Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Checking my despair level

The African-American linguist, Prof. John McWhorter, assembled a nice collection of quotes at the beginning of his Great Course called "Lies, Myths and Half-Truths of Language Usage".  They are quotations from various mature individuals from about the year 1 AD to the year 1990, explaining that their societies were falling into decay, becoming corrupt, losing their coherence and value.  The main evidence cited in each was the deteriorating quality of language the quoted person found in the young people of the day.  

It is possible to take any indicator of any type and use it as justification for believing anything at all.  Most of the observers, probably all of them, did not collect random samples and evaluate them using research-based criteria.  They got the impression one way or another.  They may have been right on target but other observers, other critics, might have a different impression.  It is also possible that language usage was indeed falling in quality while community health, or security or general morale was steady or rising.

One of the common pitfalls of aging is moving from seeing one's energy fall, one's skin wrinkle, one's years to live drop over to concluding that the society is falling, wrinkling, and approaching its end.  When I feel like making such a conclusion, I ask myself for especially complete evidence.  I don't to live in despair if I can help it.  It helps to ask myself how much I really know.  It is a painful question to face since I feel that at my advanced age, with all my education and reading, I ought to know quite a lot.  In truth, I don't.  Every new fact brings questions about its accuracy, its shelf life, its relations to other facts.  I really don't know very much.  So, while it is possible that the world is ending or the nation is sickening or everyone is in league with the devil, it is unlikely.  

It may be a wiser use of my time and remaining years to look for triggers of my despair and avoid.  Both the news and fiction these days are designed to excite, arouse, often incite fear.  Do you realize that volcanoes have erupted in Mexico?  We might be next.  Isn't the US Congress in the worst gridlock ever?  Slightly more subtle approaches ask instead of telling: Is the current US climate the very worst since God made the world?  Buy our issue and find out.  

When my despair level gets above ok, it is time to limit my contact with the media.  It is time for me to sit quietly in the basement or the backyard or in morning mass.  Then, I should break out the poetry, take a walk in the park, watch little children playing on the playground.  It is time to be sure I exercise sufficiently, on a bike, on a mat, at the gym, somewhere.  It is time for me move.  Dancing is good.  Yoga is good.  It is time for me to listen to Mozart or Hadyn or Handel or Chuck Berry or whoever puts your soul soaring.  And most importantly, it is time for me to plan a lunch with friends.  We may joke about how desparate our lives, nations or worlds but their fellowship mixes a healthy seasoning with my feelings and dilutes my bleak moods.

(Note: I usually write in the first person since I am not revealing anything about anybody else that way.  Some of my friends worry that I am afflicted with every malady, worry and quandary that I describe.  I'm not.)

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