Mean World Syndrome

People alive today have access to more news and entertainment than any human being in the history of the planet. If anything major happens in the world, we are all able to find out about it almost instantly. We’ve come a long way from the days when a hurricane could hit Long Island without any advanced warning for its residents. Surely that’s to our benefit, right?

Yes and no. We also have more access to misinformation and exaggeration, and our ability to think critically does not seem to be keeping apace. That means that many of us believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. This is called mean world syndrome, and it’s a serious problem.

If you don’t believe that your attitudes are shaped by the media, then you haven’t been paying attention. Without its influence, there’s no way that someone so deranged and unqualified could be in the White House. Without it, none of us would feel the need to keep up with the Kardashians. (For what it’s worth, I’ve never felt that need. But then, I don’t have a TV in my house, either.)

If it’s any comfort at all, according to this Public Radio International article, the world is a much safer pace than it used to be. War deaths have dramatically decreased. We just hear about them more often. We all work fewer hours each week. There is less poverty and homicide, and more democracy than ever before.

And this article from Psychology Today also states that violence against women and children has decreased worldwide. We are more likely to die of old age than in a hail of bullets.

And, lest we forget, the average life expectancy for the residents of this planet is now up in the 70’s, as opposed to age 48 back in 1950. That’s pretty remarkable, don’t you think? So stop what you’re doing, look about you, and breathe. It’s going to be okay. Odds are pretty good that you won’t encounter any lions or tigers or bears. Oh, my.

dorothy

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A Sandwich Speculation

Back in 2006, the term “Sandwich Generation” was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It’s used to describe those people who are “sandwiched” between caring for their children and for their aging parents. As life expectancies rise, more and more of us find ourselves in that situation. The term actually started floating around as early as 1981.

For reasons both intentional and unintentional, I have managed to keep myself sandwich-less. I chose not to have children, and unfortunately my mother died when she was 64, and I was 26. I never met my father. As much as I might grouse about the stress in my life, I really did get off easy.

I loved my mother, but she’d have turned 91 today, and it’s almost a guarantee that she’d be in very poor health had she lived. She was already showing signs of severe osteoporosis at the time of her death. She was also a lifelong smoker, and continued that habit even after being diagnosed with emphysema. Her hearing was already terrible. Does dementia run in our family? Who knows. None of us lives long enough to get to that point, it seems.

She would have also outlived her oldest daughter, with whom she had been living. I can’t imagine that she would have handled that well. (I once gave her a bit of bad news while she had a head cold, and it sent her to the hospital for three days.)

Who knows where she would have lived after my sister’s death. With my other sister? With me? In a nursing home? Impossible to say. None of those scenarios would have been ideal for her.

Every year when my mother’s birthday rolls around, I speculate about how different my life would be if she were still in it. I miss her. But the woman I miss and the 91 year old who would be here now are two very different people, no doubt.

Recently, I crossed the line to a place where I’ve lived more time without her than I did with her. That was a strange feeling. (If you still have your mom, stop what you’re doing, right now, and give her a hug. I mean it. Do it right now.)

If I had had children, they’d probably be in their late teens or twenties by now. I can’t imagine dealing with the typical rebelliousness, and anxiety over college costs, on top of worrying about a very elderly, and most likely very unhappy, mother. The mind boggles.

For those of you who are the meat in the sandwich generation, my hat is off to you.

Sandwich

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The Luxury of Leisure

Ah, to have a beautiful sunny day and no plans to fill it with! To read a good book, bask in the sunshine, feel a sea breeze across your face, and play with your dogs. To take a nap in mid-afternoon with only the sound of a distant lawnmower to lull you to sleep. Bliss.

How lucky are we to live in the first era in which free time is not only abundant for many of us, but is generally considered a basic right? The pursuit of happiness writ large. Gone for me and mine are the days when one would spend hours simply fetching water, and then more hours using it to cook, clean, and wash clothes.

Gone is the constant anxiety of praying for rain to sustain your crops (although we still should) or praying that the snow will hold off a few weeks more. How heavenly to live in a time when hammocks are used in ways other than to warehouse weary sailors after a hard day’s toil, and pizza can come right to the door!

No pressure on me to marry and produce children and have inevitable miscarriages and preserve my family’s reputation. No growing worry about surviving the cold of winter or the plagues and pestilence of everyday living. I fear neither polio nor pogroms nor the possibility of not living past the age of 35.

