Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!

We live in a time when depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels—the so-called “opioid crisis” is really just a symptom of a deeper sickness eating away at the heart of our society. It’s especially disturbing—but understandable—to find high levels of anxiety and despair among the young.

This has been going on for a long time in certain communities—among the urban poor or on Native reservations, using drugs and alcohol to fight the despair is nothing new.

Now it’s spilling into the mainstream—white suburban kids are dying from overdoses, along with their fathers and mothers. This recent report from my home state of Massachusetts presents a chilling portrait of the scale of the problem.

AverageAnnualOpioidRelatedDeathRateper100,000People

While better treatment for addicts is certainly necessary, it’s crucial to address the the deeper roots of the problem: the physical and emotional pain that drives kids, men and women to seek out opioids, legal or illegal.

This is a much more complicated knot to try to untangle, but the basic outlines of the problem are clear.

  • We need a more vibrant, creative, exciting educational system, where kids look forward to going to school each day because it’s a chance to interact collaboratively with interesting people—teachers, other students, and community members of all ages—and learn life skills that can be immediately put into practice. Humans learn best by doing, not by rote memorization and regurgitation of abstract knowledge.
  • We need better nutrition: getting chemicals and excessive sugar out of our diet and returning to the whole, unprocessed foods that contribute naturally to our physical and mental health. We need to get connected with how our food is produced, and return to gardening and animal husbandry ourselves when possible. We need more time for eating and socializing around the table.
  • We need a basic social safety net for all, so that no one has to worry about becoming homeless if they get sick, or when they get old. Everyone has something to contribute to society, and people should always be able to find rewarding work in their communities that will allow them to live decently and with respect.
  • We need to create more time and space for fun, especially in outdoor activities, or in creative, collaborative culture-making. Despite all the social media, people are feeling isolated and alienated and even the comfort of talk therapy has been taken away by the insurance companies, which would much rather push those pills on us.

To those who would tell me we can’t afford it, I reply: what would happen if we stopped spending more than $600 billion a year (15% of 2016 GDP) on the military, while giving only 3% of GDP to education? What if those proportions were reversed, as they are in many other Western countries?

And yet even as I type these words, I know the politicians won’t be listening. They are too focused on treating the symptoms to pay attention to the causes.

This is as true for dealing with climate change as it is for dealing with the opioid crisis. Everyone is looking for quick fixes that will allow us to continue with business as usual, no matter how many casualties that business generates.

When confronted with an intractable problem, my mom used to say, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”

Lately the feeling of just being along for the ride—and a hurtling, scary, out-of-control ride at that—grows stronger day by day.

And of course, we can’t get off, not alive, anyway.

So how do we deal with having to sit in the back seat while the drivers take us down bumpy roads in the wrong direction at dangerous speeds?

My own response is to focus on what I do have control over.

  • I can weed my garden, spend more time outside.
  • I can eat healthy foods and cultivate mental clarity by cutting back on the distractions of social media and television.
  • I can try to contribute positively to my community—family, friends, the larger circles of positive creative people I care about.
  • I can review my life goals, and set some intentions for the coming years that, with focus and effort, I may be able to achieve.

Most of all, I can set my internal compass to LOVE and try to hold it steady there, no matter the jerks and lurches along the road.

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My new online course, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir, will be launching this fall. Through catalyzing writing prompts, I invite you to consider how you got where you are today, and to envision the future you want to create and live into. Join me!

Why are we punishing America’s schoolchildren and their teachers?

Jonathan Kozol in action

Every stakeholder in the current Chicago teachers’ strike who has not visited an inner city Chicago public school should take the time to read Jonathan Kozol’s powerful book Savage Inequalities, which chronicles the author’s explorations of conditions in schools in poor and rich neighborhoods in a series of American cities.

“One would not have thought that children in America would ever have to choose between a teacher or a playground or sufficient toilet paper,” wrote Kozol back in 1991.  “Like grain in a time of famine, the immense resources which the nation does in fact possess go not to the child in the greatest need but to the child of the highest bidder—the child of parents who, more frequently than not, have also enjoyed the same abundance when they were schoolchildren.

“’A caste society,’ wrote U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel 25 years ago, ‘violates the style of American democracy….The nation in effect does not have a truly public school system in a large part of its communities; it has permitted what is in effect a private school system to develop under public auspices….Equality of educational opportunity throughout the nation continues today for many to be more a myth than a reality.’  This statement is as true today as it was at the time when it was written.”

And it remains true twenty years later.

The bedrock issue here is one of inequality, which is measured along multigenerational racial and class lines.  As long as we continue to link public school funding to local property taxes we are going to be perpetuating an entrenched system of race and class segregation, from which there is little chance for escape.

Kozol observed that kids in suburban schools, no matter what state, already have what the CPS teachers are begging for in the urban schools, and then some.

Is it right that kids from wealthy neighborhoods go to college while kids from poor neighborhoods go to jail?

Kids in poor districts need more help from the state, not less, than kids in wealthy districts.

Chicago is not the only place in America where our schools are failing our neediest children, it is just the only place in America right now where the teachers have been pushed so far that they are taking to the streets in protest.

The Chicago teachers’ strike is being presented in the media as a case of selfish, whining teachers walking out on their students because they are greedy for more money, or afraid of being held to high standards.

But when you listen to the teachers, parents and students who have managed to penetrate the media gatekeepers and make their voices heard, what you hear is not greed or shortsightedness, but deep concern for the health of the school system and the welfare of the children.

The teachers are asking for smaller class sizes (would you want your child in a kindergarten class of 45?); improvements in the crumbling physical plants of their schools, including libraries and playgrounds; and support staff for troubled students, including nurses and social workers.  They don’t want their evaluations tied so tightly to how their students perform on standardized tests, and they want to be given seniority preference if they are laid off because of a school closing.

I don’t hear anything unreasonable in these demands.

Has anyone on the editorial boards of the newspapers who have condemned the Chicago teachers’ strike, which include the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and the Washington Post, ever set foot in a Chicago public school?

I know for a fact that Mayor Emmanuel’s children attend private school, as did the Obama girls when they lived in Chicago.

President Obama and business leaders like to exhort American children to study hard and close the achievement gap between our country and others like China and India.

They need to put their money where their mouth is, and give our dedicated teachers the support they need to do the job right.

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