Monday, June 05, 2017

World Worry

I'm at a point in life where I've got plenty to worry about. I've had doctors screwing appliances into my back where discs should be. Like most seniors, I fret about whether we have sufficient income and savings to make our way to the grand exit without adversely affecting our family. I've got two marvelous grandchildren and I want them to live as full and meaningful lives as possible. I've been disfavored with an insidious disease (Parkinson's) that has its way with me without warning, slowing me to a snail's pace for a while and then sneaking away to visit another day. There's more, but I don't want to whine.

All of that is sufficient to make me feel that I've got enough on my plate. Surely someone else can worry about the world? Aren't there some people out there who are smart, responsible, and caring and who have the expertise to fix the big problems? If an asteroid is heading our way, somebody would shoot it out of the sky before it hits us, right? We are doing everything we can with our abundant resources to prevent famines, right? We'll keep atomic bombs out of the hands of dictators and deranged leaders, right? We understand the fragile nature of our world and will join with the international community to deal with climate change on behalf of the next generation and others to come, right? We realize that we live in a global society and cannot possibly exist as a country that proclaims a "me first" policy and ignores the larger world of which we are a part, right?

I'm right, right? Please tell me I don't have to worry about that stuff. I'm kind of busy with arthritis.

Alas, I'm beginning to feel that I'm not right, that our world is slowly coming apart and that it is time to worry about that world. I might even suggest a mild panic. 

The nexus of the problem is with the incendiary and divisive leadership of our president and his unprincipled administration. This piece isn't a critique of Trump. Pundits smarter than me have written about this incompetent and dangerous president, his litany of deeds and misdeeds, the twittering away of a privilege the American people have bestowed upon him to lead our nation and represent our values and interests on the world's stage. 

It has become an embarrassment of epic proportions. It's less than five months since inauguration and this country's stock in the world has dropped like a rock into the sea. A bully dressed up like a diplomat/negotiator has been to one meeting of European heads of state and managed to threaten the very existence of a coalition that has served the security interests of its members since 1949. Promised health care reform has become a sham, with the lives of millions in the balance. So-called tax reform has the wealthy lined up with wheelbarrows at the Federal Reserve or whatever agency dispenses welfare checks for the rich. (Photo ID's are recommended but not required; they know who you are.)

I could go on. I want to go on. But as I said, this isn't about him. It's about me and how this sudden sense of World Worry is burrowing into my soul and raising troublesome questions about the fate of our planet and the survival of the human race. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but I'm dead serious. And I don't think I'm the only one.

Back in August 2015, I posted on this blog a piece entitled "And the Walls Came Tumbling Up." This is how it began:

Early on the morning of November 10, 1989, I rousted my two sons, aged 11 and 15, out of their beds and parked their sleepy bodies in front of the television so they could see what had been happening overnight. The Berlin Wall was coming down.
This was obviously something that was significant to me. I mean, how often does one awaken sleeping children on an early morning to watch the news? I have referred to it in several places, but the impression that historic event made on me was not how wonderful it is that the Cold War is over and our enemy Russia is coming undone. Instead, I was set to pondering about how quickly these powerful adversaries had fallen. In the twinkling of an eye it happened, or so it seemed. If it could happen to them why couldn't it happen to us? 

I began to worry about our world.

I think of World Worry as a time when ordinary people going about everyday life begin to experience fear about the stability of their world, concern about their overall well-being, and a sense of helplessness to do anything about it. Some might call it angst, which one dictionary defines as "a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one, about the human condition or the state of the world in general."

That comes pretty close to what I've been feeling these days. But why?

It seems to me that there are a few things that lead to World Worry these days. Here's a beginning list:

