When I was 14 or 15 and attending a magnet all-girls (sort of. It was made co-ed in my year, but only two boys enrolled. Same with the boys school across the street. I understand they’re now both fully co-ed, but such things take time) high school, one of the boys in the all-boy school across the street committed suicide.
He left a note explaining that he was doing so because of the wars in the world, and racism and pollution and economic injustice.
I’ve now lived
forty[Math before coffee is hard and also I can’t type.] thirty five years (give or take) longer than he did, (he was in my grade at the time) and the skeptic in me thinks “well, yes, but there must have been other reasons. No healthy young man with no personal problems would kill himself for these vague ideas.”
And it’s probably right on the “healthy” and perhaps on the “no personal problems.” But at the time the letter he left seemed profound to me, and to most of the young people around me, too.
We passed it around from hand to hand like some sort of gospel, some revelation. I can no longer remember it but I know that co-mingled with the complaints there was this great and bitter disappointment that men weren’t like onto angels, all perfect and caring nothing for themselves and only for others.
And if you’re saying “And yet, he hurt his parents horribly, didn’t he?” Yes, of course.
But he probably thought they wouldn’t care, or if they did they would feel he was justified. There is a good chance that his impression of how bad the world was had come from them talking about how horrible and depressing things were, after all.
I remember being young well enough to remember the wild emotions that come with it, and when people have a depressive disposition – and I suppose some number of the population always will naturally, regardless of how much they try to classify it as a disease and medicate it away – and are fed a constant diet of doom, gloom, everything is failing soon, the young, innocent and impressionable will buy into it.
They’re driven towards it by twin forces: first when you’re very young in our current western civilization happiness or at least joy comes naturally. You really don’t know of any problems yet, and the world is a great untried adventure. This is mingled with the fact that we no longer tell our kids scary or moral stories as little ones. Instead we suffuse them in a disneyfied pink fluff version of reality, with picture books of happy dancing animals and fluffy bunnies (no, this wasn’t always like that) until they think this is the normal state of humanity. Then when they become teenagers they become aware of troubles and disturbances in the world, and, being completely shocked by this, decide that that happy-fluff is the mark of childhood. To be grown up and important, they MUST be serious and depressed. (Rolls eyes.)
The other force is that our society even as it removed from childhood all strife, all work – children as young as three and four used to help in farms and households until very recently, in generational terms. Heck, I was being guilted for being “lazy” by five (actually I just got bored and wondered off. But I was constantly told that all the other little girls washed the family dishes and did other light work. I know a lot of them did) – and all suspicion of suffering, death and darkness – let us not forget that childhood was the most common time of death throughout most of human history – including from the stories we tell kids – the modern (Disney) versions of Cinderella, Snow White and PARTICULARLY The Little Mermaid are abominations – we piled it all on adolescence. The kid hits twelve or thirteen and, having been cajoled along to think the entire world is dancing animals and butterflies, suddenly finds himself forcefed doom, gloom, it’s all ending soon, from the school curriculum dictated by unshriven environmentalists, to the reading list driven by people who think kids need to read about death, suicide, incest, rape, and sexual torture to be “tolerant.” (Tolerant of what is never immediately obvious.)
Is it any wonder the conjunction short circuits brains into believing they’re living in end times and that no one has ever been as unlucky as themselves?
I was lucky to be born closer-to-the-bone. We were never in danger of starving, but given the state of health care at that time, in that place, death was always a possibility. Also, I knew people who were in real, dire financial need, and people who had had horrible things happen to them. And most people in the village had lost at least one child to some childhood disease.
This gave me a gage for “misfortune” that put my own into perspective.
And yet, even I, as I went to high school bought into the prophets of doom. After all, all potable water would be gone by the eighties, and gasoline too, and we’d be so overpopulated we’d need the neighbor’s permission to draw a deep breath.
I was aware I had it good, but I always expected the world to go into hell and dissolution in my life time. Which is why that poor kid’s suicide note seemed so profound.
These are twin currents in humanity, of course. The people who think everything is getting worse have always been there, as have those who think that tomorrow the great disruption comes and we all die screaming. The idea is particularly popular among Odds and other misfits who imagine they’d do better in a society in turmoil. (I think our type of Odd largely knows we won’t, but those who’ve bought into the communitarian nature of man and into competitiveness and greed as unique capitalist sins without which men would be like angels imagine they will. Shed a tear for them. They’re usually the first against the execution walls their paradises always call forth.)
Then the other current is the one that affirms that yes, human life is worth living that, yes, flawed and all humanity is still admirable, that when the falling angel meets the rising ape something wonderful happens that neither ape nor angel could achieve – that in fact we live (as humans) at the uncomfortable point of knowing the ideal but being unable to achieve it, but this is a glory and a joy. Not a bug, but a feature. It gives us the drive – perhaps the need – to strive ever onwards.
The problem right now and the reason sometimes we seem to be a civilization of over-dramatizing kids, is that we have no sense of proportion. We don’t know what true misery or true misfortune is.
Look, I’m not putting down those of you who have suffered personal losses – family members, your own health, sometimes most of your livelihood, particularly in this rotten economy – but still most of us are so far above the run of most of human history. Most of us reading this (unless you’re in a far flung country) aren’t at danger of starving this week, or of having our home broken into by pillaging armed men, or of seeing all our children killed before their eyes. Yes, I know that’s not off the books, any of that, but it’s also not in our experience, and it’s not in eminent danger of occurring right now.
