Yesterday a friend showed me a cartoon which you can eyeball here:
The cartoon featured a little girl covering an ant with sand, watching it dig itself out, covering it with sand again, watching it dig itself out again, covering it with sand again, and so on. She proudly explained her game to her watching dad, who – mentally putting himself in the place of the ant and probably speaking for the cartoonist – thought to himself: “I’ve had days like that.”
My instant reaction was: I have had a life like that.
My second thought was that the cartoonist is one of those who are living a substantially better life than I — a life worthy of being called a life.
It reminded me of my constant uphill battle when using my writing skills to explain to those whose lives are OK (or even great) that for a large and growing portion of their fellow human beings life is anything but OK. For many of us it is so cruel, that we wish we had never been born. No, this statement is neither a bad joke nor an exaggeration.
Things have become so bad in our country, our lives so brittle, that according to a Bloomberg study 80% of people in the U.S. say they couldn’t handle a $1,000 emergency. A whopping 28% are so poor, they worry even about a mere $10! Yes, that’s no typo. Ten dollars can break their bank! And privileged people wonder why so many Americans without health coverage get no healthcare! Ever known a doctor who said hello to you for less than ten bucks? Small emergency expenses like that, combined with the gross exploitation, economic inequality, and job insecurity so many of us suffer, are the crushing grains of sand that can and do fall on us human ants, keeping us from ever reaching any degree of security or comfort — our whole lives! Can we even hope to retire from exhausting, fruitless work and hopeless job searches when we become old and infirm and our oh-so-caring corporate-funded politicians keep drooling at the prospect of making cuts to Social Security, on which most of us depend to keep us out of old-age-poverty?
On the other side of the spectrum, 1% in our country own 41.8% of the wealth, the top 10% own 77.2% (yes, nearly 4 out of 5 slices of the whole pie).
There is a question I like to ask those who lucked out in our generally hostile world. I like to ask them if the horrendous amount of suffering around (or beneath) them is really OK for them. “I’m OK, so the world is OK. I’m doing good, so who cares if others aren’t.” Is that really the attitude of all of you who have good lives? All of you? Without exception?
Is the human condition so rotten that a person born into an unfalteringly good life cannot ever develop sympathy for others?
I wonder. I know that many of our highly placed fellow humans (namely insanely rich plutocrats and their striving seconds: CEOs, politicians, media pundits…) match the description of psychopaths and sociopaths, i.e. people without sympathy and scruples. Their actions speak for themselves. Trumpcare, for example. Earlier this year, I calculated that the original Trumpcare proposal would send a minimum of 13,500 people to an early grave by next year (all to give a tax break to the rich in another part of the law bill). Trumpcare 2.0 would likely kill a lot more of us due to such tragic amendments as the one ending the pre-existing conditions protection.
I know that those born into a rich life tend to grow up spoiled and, throughout the rest of their lives, will either pointedly ignore the suffering outside their bubble of privilege, or live with a mentality that leaves no room for sympathy or simply designates people outside their privileged circles as a different form of life — one which merits no sympathy. I once had a rich girlfriend who belonged to the first group. At 24 years of age, she was already an alcoholic, numbing herself to support her mental repression of an awful, guilt-inducing truth she could not face, just like so many poor people suck up every drop of booze they can get their lips on to numb their living pain. Our system is a terrible one which divides us into victims and victimizers. Some very rich parents, who were not born rich themselves, actually worry enough when they see how their offspring grows up, that they have formed self-help groups, trying to figure out how to not raise spoiled brats. If only they would ask me for advice… Too bad we never meet.
Back to the cartoon, the quality of life, and me. Where do I fit in?
I was raised in a lower-middle-class family. Our parents – by both of them working at a time when a single income earner per family was the norm, by living cheaply, by getting creative, and by cherishing more subtle goods than just materialistic ones – managed to provide for us children and themselves a quasi-middle-class life with lots of books and culture, and even regular, if low-cost (but fun!), vacations (typically exploring the world in our cheap old family car). For a number of critical years in my childhood, they even succeeded in renting an entire house and keeping a family dog. It was something like the popularly featured suburban middle-class life without quite being one. You know, like how you can wear quality clothes when you buy them in a second-hand store.
I didn’t know back then how lucky I was.
That’s how childhood perception works. Children see their lives as the norm. That’s why rich kids tend to grow up spoiled, unless… But I digress.
Like so many of my contemporaries, I have never managed to do as well as my parents. Making good use of a good public education, I entered a science career. Knowing I had no money to make the world a better place, I figured I might do so through my work in science, working towards less ravaging effects of aging, towards extending our short lives… Little did I know about the elephant in the room: the constant in-fighting of human beings in a society all warped out of shape by the prevalent forces in our society: greed, selfishness, and conceit.
