Column: The shape of life

Column: The shape of life

Don Wooten

What shape best depicts a life span? A circle? a bell curve? A straight line won’t do it, nor one that slants either up or down. You need something that either rises and falls, or comes back to where it began.

I think most would choose a bell curve. We begin in weakness, needing help, feeding on pureed food and sleeping at odd intervals during a full day. For most of us, that’s where we wind up, coasting back into a condition that, except for sheer physical bulk, is much like infancy.

It’s not an accident that we speak of a second childhood. I think you could argue that it is also preceded by a lapse into a second adolescence. Clearly a bell curve.

I also sense a kind of circularity in life as well, most surely in my personal experience. I was born at the beginning of the Great Depression. It appears that my life will end in another one; not quite the same, possibly even more traumatic. We certainly don’t want a deliverance akin to the last one: a third, this time a nuclear-infused, world war. But ending this one may come at even greater cost.

In truth, we don’t know what to make of it all. There is no simple answer. (Correction: there are dozens of simple answers, but they never work.)

As we have formed into different societies, separated by language, ethnicity, religion, skin color, we dream of finding a universal solvent, a miraculous means of dissolving those barriers so that we might live in real peace and harmony.

That truly is a dream. We always awaken to the fact that we cling to those differences; we define ourselves by them. We fight over them. We create new ones to further narrow the spaces we occupy. This is irrational, perhaps even inane, but social insanity appears to be the engine driving our multiple social divisions.

Responding to the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the normal flow of life around the globe. Here in the U.S., we have not managed a uniform response. We have been given guidelines, but they are not rigidly enforced as they have been in other nations, both dictatorships and democracies. Are we going in circles? Or following a bell curve of rising to the occasion and then losing focus and commitment?

There is a strong streak of nonconformity — even a hint of lawlessness — in America. We are better at making rules for others than following them ourselves. And so we adjust, piecemeal, to this universal threat. Most try to follow the guidelines; others flout them.

Many were scandalized by the sight of college students clogging beaches in Florida, ignoring the six-foot rule to have their annual party. After all, covid-19 is perceived as a primary threat to old folks; surely they are immune. And so they party, return home and share what they may have picked up with family and friends.

Our president has managed to adapt, in some fashion, to the demands of the time. Deprived of his campaign rallies, he substitutes daily covid-19 briefings for them; his mythic view of health measures somewhat undercut by the presence of People Who Know Things. I’m sure he also misses the retail opportunities those campaign trips afforded him (bottled water, t-shirts, caps, etc.).

What is frustrating is Trump’s trotting out the Stafford, Defense Production and National Emergencies acts, giving the president broad powers to take action in a national crisis, then refusing to use them. What was that all about?

What is apparent is his laser-like focus on the stock market. He has pushed the U.S. treasurer to immediately pour billions into the financial sector to halt a dramatic slide into recession. That, coupled with the Fed’s actions may quiet the market, even if it can’t be propped back up to its recent record-setting levels. The focus on economics over people is unbecoming, but not surprising.

A high stock market and low unemployment are Trump’s perceived ticket to re-election, so you can understand the worry. If he loses in 2020, there is an old charge waiting for him as an unindicted co-conspirator in a case that got his partner-in-crime three years in jail. Like Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, electoral success is Trump's key to avoiding prison.

The odd aspect of it all is that the stock market goes its own way. Unless the president does something untoward — like messing with tariffs — he has as much effect on the market as on the weather. It is, by nature, a bell curve, rising and falling on the whims and shady maneuvers of major investors.

Meanwhile we the people lead our bell curve lives in the fixed circles of social change. We’re in the middle of a potentially traumatic one just now, one that may reshape everything.

Don Wooten, of Rock Island, is a longtime broadcaster and former Illinois state senator;


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