How lucky are most of us?

But many a marriage stayed intact when one could go off and chop a cord of wood to stave off the cold or churn butter for the family table rather than bicker about who left their dirty socks in the coffee mug. So much easier to be faithful when you spend the day plowing the field. How many pounds of fat did not strain the heart through the fitness that is borne of hard work? Was it easier to stave off depression when you were focused on mere survival?

I suspect I’d derive a great deal of satisfaction from looking out on the results of a hard day’s work. I believe I’d appreciate leisure time a lot more if it were hard won. I think I would benefit a great deal more from spending less time gazing at my own navel and more time engaging in the wider world.

How lucky are most of us? Hard to say. I’ll think about it more as I lie in my hammock.

Hammock

[Image credit: Digitaldutch.com]

Immortality would not be Pretty

Many people long for an ever-increasing lifespan. They want to live forever, it seems. Maybe it’s because I’m still decades away from my expiration date (one would hope), but I’ve never understood this philosophy.

In fact, it is stressful to me that the life expectancy keeps increasing. I have this fear that I’ll never catch up with it. When I was born in 1964, my life expectancy was 73.7 years. Now I’m expected to stick around until I’m about 83. One can assume that the leaps forward will be ever larger as we have more medical breakthroughs. I honestly take no comfort in that.

For starters, outside the realm of fiction, where it might be possible for the immortal to be forever young and healthy and surrounded by loved ones, I think the reality would be much more grim. Things fall apart. The center does not hold. So I would expect that immortality would be a miserable state indeed.

Not only would you need increasingly extreme methods to prop up your deterioration, but there would be ever-increasing competition for said methods. Overcrowding would be the order of the day, competition for resources would get violent, and the gap between rich and poor would be even more evident. You don’t really think that we poor people would get to live forever, do you?

And it’s likely that immortality would be cruel and arbitrary. It stands to reason that not everyone would be a viable candidate for whatever procedures and medications would be required. So odds are good that if you won that particular lottery over Father Time, you would outlive everyone that you came to love, and that sounds like horrible, never-ending loneliness to me.

I don’t long for immortality. I long to live a full life and then die peacefully and painlessly in my sleep, making room for the next wave of humanity as nature dictates. Maybe my opinion will change when I’m 80, though.

sand clock

[I want to get one of these! Check out the Paradox Sand Clock at conrad.com]

Getting Older

Today is my 49th birthday. Happy birthday to me. Given that the average life expectancy of the white American female these days is 81 years, I am definitely on the downhill slope. And it’s a rare woman in my family who makes it that far, so I could very well be further down the slope than statistics suggest. Who knows? And that’s a very strange place to be, believe me.

So let me describe the landscape for those young people who haven’t crested that peak yet, and therefore have no idea what’s on the other side.

  • I have aches and pains that will never go away. Ever. Don’t do stupid stuff that will hurt your body. It adds up.
  • I have discovered that the quality of my friendships have only gotten better over the years. Nothing like the passage of time to tell you who your friends really are.
  • With each passing day, I care less and less about what people think of me, and you’ve never experienced true liberation until you know what that’s like.
  • I know myself. What a gift.
  • Looking in the mirror is more of a shock each day. In my head I still look like I did when I was 19, despite the constant contradiction of my reflection.
  • I’m tired all the time. I mean, all the time.
  • No matter how old you get, there will always be someone older who will laugh at you for feeling old.
  • I haven’t stopped learning, and I love that.
  • The older you get, the more people you will lose, so if you’re smart you’ll try really hard to let the people you love know how much you appreciate them every chance you get.
  • When I was young I always assumed that eventually I’d reach a place where I’d be established, and where there’d be no more need for emotional growth. Wrong.
  • I honestly don’t think I’ve become more forgetful. I’ve always been forgetful. It’s just that now I have a valid excuse.
  • I still get pimples. Anyone who tells you that you grow out of that is lying.
  • I’ve discovered that the best things you can do for yourself in the long term are stretch, floss your teeth, and don’t pass up any opportunity to have sex. Forget about eat, pray, love. It’s sex, stretch, floss.
  • For God’s sake, don’t smoke. The older you will pay a hefty price.
  • It’s really important to listen to your inner voice. If you don’t, you’ll usually regret it.
  • The more that happens to you, good or bad, the more perspective you will gain over what’s really important.
  • The older you get, the more society will put restrictions on what they deem to be acceptable behavior for you. So make an extra effort to be outlandish as you get older. Anyone with an open mind will find it charming. The rest of them aren’t worth your time.

birthday

Will You Marry Me?

