Traffic lights are a revolutionary innovation. They allow millions of people to move freely, more or less, across significant distances while avoiding deadly accidents. So I thought two Fridays ago while sitting at my third red light in a row.
A trivial complaint, I know. Privileged, even. My impatience with traffic lights is what we would call a first-world problem, right up there with the dishwasher taking too long or the toast burning unevenly. Tell it to the refugees sitting on the border, wondering if they’ll eat today.
All these thoughts passed through my head as I made my way, on this cloudy day, to the Knight Brown Nature Preserve near Stokesdale, a park I’d wanted to visit ever since my colleague, Walt Unks, wrote about it in November. It sounded like a great place to escape the woes of modern-day living for a little while.
Which I needed. I’d been thinking about what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls “deaths of despair” — deaths attributable to alcohol, drugs and suicide, acerbated by the lack of economic opportunities and/or medical insurance. They seem on the upswing in many parts of both small-town and big-city America, including some of my favorite parts of North Carolina. Kristof cites contributing factors like lack of education, disappearance of well-paying jobs, proliferation of opioids, rising housing costs and increased incarceration.
He’s not alone in his conclusions; he echoes many medical and mental-health authorities that warn that the crisis is here and will get worse.
I parked at the preserve and looked over the map posted by the parking lot. I carried my new walking stick, made from a bamboo stalk found in a junk pile in Washington Park. Lightweight, it makes a little whistle when swung.
Not far onto the first leaf-covered trail, deer in the distance ran away, white tails fluttering. Crows cawed to each other.
The stock market is reaching new heights almost daily, but what does that mean for workers, some 50% of whom haven’t found the wherewithal to invest? While the market rises, their weekly salaries have increased around 5 or 7%, depending on who’s counting. All those new high-end apartment complexes we’re seeing — who can afford them? And those who can’t, like some of the long-term residents moving out of the Cloverdale Apartments, scheduled to be demolished to make room for more expensive apartments — where will they live?
Deaths of despair occur when the challenges of modern-day living crash through weakened reservoirs of hope; when so much seems to be going wrong that there’s no right to be found. And as I walked, I found myself thinking: maybe we’re not doing this right.
Maybe there’s a better way to provide health care than through insurance companies that demand profits in the billions while rationing care. (On Tuesday, the American College of Physicians officially endorsed single-payer health care.) Maybe there’s a better way to run an economy than shoveling all the money to a few at the top of the ladder. (A new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health suggests that raising the national minimum wage by $1 an hour could lower the suicide rate significantly — $2 per hour, even more so.) Maybe there’s a better way to run our politics than spending obscene amounts of money on elections. Maybe there’s a better way to manage traffic.
It’s easy to point the finger at politicians, but we all decide what kind of society we’ll live in. We decide with how we vote, but also with how we spend our money and how we treat one another. We decide with the expectations we formulate, with what we imagine to be possible, desirable and essential. Sometimes we decide with our indifference.
I’m not suggesting that we abandon capitalism and become good socialists. But maybe our policies need to be tweaked a little to benefit more people. Maybe there’s another “ism” that we haven’t thought of yet, one that would increase hope and prosperity and diminish despair.
I walked every trail in the preserve, among mossy rocks and rushing streams. There was a lovely, bright green patch of what I’m told is called “Crow’s Feet,” and a balanced stone cairn constructed by a thoughtful artisan. Time quietly dissolved. And I realized that one thing our society does right, when we do it, is conserve nature. Conservancy allows wildlife and plants to thrive and saves something of this planet from our worst destructive impulses.
There’s something refreshingly humble about land conservation. There’s something about it that says, “This is already good; let’s not ruin it.”
I’m told that people feel something similar when adopting pets; they’re saving something that could so easily be lost.
I don’t know the answers to all of our problems. But I do know that if you want to keep getting what you’re getting, you keep doing what you’re doing.
If we want something different, we have to do something different.