Last week, the Centers for Disease Control announced that in 2017, life expectancy in the United States dropped for the third year in a row. It’s been at least a century since the last time that happened. The last time it required the combined efforts of World War I and the “Spanish Flu,” “the mother of all pandemics,” which killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, to drop life expectancy three years in a row.
This time it’s not a virus or an enemy’s bullets — it’s something about us.
The biggest factors in the decline are drug overdoses and suicides. In 2017, more than 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. The age-adjusted drug overdose rate rose to 21.7 per 100,000, a 9.6 percent increase over 2016. In 1999, it was 6.1 per 100,000. That’s a 256 percent increase in eighteen years.
Not surprisingly, overdose death rates are highest among those aged 35 to 44, followed by the next cohort (45-54). What is a surprise, at least to me, is that people my age, i.e., ancient folks, aren’t that far behind.
Then there’s suicide. The suicide rate rose among every age group and among both sexes. In 1999, suicide and drug overdoses combined killed 46,000 Americans. Last year, “more Americans than that died of suicide alone.”
Earlier this year I wrote about the news that American life expectancy had dropped for the second year in a row, the first time in more than fifty years that had happened. I suggested that one factor behind the “deaths of despair” driving our life expectancy downwards is loneliness. I also noted that, in our culture with its emphasis on individualism and autonomy, loneliness is sort of baked into the cake.
As if to emphasize this point, the news about yet another decline in life expectancy received relatively little attention. To be sure, prestige media covered the story and some, like the Washington Post, did an excellent job of explaining the numbers for those care to understand them. But how many of us care?
A search on Google news for “decline in USA life expectancy” returned 68,500 hits. A similar search on “Trump border caravan” returned 9.2 million. “Ariana Grande new album” returned more than 24 million hits.
To answer my question: Not many of us seem to care. Not because we are particularly callous or indifferent to human suffering but because, as Dave the Swede (not his real name) put it, news like this has become the “new normal.” We are inured to the reality of, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Trump’s Inaugural Address, “American carnage.”
Another example is a recent cover story of Time magazine featuring the parents of children killed in school shootings. As I’ve written elsewhere, gun control isn’t an issue I care much about one way or the other. But it’s hard not to notice how mass killings in public places have become a part of the “new normal.” Someone shoots and kills a lot of people, we argue about gun control for a day or two, and then we move on to something else. Sometimes we linger a bit longer when something out of the “ordinary” occurs, such as the response of students in Parkland, Florida or the how the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh shone a light on resurgent antisemitism, but even then we move on.
Thus, when less than two weeks after the massacre in Pittsburgh, twelve people were massacred in Thousand Oaks, California we resumed our normal pattern of “That’s awful! What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”
Except that there is nothing “normal” about this. Healthy societies are, or should be, appalled at this kind of carnage. It should prompt the question “What on Earth is wrong with us?”
Instead, we feign concern and then shrug.
“Feign” because there’s a world of difference between actual concern, which requires asking some hard questions, and our media-driven rubbernecking masquerading as concern.
In all fairness, as Dave the Swede (not his real name) points out, we are all constantly being bombarded by “information” and distraction is almost inevitable. Furthermore, as the Feiler Faster Thesis tells us, the ability to “process more information in a shorter period and to process it comfortably at [a much] faster pace” then we used to is a prerequisite of “digital literacy.”
This kind of speed and comfort are the enemy of actual understanding, never mind reflection.
People who can’t or won’t slow down will not see the carnage unless misfortune forces them to see it. I suspect that this part of the reason that talk about “thoughts and prayers” infuriates some people. They are not rejecting thoughts and prayers, per se. They’re not even insisting on particular deeds or actions. They interpret “thoughts and prayers” as a kind of cant uttered by people who will not slow down enough to really see what’s going on.
They refuse to have their suffering dismissed as part of a “new normal.” I don’t blame them. James 2 has a great deal to say about what we might call “thoughts and prayers.” In his wind-up to the whole “faith without works is dead” bit that has bedeviled Christians since at least the Reformation, James asks a rhetorical question: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”
The answer of course is “no good at all.”
To be fair, a lack of food and clothing are easier to address to than the problems I discussed above. But the principle is the same: we aren’t free to ignore them. They can never become the “new normal.” Now, as I have written before, I have no idea how to solve the problem of drug overdoses. Similarly, I don’t have much to offer Americans whose life is so bleak and painful that suicide seems like the least-bad alternative. I know from first-hand experience how empty even the best-intentioned words can sound.
But I do know that I have an obligation to really look, and not be distracted by the gods of this age. I also have the obligation to shut my big trap and listen. Perhaps in the silence something will come to me. If nothing else, by paying attention I bear witness to the truth: There’s nothing “normal” about any of this.
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