As we enter a new year, we should give thanks for overcoming the “armed hostile conflict” we just endured – another “war on Christmas.” Like the “war on drugs,” “war on cancer,” and “war on coal,” among others, this “conflict” is spurious. If there is hostility, it is more from the crass commercialism that no longer even masquerades as a celebration of the Messiah’s birth.
Armed conflict is taking place by Americans in Afghanistan, nearly 16 years after it started. In 10 months, individuals born after the conflict started will be eligible to join the armed forces. A conflict in which most Americans are not paying attention will continue, with lives lost and disrupted. Next year, faux outrage will resume about what word is used by those at the checkout counters. Meanwhile, American service members and their families will continue to sacrifice - forgotten and isolated.
The sense of individualism that once propelled responsibility has been transformed into selfishness. Society increasingly seems to take the concept of individual responsibility to the extreme of concern only for oneself. An appropriate focus on self-sustenance increasingly is replaced by self-centeredness.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul sent a message to followers in Philippi that ought to be considered by legislators, interest groups, and all of us. He wrote, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
It is difficult to accept that American society is acting in accordance with that injunction. Congress was able to pass $1.5 trillion in tax reductions, “a great Christmas gift,” but is now three months overdue in passing a budget. Nor are they able to fund more than a few months of health insurance for children.
We have a problem when life expectancy in America declined for the second year in a row. The primary reason for the decline was largely due to a 21 percent increase in drug overdoses. In 1971, President Nixon declared illegal drug use public enemy number one, launching a “war on drugs.” The current use of cannabis, amphetamines and cocaine in America is twice that of most European countries, while opioid use is about 10 times the average in Europe.
Although we live in a rich and prosperous country, our life expectancy is rather low compared to that of other countries. One factor is the suicide rate. According to the OECD, America’s suicide rate is nearly twice as high as that of most European countries. More recent studies indicate that the profession with the highest rates is the one classified as farmers.
At some point, we might collectively ask why it is that such a disproportionate percentage of Americans abuses drugs and takes their own lives. Why so many feel that the forces around them are too big to overcome. The self-centered too frequently dismiss such tragedies as personal failings.
Perhaps the failure is in individual or collective expectations, the disconnectedness of society or cultural messages. Perhaps it is some combination of the above and more. But it appears the constant pursuit of “more” is not helping.
Since 2009, the Dow Jones index has soared about 275 percent. Gross domestic product increased by about 30 percent in that same period. By such measures, our nation is rich. But during the same time frame, the median household income inched up six percent.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once observed that “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” By that measure, are we truly “wealthy?”
Next week: Charese Yanney
A Sioux City resident, Steve Warnstadt is government affairs coordinator for Western Iowa Tech Community College and a former Democratic state senator. He and his wife, Mary, are the parents of one son and one daughter.