Dying and Working in Despair
For them, recalling the past and looking toward the future were both burdens, and since they were powerless to do anything about the present, their only option was to live out their waning years without thinking about anything in this unusual era — Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest
Allow me to explore some remaining questions and make some preluding comments before entering the final part of this book.
What did we get out of this past? Did the conquest and colonization of others, the dreams imagined by people like Kume Kunitake and Abraham Lincoln really bring peace and order? Will the continuation of technological and economic progress solve more of our problems as Turgot imagined?
Most importantly, is the modern cultural story of death denial and transcendence working well? Or are we still the conscious blobs of flesh terrified at the face of our own mortality, trying to run and deny this fact through the destruction of others?
Let’s begin to explore these questions with a short conversation I had with a person named Tammy (a pseudonym). Through her story and experience, we will explore how our recent and modern cultural story is functioning to provide people with meaning and purpose.
TAMMY: AN INTERVIEW
It was a typical cold Michigan morning in the closing days of November. We stood in front of a glass window that gave a full view of the flurrying snow, with a hot cup of overly bitter coffee in hand. She slowly said:
You know, I used to love this snow. It always made me feel so good to be inside. To be warm. But now it’s really, really cold — maybe I’m just getting a little too old.
That’s Tammy, a pseudonym she chose herself. I asked her why she chose that name:
Oh, it’s because I just love Tammy Wynette. Why not be someone I admire? At least for this interview!
She softly giggled and sipped some of her coffee. It’s odd how you can stumble into a conversation with someone that will change your view on almost everything you thought you knew. This was the case with Tammy.
Tammy is in her 60s. She dips slightly to her right as she walks, with carefully curled hair at the edges. Extremely soft-spoken, like the snow that gently lands at the edge of your glass window, but each word holds a weight of all her life experience. Tammy is not originally from Michigan and moved around the country from a young age following her parents as they hopped from job to job. Her life would remain the same, a “nomadic life” as she put it, after her marriage with her late husband. She was well-educated and worked as a nurse for most of her life. But her husband was not.
He was just like my father, and maybe that’s what made him so attractive to me. He cared about me and his friends. He worked hard, I can tell you that, but school wasn’t for him.
She stops, giving me a slight grin.
But it changed slowly. He just couldn’t see the world the same way anymore.
Tammy was telling me about how hard it was for her husband to find new jobs without an education. He was let go constantly, and “didn’t let his pride stoop low enough to apply to a fast-food restaurant.”
He always drank occasionally. Would go out with a group of friends, and I’d sometimes tag along. But he started to drink alone. I never noticed it, only now do I see how odd that was for a person like him. I was working for the house, you know, busy.
The edges of her mouth stiffened. Almost as if the words that conjured up in her mind were too big, and she was struggling to push them out.
And just like that. He took his life. He just didn’t know what do to anymore. He didn’t know who he was.
Tammy looked up to me, as I stood there without knowing what to say.
You know, we whites have it hard too. It doesn’t sound right but it really is. People like him don’t have a place to be.
DEATHS OF DESPAIR
In 2015, Dr. Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a study titled “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century.” The paper and the subsequent studies conducted by the two economists startled the public. Case and Deaton first found that mortality and morbidity among middle-aged white men and women in the United States had increased from 1999 to 2013. This rise in deaths and disease wasn’t seen among their black or hispanic counterparts, making it a distinct phenomena for white middle-aged adults. They found that the “increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis (1)”; especially for those who did not receive a college degree.
These deaths were later termed “deaths of despair,” as these deaths came from a startling increase in white Americans who suffer from chronic pain, deterioration of community, unstable finances, declining mental health, and resorting to alcohol, drugs, and suicide. These ‘deaths of despair’ have contributed significantly to the decline in the life expectancy of Americans in the past few years, causing alarm across the globe.
