A May 2 article in the New York Times “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply In US” informed us that not only have suicide rates increased in the past decade among teens and the elderly, but more surprisingly, they have surged among the baby boomers. Ten days later, an article on the Alternet website asks, “Is Cutthroat Capitalism Pushing A Growing Number Of Baby Boomers To Suicide?” Certainly, we might expect adolescents and the elderly to take their own lives, but why baby boomers—people in the 35-70 age bracket?
What is it about this group? The Times suggests, “There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference.” Author and labor activist, Les Leopold, who penned the Alternet article lays blame at the feet of vulture capitalism. Here we see two different hypotheses. The first from the Times, focuses on the internal mechanism of the baby boomer demographic whereas the second targets external influences. Those familiar with my writing know that I generally favor the both/and rather than the either/or perspective, and for me, this issue is no exception. Much of the human condition entails suffering—both external suffering and our response to it, but I do not believe that we can ameliorate it by focusing only on ridding our lives of the conditions that create suffering nor on pre-occupying ourselves exclusively with our responses.
From the external perspective, we are living in an era of both replicated and unprecedented woes. Economically, our world has not suffered to this extent since the Great Depression, but those of us who are boomers were born of parents who by and large survived the enormous losses of that era. Financial hardship is not new to our species. What is new, however, are the daunting challenges of energy depletion and climate chaos. Add these to grinding economic hardship, and this planet can feel like an inordinately brutal place to be. I see no “solution” to the “Three E’s” predicament—economics, energy, and environment, but only possible responses, otherwise known as resilience—a topic unaddressed by both the New York Times and Alternet articles.
So why might it be so difficult for baby boomers to cultivate resilience?
One aspect of the legacy of the Great Depression was a generation of parents who vowed that they would never allow their children to experience anything like it. And so it was that post-World War II, most of us were deluged with “stuff.” It wasn’t so much about having anything we wanted, but rather, knowing that if we really needed it, our parents would find a way for us to have it. Our public school education extended this sense of security by assuring us that if we worked hard enough (especially if we were white), we could acquire anything we wanted. We were socialized to aspire to a college education with the guarantee that it would be our ticket to success. “You can do anything you want,” was the constant spoken and unspoken message. Of course, girls were not given as much permission to achieve as boys were, but nevertheless, the message was “be all you can be,” long before the U.S. Army capitalized on the slogan.
Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, many of us believed that our lives would be cut short by a nuclear exchange. “Duck and cover,” made it palpable, as did the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. However, as we discovered with the Vietnam War and beyond that wars of Low Intensity Conflict rather than nuclear wars would likely be the preferred method of dealing with international conflict, we began to entertain the possibility that we might live longer. And of course, we were socialized to believe that living longer meant living longer in the manner to which we had become accustomed. Naturally, if we worked hard and saved our money, we would have a fat pension, a 401K, or another retirement instrument(s) to allow us to travel, spend time with our grandchildren, and pursue all those things we didn’t have time for when we were working so hard to make all this happen.
What we didn’t count on was massive unemployment; the sudden, pre-mature demise of our careers; the endemic scourge of Wall St. corruption that would cause pensions and retirement savings to vanish; a collapse of the global financial system that would result in austerity policies throughout the Western world; and a posse of politicians who were hell bent on putting our Social Security checks and Medicare benefits into their own pockets.
All the while, no one really taught us anything about resilience. Resilience? Wasn’t that for soldiers in combat or those poor souls in third-world countries? Who needs adaptability, flexibility, or fluidity when our future is a done deal? A perspective, of course, which humans quite naturally adopt when they assume that life will unfold exactly as the elders and high priests of their society have predicted and which, also quite naturally, they desperately want to believe. In other words, baby boomers, like all generations before them on some level, were sold a bill of goods to which they unquestionably tied their hopes and dreams.
No, the suicide rate overall in the United States doesn’t begin to approach the suicide rate in a country like Greece with its total financial collapse, but a surge in suicide among a generation so thoroughly socialized in the narrative of entitled and guaranteed success is very telling.
To many, resilience just seems like the most natural response to crises, but for others, it feels over-reactive. “Things will turn around,” we keep telling ourselves. “No need to get hysterical,” others say. Our country has gone through recessions before and come out of them stronger than ever. For still others, the notion of resilience feels beneath them or somehow humiliating. After all, they argue, this is America. To talk of resilience means that one is giving up or walking away from the lifestyle to which one feels entitled.
To embrace resilience requires not merely a shift in thinking, but a modification of the psyche at a deep level. Quite literally, it involves an emotional surrender to what is and an openness to examining the consequences of it. When this has occurred, then taking the steps to prepare for challenging times usually follows with little effort.
That is to say that everyone who is living resiliently in the face of unprecedented changes has undergone some type of letting go—a saying goodbye to hopes and dreams or a particular way of life—a shift that obviously is easier for some than others. This is precisely why I argue that preparation for the collapse of industrial civilization is not exclusively, or even predominantly, a rational decision. Rather, I believe, it is instinctual so that in the same way that an animal knows it must abandon a particular habitat in order to survive and does so with probably more distress than we would like to imagine, we respond to something within the deeper self that says, “Your old way of living, doing, being, thinking, and feeling isn’t working anymore, and you won’t survive unless you forsake the old and surrender to the new.”
I cannot overemphasize the debt of gratitude we owe to visionaries like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who gave us a model for doing just that in her Five Stages Of Grief. And before her, another Elizabeth poetically articulated the “One Art” that may surpass all others:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like a disaster.