All I Can Do Is Cry
Listening to Etta James’ tale of heartache watching the man she loves marry someone else, on a normal day, brings about sadness and memories of my own experiences with heartache and loneliness. Tonight, however, listening to that song made me almost long for a day when romance would matter to me at all. Indeed, since the shootings in Newtown all I can do is cry, but I can only dream of the cause being the fleeting feeling of devastation caused by a failed relationship, as oppose to the fear and the sadness I feel watching the fallout of the most alarming incident of mass violence to occur in my life.
That is a highly subjective statement. This incident, to me, is possibly more alarming than 9-11. I am trying to figure out why this is. I have some ideas. I have been worried about escalating violence in our country for the past two years, and I can remember the exact circumstances that escalated my fear from a tentative, worrisome hypothesis to a mild state of panic.
In January of 2011 I started a my first full-time job in public policy research, and one of my first assignments was to look at comment threads beneath articles about unemployment. I set out to catalogue responses, gauge public sentiment, and figure out what story or narrative to parse from people’s thoughts on unemployment and the economy. I expected to find a number of people who advocated for legislation based on their own experiences and anecdotal evidence… I was not at all prepared for the level of violence and anger I witnessed i those threads.
As an “academic” I foolishly ignored comments sections until that point, instead just plowing through dozens of articles a day to cram in all the facts and research I could. I had dismissed many of the readers who would comment as either obnoxious know-it-alls with too much time on their hands, or childish people who simply like to hurl insults. I was not expecting to view thread after thread filled with well-written, calculated, and violent rhetoric. It was not the normal kind of ranting you expect from political discussions, this was something new. The tone was almost frank in this stream of consciousness and thought postulating the likelihood of engaging in violence. People who sounded like they were well-read and rational, speaking almost casually about how long the recession would drag on before they would be forced to rob others to support their families. Where these people at one time talked about liquidating their retirement accounts or walking out on their mortgages to get by, they were now talking about resorting to violence to steal from others. I had a conversation with my boss about the findings at the end of the day and went home feeling really unsettled and nervous.
The next day I went out for a run, still unnerved, and I mulled over what had me so spooked. When I came home I was terrified to hear of Jared Loughner’s attack in Arizona.
Ever since I have been hoping that the hostile political climate, and the volatile speech used to irresponsibly shepherd anger by the right wing, would not invoke the kind of violence I was in fear of. For the past two years I have been hoping that the anger, hopelessness, and resentment caused by the economic downturn could only subside, the economy would improve and prosperity in America would become more inclusive, so that political opportunists have less kindling for the fires they make a living starting and spreading.
With each mass shooting, each public attack, each suicide, my fears become more real. Friday was the last straw. A senseless attack on a school by the son of a survivalist, who obtained all her guns legally. An act committed by someone for no explicit reason, who had no criminal record, but an acute enough sense of what he was doing to destroy his hard drive beforehand.
And every time I have felt this way over horrific events in the past few years I have found solace in doing charity work, going to the gym, sorting out my thoughts on a run or while cooking. But I have tried all those things, and all I can do is cry. This time is different. The writing is on the wall and we still bicker about gun control and mental health, when this incident is so obviously linked to something much deeper and frightening than that. We have citizens that are so incensed by violent speech in politics, the violence in the world, the fear of the “other”, that they have taken up arms and prepared to take the law into their own hands. That reality confronted us all on Friday, but we are still trying to avoid it.
When the Pain Spills Over to Your Doorstep
Our society has become one that causes us to inflict pain on ourselves, through political and economic systems that set us up for pain and disappointment, and a lasting feeling of failure and hopelessness. Our society, ruled by these codified systems, has dehumanized us.
Tragedy after tragedy, we come together to mourn but then deflect responsibility on others. We must recognize the role we play in a cruel society that incubates the incredible pain that leads to such atrocities as the massive violence that occurs daily. What scares me most about the rash of mass shootings in recent months is not the availability of guns, and it is not the lack of access to mental healthcare, it’s the pain that causes one to commit such acts. A pain that has been all too plentiful throughout our time on this Earth, and we refuse to address our own culpability for it.