More recently, the two Princeton economists followed up this study with a book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, to try and understand why this was happening in more detail. Here, Case and Deaton explore the various possible explanations to the rise of deaths and decrease in the quality of life for many white Americans without a college degree. Was it the over-production and prescription of drugs (specifically opioids)? Although the rise in overdoses and drug dependence is striking, they conclude that they did not “create the conditions for despair”. The authors further look into the problems of obesity, poverty, and income inequality, only to find that these are problems seen across the board – from varying age, educational background, and race. So then what did they find?
Case and Deaton point to jobs. They found that where joblessness increases, the “deaths of despair” follow. Suicide, overdose, alcohol-related disease, and deaths all increase as the jobs grow scarce. As Dr. Atul Gawande wrote in his commentary on the book for the New Yorker:
The earnings advantage for those with college degrees soared. Anti-discrimination measures improved earnings and job prospects for black and Hispanic Americans. Though their earnings still lag behind those of the white working class, life for this generation of people of color is better than it was for the last.
Not so for whites without a college education. Among the men, median wages have not only flattened; they have declined since 1979. The work that the less educated can find isn’t as stable: hours are more uncertain, and job duration is shorter. Employment is more likely to take the form of gig work, temporary contracting, or day labor, and is less likely to come with benefits like health insurance.
Here, it’s useful to turn to Epstein’s formulation of what is “normal” again. Things were getting better for white Americans for most of the history of the nation. The cultural story told them to become a self-made man, free from all the shackles of the world, and to prosper. The abolition of slavery signified hope for the uneducated, middle class; telling them to now go claim the newly acquired land without fearing the monopoly slaveowners could have. The reintegration of black students into their schools re-enforced the idea that their teachers, system, and thinking was better. But now, this hero system was failing them – they could no longer be the self-made hero through work alone. They see people who don’t look like them gaining benefits and becoming the president of the nation. The communities that they constructed around their industrial jobs were being torn down and sent to 3rd world nations. Church and Union membership – the backbone for many middle-class Americans – were on the decline. The situation they face is an extreme opprobrium expansion, where things are supposed to be great, but it just keeps getting worse.
To add insult to injury, Case and Deaton point out, that the United States is providing lethal ways in which these Americans cope with their despair. The easily accessible firearms account for more than 50% of suicide, and the abundance of opioids and alcohol provide quick means to deal with their despair. The authors write:
Suicide happens when society fails to provide some of its members with the framework within which they can live dignified and meaningful lives.
Since the inception of this country, work had been at the center of its hero system, as Weber pointed out in his famous study of the Protestant Ethic. However, gradually, it has become impossible for many people to buy into this illusion of reality. They lose their jobs, can’t make a living on their own, and to make matters worse, other people seem to be able to make things work.
Here, we can broadly categorize how people respond to this reality under two umbrellas. They either become very aggressive – which is much more vividly seen within our media networks – or they become hopeless.
The first response is what we’ve largely observed throughout this book. Napoleon needs to go into another war, the French need to minimize the Americans, the Japanese need to “secure” their borders, and so on and so forth. What we see throughout all of this is what TMT teaches us: when someone or some group’s hero system, ideology, illusion – whatever we wish to call it – is challenged, they tend to revert back and adhere even more strongly to their original ideology. This can explain the huge polarization of political opinion here in the United States, where both radical sides continue to retreat into their own ideology and lash out against the other.
On the other hand – as Case and Deaton importantly point out – many are hopeless. Their ideology can no longer buffer them from their reality, creating a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol, and self-destructive behavior in trying to numb and mitigate these feelings. This behavior is corroborated in TMT studies, where people drink or smoke more when exposed to thoughts of death. To borrow the words from Tammy once again:
[They] just couldn’t see the world the same way anymore.
In such ways, the system that was created for the white man, “to find a new home and better their condition,” is failing them. Not on the backs of slaves that work on their plantation, but on cheap labor in factories both here in the United States and abroad. Abraham Lincoln’s painstaking efforts to create a situation where white men hire other white men is failing, as white men would much rather hire cheap labor from Mexico or Indonesia, leaving these hopeless people to “deaths of despair.”
