Are we forgetting what hardship is?
Things are so bad in America that people should be out protesting instead of eating, drinking fresh water and watching their flat screens.
— Donnie Garvich (@dgarvich) December 19, 2014
I believe that someone can read your social media posts and learn just about everything they need to know about you. Because of this, I make a real effort to steer clear of negativity or generally objectionable material. If I want to vent, I do it to people I trust, in person. This (hopefully) lessens the chance that a broad audience will be impacted when I inevitably say something completely stupid that I later regret.
Unfortunately, not everyone shies away from saying completely stupid things to broad audiences. Some people seem to enjoy it… and social media makes it easier than ever to be a bonehead.
Lately, the tone of social media has changed. It has gone from its original, excitable “Look at me, I’m on social media!” status updates to posts about what people are having for lunch, to fear-mongering, to hate-mongering to outright divisive hostility. The transitions have been rapid and the social impact has multiplied with each iteration.
Americans as a society are forgetting what hardship really is. It’s so ubiquitous that we’ve collectively created a meme where we joke about so-called “first world problems“. All of our problems in the United States of America are first world problems. There are no exceptions.
Do things happen that shouldn’t happen? Yep, all the time. Do things sometimes go differently than what we’d prefer? Sure thing. Do people screw up so badly that others die? Unfortunately, yes. We should be talking about these disappointments and figuring out how best to move forward. But digressing into fits of rage, intentionally divisive accusations and gross generalizations is not the way forward, it’s the way backwards. It’s the unfortunate place we have come from, not the place we should be going.
Let’s start with an important acknowledgement paired with some facts and data: The problems we have the privilege of discussing are problems the rest of the world envies.
Other countries our size have very real and well-known infrastructure, poverty and corruption issues. Countries smaller than us form union-states to compete with our global purchasing and regulatory power, and the influence those powers provide us.
Consider that Canada (35m) and California (38m) have roughly an equal population. Then you may infer that all of the countries people often refer to as being “happiest” are managing problems at what we’d consider a state level; that is if our states didn’t share wealth among each other and had complete control over their own natural resources. In fact, around half of these countries have less residents than the city of New York (8.4m).
More Population Data (from the countries on the “happy” list):
- Australia (28m)
- Iceland (.3m)
- Austria (8.5m)
- Finland (5.4m)
- Sweden (9.6m)
- Netherlands (16.8m)
- Switzerland (8m)
- Norway (5m)
- Denmark (5.6m)
Any solution put in place for the entire United States needs to work in roughly 316 million unique cases without negative impact, or it’s going to be profoundly unfair to a lot of people. If a new federal law is passed that negatively impacts 1% of the population we just shafted over 3 million people, which for reference is roughly how many people are currently held in our state and federal prisons. Think of 100 people you know personally, then imagine you are told to say something regarding religion to all of them. Add the caveat that if as a result of your comments, either directly or indirectly, more than one of those people report that they were offended you will be considered a complete failure. Good luck navigating those waters.
No matter what you may hear from people best served by your rage tweets and the ads they sell, we’re lucky to only have the problems we have… we don’t have to look very far to see what the world could be like, if not for our carefully constructed society of law, order and immense wealth that is fairly well distributed.
The Other Possibilities
Remember Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere? The picture in the header of this post is just another day there. Almost 5 years ago (yep, January 12th, 2010) one of the poorest countries on Earth got poorer by way of natural disaster. Things haven’t improved much since then, with the poverty rate around 62%. Poverty in Haiti is defined as access to $1.25 or less per day. The United States considers access to $16.75 or less per day poverty, and roughly 16% of Americans fall into that category.
But when was the last time you heard about Haiti? It seemed the whole of America was on board with helping them for a few months, then… our attention span faltered. Money, the solution to so many problems at the forefront Americans’ minds, and obviously the solution to American poverty, wasn’t the solution to the problems in Haiti. What good is money when you don’t have fresh water or basic medications?
Haiti is not alone. There are a lot of places on this amazing Earth where people would gladly trade their daily problems with our occasional problems. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo “… at least 256 people, including children, had been killed in ax and machete attacks since October …” In Ukraine, fighting continues as winter approaches. And if we’ve learned anything about fighting during winter in that area, a lot of people are likely to die. So much so, the two sides of that nasty situation are considering the impending weather a weapon. Heck, we don’t even have to look that far into our own history to see when things were really bad financially, or when racism was something truly overt. The problems we have today, which seem big in the moment, pale in comparison to the problems we’ve already overcome and are downright laughable in the face of problems other parts of the world face every morning when they wake up.
The Sense of Perspective
Given what we’ve very briefly covered here, in addition to what every one reading this was likely taught in high school history classes (assuming you paid attention to your free, mandatory education), it’s obvious that the narrative we’re hearing so much of lately doesn’t represent the reality of the state of affairs in the United States. Yet we spend our days obsessing about the most minute details surrounding individual incidents in far away places. Normally reasonable people argue, lose friends, disavow family and knowingly offend strangers with their opinions around events they weren’t involved in, aren’t directly impacted by and have no first-hand knowledge of.
I have a friend who worked for years at an awful job. He was routinely verbally abused, overworked, vastly underpaid and witnessed extremely inappropriate behavior and unscrupulous business practices on a daily basis. He’d only ever worked in this job, so he didn’t know anything different. His attempts at addressing the problems had found his management apathetic or worse. Over time, he’d fallen subject to Corporate Stockholm Syndrome and it was painful for all of us who cared about him to watch him plod through his life; which had now become depressing in all aspects as a result of his horrible work situation. Many friends disappeared, favoring non-involvement over listening to his constant complaining without what they would consider real action to address the issues on his own.
Eventually, this friend did end up in another job. And I’ll never forget a conversation we had a few weeks after he started his new job. He was beaming; excited about his new position and how amazing the world could be. It’s as if his eyes had been opened for the first time. The new company was perfect! Given where he’d come from, it’s easy to see why he thought so.
Over the next few months this friend began to find flaws at his new company. His boss was strict on arrival times (but lenient on leaving times). The client he most often worked with was nice, but had difficulty making tough decisions. Deadlines occasionally required an extra few hours of work.
I realized (and mentioned to him) that in absence of the issues he’d had at his previous job he was striving to find “problems” at his new job. I watched as over time he began to turn these problems into “big” issues, leading back to depression. By actively seeking out issues, then amplifying them in his mind, he was creating his own misery.
His natural tendency towards a certain level of unhappiness dictated that he had to have a certain level of struggle with his work life. He simply didn’t know how not to struggle. Instead of changing his perspective of what a job should be he had changed his perception of the job he had. His previous employer, who was legitimately horrible, had so impacted him that he couldn’t enjoy work even when things were as good as any job is going to realistically get. He had forgotten what true hardship was, and it was brutal to watch happen.
In many ways I think my friend’s experience reflects some current trends in America. Historically speaking, we’ve solved big problems. Working together we have overcome things that have destroyed other societies. We’ve built a society that everyone in the world wants to join or emulate. And in that process, we’ve gotten so good at solving big problems that the people solving them, and maintaining the solutions to them, have begun to seem invisible.
We’ve begun taking the people and processes in place to make sure we get to enjoy our elevated standard of living for granted. As a society those of us who experienced true hardship are nearing the end of life or have already passed. The rest are forgetting what real hardship is and in the process we’re doing an injustice to those who preceded us; and worse, we’re doing an injustice to those who will follow. Let’s hope we can pause, take a deep breath, and learn from the lessons of those who came before us. The only other option is to learn the lessons all over again, and thereby dooming future generations to the same fate.