A decade ago, I reflected on turning 40 —this year I turned 50. In 2010, we were recovering from the Great Recession; now there’s a pandemic.
Such calamities heighten what should be appreciation for all that we do have and enjoy, while so many neighbors are suffering. Illness, unemployment, the prospect of eviction—such threats afflict many. If we have lesser concerns, we should focus on blessings, and how we might help others.
That has been my general reaction to turning 50, after many had their lives cut short. These include prominent names, from Leila Janah to Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and local pillars like Sharon Clemons—who was among the more than 250,000 Americans killed already by COVID-19.
Classmates died prematurely from causes including an aneurysm and a severe fall. Other contemporaries died from another aneurysm and cancer. Most were parents, leaving grieving spouses and children. Other peers are enduring bouts with cancer or —in one friend’s case— a quadriplegic condition. Then there’s the older generation; many friends lost parents, if they had not already.
The public …
The last decade has seen inequality grow even more pronounced, along with political polarization. Gulfs between rich and poor, urban and rural, widened. Globalization, technological transformation, and corporate concentration increased.
Climate threats intensified, with evidence from droughts, floods, and fires in Africa, Asia, and Australia to melting in the Arctic and Antarctic, Caribbean hurricanes, and a range of such disasters on the North American continent alone. “Climate change” became a “climate emergency.”
Donald Trump moved from TV “reality show” figure to the actual White House, while white supremacism —relatively latent for some years— resurged. Yet Kamala Harris went from California attorney general to U.S. senator to vice president-elect.
We confront a “Dickensian” pandemic. The New York Times reports “The Dickensian elements of the Covid-19 economy —unemployed workers facing a cutoff in benefits even as other Americans buy houses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or more— underscore the unevenness of the recovery. Lower-paid service workers have been hit especially hard…. Even for workers who have found jobs… Some…have had to settle for paychecks that are a fraction of what they used to earn.”
… and the personal
Ten years ago, my children were ages 5 and 3; I noted the fleeting joy of their greeting me with zealous, flying leaps into my arms. Now the kids are 15 and 13. It’s still my greatest blessing to share their parenting with my wife. Other pleasures —besides material comfort not taken for granted, and calling my parents at night— include waking up healthy enough to exercise, walk the dog, work at a job with purpose.
One activity that had joined our family and community was youth basketball, which I coached on a volunteer basis— until the pandemic. The absence of youth sports, especially in cities like New Haven, compounds the strain that COVID-19 has imposed on schools (fully remote here since March) and young people. Disproportionate effects —related to race/ethnicity, social class, job category/employment status— are apparent.
Gratitude crystallizes on what matters most: family, friends, health, love. We recognize good fortune, mourn losses, hope for better years ahead.
Our vision should extend also to our communities, our nation(s), our fellow humans. Civility, at this time of particular division in the United States, should be the minimum. It would help if we could agree on truth. Let us strive toward greater magnanimity and generosity.
According to the Bible, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25) The Giving Pledge and proposed “Buffett rule” reflect related sentiments about what is right and just.
Financial success, or lack thereof, isn’t a measure of virtue. But how we grow and broaden our wealth can be. The same can be said for our health.
‘Together’ if only virtually, and the ‘helper’s high’
Friendship and fellowship are renewable resources, and need extra attention amid isolation. Even before COVID-19, loneliness was viewed as epidemic. To counter it, Dr. Vivek Murthy urges us to be “together,” given “the healing power of human connection.”
In 2020, most of us have to settle for being “together” only virtually —by voice or video, mail or email. A “hi” isn’t a handshake, let alone a hug. Still, it’s something. And if you are fortunate enough to have time or money to share: You’ll benefit others, while realizing what Allan Luks termed a “helper’s high.”
Thanks in old(er) age
Fifty may not be “old,” but it’s older. In his poem “Thanks in Old Age,” Walt Whitman expressed gratitude:
“For health, the midday sun, the impalpable air—for life, mere life,
For precious ever-lingering memories (of you my mother dear—you, father—you, brothers, sisters, friends,)
For all my days…/For shelter, wine and meat—for sweet appreciation…”
Sweet appreciation. Happy Thanksgiving.
Josiah H. Brown lives in New Haven with his family. Twitter: @JosiahBrownCT