There is real unhappiness in our country, real tragedy

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By Scott Graber

It is Sunday morning, and normally I would be sitting — sleepy, and unfocused — in a pew at St Mark’s Episcopal Church. In normal times, I would be scanning the liturgical program, hoping that “Blessed Assurance” or “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” were on the this morning’s menu. I would be giving my sins of “commission and omission” some passing thought in anticipation of our forthcoming, collective confession. I would not be thinking about a virus.

This morning, I’m sitting in my dining room looking through glass doors and into a small stand of mature magnolia trees. Normally these trees drop their large, yellowing leaves into the yard this time of year. And normally these leaves are a reason for unhappiness.

I was unhappy — annoyed is probably the better word — because I’ve always felt a need to rake up these leaves, and then mulch them with my smoking, coughing, seldom-serviced lawn mower.

As I have aged, anger and cynicism seem to arrive more frequently, to want more of my consciousness, and often attach a sense of guilt for a yard full of dead magnolia leaves, or a dusty Volvo needing a recharged battery, or a consistent failure to floss.

But I am also aware that there is real unhappiness in our country, real tragedy. All of which takes me to a piece in the New Yorker (3/23/20) titled, “The Blight — How our economy has created an epidemic of despair.”

This particular piece is the review of a book, by Anne Case and her husband, Angus Deaton, that is focused on despair among Americans, primarily white Americans who lack a college degree. Dr. Atul Gawande, the reviewer, writes:

“Outside wars or pandemics, death rates for large populations across the world have been consistently falling for decades, yet working-age white men and women without college degrees were dying from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver disease at such rates, for three consecutive years, that life expectancy for the US population as a whole had fallen. The only precedent is a century ago, from 1915 through 1918, during the First World War and the Influenza epidemic that followed it.”

This simple, stunning paragraph begs the question, “Why?”

According to Case and Deaton, we begin with the fact that many of these folks are unemployed, certainly underemployed, now that their old jobs have migrated to India and Bangladesh. While earnings of those with college degrees has soared; and anti-discrimination measures have improved income of Hispanics and Black Americans, the income of white, un-colleged Americans has declined and often becomes “gig labor” without benefits like health insurance.

Case and Deaton say the availability of opioids plays a role, and that we “all but load the weapons of self destruction for people in misery.”

But, in the end, it is the loss of living a meaningful, productive life that fuels the despair and results — according to these two Princeton economists — in early death.

“Among advanced economies, this deterioration in pay and job stability is unique to the United States. In the last four decades, Americans without college bachelor’s degrees — the majority of the working-age population — have seen themselves become ever less valued in our economy. Their effort and experience provide smaller rewards than before, and they encounter longer periods between employment. It should come as no surprise that fewer continue to seek employment, and that more succumb to despair.”

A year ago, my wife and I were sitting on the porch at the Fryemont Inn in Bryson City, N.C. We had done some hiking and now, in the late afternoon, we were reading the Smoky Mountain Times anticipating Trout Ala Edna in the dining room. I found myself reading the obituaries where, every other notice spoke of a methamphetamine overdose. I handed the page to my wife just to make sure I was not hallucinating.

Susan dutifully read the obituary notices and then, for a few minutes, we contrasted the beautiful, purpling mountains we were looking into against the plague rampant in the hollows just below those mountains.

This virus — these little pieces of replicating RNA  — have caused most of us to “shelter” in our homes with not much to do, fighting irritability and boredom, wondering whether or not we can recover the routine, predictability and stability we took for granted.

But in our moment of (passing) discomfort and despair, we must not forget the (ongoing) plague that has destroyed — for many — their hope and their belief in a better tomorrow.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.