We do not live in a society that encourages us to seek joy, love has no value. We do not even seem to agree that we all deserve to be happy and enjoy our time here on some basic level. Instead, the ruling order is what society tells us we should value; job, status, money, goods, power, prestige, vanity.
These things innately mean nothing to us, but society wills them to be the elements that define us.These things make us better than others, and ‘to the victor go the spoils.’
So we chase them, and in the ceaseless chase we lose ourselves, we lose what makes us human. The desire to love is overcome by the aspiration to get a corner office; the longing to connect with others and share ourselves is set aside in favor of networking with those whose recommendations and professional approval can help us get ahead; the thrill of losing oneself in a work of art is instead lost in the endless quest to build out one’s resume. We deny ourselves love and companionship for fear of how we will be judged by the partner we choose.
The experiences that bring out our human emotions, that connect us to one another, are brushed off, stifled and belittled at every corner. And we become a society of people who no longer acknowledge the existence our connection to one another, because those common feelings that bind us are destroyed. We sit in cramped places with headphones to remain isolated, we nervously pretend to check our phones to avoid eye contact and an uncomfortable encounter with a stranger. We have hundreds of “friends” documented by our various online identities, yet we don’t know who to lean on when we just need to cry or talk. We have never been more alone, isolated from one another, isolated from the very feelings and connectedness that make life worth living.
And so many of us don’t cope well with this. Depression sets in, existentialism becomes a terminal state of mind. Many of us wonder why we are here. Some, too many, feel it is not worth the pain, they do not see a reason to endure this. They decide to remove themselves from the equation. Some commit unthinkable, violent acts and inflict their pain on countless others around them.
We must acknowledge the very real ramifications of this society we have created, of these “lives” we have accepted, dictated by the man-made systems in which we struggle to survive as oppose to the curiosity in our minds and the desire in our hearts. When we reduce our existence to that of an operator in a man-made system, rather than that of a shared experience with others and this planet we inhabit, then we become a society where life loses meaning. Pain takes over. Tragedy becomes all too common, because you can only put up with an existence dependent on a system in which the cards are stacked against you for so long.
If the things we all share, as humans, such as the experience of love, of creating art, or having conversations and encounters that connect us through laughter, sadness, joy, fear, nervousness… if all that is set aside and quelled to make us into “disciplined”, “hard-working”, “strong”, “productive”, and therefore successful citizens, then naturally we become insular, self-absorbed, and none too concerned with the pain and suffering of those around us. Until we are forced to by a strong moral compass or a bullet to the head.
We cannot eliminate it, there will always be tragedies, but we can start creating a better, more loving society, with less pain, by first treating our existence as a shared experience. Instead of averting the gaze of someone in an elevator or ignoring a stranger you pass on the street, say hello. Engage in conversation. Begin to acknowledge, at least in a very small way, that we are all in this together whether we like it or not, and together we should just make the most of it and strive not make it any harder for others than it has to be.
Almost daily I run through a really lovely town that is bursting with elegant Christmas decorations and festive window displays. Tonight I passed a woman whose friend was taking her picture in front of a display, and as I ran behind her friend taking the picture I gave her a thumbs up and said “That’s gonna be a great picture!”. Was it kind of strange? Perhaps, but the lady chuckled and I bet her picture turned out better because of it. And honestly, what kind of soulless person runs past something like that, and doesn’t even flash a smile or acknowledge how nice small things like that are. Just to get a nice picture in front of a pretty display. If we all celebrated such small things together, in small ways such as i did tonight, then we might make a small step in the direction towards the kind of society I want to live in.
My hypothesis that these types of small acts might lead to broader improvements in how we live together and care for one another, stems from my understanding of Buddhism. One of the central tenets in Buddhism is to take on the suffering of others as your own, as a way to alleviate it and to truly understand that pain of others. The goal is to share in this experience and fully understand it, so that we might then develop the strength to rise above our own pain and suffering and achieve peace. Maybe if we take these small steps of connecting with people in small ways, then we can get to a place where we coexist and interact, rather than merely physically existing among each other but remaining emotionally distant. From there we will understand each other better, we will feel for each other and care for one another’s wellbeing, and we will develop a desire to take on other’s suffering as our own. From there we will collectively develop the motivation to reduce other’s suffering, and we will work at it.
