“Life in these United States”

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

“Life in these United States” used to be a humorous column in Reader’s Digest. Now life in this country is as hysterical as those old jokes in what was the world’s most successful magazine; only it’s not hysterically funny, it’s just hysterical, in the sense of its consistent level of intense hyperbole and emotional excess.

According to much of the news of the day – politics and pythons, education, epidemics and the economy, sports and lettuce, mosquitoes and weather, health care and drugs both legal and illegal, old age and old bridges – life’s a problem. Nothing works, everybody’s belligerent, government’s a bureaucracy of the inept, some of them elected by us; Wall Street’s stealing us blind and teachers can’t take it anymore.

Is it any wonder a few loud-talking politicians can so easily convince us that we’re going down? That they can convince the same people that they, the pols, are the ones to fix it all seems like an oxymoron. But we are human, which means we don’t necessarily act – or vote – in our own best interests; and we’re very good at holding two opposing views in our minds at one time. For example, insisting on lower taxes while at the same time expecting bridges not to fall down even though they need tax money to hold them up.

The U.S. used to be called the melting pot; now, all the people who jumped in the pot to meld are rising up out of the stew claiming to be the most important ingredient. We’re not so interested in melding as we are in broadcasting our grudges.

When we’re angry anybody can take advantage of us. The pols jump on our weaknesses, on our prejudices and on our idea that life should be fair. The men and women who are so full of hubris that they know for sure they can and should be president are also good at using our fears to exploit us. In our form of government, we have to elect somebody, whatever our fears, so it’s a little scary when we have such a big number of bad choices, some of whom outright lie and others who just bombast their way through stump speeches.

Our founding fathers had their weaknesses. They weren’t perfect. But in comparison to today’s angry line-up of presidential candidates, they appear downright well-behaved. They tried to talk over one another and be the biggest voice in the room – human nature, you know; but they were at least well spoken when they yelled.

We like to think they thought of the country and of the people in it, but no doubt their willingness to compromise was self-serving at times. They all had a problem or two – personality quirks, bad habits and moral challenges like dueling and owning slaves . . . and it was their friends writing their biographies, so perhaps a foible here and there escaped the final edition.

But these guys were head and shoulders above this year’s lot or we wouldn’t be living in a democratic republic; for all its oft-mentioned mistakes and dishonesty it remains the best thing we’ve thought up yet to govern us.

Right now, our country is divided and there is no compromise in sight – Republicans want fewer taxes and less government, Dems want government to help everybody, Libertarians want no government. William Butler Yeats wrote a poem called “The Second Coming” in which a couple of his lines describe us well: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Ain’t it the truth. But yet another wrinkle: we all think we are the best, and the rest of you folks are the worst.

Yeats wrote his poem in 1919, when the world was stuck with the chaos left over from the First World War, also known as the war to end all wars, which we now know was wishful thinking. It was a time of changing values and dumping of old ways. Women’s clothing was suddenly short, skimpy and thin, so different from the voluminous cover-up of former centuries. Women smoked and men fell in love with cars they way they’d once loved horses. There was a wildness in the air and cynicism reigned.

It’s like now. So much has changed and is changing us – cell phones and the Internet, green hair and nose rings, gay marriage, no marriage, exchanging genders. We might be traveling to the Mars soon or blowing our lives to hell at any minute . . . and we know way too much about things we can do nothing about. Turmoil’s in the air all over the planet, and we’re too jittery about life in these United States to laugh at ourselves.

It’s not easy to laugh at ourselves in the best of times. In the worst of times we accuse one another of our troubles; and in a country with more guns than sense, we tend to shoot before we talk. We need a little more Steven Colbert and a lot less breaking news. Too much information is just too much information.

You know as well as I do the things we do to distract ourselves – TV, Facebook, shopping. Or things we can do to forget – drugs, booze, TV. Or to mend – meditation, prayer, nature, volunteering.

Yeat’s poem says “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Well, yes, that’s how it is. Again. But we’ve been here before, the human race, and we keep on keeping on. We regain our compass and move in directions less harmful, we hope. Or we’re in some endless downward spiral. Or we’re on the cusp of maturing as a species (novel idea). Or this is simply the way life was, is and always will be.

We look at the past as if at some rosy snapshot when in fact then and now overflow with the best of times and the worst of times. And there are those other times when I just gotta laugh. Living in these United, it helps to think like illustrator Mary Engelbreit — “life is just a chair of bowlies.”

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