Human attention is valuable. There are innumerable things happening around us every moment, without letup. Yet wondrously, we are able sift through the chaos and devote our working focus to things that help us, and leave the rest of the teeming world to our peripheral vision.
Valuing serial distractions over unbroken commitment, we reap the whirlwind, as our children, detached from the wholeness that sustained their parents and grandparents, blow away in the hurricane wind of our narcissism.
Education teaches us the patterns of things, enabling us to better judge where focus is needed. We gain competence and confidence in our understanding of how things work, leaving us free to increase knowledge by turning back to things we overlooked before. For the universe was never diminished simply because we didn’t pay it attention. Our models reduce its complexity only for specific purposes. When I need to drive my car, I can’t pay much attention to the motion of the leaves of tree as the wind ruffles them. When I am painting the trees, I do not pay attention to the cars on the road nearby. When I fall in love, I have a hard time paying attention to anything else.
What has happened to our attention as we have fallen in love with our electronic information culture? Amazing, isn’t it? And literally so.
The better a maze is, the more difficult it is to keep our direction clear. And we have never known a maze of our own device that has been better than this.
Thursday’s Wall Street Journal’s front page confirmed the stark reality of just how much we have gotten lost when it comes to something that really matters — the life-or-death matter of health itself. And more specifically, the life-or-death danger to those who need our protective attention most, and who are our most serious responsibility: our children.
“Young Americans Are Dying At Alarming Rates,” reads the headline. As we have been amazed, distracted, and misled, we have let a health disaster happen in our country.
A graph on the front page in the Journal, right next to the article, shows how drug overdose deaths, which were around 70,000 (yes, 70,000) in 2019 reached just shy of 110,000 for the year 2022. It was the second year in a row with such deaths over 100,000.
Drug overdoses are only a part of the larger picture of decreasing health that has reversed the trend that began after World War II of steady and dramatic improvements in health and longevity, driven not only by spectacular medical advances and better nutrition but also by increasing safety in everything from automobiles to smoke detectors in homes to the good results of widespread water safety education.
Much of the increase in health in these years was shown by youth, as infant deaths decreased steadily and as older children were now immunized from polio, whooping cough, and other infectious diseases. And today, the decrease in health is led by youth as well. Suicide rates among teenagers began increasing in 2007; homicide deaths among them began their steady increase in 2013. A sudden spike in transportation-caused death among teens began in 2019; the same with death by poisoning (overdosing). Once started, all these trends have continued to rise, with suicide alone showing a temporary dip but which has since resumed its climb.
Where has our attention been while this has been happening? Why has it taken so long to get front-page traction in such a major source as WSJ? Certainly, we have been distracted. Certainly, we have been misled.
For from February 2020 onward, those who had effective control over the media that serve as today’s public space enforced a maniacal narrowing of our entire societal attention. Only one problem demanded our attention — COVID — and every other concern was taken off the table, forcibly. Ask the recovering addicts who could not meet in their church in California. Ask the people whose beloved family members died alone and comfortless. Ask the scientists and physicians whose reputations and livelihoods were shredded because they proposed that the shutdowns and the isolation and the elimination of reasoned scientific debate were bringing damage that probably was worse than what they were supposedly alleviating.
And ask the children. By the spring of 2020, we had decisive evidence that children’s danger from COVID was minimal, comparable to diseases that they face every year that we addressed without severe countermeasures. But our leadership decided that the kids might increase the adults’ risk. And therefore, we chose to destroy the fabric of our children’s lives, not for their sake, but for the sake of their parents. We used our children as human shields. We made ourselves safe without caring too much about what it would do to them.
At least, cowardice is understandable as a response to a danger. But it was becoming clear as we went through 2020 that there was no real increased danger to adults from schools being open. Evidence was suggesting that the danger to adults from schools that opened up (as in some states and as in Sweden) was not significantly greater than the places that we were beginning to allow open, such as stores. But we were in the maze, in the funhouse, and we had lost direction.
Somehow, we have stumbled out of the maze. Such a story as this would not have appeared in any major outlet two years ago. Free of the maze, our attention is slowly being turned back to the most urgent of concerns. The Journal story bears witness:
Though Covid-19 itself wasn’t a major cause of death for young people, researchers say social disruption caused by the pandemic exacerbated problems, including worsening anxiety and depression.
Note the lingering effect of the Great Misdirection — the pandemic caused the social disruption, says this article, not those in power who chose, as Jay Bhattacharya points out, to abandon the accumulated best practices learned in public health in favor of the totalitarian model of complete shutdown that was being brutally enforced by the communist leadership in China. No, the pandemic didn’t do that. We did. It was a choice, our choice, and a bad choice.
Yet aside from a point or two, the sustained focus this article brings to the damage, the affective portrayal of its victims, and the prominent placement of the article are all promising. The article’s author, Janet Adamy, puts it in plain English:
School closures, canceled sports and youth activities and limitations on in-person socializing all worsened a burgeoning mental-health epidemic among young people in the U.S. Social media … has helped fuel it by replacing successful relationships with a craving for online social attention that leaves young people unfulfilled, and exposes them to sites that glamorize unhealthy behaviors such as eating disorders and cutting themselves.
Well, with “cutting themselves,” it does depart from the plain English standard. Perhaps in another year they might talk plainly about what exactly is the most well-known unhealthy cutting behavior. How ironic that the author who brought us the character whose name must not be said has had the courage to name plainly the exact kind of unhealthy behavior that is rendering our children, variously, permanently infertile or incapable of sexual pleasure, or both. Bless you, Ms. Rowling.
On that front, too, there are the adults using the youth as their human shields.
And while we’re at it, let’s borrow a few more trillion and stick the bill on our children and grandchildren. We’re emulating Groucho Marx in Night at the Opera, who on getting the check in the restaurant, exclaims, “This is an outrage!” then hands it to his date, saying to her, “If I were you, I wouldn’t pay it!”
In the movie, it’s funny. In the real world, a lot of kids aren’t laughing. Not because all or most of them know all the political, medical, or cultural details. But in the brokenness of a world in which everything is ephemeral, the ones who are broken first are the ones who should be sheltered by our own responsible commitment. Valuing serial distractions over unbroken commitment, we reap the whirlwind, as our children, detached from the wholeness that sustained their parents and grandparents, blow away in the hurricane wind of our narcissism.
Turn away from the funhouse mirrors. Regain the wholeness of the vision. Return to that which is both deepest and highest. Regain our past and our future, together. We can. We must.