be the local centers of regionally decentralized pop-up classrooms, special interest groups, apprenticeship networks, and college and work preparation consoling.”
This is what is meant by Paideia, a Greek word broadly about the raising of younger members of society in the context of a polity, or a political community. A well functioning paideia is a community drawn together by commitment to an explicit philosophy of the good life and a related praxis of education. A paideia is a community that is focused on the creation of a certain kind of virtuous human, a community in which economics and politics are subordinate to an explicitly educational vision. This is a society in which life itself is understood as a process of deliberate cultural and ethical aspiration across generations.
It takes a village. How can our little hamlet foster the conditions to develop our youth into autonomous, reflective, and ethical individuals with a sincere love for learning? And not just our youth. Many grown ups, myself included, have a lot more growing up to do. Many of us are actually emotionally young, having been infantilized by consumer culture or alienated from our own creative powers by dull and meaningless office jobs. Overcoming neuroses, exploring latent potentials, and pursuing self-actualization are all part of what lies beyond merely conventional definitions of what it means to be a mature adult. It’s possible that we may need to relearn everything we thought we knew.
Religion–ReMembering the Wisdom of Tradition
I believe our religious institutions have a significant role here. And they too may need to evolve into a higher octave. While most statistics paint a picture of young people running away from religion, anecdotally I’ve witnessed it trending across my diverse peer groups, as young adults increasingly crave community, guidance and meaning, and now have greater access to experimental digital and IRL offerings that speak their language. Acknowledging the immense violence that has been done by or in the name of religion, there are kernels of time tested wisdom that hold many clues not only how to live well, but resiliently. A popular interpretation of the Shema, one of the most essential prayers in Judaism, is essentially a call to pay attention to how everything is connected. The prayer immediately following, the V’ahavta, instructs us to do everything we can to remember this idea, and literally warns of drought and starvation if we fail to live by it…
As times get weirder, my hunch is we will find ourselves leaning on these institutions for support, as we tend to do during major transitions in life. How can we revisit, learn from, and play with these stories that are deeply ingrained in the source code of our consciousness? e.g. holy cow, Judaism grants us 25 hours every week for rest, digital detox, and to do the things that bring us the most joy. What other rituals can we reinvigorate or create to bring us together in an embodied experience of something that we value? Cultures of meaning and experiences that build wonder, resilience, and compassion. How can we support each other’s spiritual journeys without falling into cult-like fundamentalism or new age narcissism?
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.
Let’s re-knit the rich social fabric that exists here to unlock its full potential. Check in with our neighbors. Figure out where our food and water comes from. Cancel somebody’s student loans. Put all the idle stuff we’ve been hoarding in our basements to use by people who can do beautiful things with it. Pick up trash on your block or nearby hiking trail. Start an affinity group; a mens or womens circle. Share wisdom with each other around the fire. Talk about how we are going to live better. And die better. Take off our masks. Put down the remote and pick up the tissue box.
What would it look like if Armonk life centered psychological support and growth? What do you perceive is imbalanced in Armonk? What are you positioned to change? What is your unique perspective that gives birth to your unique gift? What of the undone is yours to do next? This letter was mine to do.
See the following organizations for further inspiration: Transition Network, Local Futures, 2000 Watt Society, Reinhabiting the Village, Strong Towns, Citizen University, Flatpack Democracy, Brave Angels, New Economy Coalition, Wellbeing Economy Alliance, How We Gather.
Purpose–Self & Community Actualization
Finally, I want to bring it back to purpose. Our kids need hope. They need empowerment. They need us to ask them what they need, and for us to follow through on it. Perhaps all the achieving and materialism was in service of freeing up time so that we might focus on cultivating resilience, healing, self and community actualization of the next generation. Purpose is a fuzzy concept, but it turns out that living into one’s purpose or calling and finding greater meaning in life can have cascading benefits on mental and physical health. What if the best thing we can do for our kids is get off their backs and support them in following their curiosities, regardless of the expected value in the marketplace or perceived social acceptance?
