I belong to a high risk group. Not for Coronavirus, the other Pandemic. The Pandemic Nicholas Kristof wrote about in Who Killed the Knapp Family? This killer Pandemic has lowered the life expectancy of Americans by a full year. The best name I’ve found to describe this American holocaust is “Deaths of Despair.”
Deaths of Despair include suicides, and deaths from drug or alcohol related causes. They were at record highs before the first case of Covid-19. And, as moratoriums on evictions end, states struggle to provide extra Unemployment Benefits, and millions of Americans stare down a bleak and uncertain future, you’d think mental health professionals would be in high gear to help. And you’d be wrong.
We are not humane. We are barely a society. But don’t tell your therapist. The United States is none of your business. In the face of the articles, the facts, the statistics, mental health professionals stare into the face of human misery, and tell you to keep a gratitude journal. You must give up your personal convictions and accept that you are both responsible for your own happiness, but you have no control over the world.
I do take the time to be grateful. It is useful to think about pleasant moments to break the interminable limbo of loneliness and suffering, to mark time during the Pandemic. And my eyes cannot stop searching for beauty amidst the squalor, the violence, the pain. But humanity has limits.
Eli Weisel, author of Night, recounts his first experience of the Auschwitz death camp as a young teen. The babies disappearing into wreaths of smoke. The disinterested SS guards indicating “Left” to slave labor until death, and “Right” to women and children condemned to the infernos. He and his father were ordered “left.” His mother and sisters, “right.” He speaks of the death of the boy he once was, yet still inhabiting his body. And he marks the death of God in his heart. His eventual resentment for the father he must work harder to keep alive. And his feeling of liberation upon his father’s death.
Weisel’s story represents the second chapter of Anne Frank’s diary. The two were about the same age when they were sent to the camps. And while everyone loves to quote a 15 yr old girl’s belief that all people are essentially good. Nobody seems keen to acknowledge that she and her family died a pointless death of unimaginable, dehumanizing suffering. That all young people want to believe in goodness, to imagine their future as beautiful, full of love and the standard of happiness due to all human beings, and their own power to cause change. That’s simply what young people believe.
If Anne Frank had continued her diary, it may well have read much more like Weisel’s tale. Or the tales of North Korean camps where human beings fight over a piece of corn in human feces. Or of the Chinese who were reduced to hoarding dead babies for food during the Japanese occupation and civil war.
But not here. Never here. Not in America, the nation that helped to liberate both Europe and Asia from those two brutal regimes. The country to which the poor, repressed, war weary and hungry have turned for 300 yrs. Here we are responsible for our own success. Here we are the guardians of our own happiness. Here, to fail in any respect, is your fault.
I think of upper-middle class ladies “decluttering” their homes by holding objects in their hands to see whether they still “bring joy.” While most of us make do with duct taped appliances, buckets to catch leaks, wood glue, broken screens, and only throw a thing out when it’s ticked you off enough.
If you are fortunate to have a place to put your things: an apartment, a home. If you can afford food from the grocery store, or use the discounted canned goods store, or a small garden, or a food bank.
I saw a phrase recently that captured the dilemma many Americans find themselves in now. “The rent eats first.” It describes to what extent people will go without enough or any food to avoid homelessness. What objects bring you joy in your group shelter? Your street corner?
Placing responsibility for happiness on the individual in crisis mirrors the American insistence that access to good schools, child care, healthcare, decent pay for one’s labor bear nothing on an individual’s ability to achieve in life. It’s all on you.
This insistence lives beside the common therapeutic response I have heard for the last four years. And has endured throughout the Pandemic, the mass economic ruin, the constant march of new names — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, Ahmaud Arbery — the anger, the violence, the hurricanes. The man at the top who blames his failures on a former President, a would-be President, and a woman who ran for President. He takes no responsibility. So those of us in crisis? We must bear the responsibility.
And worse: we are told we must accept that we have no control. I thought “We the People” were this nation’s true governors. That the folks in the halls of power were “public servants.” And I don’t even see an exclusion of the mentally ill among our Constitution’s rankings of whose lives matter. Three-fifths a white life if you’re black, no vote for most citizens, but nothing about PTSD.
The conventional wisdom of not placing one’s happiness in the hands of another was written by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Yet he took on the happiness of others as his duty. He was the Emperor. He spent decades fighting a virulent contagion in the Empire. His wisdom is acknowledging that, yes, we should not tie our happiness to the approval of others, and that even he had limits to controlling life. But he also recognized his responsibility as a leader to protect, to ease suffering, and foster the happiness of the millions of Roman citizens that lived as far as England, North Africa, and all the way to Iraq. The dinarii stopped at his traveling writing desk.
Instead, America’s mental health system has fully embraced Trumpism. If you are struggling, if you are sick, if you are in crisis, it’s your fault. Following the “lead” of President “Blame Obama,” I have endured “therapy” that has asked me to empathize with racists. To understand their fears. I asked for another therapist immediately, and was soon ejected from the program under threat of being physically restrained and committed.
That’s modern therapy. It’s the male doctor who told me that who was President should be the least of my concerns. That instead I should work on my “anger issues.” I don’t know if he realized how much he challenged my commitment to nonviolence in that moment. My friend calls that feeling “stabby.”
I often think of the episode of The Walking Dead in which Rick is forced to behave like the”Walkers” (zombies) in the show. He and his son have been kidnapped, and one man is attempting to rape his boy. So he uses the only weapon he has left, and tears the throat out of his son’s would be rapist with his teeth. He was reduced to the tactics of the non-human to fight the human.
It’s not a far step from Eli Weisel’s feeling of freedom upon the death of his father by SS batons. The journey from human being to beast is not far. The crushing powerlessness that poverty and violence mixed with mental illness causes cannot be alleviated by “just following orders.” The casual indication of “Left” and “Right” to the gas chambers echoes the “it is what it is” policy of the US government. And reminds me of the grey, back-stabbing, fluorescent lit hell described by C.S. Lewis.
Government policies are harming my mental health and sentencing myself, with millions of others, to a life of powerlessness, loneliness, and eventually to crisis and despair. I have every right to be concerned over how public policy affects my life. I didn’t give up my rights when I entered therapy, or fell into poverty, or needed government assistance.
The step from “gratitude” journals, being told to accept you have zero control, while being tasked with responsibility for a spiral into crisis, to fighting other human beings for a piece of corn stuck in human shit is not that far. And it’s no wonder so many Americans are opting out of that false choice by taking their own lives. It’s the one act of personal freedom left to far too many.
The mental health community is on the hook for its embrace of Trumpian notions of dehumanization, fear, and lack of empathy. It reflects his dog-eat-dog worldview, and lack of concern. It belies more about the death of society and values more than any evangelical Christian’s concerns. It’s a betrayal of the social compact that demands our rights end where another’s begin. And violates the one rule above all others, to love and treat others as you would thyself, no exceptions.
A society is a living thing. But we can only access the benefits of living together, if we also accept our responsibility for one another — for the whole. American society is dying. And it is a death of despair.
– JL ✌🏼💚🖖🏼
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