Marriage and I have a fragile relationship at best. At 19 I was told by someone I was in love with that I was “not the kind you marry.” That was cruel enough, but what was worse is that he would not elaborate, and that gave me infinite ways to interpret that statement. In fact, here I am at 48, and I never did marry. Saying that his comment was the reason is according it way too much weight, though. In actual fact, there have been a few occasions when I’ve wanted to be married. But apparently the men in question were not on the same page. And there have been times when I’ve been proposed to, but not by anyone I wanted to marry. So there you go.

Do I feel that I have been worse off for being perpetually single, a spinster, an old maid? Not at all. I’ve seen very few examples of happy marriages, and a whole host of examples of married people who are living lives of quiet desperation. If I’m to be miserable and lonely (which I am not, most of the time), I’d much rather do it on my own, calling my own shots, crying into my own flavor of ice cream.

After all, marriage as an institution came about when the average life expectancy was not even 40 years old. You can get along with the devil himself for 10, maybe 15 years, can’t you? But when it stretches out for decades…then it becomes more like a life sentence. That has very limited appeal for me.

So part of me is kind of bemused by this battle for marriage equality. It seems to me that a great deal of fuss is being made over the ability to enter into an institution which, frankly, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I really don’t see the point of marriage in this day and age unless you have children and are therefore trying to provide them with a certain level of legal protection.

But do I think everyone should have the right to make their own mistakes? Definitely. Absolutely. No doubt about it. And that’s really what this battle is about, isn’t it? Fundamentally, every human being on this planet should have the right to be able to do what every other human being has a right to do. And therefore, by extension, I think that any person who willingly wishes to enter into a marriage contract should be allowed to do so. (Marriage against one’s will, or due to unbearable cultural pressure, or when so young that you can’t really make an informed decision is a topic for another blog entry entirely.)

This is not the 1600s, when only men who owned land could vote. This is not 1840, when slavery was considered acceptable. I’d like to think we’ve evolved beyond a time when we considered one group of people inferior to another. When viewed that way, the situation seems ridiculous at best. Why on earth would anyone want to hold on to an antiquated belief system that insists on making people comply to a completely random hierarchy, a set of boxes, and expect people to say in “their place” and shut up, and behave? Insanity.

And the main reason for all of this hubbub? Religion. Don’t get me wrong. I think having a spiritual standard that helps you to hold to a moral code is a good thing. But I also think that whatever divine power you subscribe to must surely expect you to use your common sense. I’ll use the Bible as an example only because it’s the book used in my particular culture. Here goes:

Have you ever played the game telephone? You whisper a sentence into your neighbor’s ear, and he then passes it on to the next person, and so on and so on, until at the end when you hear that message, it has changed so dramatically that you can barely recognize it? That’s the Bible in a nutshell. After having been passed through Aramaic, Coptic, and Greek, as well as the various historical contexts that it went through during those various translations, much of its original meaning has been lost. And then when you consider the many controversies over what books to include in the bible and what books to leave out, who knows what the original “story” was meant to be? I’m not saying that there isn’t value in the text that we know today. I’m just saying that we must use our common sense when interpreting it. Anyone who thinks that it can be taken literally when it has been changed so dramatically over time, and when the readers of today are so different than the writers of yesterday that they might as well be from different planets, has no sense of history whatsoever.

So don’t use the bible as your excuse for prohibiting gay marriage. Not when there are parts of the bible that advocate slavery and polygamy, and tell you not to interact with a woman who has her period, and don’t wear clothes of multiple fibers. For heaven’s sake, use your brain.

If you want to convince me that gay marriage is wrong, then come at me with a non-religious argument. Then maybe I’ll listen to you. Probably not, but maybe. In the meantime, if my nephew or my best friend, both gay, and two of the most amazing and loving and decent men I know, want to throw themselves into the utterly unpalatable institution of marriage, then I will be right there, pelting them with bird seed and crying tears of…well, who knows what they will be tears of. But more power to them.

marriage