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This is Life: Putting Chaos in Context
Since 2020 began, the U.S. came to the brink of a war with Iran, Kobe Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash, Trump was impeached and acquitted, millions of hectares of Australia ignited in bushfire, two royals decided royalty sucks, oh and schools, restaurants, and the rest of the world shut down indefinitely in hopes of slowing the spread of a deadly new coronavirus. Grocery shelves are empty, the DOW is plummeting, and every sport, professional or amateur, has ceased play. It’s hard not to get a sense that we’ve hit cursed times. Why us? Why now? But, I recycled! Is this the end?!?!?
I’d bet not. What this is, is life.
Every year right before the New Year we see all those annual recaps - montages of the most dramatic news stories of the past year and tributes to all the famous people who died. We look back at the inevitable natural disasters, awful shootings, and divisive jury trials. We add to them the deaths, illnesses, and traumas of those in our own broad social circles - and most conclude: “Wow! 2019 was a rough year. In fact now that I think of it, last year I said the same thing. Hopefully, 2020 is better!”
Yet, on a living planet that hosts over seven-billion people along with another nine-million or so different types of organisms, crazy stuff is bound to go down. Heroes will die, storms will ravage, Kanye will rant incoherently. Our hunter-gatherer brains just aren’t evolved to make sense of this global, news-saturated world. Furthermore, what the montages don’t capture is how charmed our existence is. On a planet of over seven-billion people we are more likely to eat ourselves to death than to die of starvation. Complex institutions keep us safe, elaborate industries compete to keep us entertained, and central air keeps us in that 69-73 degree range where we aren’t oppressively uncomfortable.
The beauty of studying history is that it provides context to make sense of life. History gives us a sense of what events are universal, what trends recur, and how humans have always dealt with adversity. From the standpoint of history, these past forty years are somewhat of a dream. Sure, there were the September 11th attacks and, more recently, we’ve become aware that many people have been living their entire lives bravely withstanding the assault of microaggressions. But, really, the only reason we had time to be offended by your daughter’s Halloween costume is because life presented so few large problems.
This isn’t to say that necessary strides haven’t been made in regards to social justice or that there haven’t been challenges over the past few decades. We’ve had a major recession and two wars, Afghanistan 1 and Iraq 2, which cost the lives of about 2,400 and 4,600, respectively. At home we’ve witnessed a disturbing rise in mass shootings and watched as the rates of obesity, depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug overdoses soar.
Seems chaotic, but by and large, the majority of us have just lived our everyday lives however we wanted to, confident that our comfortable abundance would persist. Without being aware that this mindset was in any way unique, we have spent the past 50 years operating like we are somehow exempt from the cycles that have always characterized history - believing that this calm, predictability would go on forever. But a brief overview of the previous 50-ish years - 1917 to 1970 - demonstrates the more tumultuous path history often takes.
1917-1918 (years of U.S. involvement) - World War I 3:
In just over a year 116,516 U.S. soldiers died, which is considered “modest” compared to other combatants.
1918-1919 - The Spanish Flu 4:
About ⅓ of the world’s population caught the virus. Of that over 10% died. In the U.S. about 675,000 died - more than we lost in World War I and World War II combined.
A ten year, massive economic crisis where unemployment rates reached over 24% and about half the population lived under the poverty line. The co-occurrence of the dust bowl, a massive decade long drought that swept through the great plains, pushed many farmers to abandon their homes and move to cities across the country in search of employment and social support.
1941-1945 (years of U.S. involvement) - World War II 7:
The United States enters World War 2, incurring 416,800 deaths as they fight in both Europe and Japan. At home, families grow victory gardens to have more food as gas and food are rationed for soldiers abroad. The war ends after the United States drops the first ever atomic bombs, ushering in a terrifying new nuclear age.
1950-1953 - Korean War 8:
The United States leads the effort to stop North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. 33,652 U.S. soldiers die.
1954-1968 - Civil Rights Movement:
Amid vast racially inspired violence, segregated schools, and a time where black leaders are thrown in jail for taking liberties reserved for white people, a growing social conscious spurs millions to fight for equality.
1962 - The Cuban Missile Crisis:
After the United States discovers Soviet nuclear missiles were moved to Cuba, the world braces for potential nuclear annihilation. After a long, tense standoff, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, come to an agreement.
1955-1973 (years of U.S. involvement) - Vietnam 9:
58,220 U.S. soldiers died in this bloody conflict. 18-year-old men across the country were subject to a military draft that obligated them to fight or leave the U.S. It became a very unpopular war that fed the concurrent counter-culture movement.
