Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.—James Baldwin
Seven weeks ago, my father died—abruptly, unexpectedly, and prematurely. I say that as a simple matter of fact because despite my utter heartbreak, no amount of euphemisms or platitudes will change the reality of the situation.
Some people might find it odd to state that my father died prematurely considering he was 72 years old, but my dad was a young, active, and agile 72. Throughout his adult life he always appeared about 10 years younger than his age. Everyone he knew was shocked by the news. The cause of death was determined to be stenosing coronary arteriosclerosis (narrowing of the heart vessel due to plaque) which apparently led to cardiac arrest. The medical examiner’s office stated that his death was due to “natural causes,” but there was nothing natural about his death, just as there is nothing natural about the way we are forced to live our lives.
Like most people, my father was a genuinely good man who deserved far better than what the world gave him.
Like most people, my father was a genuinely good man who deserved far better than what the world gave him. It turns out, unbeknownst to me, that my father was yet another in the long list of casualties of this brutal, immoral, unethical, and unjust American culture. It’s a society that cares little about affording a dignified life to decent people with integrity who have tried their best (i.e., the vast majority of all humans), but instead exalts and rewards rapacious narcissists and psychopaths.
Presumably precipitated by the economic downturn in 2008, my dad faced financial setbacks that appear to have accumulated rapidly, as they so easily do. His strains were also psychological and emotional. I have come to believe his latter troubles initially stemmed from unresolved childhood trauma, the nature of which I suspect and have evidence toward, but will never know for certain. From what I uncovered after his death, the stress he carried in recent years must have been nearly unbearable. Yet under these overwhelming conditions, he took large measures to avoid letting anyone, even those closest to him, learn anything about the extent of his difficulties.
My father spent a great deal of time helping others in his community, whether through his volunteer work with local non-profit and civic groups or just through interpersonal interactions. Undoubtedly a constructive, generous, and kind way to vent some of his emotions, it was also a way to keep too busy to think about them. What he didn’t do was directly acknowledge, confront, and share his own problems.
I discovered that my dad, like many, sought comfort by reading the type of shallow clichés circulated all over social media to remain hopeful: suggestions like “Life is going to get better at the proper time and you will be stronger and more at peace than ever before,” or “When life is dragging you back with difficulties it means it is going to launch you into something great.” That peace and greatness never came for my dad. These platitudes may help one get through the day, but they are generally hollow at their core, which is why they can be contradictory and do little to truly assist people in need.
My father also played the lottery every week, saying that if he won he’d start a foundation to support his favorite charitable causes. Really, he was hoping for a miracle.
Sadly, my father’s secrecy and inability to communicate and to deal with issues and emotions often put a gulf between us. Tragically, there is little doubt that the repression of his anguish and his extreme chronic stress contributed inordinately to his untimely end.
My father’s philosophy with regard to misfortune was to let it go and move on. He put on a brave and jovial face for most people and bottled up the crushing pressure he actually endured. There were numerous reasons for his particular reaction to hardship. He did not want to bother or worry others. He tried to remain sanguine in the face of adversity. He believed in the mistaken notion that how hard you work is directly proportional to the rewards you receive and your “success” in life. He also thought that if you do good things, good things will come back to you. He probably blamed himself for his woes, even though he and others like him are not at fault; the fault lies with a cruel, viscous system.
Ultimately, I think he knew, consciously or not, that a lot of people really do not want to hear about others’ burdens. We live in a culture of forced happiness. What plagued him, just as it does so many other Americans, was the need to keep up appearances in order to keep other people contented and maintain our collective delusion that the world is fair and good.
There’s no room in the Facebook culture for depression or for exposing the reality of our insanely difficult lives in our insanely corrupt and unforgiving society. Most social media sites are all about putting on our best face. (Twitter, at times, offers a slight exception.) It’s a digital fantasy land. Typically, we remain fairly superficial and positive, marketing ourselves as optimistic, hard-working, productive, self-sufficient, successful members of society. After all, what are social media sites like Facebook but simply personal public relations pages? They are a brilliant way for the techno-capitalists to exploit us doubly. They peddle our privacy to other companies then sell it back to us. Meanwhile, we maintain a façade. Our front promotes the illusion that notwithstanding the profound troubles of the world, all will be OK in the end and social media will help.
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Pretending our myriad troubles do not exist, whether through denial, avoidance, or escapism is commonplace in our society. Spending our days wallowing in our sorrows is not a healthy way of managing our struggles, but neither is trying to circumvent them. To even attempt to overcome our current perilous planetary predicaments, we must take immediate action to acknowledge their existence and strive to contend with them.