  • Lack of confidence in leaders. Regardless of political or philosophical differences, there is a general belief that the world's leaders, and certainly our own, have our best interests at heart, seek the common good, and despite a few bad apples will generally do the right thing. When that bond of trust is broken the social contract we depend on can crack or even shatter. I worry about this.
  • Things seem out of control. Whether it's climate change that threatens to do damage to the earth or a terrorist culture that proclaims that no one anywhere is safe, there is a feeling that things are happening that we cannot control, leaving all of us to wonder who will be affected next. Perhaps it will be a tourist in New Orleans when the floods come, a third grader doing multiplication tables in the presumed safety of her school, or a modest investor unaware of the coming bank collapse or hedge fund fraud. Things happen, and the fact that we can't anticipate or stop them gives us abundant reasons to fret. I worry about this.
  • Random interpersonal conflict. We seem to be in a time when internal struggles are expressed as external anger. An ill-advised turn in front of someone on the highway results in a hail of bullets from the offended vehicle. A fired employee returns to his workplace with an AK47 and sprays ammunition everywhere, killing and maiming those who don't even know the termination occurred. Confrontation is commonplace, no longer limited to drunken bar fights, but in the grocery store, the library, even churches. These days anyone can be my enemy, even if I don't know who they are. A sense of community is broken down by suspicion and fear. I worry about this.
  • Economic disparity. The vast gulf between rich and poor, the middle class and the top one percent, is growing by leaps and bounds and threatens to worsen if proposed "tax reforms" make their way into law. While horrendous problems like ethnic cleansings, pandemic viruses, and widespread famine contribute to worldwide concerns, the income disparity probably has the most damaging impact in the United States. In other nations, this has led to violent protests in the streets and there is no reason to think we will escape the same result if we continue down this path. I worry about this.
  • Lack of respect for cultural diversity. America has always been the melting pot, embracing religious and ethnic differences and believing that cultural diversity strengthens our nation. But now there is movement at the highest levels of government to ban certain religious and cultural groups from entering the country, despite clear evidence that they pose little or no threat to national security. Acts of violence toward mosques and synagogues are increasing, fueled by ignorance and hatred. Calming words from respected leaders are muted and shouted down. Normal people are confused, wondering whether to succumb to their fears or support voices of reason. I worry about this.
  • Science gets replaced by politicians. This is a startling development. We have an issue such as climate change for which there is widespread and global agreement among scientists, but people are clamoring to hear what Trump thinks. He, of course, has not a clue and his opinion is totally irrelevant, but we wait breathlessly to see if he supports the almost 200 signatories of the Paris Agreement, including ours. He doesn't. Remember how Nero fiddled while Rome burned? Same thing, except that Trump twittered while the world burns. I worry about this.
  • When words become bullets. I have a high regard for the power and importance of words. Properly used, they can inspire and encourage and challenge. Improperly used, they can become a cudgel reaping hate and fear and confusion. Incredibly, we find ourselves at a time when 140 character tweets shape foreign policy or denounce political adversaries from the White House at three o'clock in the morning. Words lose their beauty and nuance and are transformed into fake facts and alternate truths. One yells by typing in all caps and emotes by clicking a smiley face. No one believes what is written anymore. I worry about this.
Nobody likes a worry wart. Chicken Little was convinced that the sky is falling. Jewish mothers are stereotypically depicted as sitting in the corner, steadily rocking away, fretting about the family. But on the other hand, worry is not an intrinsically bad thing. It is a side effect of caring. When a loved one is sick it is reasonable to worry. It's hard to imagine a parent who doesn't worry when they send their kids off for their first day of college. And it is impossible to read the newspaper without growing concern about violence in the streets and epidemics of drug and alcohol abuse everywhere. This is natural worry stitched into our everyday life.

World Worry is of a different order. It comes when those bigger, cosmic concerns become personal, indistinguishable from your kid's ear ache or figuring out how to afford a new car. It's when we internalize climate change, religious persecution, and leadership failures, making them seem like our problems. The difficulty is that we can do something about ear aches, much less about global warming. And that's where the angst sets in.

I watch several hours of news and analysis every day. It's probably more than is good for my mental health. World affairs are frequent points of discussions within my circles of friends and family. Some people think we should "get a life" if that's all we can talk about. They're wrong; I can talk about my pills and Medicare Plan B. So there!

But there is no question that I'm suffering from early stages of World Worry. Am I losing hope for our earth and its people? Have I lost trust in the folks I once counted on to give me hope and to infect me with a heart filled with joy and laughter? Is my soul too jaundiced to be surprised by the best instead of succumbing to the worst? Can I live today with an eye on tomorrow rather than incessantly glancing back at yesterday?

I don't know for sure about any of it but I'll tell you one thing. I worry about this.