An 18-year-old in 1917 could have lost his best friend to machine gun fire in 1918, lost his sister to the Spanish flu in 1919, lost his farm to the dust bowl in 1931, and lost his oldest son to the beaches of Normandy in 1944. My point isn’t to suggest that we should belittle anyone’s current trials or care less about death tolls. In fact, it is imperative that we learn from our past in order to avoid the type of extreme violence that defined the early 20th century. There is reason to hope that technology and wisdom can help us avoid some future cataclysmic threats. But, particularly as populations expand, markets globalize, and the pace of technological disruption increases, we should expect a few crises. The world has always operated on the edge of turmoil. Forgetting this reality sets us up for harder falls and distances us from more rewarding values.
I can’t help but think our insulation from crisis has been bad for humanity in many ways - that exposure to death and chaos are so inherent to the human condition that living away from their shadow removes a vital source of passion. It allows us to devolve into a level of entitlement and superficiality that stokes our current spiritual crisis.
Without the specter of some potential crisis, our children grow up without a clear sense of the resiliency they’ll be expected to embody or the virtues that define adulthood. Rather than prompting them to become self-reliant, high-quality people, parenting becomes about smothering kids in comfort and protecting them from every pain. Safety becomes a holy grail with no thought for courage or capability. Likewise, citizens grow disconnected and unable to analyze complex issues through any lens outside of their own immediate desires. They expect more rights, but fewer responsibilities.
Death and crisis, while terrible, have a way of bringing the best out in individuals and communities. Just look at New York City, where 40,000 non-hospital healthcare professionals, many who are high-risk retirees, have come forward to volunteer in New York’s Surge Health Care Force. These sort of selfless, courageous acts inspire our minds and remind us of the type of people we wish to be.
"It is a bad thing for a nation to raise and to admire a false standard of success; and there can be no falser standard than that set by the deification of material well-being in and for itself."
- Theodore Roosevelt
The beauty of studying history is that we can arm ourselves for the inevitable, avoid the preventable, and remain in contact with the wisdom born from past crises. When adversity arises, we won’t conceive ourselves as, somehow, cosmically afflicted. We may not jump for joy, but there is a sense that these challenges are inherent to life, that they often spark incredible innovation, and that we have what it takes to adapt and thrive.
We’ve been so sheltered and grown so dependent on complex systems that most never consider the possibility that chaotic changes can happen at any time. Our immense comfort fuels the delusion that utopia is somehow possible and that infinite growth is feasible on a finite planet. Rather than the pursuit of higher quality living, we are swept away in a consumptive, self-promotional fervor that only seems to disconnect us from the higher order experiences that make life great.
Right now, we are all being forced to think about life differently. Like the college student who first comes to grips with his mortality, many of us feel a heightened sense of vulnerability. But, just as the contemplation of death tends to generate more passionate life, so these struggles can help us recalibrate our societal values.
Our current moment is a perfect inflection point for us to reimagine who we want ourselves and our children to become. For parents and educators especially, right now is the perfect time to commit to self-development. Our model is the most powerful influence we have on our children. They, too, will need to be able to adapt to the trials that inevitably await them. With that in mind, Justin and I have identified a few transformative books to spark insight through these unique times:
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger
Natural Born Heroes, by Christopher McDougall
Atomic Habits, by James Clear
The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
Statista Research Department. “Soldiers Killed in Action in Afghanistan 2001-2019.” Statista, January 31, 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/262894/western-coalition-soldiers-killed-in-afghanistan/.
Statista Research Department. “American Soldiers Killed in Iraq up to 2019.” Statista, June 4, 2019. https://www.statista.com/statistics/263798/american-soldiers-killed-in-iraq/.
“War Losses (USA).” New Articles RSS. Accessed March 26, 2020. https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/war_losses_usa.
“1918 Pandemic (H1N1 Virus).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 20, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html.
History.com Editors. “Great Depression History.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/great-depression-history.
History.com Editors. “Dust Bowl.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 27, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/dust-bowl#section_3.
“Research Starters: Worldwide Deaths in World War II: The National WWII Museum: New Orleans.” The National WWII Museum | New Orleans. Accessed March 26, 2020. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/students-teachers/student-resources/research-starters/research-starters-worldwide-deaths-world-war.
staff, CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com. “How Many Americans Died In Korea?” CBS News. CBS Interactive, June 21, 2000. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-many-americans-died-in-korea/.
“Vietnam War U.S. Military Fatal Casualty Statistics.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed March 26, 2020. https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.
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