What Are We Doing to Ourselves?


This is the 46th in a collection of newspaper ads written by Harry Gray, then CEO of United Technologies, that appeared in the Wall Street Journal from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Here is the text from that ad.

Many books offer answers on how to live our lives.
But, there’s one book that raises questions about what kind of lives we lead.
It’s the phone book.
It has hotlines for Alcohol Problems, Battered Women, Child Abuse, Drugs, Elderly Abuse, Gamblers Anonymous, Rape Crisis, Runaways, V.D. Information, and more.
Why so much misery?
What went wrong?
Don’t we know what we’re doing to ourselves?

While phone books have become almost non-existent since the original publication of this ad.Today we can look up a phone number in Google or on a dedicated web site such as whitepages.com, and keep numbers stored on a device that fits in our pocket.

Yet despite these great advances in technology, we still have the problems noted above.

It can be viewed as a positive that there are hotlines available for people who need help when such problems arise, but I certainly agree it would be much better if the problems did not exist in the first place.

But I wonder if Gray thought about another part of the phone book and what it says about the kind of lives we live. I recall that the listings for doctors used to run several yellow pages. Why are there are so many people on medications and undergoing surgery, when many of the illnesses are preventable by relatively simple changes in lifestyle? Again, like the hotlines noted above, it’s good that the doctors are available to help people when they are sick, but wouldn’t it be better if people didn’t get sick to start with?

And so the questions that Gray raises, “Why so much misery?” and “What went wrong?” apply here as well.

I don’t see the situation improving any time soon, partly because of the culture of violence and anger that permeates the U.S.

Let’s hope that in the end kindness wins out, and solves many of these problems.

P.S. I remember how much I loved the phone book when I was an adolescent. I remember going over to my Aunt’s house, and the first thing I would do would be to grab the phone book, and then just study it for the next hour or so. One of my goals in life was to one day have our family’s phone book listing at the top of one of the columns, but in the many ears that I analyzed the phone book, it never happened once.

I would also count what was the most popular last name; as I vaguely recall it was Smith, followed by Brown, and then Johnson. I then went even further and studied what was the most popular  first and last name combo, and not surprisingly, John Smith won. I would count what letter of the alphabet had the most last names that started with that letter, and which letter had the fewest.

When I had exhausted my analysis of the white pages, I would turn to the yellow pages, and see what was the most popular category. I think it was doctors followed by restaurants, and then lawyers. I’d also check to see if there were ads for things I liked to do, such as bowling, or juggling, or sporting good stores.

Yes, I’ll admit it, I was a little odd, but at least I can thank my friends and family that I wasn’t using the phone book to look for drug abuse help or support for runaways.

I miss those old phone books; life was certainly much simpler then.


2 thoughts on “What Are We Doing to Ourselves?

  1. Food for thought. But, I wonder…did we suffer from many of these issues but kept the information to ourselves? Is the problem that we have more issues, or just bigger mouths?
    Loved phone books. Loved looking up ads for stuff that interested me. I would be distracted, same as with an encyclopedia or a dictionary, by subjects or words with no relationship whatever to my initial search.


    1. Hi Mona, you riase an interesting point. I do think society has become much more transparent, so it’s hard to hide anything anymore. I like our mutual admiration of phone books; maybe they were our version of the world wide web…


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