Is This What Great Looks Like?

The CDC reported this past week that life expectancy for Americans dropped last year. The U.S. stands out in this regard: no other developed country is experiencing higher mortality rates. Indeed, the gap in life expectancies between Japan, Spain, and many other countries and the United States is growing, which, obviously, is a very bad development for the U.S., both from a societal and economic standpoint.

Last year, 70,237 deaths were attributed to drug overdoses in the U.S. West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania had the three highest age-adjusted rates of fatal overdoses. Most drug overdoses are unintentional. But not all.

Suicides overall were up by 3.7 percent in 2017. Since 1999, the national suicide rate has increased by 33 percent! A particularly disturbing trend is the increase in suicides among teenagers and young adults. And among farmers. The country’s most rural counties had suicide rates almost twice as high as those for the most urban counties.

These are not signs of a healthy society; rather, they are signs of social decay.

You’d think this would spur some serious national reflection. But it hasn’t. Instead, it has precipitated a mean-spirited reaction whereby the country doubled down on failing policies, values, and priorities. Donald Trump is Exhibit A.

But there are other manifestations of our dysfunction that are equally troubling, including mass murders (our schools have become killing grounds), worker exploitation, widespread underemployment, gross economic inequities (a big part of the problem that is largely ignored and goes unaddressed), lack of social mobility, high debt burdens, broad resentment, alienation and shallow or nonexistent personal networks, widespread insecurity and feelings of compulsion, incredibly high rates of incarceration, and high incidences of psychological problems (e.g., Americans take far more antidepressants than anyone else).

It’s impossible to know how all of this will play out over the long term, Vera. What kind of country will await you when you reach the age of majority? I’m not sure. But it’s quite possible your world will look very different from the one that awaited me when I graduated from high school.

No one can insulate you from the problems of the country. But we can prepare you. By helping you learn and discover. Fostering your curiosity. Helping you to acquire the skills and capabilities to navigate ambiguity and a hostile world. And by not perpetrating illusions or mindlessly supporting many of the deeply flawed ideas and narratives that have been eroding our country’s social and moral fabric. And, perhaps most of all, by loving you unconditionally and providing you with a strong and stable family.

The rest will be up to you. Just as it was with everyone who came before you. And will be with everyone who will follow you.

That’s life.

The good news, you can be great. In the end, that’s what great looks like: Life flourishing within the human body, mind, and soulPeople relishing the gift of life, in peace, joy, and love.

T Minus 1

When I was a kid, we’d gather around the TV and watch rocket launches to outer space. And eventually to the moon. It was exciting. Especially the lead up to ignition. I remember well the anticipation of the last 10 seconds. Walter Cronkite, or whomever the television announcer was, would say, “T minus 60 and counting” at a minute out. Then, “T minus 10.” And finally, “We have liftoff.” My god, I’m still in awe at the possibilities of the human mind.

What was critical to success of the mission, of course, was everything that occurred prior to the launch. That’s where the ingenuity and hard work were concentrated. After all, the launch was merely a controlled explosion. The astronauts just sat there, the success of the mission — indeed, their very lives — dependent upon the preparation of many people who’d never see the inside of a space capsule.

But there was something about the “T minus” that commanded everyone’s attention. And greatly affected the future. The effort. The achievements. It would not have happened when it did if President Kennedy had not addressed the nation on May 25, 1961, and set a national goal to land on the moon before the decade was out. It was an audacious goal. Outlandish in the minds of some. Yet it was achieved. Only 2,982 days later. If the president could have known exactly how much time it would take, he undoubtedly would have told the Congress, “T minus 2,982 and counting.”

Of course, no one knows the future, whether it has to do with achieving a scientific wonder or simply living our own lives. Nonetheless, there is always a T minus for all of us, for there is no eternity (at least not for animals on this earth). Death comes to all.

Today is my birthday. Out of curiosity I consulted the Social Security Administration’s mortality tables to see how much time I have left, assuming I live the average number of days American men live. I found my age and the number of years on the table, and then calculated the number of days. The result? T minus 6,767.

That sounds like a lot. But everything is relative. For you, Vera, it’s T minus 28,655. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that number increases with discoveries and advancements in the field of medicine during the course of this century.

Of course, these are only averages. And the fact of the matter is, nearly everyone will live a greater or lesser number of days than the average. As I’ve mentioned before, averages are the most misleading statistic; in actuality, they mean far less than what is typically inferred. Worse yet, they mislead.

In actuality, my T minus could be 1, or it could be 20,000. Both are extremely  unlikely. But possible. The point being, all we know for sure are the odds, given today’s conditions and circumstances. And all we can bank on is the present.

Nonetheless, odds help. For planning purposes. And to remain grounded and not be so susceptible to the illusions that are so tempting to the human mind. The illusion of permanency. Invincibility. Control. Above averageness.

So what do I do with this T minus 6,767 information?

I suspect I’ll do nothing or very little, which, I have to admit, is a bit troubling. It’s in my nature to have a plan; leaving everything to chance doesn’t appeal to me in the least. So I’ve got to give this more thought (as if I haven’t).

In the meantime, I’m focused on today. And tomorrow I’ll be focused on tomorrow. One day at a time. The present moment, to be precise.

I’m one who’s never been good at living in the present moment. My mind has always tended to rush to the future. To what’s next. It’s not a good thing. But it’s easier to resist than it used to be. To live in the present moment, that is.

It’s easier because I received a jolt. Last year. When I dodged death or permanent disability in a car in Georgia. A crushed car.

From that moment forward, I realized something I should have realized and sensed all along. Yes, I knew it before. But I never felt it. In my soul. Now I feel it.

Every day is a gift. An extra day. And the only place you can live is in the present moment.

You see, it’s not a matter of T minus 6,767 for me. It’s always been and always will be the same.

T minus 1.