Jobs as Death and Meaning
But are things better for other people with jobs? Even for those who are able to find jobs, it is often at the cost of the little remaining freedom in this super hierarchical world we are born into. In an incredible online piece by Chris Bertram, a professor of social and political philosophy, he comments on this signing away of freedom in the work place. He breaks down this “unfreedom” into three categories:
- Abridgments of freedom inside the workplace. Such as being unable to go to the restroom, forced to wear what the employers want, fired for joining a union, and many more.
- Abridgments of freedom outside the workplace. This comes in the form of monitoring social media activity (dictating what to post or not), not allowing an abortion, or controlling how much the employee drinks outside of work.
- Use of sanctions inside the workplace as a supplement to — or substitute for — political repression by the state. Simply put, the workplace becomes a place for political repression, alleviating the need for the government to intervene or control the crowd. For example, in the McCarthy era of the United States, you may have gotten fired for just seeming like a communist. Or today, where people get fired for having certain beliefs about sexuality or race, no matter how “liberal” the reason for firing may be.
People today can literally be fired for almost any imaginable reason. Here is a list compiled by scholar Corey Robin:
Not smiling at work, smiling too much; not being friendly to my coworkers, being too friendly; demonstrating insufficient initiative, not being a team player; kowtowing to management, being insubordinate; being a leader, being a follower; braiding my hair in corn rows, wearing it straight; wearing long pants, wearing short pants; sporting an earring, refusing to do so; having a beard, shaving it off; fingernails too long, fingernails too short.
What happens if one simply revolts and gets fired? Even if they knew how to hunt or forage, the very land in which they must live on is owned by somebody or institution. Moreover, the water, food, shelter, and medicine we rely upon to maintain our lives are all products of a complex global system that is managed by fewer and fewer people. And without the bargaining power provided by the means of money, their life may be more miserable in the end.
To compound onto this literal reliance on money provided through freedom restricting jobs to survive, our jobs and money have become synonymous with who we are. We are our jobs, and our intrinsic and extrinsic value are seen in terms of the money we make and spend. People feel a sense of belonging through what they buy, how much they earn, or what they do. A vast array of studies show that people who live in consumeristic societies can literally buffer their death anxiety through buying more things or thinking of accumulating more money. And why shouldn’t it? It’s quite logical if you think about it.
Money provide us with the two things Ernest Becker argued humans need: survival and meaning beyond death. Money buys us food, shelter, and water, checking off the list our first and fundamental need. Then money and things can provide us with a sense of meaning and belonging. Through money we not only buy our needs, but express who we are.
We express our commitment to a particular religion or partner with the bargaining power of money. Through donations or “buying local goods” we can embody a particular identity and feel a sense of belonging within a certain group. People may say that money is only a means to the goal, but the problem is that money has become the only means to attaining our goals. To attend university, go on your dream trip, help the world, and many more, our best tools has succumb to the format of money. And how do you earn this money? By signing away your freedom and succumb to the restrictive rules of the workplace.
This is our modern cultural story: to work, accumulate wealth by giving up on many freedoms, and consume whatever we are told or believe that will provide us with meaning. Or as aptly expressed in the drama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”:
The human animal is a beast that dies and if he's got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life ever-lasting (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Williams, 1955/1985, as quoted in Arndt et al. 2014:203).
But is this story really working? Mental health continues to decline, the deaths of despair still remain rampant, and the gap between the have’s and have-not’s continue to skyrocket (literally and symbolically). Our life span increase only so that we can spend more time cooped up working long hours, only to finally to end our lives tubed and drugged up in the hospital.
Terror Management scholars suggest that we must judge a cultural story based on how well it mitigates the fear of death and provides meaning to our lives, while minimizing the negative effect it poses to neighboring cultures and future generations. Historically since the dawn of agriculture, and as seen in the preceding chapters, our cultural stories have relied upon conquering our own people and others. This can be done by derogating, assimilating, or annihilating all others. Even after this worldview was spread across the globe with colonial activities and transnational corporations that exploit cheap labor, it still does not satisfy the above formulation of an ideal worldview. Our mental and physical health continues to deteriorate, while our everyday activities made possible by exploiting foreign labor and compromising the livelihood of the future generation of homo sapiens.
