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Everything Everywhere All at Once
Or, how the start of one column led to a rabbit hole of existential melancholy
Last night, right before the time I’d normally fall asleep, I began thinking about sadness, suffering, pain, and hopelessness - all the ingredients for a peaceful night’s sleep.
That wasn’t where such thoughts started - they started much earlier in the day when I started researching Kansas wage, employment, and medical debt data. I didn’t know what I’d find when I started digging through those spreadsheets, but it wasn’t uplifting.
That, combined with several conversations throughout the day about how the earth is actually on fire, how terrible we generally are at change, and how the events of the last 20-40 years have scarred a generation or two, along with an ongoing viewing of the Netflix show “Painkiller” and its reminder that there are too many people who hold money in higher regard than human life, and my mind’s natural tendency to connect all those things, led to what I dubbed existential melancholy.
Turns out I’m not alone in this, because there’s a definition and article about it.
“A person with existential depression may experience an ongoing feeling of hopelessness and a struggle to find meaning in life. These symptoms can disrupt a person’s life and leave them feeling isolated.
People with existential depression might be unable to stop ruminating over unanswerable questions, leaving them in a constant state of despair.”
Oh, I know, in the post-social media world we’re not ever supposed to say such things out loud. Especially if you have a public facing role in which certainty, optimism, and decisiveness are by default expected.
We’re supposed to put up the photo with the smile, our perfect family/friends/life, or maybe some erudite quote about struggle, perseverance, and our ability to determine our destiny. Because sharing your sadness with the world is an invitation to be shamed or ridiculed - and reminded that no one really wants to know about your dirty laundry, your struggle, or your sadness.
Yet there I was, being enveloped by seemingly all the world’s grief - a moment that felt like the pressure of everything, everywhere, all at once. And for me that usually ends up in some written-out words.
I am sometimes overcome by the conflicting reality that humans have such incredible capacity for love and kindness, and hatred and cruelty.
Our love and compassion is on display in millions of different ways every day. It can be seen and felt in the love between parents and children, the knowing glances shared by people in love, in conversations with strangers, and in the random everyday interactions between people trying to make a way and some sense of life. It can be seen and felt in the memory of a loved one, and the enduring spirit that carries on when life, or the dream of what it might have been, is forcibly altered.
Yet, for all that capacity, we have developed and maintained systems that create incredible capacity for suffering. And that, too, can be seen all around us.
It doesn’t take much effort to notice the dramatic rise in homelessness during the past few years, and even a brief examination reveals that the price of shelter - among the most basic of human and animal needs - has fallen out of reach for more people.
Healthcare has been industrialized - and human suffering is the product and profit center. I have had experiences recently where I am not even allowed to schedule an appointment for higher-dollar care unless I’m first able to put down the money for that care. That makes clear to me the order of importance in that system.
Food is terribly expensive, yet it seems most of the cost of what we pay is making its way to somewhere else. We don’t do much these days unless some private equity outfit or group of investors in New York can find a way to make a buck off it. We might call ourselves a Christian nation, but it’s pretty clear to me that money is the God we seem to worship the most.
We hear all these complaints about how “kids these days” don’t want to work and completely forget that we, once, were the kids these days that everyone complained about.
But we also fail to recognize that for a 25-year-old today, their entire existence has been lived in the shadow of a post-9/11 world, chronic global economic instability, undeniable evidence of climate change, a once in a 100-year pandemic, and the concrete knowledge that grade-school kids getting shot to death at school isn’t just possible, it’s happened multiple times in their lifetimes. Or that they are more likely to meet an untimely end while watching a movie, grocery shopping or living their daily lives than any other generation in recent history. There’s no chance that doesn’t shade their view of the world, or their engagement with it.
Addiction is rampant, and has been growing and changing for generations. And still we punish those who are in the struggle. Instead of recognizing the illness in our society and in our systems, we tend to compartmentalize between us and them - and pretend that the others can never be us. Even though we know that hasn’t been the case for others who we’ve known once felt exactly the same.
I think anyone willing to silence the noise around us for a few moments, to look around at the world with love and compassion will be able to see it all with clarity. There is a sadness in our world. It has been growing and intensifying for a very long time, and it is not getting better.
Maybe we’ve not seen it, or paid much attention to is, because most of us are just trying to get by, or hoping we’ll get ahead - even as we realize that line is getting further from our reach.
But try harder, we’re told. With more effort, more work, more sacrifice, more time away from your family, your friends, your experiences, and your one single life - you just might reach it. You might one day have put enough money in your 401K to prevent you from living the last 5-10 years of your life in absolute misery.
Yeah, I know. This is all a pretty big buzzkill. Sorry about that. I get upset with me too some days - especially when I tilt toward this line of thinking. I really do enjoy those days on my bike, when I’m not thinking about any of this. Or when I can focus more and draw more from the joy and goodness in the world. And there is great joy and goodness in world. But I often find myself asking how much of that - how much human capital - is lost to the suffering that could be avoided if we value human life as much as we claim. If we valued human capital as much as we value financial capital.
But some days, I think, it’s important for us to stop looking past this. To stop acting as if all of this is OK. To stop saying that it is what it is, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. I think it’s important for us to take stock of the suffering that exists in the world - and I think it’s important for us to consider our own roles in easing, or increasing, that suffering.
And I think that’s where I was at yesterday, and what’s carried over into today.
I’ll write the columns I started - the pieces that show many of these jobs in the state aren’t paying all that great and that far too many people are falling under the growing weight of medical debt and how all of that is actually degrading our economy and robbing economic capacity and that our anti-people policies turn out to also be anti-business. Even though I doubt the people who need to hear it, will.
I’ll write those. But not today.
Today, I want to say that I’m not any more, or less, upset about the state of the world than any other day, really. I’m just less willing to not say it aloud.
I want to say that we’ve not been good stewards of the Earth.
I want to say that we’ve largely squandered what previous generations gave to us.
And that we’ve not really held up our end of the bargain to future generations.
I want to say that people should always matter more than money.
I want to say that I know we can do better.
And if we know we can do better, we should.
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