Much of our lives is based on fantasy. We seem to prefer it that way, to prefer avoiding simple truths. For example, far too many prefer to believe the illusion that Chelsea Manning, or Edward Snowden, or Julian Assange are traitors to America than believe the facts revealed by them: that the American government (as well as its corporate colluders) spies on its own people and murders people all over the world for profit, or that both of its major political parties lie, cheat, and steal to win elections and to line their own pockets.
Our denial and avoidance is why inequality and environmental degradation have spiraled out of control, regardless of what out-of-touch cherry-picking privileged voices try to tell us. Most of our public officials, media personalities, corporate moguls, and other elite spokespeople, irrespective of political or ideological affiliation, deny the existence of our major societal and ecological issues or avoid their true natures.
Privileged voices will say that we are generally faring better and living longer than ever, belying the widespread suffering in our country and throughout the globe. The truth is a huge percentage of Americans lack their basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, and (clean) water, or their connection to basic necessities is tenuous at best. Those on the ground experiencing economic insecurity know that the specious statistics on employment and poverty do not tell a realistic story at all. Half of all Americans are poor or near poverty.
Financial insecurity places tremendous pressure on the individual. This pressure manifests itself in the form of rising suicide rates, the opioid epidemic, and the countless who suffer in silence. And then there are the innumerable premature, preventable deaths that can be attributed to the inability to access or afford medical care, environmental toxicant exposure from poor living conditions and proximity to polluting industries, and overall stress.
When we do acknowledge the existence of poverty (rather than only focus on the middle class) we still avoid the true cause. Poverty is not about jobs but about wealth (i.e., hoarding of resources) and exploitation of people and planet for profit. Our troubles are not that we don’t have jobs or that they pay far too little. Yes, those are very proximal and real and I know them all too well. But our real trouble is that we even need a “job” to survive. So much of the work that we all do daily is unpaid and not considered valuable enough to warrant survivability. Our troubles are not that more people need to “work,” as defined by the powers that be. Our trouble is that no one should be deprived of basic human necessities (i.e., human rights) because the work they do is not deemed of value or because they do not or cannot participate in the monetary labor market created by those who exploit and hoard all of the resources on the globe.
Exploitation and hoarding of resources and people are also at the heart of our environmental predicament, but many shun these topics. While there may be some left who still outright deny that anthropogenic climate change exists, perhaps more pernicious are those who recognize it but avoid the fundamental causes. They focus mainly on fossil fuel consumption rather than all consumption. Even the current IPCC report suggests that the changes needed to cope with our climate emergency involve more than just energy. Moreover, too many neglect concurrent ecological emergencies such as biodiversity loss, which stems from humans’ land use change and from toxic contamination, not from climate change. We purposely ignore the ills of overproduction and overconsumption at our own peril. We also disregard those around the world who suffer the most from our conspicuous consumption and endless waste.
The overuse of natural resources to produce all of the products and materials of modern life, the subsequent production of toxicants that exist within our products or as byproducts to production, and the insatiable consumption of more and more unnecessary and useless merchandise is the real problem which we evade. In addition, our indefatigable belief that technological innovation will pull us out of our ecological mess, when overall, all it has done is continually intensify it, is yet another form of fantasy and denial. It is merely humanity’s lottery ticket out of ecological catastrophe.
As long as we ignore the true nature of our troubles and offer platitudes and half-measures as solutions, our societies and ecosystems will no doubt collapse under the stress, just like my dad did.
You cannot begin to fix a problem when you pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Our social habit of avoidance and denial is placing tremendous stress on individuals, on society, and on our planetary ecosystem. Stress is wreaking havoc everywhere we turn. The stress on individuals shows up as increases in morbidity and mortality. The stress on society reveals itself as hatred and divisiveness misdirected toward the innocent instead of the perpetrators of our pains. The stress on our environment crumbles our ecosystems and may soon render our species extinct.
The stress of avoidance and denial in order to maintain an acceptable appearance in a callous superficial culture ultimately killed my father.
Some of my dad’s existential difficulties are similar to my own. I attempt to acknowledge and work through them as best I can on a daily basis. The primary problem I face right now is the deep sorrow, guilt, hurt, regret, and remorse I feel about his death, our strife, and my inability to alleviate his suffering. I am not seeking empty reassuring slogans or phrases (e.g. “Everything happens for a reason,” “Things will work out in the end,” This too shall pass”) to cope with my grief. I can’t just move along and go back to normal because my life will never be the same and grief will always remain. But writing about my father in the context of larger issues is one way that I am trying to face this trouble and come to terms with it.
As long as we ignore the true nature of our troubles and offer platitudes and half-measures as solutions, our societies and ecosystems will no doubt collapse under the stress, just like my dad did. My father should have lasted at least a decade longer. He should have had a safe and contented retirement. He had so much more life to live, but he ran out of time. Unless we all stop denying and avoiding our profound social and environmental crises, I fear we as a species are going to run out of time as well.