I hope that children who have such a large safety net(s) may be fully supported in becoming artists, activists, healers and roles of service we can’t even imagine. That their spirit not be crushed but protected and nourished. That one of the primary goals of Armonk be to identify their gifts and help them bring them into the world in a good way. That we may play with the levers to balance things out: less virtue signaling, more vulnerability. Less wealth, more health. Less mundane, more sacred. Less consumption, more creativity. Less avoiding pain, more attaining joy. Less external power, more internal strength. Less speed, more depth. Less security, more choice. We’ve been making them more fragile when they most need to become anti-fragile! Let’s give them more experiences of being by themselves, without distractions and influence, to let the dust noise settle and create the conditions for them to get to know who they really are.
Where is the love, Armonk? I don’t claim to know what love is any more than you do. But I know many of us experience it as another fuzzy word, with different meanings in different contexts. What does it actually mean? Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Philosopher Forrest Landry defines love as “that which enables choice.”
When parents fear their sons won’t get into top schools or daughters can’t get a certain job because they are not a person of color or have a miraculous X factor, maybe it’s worth exploring not going to college or taking a break (not to mention anti-racism). To slow down and figure out who they actually are. Now in my 30's, it’s sad to witness peers feeling stuck in careers they admit are unfulfilling, or worse. They know it, and they want something different or more, but are understandably paralyzed by the potential career or lifestyle switching costs this “late in the game.” It takes dedicated time and space to slow down, ask the big questions, and make significant change. More challenging with age. Way harder without certain privileges.
Most of the population does not have time to think about such existential questions, self actualization and cultivating skills for resilience, as they are too busy just trying to make ends meet. But many of those reading this do. Many of us can afford to think about these bigger questions, take risks, rest and play and create. Is this not what our ancestors wished for us? I don’t know exactly what they wished for, but somehow my heart knows what makes them smile or frown. And I always felt like I had a responsibility to more fully live my life as a gesture of gratitude for theirs.
The other day I visited the steam room on a guest pass at Equinox and struck up a conversation with a couple of Byram juniors, after enduring a couple rounds of “the penis game.” I asked them what they thought about Armonk. “It’s such a bubble.” I asked them how they were thinking about career and life. “Get rich and take it easy.” Upon leaving, I asked them not to forget to listen to their hearts. And if they can’t do that, to inquire why not.
I recall Armonk’s “bubbleness” being a top gripe back in my day too. What is trying to be expressed, actually? A frustration with suburban homogeneity? A signaling of awareness that this isn’t the real world? A socially acceptable yearning for something more? Whatever it is, it’s covering some sort of pain. Perhaps the pain of disconnection — from each other, nature, our bodies, elders, ancestors, God. Which then needs to be compensated for, and there’s no amount of compensation that can meet the depth of that pain, so we keep grasping to fill it with more [insert vice, distraction, addiction].
Why don’t we have more conversation about it? Classes about class, money, privilege? How we got here? Why is Armonk so wealthy, so white, so segregated, so secular, so disenchanted? If we can’t look, talk about and touch the elephant in the room, how is it going to move? Not only to engender understanding, but to create opportunity. To create containers to slow down and track the pain we feel back to the systems and culture we are participating in. For assimilated families to reconnect with and celebrate their culture and that of their neighbors. To identify ways to support economic and racial justice, locally and regionally.
At the end of the day, there’s no perfect town. Everyone and everything has its gifts and its distortions. Turns out they are often one and the same: the best thing about us is also the worst thing about us. I hope that those who participate in and create Armonk culture may look in the shadows, ask the big questions, and find allies in transformation. That this piece may inspire reflection, dialogue, and action.
We have an unprecedented amount of power and choice in what happened next. Let us find the courage to realize and humility to direct it in life honoring ways.
May the highest good be revealed 🙌
☕️ Last Call
Whew. I had no plans to write anything on this topic. It just poured out of me one day as my family’s move became more real. One of the challenging aspects of writing this piece has been a sense of loneliness. That few see my perspective. That my words may stoke anger and sadness and risk another blacksheep cycle. I can simultaneously envision metaphorical pitchforks chasing after our moving truck, and lines of strangers knocking on the door to share their heartfelt reactions.
Special shout out to those who reviewed drafts & gave me shared feedback 🙏
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)
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.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. See you.
Lots of love,
Andrew’s mission is bring ethics and eros into life and business.
He supports students and professionals in coming into right relationship with life through coaching, consulting, and facilitation. Especially younger versions of himself.