Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Disease of The Soul (For publication 3/12/2010)

They are called “malady maps” – maps of the United States that use shading to illustrate the prevalence by state of crime, disease, natural disasters and afflictions of every type. They are human misery measured in degrees of blackness, with pure black signifying the most afflicted. And, for a bewildering litany of maladies, black is the color of that little armless frog that represents West Virginia.

Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, drug use (pain killers primarily), tobacco consumption and, yes, tooth loss are conditions for which West Virginia is a national leader. Among the fifty states and the District of Columbia we rank 46th in life expectancy, five years behind Hawaii. Imagine that. Five extra years, living in Hawaii. Some people definitely have it better.

And it’s not as though the brevity of our lives is compensated for by their quality. According to the Census Bureau West Virginians between the ages of 22 and 64 are the most likely in the nation to be disabled and the margin of our lead over second-place Mississippi is a staggering four percentage points.

In one sense it’s not surprising that a state with a high prevalence for any one of these medical conditions should also rank highly for the others since many of them are biologically related. But they bear one other distressing relationship. They are all in varying degrees conditions of choice -- conditions whose presence or severity is caused or exacerbated by the ways in which we choose to live.

I say this as a matter of fact – not to scold or nag any more than we scold or nag family members and friends even as we watch them contribute to their own destruction. Of course, we worry about them and sometimes may even risk a comment. But, most of the time we watch in respectful silence accepting “Dad” for who he is, reasoning that he knows the implications of his actions and it’s his life to live . . . or not live, as he chooses.

Still, we must ask why we West Virginians are demonstrably less interested in living than other Americans.

Demographic factors partially explain the phenomenon. Our population is the oldest in the nation, a situation attributable to a decades-long exodus of young adults – and not just any young adults. We lose those who seek educational and economic opportunities they cannot find here – in other words, the most enterprising, entrepreneurial, and healthy among us.

Attempts are being made to stop the exodus. A bill currently in the state Senate would try to entice college graduates to stay in state by reducing their taxes. But, this column isn’t about those who leave. They will take care of themselves. It’s about those of us who stay.

As the nation’s poorest state, any explanation of our plight must begin with the issue of poverty and what comes with poverty -- an endemic absence of aspiration or belief that we can control or significantly alter our destinies. It’s a disease called fatalism and we suffer from it prodigiously. You don’t need a survey to recognize that poverty wearies many West Virginians into surrendering to circumstances even as we anesthetize ourselves with pain killers, cigarettes, and Ho Ho’s . . . sometimes the only luxuries we can afford.

Inculcation in that barren attitude begins at a young age. At first it’s almost romantic. As teenagers an absence of expectations allows us to be easy and carefree. But, by middle age it looks more like carelessness and, by old age, it morphs imperceptibly into powerlessness and resignation – the disease of the soul.

In search of an antidote, I turned to a friend who grapples with the disease daily. She is an elementary school teacher who retains her passion after years of working with children who come from difficult circumstances.

She told me about two of her students, a boy and a girl who show promise. But, when I asked about their futures, her face darkened. So, I asked what it would take to nurture their promise. What enables some kids from challenging backgrounds to transcend their circumstances while others are consumed by them?

In answer my friend smiled wanly and suggested without much confidence that they might be aided by the presence of an adult who has hope and aspiration for them – a parent, a relative, a friend . . . herself? But, she is clearly someone who has tried many times to share her hope only to see it fail to take hold or worse, to take hold briefly and then be gradually destroyed by the corrosive drip of day to day life.

Still, she is a romantic for whom hope and aspiration are easy to expend even when they are dashed, as they regularly are, because they are richly, outrageously rewarded when they are realized. And, though poor, wouldn’t we be better and happier having had hopes that are crushed or frustrated, than to have never had them or to have never tried? Can’t we always carry hope, especially for our children?

Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Those who are looking at the stars may suffer from many maladies, but not from the disease of the soul.