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Caring and Compassion Are Alive, But Not Well

By Martha Quillen

Lots of things in the United States have run awry in recent years, including climate patterns, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, shootings, partisan politics and fake news. But perhaps the element that’s run most amok is us, we the people – America’s citizens, candidates and leaders.

Today, some places are bustling like never before. Denver’s skyline has been totally transformed, and Salida has gone from looking Victorian to feeling suburban. Although it’s see-sawing at the moment, the stock market has soared in the last two years, and we’ve more than recovered from the 2008 crash. Yet our whole darned nation seems glum.

Personally, I think we were on a better course when the market was less sensational and we worried more about sustainability. But at this point, economic issues are only part of our problem. In 2016, 55 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans told Pew researchers that the other party made them afraid. And now Americans are more than just divided. We are alternately furious, frightened and frustrated.

But our most pressing problem may not be our nation’s boondoggles, it may be our exasperation with one another. At this point, Americans often seem downright mean. Our government has separated children from their immigrant parents, sent teens raised and schooled in the United States back to Mexico and turned its back on Syrian and Latin American refuges. Leaders, candidates and citizens alike express extreme distrust for groups of people who aren’t like them (whether they be immigrants, Muslims, Republicans or Democrats).

When people in caretaking professions start losing their capacity to care about others, experts call it burn-out or compassion fatigue. Psychology Today cites common indications of having compassion fatigue (which is also called secondary or vicarious trauma), as including feeling burdened by the suffering of others; blaming others for causing their own suffering and yours; loss of pleasure in life; bottling up emotions; feeling hopeless and powerless; frequently complaining about your work or life; isolating yourself; and denial.

Other symptoms (which I cherry-picked from numerous sites) include feelings of sadness or emptiness; feeling mentally and physically tired; angry outbursts and irritability; loss of interest in normal activities; anxiety or agitation; trouble concentrating; nightmares; feelings of worthlessness or guilt; fixating on past failures; compulsive behaviors such as overeating, binge drinking, or excessive drug use; and frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

In essence these lists include fairly standard symptoms of depression, and depression is reportedly rising all across our country, as is suicide, addiction, homelessness and incivility.

My daughters recently went to a Bioneers Conference in California. I’d never heard of the event before, but the theme was “Pathways Forward,” and one of the key speakers was Michael Pollan. My kids loved it, and one of Abby’s favorite speakers was Ashton Applewhite, who writes about discrimination against the elderly, yet maintains that getting old can be the best part of life.

I’ve yet to read her book, but Abby, a freelance writer, posted an enthusiastic piece about the conference and Applewhite on Facebook, and Bill, an old friend of our family responded. He said he knew a thing or two about aging, and debated Applewhite’s contention that eight out of nine people get through life without dementia. Although Bill admitted that his dad and his wife’s dad never had dementia, he contended that was only because they died young. However, both of their mothers had lived into their nineties, and suffered from dementia.

Actually, it’s clear to me that both Applewhite’s claim and Bill’s criticism have merit. In terms of numbers, dementia is escapable (especially for those who die prematurely), but when the subject is aging, it’s obvious that chronic illness and dementia are a problem.

I suspect Bill’s criticism was more about Applewhite’s and my daughter’s positivism, than about whether aging is worth it. Optimism is a major part of Abby’s style. She is always looking for the bright side. In the fifty years I’ve known Bill, that has never been his style. To be honest, I generally prefer more ambivalent attitudes about politics and culture from authors – such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, Michael Lewis, and Joan C. Williams – whose optimism is more about urging people to change things than to look at the bright side.

However, Bill made another argument that really disturbed me because it is dismissive, cynical and all too common today. Bill characterized Applewhite’s thesis as being just another example of people who imagine themselves to be victims, and he claimed that people can only be hurt by others if they let themselves be. That’s a crock in the same league as claiming the holocaust never happened. Or pretending that affirmative action and bleeding-heart liberals ensure that minorities are treated better than everyone else, so there is no discrimination left against blacks, immigrants, women or poor people.

Of course there’s discrimination. In fact, there’s discrimination against pretty much anyone who isn’t in a position of power. But I assume Bill recognizes there are victims. He, just like many others, contends too many people see themselves as victims.

That contention, however, implies victimization is rare, and it isn’t. Sexual molestation, child abuse, domestic abuse, harassment, menacing, wage theft, identity theft, outright theft, telephone fraud, cyberfraud, rape, assault, property crimes, and even murders are all too common – as is being overlooked or ignored by the businesses, governments and agencies that exist to serve you.

Yet many voices today insist that we live in a meritocracy in which people get exactly what they deserve. But that is not what Americans deserve.

During the last millennium, America became a market-driven nation in which citizens became increasingly reliant on stocks for their pensions and savings. We started regarding the bottom line, profits and market ratings as more relevant than product quality, service and customers, and that has changed us.

Now some of America’s wealthiest companies are giving you a free product in order to gather and sell your information, which is a Faustian bargain at best. Due to globalization, mechanization and increased competition, first-world citizens are losing their value. That’s only going to get worse now that computers are capable of redesigning and streamlining industries. It is astounding how fast machinery is replacing farmers, line workers, clerks, miners and all those people who used to man our local utility offices and work at retail outlets here (eg. Gambles, Woolworths) before online shopping. Someday soon technology is expected to replace drivers, engineers and medical staff. So when it comes to people feeling sorry for themselves? We ain’t seen nothing yet.

Andrew Yang, author of “The War on Normal People: The Truth about America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future,” says automation has already eliminated about 4 million manufacturing jobs in the United States since 2000, and has also caused associated losses for businesses, towns and regions. So what will happen when more white collar jobs are affected (which will reportedly happen very soon)? That’s a question that Yang and many other young authors are exploring. More and more of them are talking about refocusing on “human capital” and “human assets.”

I think that’s their modern way of saying that people need to care about people. And I absolutely agree, because even though creatures like R2-D2, 3-CPO and Data will doubtlessly be more efficient, whine less and cost less, life will likely become untenable for the majority of humans if we don’t stand up for one another. So let’s try to remember: The point of all this griping isn’t to determine who the victims are. It is to communicate problems in order to formulate solutions and eliminate mistreatment.

Martha Quillen would like to thank the League of Women Voters in Gunnison for showing her that hospitality is alive and well in Central Colorado, and Abby and Bill for tackling thorny issues without wimping out and resorting to emojis.