As a graduate student, I was caught in the crossfire of professorial backstabbing, as well as departmental under-the-rug sweeping, and academic dishonesty. My Ph.D. became one of the casualties — and, having experienced just about every aspect of academia’s dark underbelly, I left academia in disgust. My hope was to eventually resume my scientific studies in a garage, once I would manage to stabilize my financial life. It never happened. Despite working hard and bringing lots of skill and talent to bear, my life never stabilized financially. You see, low-born people like me usually get only one chance in life. After that chance is somehow blown, the combined weight of lacking wealth and connections in a greed-driven world becomes a crushing force, like sand on an ant. We’re not like members of, say, the wealthy and well-connected Bush family, where one of their sons was a mere C student in high school but still moved on to Yale and Harvard, went AWOL from his National Guard Unit, never worked a real job, was a coke-head and drunken bum until age 40, but still was crowned the 43rd President of the United States (after a lost election, at that!).
In contrast, my lower-class life was like the struggle of the ant in that cartoon. Wall Street crashes, big corporate decisions, and other events beyond my control kept burying me like the ant. I have spent the rest of my life in job treadmills designed to make others rich and keep me poor. I was never able to obtain a house to live in, leave alone a garage – a place without a landlord to object to my use of chemicals. Nor did I ever get enough peace and quiet during off-hours to seriously pursue such a demanding and unpaid side-line, anyway. I have had to work long hours, take work home, and never could get dry land under my feet, or even any job security.
So, instead of being able to create better weapons against the ravages of aging for all of us to enjoy, I have spent my life in the utter futility of making a few rich people richer in meaningless-feeling jobs of dubious worth while the rest of us got poorer — and that when it is obvious to anyone with open eyes and a not overly propaganda-washed brain, that with the technological and cultural means at our disposal nowadays, we could produce prosperity for everybody. There is no need anymore for the rich to exploit the poor in order to have an easy life (easy until old age ravages them, too, that is). Those times are long past. Early civilizations had to struggle with scarcity, and so their bullies devised ways to concentrate wealth for themselves out of a pool too small to sustain prosperity for all. They came up with slave-holding societies, feudalism, and finally capitalism — all systems which take from the poor and give to the rich, for ever and ever — even to the point of the economies of those societies devouring themselves, as our economy is currently doing.
Imagine spending your entire life running for sheer survival in these job treadmills while understanding all of the above.
It’s no fun. Neither is it fun having to look for a new treadmill every year and relocate to a new town, new state, or sometimes even new country, as I have had to do for the last decade, my quilt-like roller coaster résumé making it harder and harder to find employment in ever less worthwhile entry level jobs. All this effort for this… … this sheer survival in a life that is… not really a life. It’s death slowed down. That’s what it is. A glimmer of hope that things might eventually get better, kept me alive and working through many years. More recently, it is the grim resolve to do something for others before I die that keeps me going, specifically in my writing endeavors. I write nights and weekends to sow a few seeds for betterment before I am gone. For that beautiful world we could have. I wonder how long that resolve will last as I face decreasing health.
So, I look upon that cartoonist and think, there are two kinds of human lives: OK and not OK. Within the OK lives are amazingly good lives (at least for a while) – usually available only to those with substantial wealth, insane wealth even – as well as lives which are only mostly OK, like that of the cartoonist behind the featured cartoon who has a bad day now and then. Among the not OK lives, are those that are just sad and those that are absolutely horrible. From these lives come the people who are deeply frustrated, angry, even furious, and – these days – becoming politically active (decades late). I look mostly to them for our society’s progress, because they, at least, have the motivation to change the status-quo, even if their means are small as long as they don’t effectively organize. Unfortunately, they need a clear understanding of the factors that cause our trouble and a workable vision of a better world they could bring into being. For that, they need to pay attention to the kinds of voices like I present and represent, voices marginalized and lacking resources.
But right there I see a problem. Anti-establishment voices like mine don’t make it into paying corporate media on which far too many people still exclusively rely for their perception of reality and whose purpose it is to strengthen the establishment’s false narratives. We are left to prowl the fringes, and the volunteer labor we do there can carry our public discourse only so far. So, is there any hope? I don’t know. For now, I only have my resolve. And for those fellow citizens who want to make a difference, but can’t write or video-blog themselves, and for whom merely sharing articles like this one with their friends isn’t enough, I recently joined others like me and created a Patreon account, a crowd-funding tool normally intended for artists and their fans. It would be nice if Patreon could become that missing weapon in our fight for a better future: a funding source for alternative voices. However, I doubt it will. Knowing that my reach is too small, I don’t really expect donations to come in from such a crowd-funding source, especially no significant amounts such as could free a guy like me from the treadmills and let me focus on writing; but – heck – if you are like me and don’t want to go down without a fight, and you understand that spreading comprehension and ideas is vital to improve our world, and you know that this part of our fight isn’t getting any funding unlike our many political candidates, then you can now contribute to getting our voices out. That’s why I created that account. Should a donation ever come in from there, it will serve as an indication that my reach is growing, and that my writings are appreciated; and thus it may encourage me to keep marching on, at least a bit longer. In this fashion, even a small donation to a raving misfit on a soapbox like me could make a difference in our world, especially if my theory should ever prove itself true that my efforts could be worth all my struggle if ONE good idea ever gets from my pen to ONE special reader with whom things then move up to the next level. Ultimately, then, it is that weird spark of hope that refuses to die while we still breathe, that is behind the stubborn continuation of my political writing. Is that what keeps an ant digging upwards?