I was surprised to learn recently that the average life expectancy in the United States has declined for the third year in a row for the first time since 1916–1918, when the country was in the middle of an influenza epidemic and had just sent a generation of young men off to die in the fields of France in the First World War. What was just as surprising was the demographic most responsible for this decline: white men. Apparently, this group have been particularly hard hit by a combination of the opioid crisis and gun suicides.
I mention this only partially as a counter-balance to the concept of white privilege, which arose from an authentic desire to see the cultural and societal playing field leveled. Ideally, no one should be made to live his or life into the headwind of judicial or economic prejudice. There should be no boundary placed on anyone’s life other than their own desires, curiosity, and willingness to learn. This is so self-evident, so easy to accept in the abstract, that it seems incredible that it hasn’t been the universal guiding principle for all societies throughout all of history. And yet, obviously, it has not.
That said, the decline in life expectancy for white men should serve as a reminder that no circumstance–no job, no college degree, no marriage, no house in the suburbs, and certainly no race or gender–can inoculate anyone against despair. To believe so is to actually invite despair into your life. I say this as someone who lived with the unconscious idea that there existed a kind of mythical Oz where all my pain and trouble would at last be relieved. For me, like a lot of men I know, that Oz was professional success. The more it eluded me, the worse I felt. The road ahead grew increasingly dark, lit only by some fading, child-like notion of a happy ending.
It was a painful time, but also an invaluably instructive one. There is nothing like experience to learn the ruthless efficiency of a mind turned against itself. It’s one thing to be told you’re talentless or stupid or wasting your time, it’s another thing altogether to think it. If someone tells me I’m wasting my time they’ve only handed me a knife; to think it is to drive it in myself. Most of us will never need to be handed a knife. We’ll find one all by ourselves.
The notion that our wellbeing lies outside of our own minds is as old as prejudice itself. The two ideas are bound together like Siamese twins unaware they are connected to one another, neither going where they want, both blaming a force beyond their control for their suffering. It begins when we look in the mirror, see something we call ourselves, notice how it is not exactly like everyone else, and decide that difference matters. Meanwhile, the mind cannot be seen, cannot be touched or smelled or measured or compared, and remains the source for all our ideas, all our inspiration, and all our worst suffering.
I’m tempted when I hear someone using the term white man as a pejorative to mention how often white men kill themselves these days, but this would probably only begin a suffering competition. Oh, you think you have it bad? Well, let me tell you about my lot. This is a game we’ll all lose, victory going to the one who’s the most unhappy. Yet it’s a game we play because we don’t want to suffer, because we know no one else can see into our minds, and so no one can fully understand the pain we’ve suffered in our sovereign privacy.
And it’s also a game we sometimes play to get out own attention. It’s nice to care about another person’s suffering; it’s essential I care about my own. If I don’t care enough about my own suffering, if I am unwilling to address its source, how can I possibly expect it to be relieved? I have to care enough about myself to be honest, to see the knives I’ve wielded against myself. Fortunately, these weapons do no lasting damage once they are removed. The body might break and scar, but the mind is as forgiving as it is boundless.
When I was much younger, I sometimes imagined it would be lovely if another person could know me from the inside out, know my love and suffering as I have known it. I suppose it was part of why I became a writer. But if writing has taught me anything it’s that the best way to know another person is to know myself, that my suffering and my joy and my loneliness and my relief are the very means by which I connect to my readers–most of whom I’ll never meet, all of whom share little in common with me, other than they are human.
Which, it turns out, is enough.
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