It was the Before Times: late July 2019.
Just a few short months before the COVID pandemic would hit New York like a viral nuclear bomb in early 2020, I was talking to my father at his kitchen table in Woodside, Queens. He was dying from cancer, slowly and quite painfully; he only had a couple of months left and wouldn't live to see what COVID would soon do to our world during the most surreal of years.
Yet he was prescient about some of our troubling and toxic societal dynamics that COVID only helped to amplify. My dying Greek father, being of a different time and place, had an intuitive sense that something was profoundly wrong with the way that we lived.
During those last couple of months of his life, I would fly to New York every week from my home in Austin where I ran a mental health clinic, as we both did our best to savor our final times together. Once strong and proud, now that the cancer had spread to his bones, he was reduced to catheters and a wheelchair, where every movement—no matter how slight—led to a sharp grimace and a low moan of pain.
As a teenage boy, he'd survived the Nazis invading his village in northern Greece; lived through the bloodshed of a communist civil war; survived a transatlantic migration by sea to the Washington Heights section of New York during the 1960s; survived working three jobs, seven days a week, for decades to support his family and put my brother and me through college in the hopes that we'd have a better life. But he couldn't survive the onslaught of a relentless cancer.
It was heartbreaking to see his deterioration. Yet while every organ system in his body was rapidly beginning to fail him, at eighty-eight, his mind remained razor sharp—maybe too sharp—as he would often surprise me with his insights and clarity about things. We would talk politics, current events, scientific advancements, feuding relatives...anything, really.
In a world of Kardashian-esque frivolity and inane tweets, he was from an earlier time where people said what was on their minds and didn't mince their words; there was a clarity to his thinking, a moral and intellectual certitude uncluttered by the fads of the day.
But he had begun to feel like an anachronism, like a stranger in an increasingly strange land. As we would sit and talk about things that excited me in the rapidly changing world around us—everything from AI to social media and the evolving nature of identity—he would smile his knowing smile and say, "Ah, Niko...I'm glad I'm not going to live long enough to see the world that you describe."
He didn't understand a world dependent on technology—one where people didn't look each other in the eye, where they were stuck in front of a screen for hours on end and felt lost and empty. He hated what he saw as our tech obsession. A devoted lifelong gardener who also loved to cook for everyone as an expression of his love, he'd chide me as I kept checking my phone for work messages during my visits: "Niko, stop looking at that stupid thing and be here if you're going to be here." He had never heard the much-hyped word mindfulness; he had never read Be Here Now by Ram Dass...but he got it. Better than most.
He'd laugh when I'd tell him that parts of Greece were "Blue Zones," known for longevity; that maybe he would defy the doctors and have many more years left to live, like his father, who lived well into his nineties. "Niko, I don't know about Blue or Red Zones; I know I live here now. But I also know that we lived a simpler life then. A more human life. All this nonsense today...it's not the way people are supposed to live."
He had grown up in a tiny and remote mountain village in northern Greece during the 1930s and '40s. There was no electricity, no indoor running water. It was a cold and spartan existence. Yet he would talk about his childhood (at least before the Nazi invasion) as a special time of peace, joy, and a profound love of nature. The trees he planted in his village as a boy still stand today as towering living examples of his symbiotic relationship with the natural world: he nurtured nature, and nature nurtured him. People did work hard, but there was a purposeful pace, not the frenetic and chaotic cacophony of modern city living. And the values were different; genuine relationships were more important than things like money or the right car.
I began to wonder—yes, while we often tend to idealize life in the past—if maybe there was some merit to what he said. After all, for the past decade, as both an author and a psychologist, I had written about the impacts of the modern age on our deteriorating mental health and run clinics around the country treating all manner of psychiatric and addictive distress—issues that only seemed to be getting worse.
And I had spent the last few years trying to better understand a simple conundrum: Why is our mental health deteriorating as we become a more technologically advanced society? After my dad died, I began to realize that his life may hold many of the answers to the "modern" problems I was trying to better understand: why we're so sick and getting sicker.
And make no mistake, we've become a very, very sick society.