That’s a start. I think. Develop love and the pain out there will get squeezed out.
It’s Time to Hold Corporations Accountable for the Anemic, McJob Market: Or, How I Nerded Out on Friday Night
For the past few days I have been stewing over a piece by Business Insider displaying another record for corporate profits and a devastating graph of corporate profits vs. total wages. From the graph you can see wages are at a low, profits are at a high. After spending the first three years of my public policy career studying the labor market and the great recession, I am incredibly frustrated that there is not a much louder public cry to hold corporations accountable for being stingy and keeping the labor market stagnant.
This sentiment not only grew stronger this week because of the Business Insider piece, but also after watching Cory Booker’s Twitter feed document his trials and tribulations on the Food Stamp challenge this week. He talked about food insecurity, food deserts, everything to do with food EXCEPT for how we pay for it—-> with wages earned from our jobs. Right? Unless you have won the lottery or live off an inheritance, you pay for things with the money you earn at work. Lack of access to food, housing and healthcare, are all direct consequences of not having gainful employment, which i would argue provides a living wage, benefits, and savings.
A healthy society depends on workers having access to good jobs, and it is up to business leaders to take responsibility for the role they play in this system. We talk often about the responsibilities our elected leaders have to our society, but equally important is demanding accountability from the corporations that WE as consumers have elected to be the leaders of our economy (be that by cognitive choice or a necessity of price point).
Now, if you are at all inclined to get on board with the notion that the businesses we have put in positions of great influence through buying their products owe it to us to recognize the role they play in our labor market, and therefore the well-being of our society, then look at the next two charts.
Corporate profits are now about 50% higher than they were in 2005 (the first year of ADP data I was able to download) but private sector employment is basically at the same level it was in 2005. Mind you, the ADP data is an absolute number, so while the labor force has grown during this period, the employment level has not.
Now, I am not going to outright accuse the private sector of padding their pockets and shirking their responsibility to provide employment opportunities where they can afford to (I have not had the time to dig deep enough to make that claim confidently), but it’s a suspicion we all must raise more loudly and frequently. Do corporations have a civic duty to us? Mitt Romney would say yes, since they’re people, right? If so, they’re not fulfilling it. And even the jobs added since 2007 are, on average, lower paying than those shed during the recession.
Email to Sandy Relief Contacts
Below is an email to folks I have been in touch with this past week on Sandy Relief in NJ:
Good Afternoon All, You are receiving this email because we have corresponded about Hurricane Sandy relied efforts at some point over the past week. Many of you I believe I owe updates or follow-up emails too, but I never anticipated how much outreach I would receive this past week, and as a result I fell behind on emails and set up this list. I am going to update you all on the events of the past week, from my perspective. I have pictures to upload, which I will share tonight hopefully, I am just not with my camera at the moment and wanted to be sure to send this follow-up email today. If you wish to be removed from this email list, then please just let me know. If you are interested in receiving weekly updates on Sandy Recovery efforts, please feel free to stay on this list. I promise not to spam, and just include developments as I see them week-to-week. Here is just a breakdown of this week. I promise future updates will be shorter, but this week was very very active.
- Needs change rapidly, by the hour. The past week has been a whirlwind, so its important to make sure if you are donating items, the person you are donating to has a solid connection with where the supplies are going
- The organizations that are doing the best work are grassroots networks of folks in the towns that are devastated. I am incredibly excited to see the strength of the people in these towns coming together to rebuild their communities themselves. If you want to help, go and talk to these people. Visit their town and ask what you can do. They’ll tell you. Its important we recognize that we play only a supporting role and follow the leadership of these people.
- If donating, be very targeted and focused to specific and timely asks. Yes, bringing supplies to these places helps, of course, because they dont have the ability to even get to a store. But don’t bring things they do not ask for.
- This is a prolonged effort, and these grassroots groups need money. If you can, fundraise for them and think of ways to support this prolonged relief effort.