The ultimate irony is that this cultural story is also failing those who are supposed to benefit from it most. As seen in the deteriorating situation for white people who Abraham Lincoln so staunchly fought for, it is also failing our modern elite who seem to have it all.
In a chilling article written by Dr. Douglas Rushkoff, he recounts some conversations he had with a group of men we can call “the global elite”. He had been invited to speak at a “super-deluxe private resort” about the broad subject of the “future of technology.” Unlike his expectation of a Ted Talk-like atmosphere, he was simply seated at a roundtable with 5 of the most wealthy and powerful men in the modern world. He quickly realized that “they had no interest in the information I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own.” Dr. Rushkoff summarizes their interest and obsession in one simple word: Escape. He writes:
Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion.
Let me remind you, these are people funding our research in medicine, government, schools, housing, environment, international relations, and more. But before you are quick to judge them, let us take a step back and observe what is going on. Our global cultural story is centered around the accumulation of wealth, capital, and prestige – all of these people have that. We mirror our lives to their standard and also adhere to this worldview. Yet, they are not able to deal with the fear of death. They pay tens of thousands of dollars for people like Dr. Rushkoff to comfort them that their worldview will in fact save them from death.
Again, our modern hero system is failing us and more consequentially, our elite. The world is constantly threatening their worldview – climate change, pandemics, technological failure, crashing markets, and more – so what do they do? Retreat even further into that worldview. They pour in more money to buy that extra ticket to “heaven” as an indulgence for the heaven of capitalism, technology, and medicine to protect themselves from the terror of death. Yet, to what end?
The story of Tammy is the story of many others like her and her husband. Their cultural story offers no place nor hope for uneducated, middle to old age people who’s skill and knowledge can no longer make the most amount of money. They are stuck at home, at the bar, or in the hospital bed slowly or abruptly dying in despair.
Suicide is a riddle, as Freud once put it somewhere. We have attempted to understand it for years and puzzled over the psychological, sociological, and cultural dimensions of this act. Suicidologists (people who study suicide) have identified two interpersonal constructs that often push people to suicide or suicidal behavior: thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness (Van Order et al 2010:2). It is not hard to imagine that Tammy’s husband — and thousands more like him — felt as if he did not belong and was a burden to those around him.
Yet our modern story does not seem any better for those who have a job (which can provide a place to belong and role within society). As discussed above, the necessity of making money coerce people into signing away their remaining freedom, from which they can be fired for any conceivable reason.
Our elites and superstars — the so called “geniuses” Turgot wanted to bolster up — are no better. They reiterate the famous quote from Françoise Sagan, “money may not buy happiness, but I’d rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus,” yet they are still crying and in denial.
The irony is that this exploitative, consumerist, and fundamentally hierarchical cultural story is not only failing those who most strongly adhere to it, but may very well lead to our collective and total death. Before we dive into this possibility of extinction — which will be the focus of the next chapter — let’s return to Tammy to end this chapter.
Tammy and I first began our discussion when she asked me what I was interested in researching after she heard that I was applying to graduate schools. I responded that I was interested in learning about suicide and suicide ideation among marginalized communities; with a focus on Indigenous and diaspora groups. To my surprise, she responded by saying, “you know, white people do that too. But no one seems to care.”
Slowly, we got to know each other. We shared our background, our story, and found what we have in common. We explored what we disagreed on, and how we both enjoyed our coffee without milk or sugar. Towards the end of one of our conversations, I asked what her favorite song was by Tammy Wynette, as I’ve never heard of her before. She quickly said:
Til I Can Make It On My Own. You know, I was never fond of Tammy Wynette until my husband passed. I was always a pop girl.
She giggled as she reminisced.
But there’s something about the way her songs speak to my heart now.
I encourage you to go listen to the song now. If it doesn’t bring you to tears, I don’t know what will.