Even looking as recently as world war I – I try to imagine what it must have felt like to live in a country that had lost that many young men, to be one of the families who had lost all their children – and the mind recoils from it. It would seem like it would make people collapse and give up. And yet, people went on living. It was the young and the untried who went a little crazy after WWI resulting in the current culture of self-flagellation in western civ. They went a little crazy not because what they’d seen and what had happened to them was so horrible, but because their life had been so soft up till then. Soft by comparison with historic norms, of course – and yet, much harder than the lives of kids today. Today kids lack all purposeful comparison.
Think about it, the OWSers who for a while infested at least one street corner in a moderately large city, thought of themselves as hard-done-by not because they were starving – those who weren’t hired to be there, often had top of the line electronics – not because their friends had been killed, not because they faced the prospect of invasion by roving armies… No, because they can’t find a job commensurate with their education. Because if they go out on their own they’ll have to take a step back in lifestyle and not live at the same level they do with their kids. Not because they want work, any work, but because they can’t get the work they want. (And right now, I’m not putting down the plight of the millenials. I’m mother to two of them. They are saddled with enormous debt – even those like mine who chose not to pile it on with student debt will have to pay for the national folly – and entering an economy that rejects them and assumes they’re stupid and spoiled. Some are bracing and know that what comes is much worse. And some are gritting their teeth and preparing to do what they have to do to restore the economy, knowing they’ll probably labor at it for the rest of their lives and might not see any results — BUT the subdivision of them that joined the OWSers were by far the most privileged, and yet utterly unaware of their condition and thinking themselves hard done by.)
When you’ve never suffered anything more serious than a hangnail, unrequited love will kill you. Note that all our romantic stories of lover suicides involve noblemen (or more often noblewomen) people who were sheltered and pampered, not your common yeoman farmer.
We joke about commercials talking about the “Heartbreak of psoriasis” but lost in that is the very real fact that compared to us most of humanity was diseased and verminous, that by their twenties most people had accumulated injuries and health-problems that made their life painful by our standards.
I remember for instance how shocked the people examining the skull of the last Russian Tzar were to find that he lived with constant, festering teeth problems. Even that, what we’d consider a minor thing, to them was a chronic condition. The lack of antibiotics made teeth drawing serious and often fatal.
This is where we get again into “the time might come again.” It might. It’s possible all our antibiotics will lose efficacy. We’re almost for sure going to go through a rough period there — but it won’t be as bad as advertised, either. There is the fact that we do know about disinfection, and the fact we have materials in testing that will by themselves remain anti-sceptic. Then there is great hope in the realm of bacterias that eat other bacteria, and other tech to combat viri.
And this is the important thing. That poor young man who committed suicide because everything was getting worse and the world wasn’t wonderful and men weren’t perfect, missed the fact that we are getting more so all the time.
And the people who think that we must rain doom and gloom on adolescent heads to make them “serious” are caught in a form of adolescent self-aggrandizing where they want to show off how special they are, because they know about suffering… without realizing that the people who had indeed suffered didn’t by and large dwell on it, but prized cheerfulness and resilience. (It might not be a bad idea to prepare your children by making them acquainted with the darker versions of fairytales and children’s stories. Lose Doctor Seuss, whose message I always found suspect, and substitute some of the older stuff with flesh and blood to it. You could do worse than starting by reading them The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Pratchett. My kids also liked Bradbury, which will do. Then when they encounter the sob-sisters of middle school they’ll shrug and go “yeah, and?”)
But most of all, strive to keep perspective within yourself.
Yes, we might go through some hard times. In many ways this country is doing its best to ensure we’ll go through hard time. The piper must, of course, be paid. That’s the rule, and it hasn’t been revoked.
BUT we’re not going to lose all our tech. We can slow its level of improvement is about it. And while we have tech, we’re not going to starve to death. Some of us might have to tighten our belts and of course I recommend laying by supplies for any disruptions.
Our world is not going to become a dystopian television show, which a self-important fantasy of unspanked babies who’ve never met adversity.
Things might become unpleasant for a little while, maybe for the rest of our lives for those of us crowding the mid century.
But after that? Oh, come on. I don’t know if Heinlein ever said this, though I’ve heard it attributed to him, but it is true and sounds like something he would say: the glass is not half full. The glass is full and running over.
Our cup runneth over. Which is what makes us acutely aware of all those spilled drops.
Keep perspective. Humanity’s future is bright, even if we get stuck in one of those occasional ruts. And even if we do, stop groaning on how it sucks to be us. Would you rather have lived through the black plague or the Spanish Influenza epidemic, or even been subjected to one of those wars too small to make it to history books, where a feudal Lord raided the other every summer and reduced the peasant’s harvests to nothing, guaranteeing famine in the coming winter?
No? Me neither.
“Doom, gloom, the end is coming soon” notwithstanding, we live in a world of marvels and in extraordinary comfort. And disgusting backsliding periods notwithstanding, humanity has moved towards greater comfort and individual freedom.
If there is a “tide” of future “progress” it doesn’t belong to those aficionados of state power and peasantification (totally a word, shut of) of the masses who call themselves “progressives” – it belongs to us, who want the state to largely live us alone to live our lives. It belongs to us willing to roll up our sleeves and do the best we can every day, without moaning we’re not perfect and that no one is polishing the silver spoon that should have been in our mouths at birth.
The future belongs to the strivers, those who work towards it, those who don’t lose heart.
Be not afraid. In the end we win, they lose.
Now, roll up your sleeves and get to work.