x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

It doesn't take a philosopher to tell me that cities are insane

Scientific discovery of the week: City life is more stressful than country life. Thank you, Science! Henry David Thoreau knew all that 157 years ago. But then again, he didn't have Facebook.

Traffic. Crippling debts. Rent hikes. Rising petrol prices. Crowded shopping malls. Fast food chains. iPhones and BlackBerrys. Facebook. And above all, always, always be near by a phone in case the boss calls.

I wonder what Henry David Thoreau would have made of this litany of social ills that afflicts modern life. In 1854, the American Transcendentalist published his celebrated self-reliance manual Walden; or, Life in the Woods after living in a cabin in Concord, Massachusetts, for two years.

In Walden, Thoreau foretold the 20th century and beyond, memorably saying: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." As an indictment of the stress and hardship brought on by big city life, it has rarely been bettered. And now scientists are getting on board.

Last week, German and Canadian neuroscientists published results of a new study that showed, less than surprisingly, that living in a city is bad for your mental health, and that residents in rural settings live less stressful lives than those in urban areas.

And while the research, published in the journal Nature, will certainly help in our understanding of the way the brain handles stress and its relation to anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, the results were hardly mind-blowing. File next to "smoking is bad for you" and "fast food makes you fat".

Anecdotal evidence cannot be trusted all the time, but I presume there is no shortage of fellow big city residents who could have arrived at the identical conclusion in the time it takes for their daily commute.

Ah, dear science, always complicating things for us simpletons. "It is the attempt at a posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualisation," Albert Einstein once said, in a statement only marginally more comprehensible than his General Theory of Relativity.

But unlike Thoreau, who in reality only moved three kilometres from his family home, a life of solitude and serenity in the woods is not really an option for most of us. Head a few kilometres outside the city centre and you'll end up in the middle of the desert, or worse, the Arabian Ranches housing development.

So big city life and stress it is. But it's one thing to go home and kick the dog à la Homer Simpson, and quite another to end up on the wrong side of the law, and sanity, like Charlie Sheen. And for those who succumb in a moment of rage and offend cultural sensitivities, the consequences can be dire.

In New York, Paris or London, you can insult someone to within inches of their dignity and still not risk jail or deportation. But here?

As the local media have recently reported, a Dubai-based British surgeon has been charged with raising his middle finger at a police sergeant in a road rage incident, although he denies the charge. Joseph Mensah's lawyer has, however, asked the Dubai Court of Misdemeanours for a continuance after his client left the country on urgent business. And while it was not clear why his passport was returned, enabling him to leave the country, we can be certain he can't wait to get back and face the music.

In truth, it is surprising that more people are not doing impressions of William "D-Fens" Foster, Michael Douglas's character in the movie Falling Down, an unemployed worker who, frustrated with the inexplicable irritations he sees in society, begins to violently lash out.

Tailgaters, unresponsive customer service personnel, annoying journalists. There is no shortage of people who can make you wish for a better existence, perhaps as a goat in the mountains of Nepal.

So the lesson - that annoying people who intrude on your personal space and are generally unhelpful are not good for your sanity - echoes Thoreau all of those 157 years ago: "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion."

But then I'd probably feel the urge to upload a picture of said pumpkin onto my status update. Damn you, Facebook.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae