Why we need to confront adversity
Ice dams on the roof aren't so different from the challenge of Donald Trump
No good comes from ignoring a blanket of snow on a roof — or other adversity. (Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash)
The last hint of daytime warmth had gone hours before with the midwinter sunset, and the wind whistled as it whipped hard snow around the edges of our home. Up on the roof, the temperature nearing zero, it suddenly occurred to me that my project was a bit dangerous. But back then, about 25 years ago, I wasn’t quite as cautious as I am today.
We had lived deep in the hills for a few years, in a cedar-and-glass home heated mainly by a woodstove. It had seemed comfortably snug until a leak appeared in the ceiling that frigid day. “You’ve got ice dams on your roof,” a neighbor had warned, “and if you don’t chop ’em out, that snowmelt’s gonna wind up in your living room.”
If you live in snow country, you know the problem: When a heavy snowfall is followed by a fast thaw and then plunging temperatures, a heavy layer of snow can be trapped on the roof, where it’s likely to melt from the bottom into the warm room below. (Good insulation, which our home unfortunately lacked, can protect from this scenario.) The only solution is to chip away the thick shelf of ice at the roof’s edge and then scoop off the snow – which is why I was on my roof that windswept night with an axe and a shovel, and a belated realization that I could slip and cause the woman and sleeping baby below a much greater crisis than a leaky roof.
There’s a good ending to this story: I hacked at the ice without calamity and then scooted off the roof, satisfied at finishing one of those rugged jobs that people who live in the country recognize as a cost of the rural lifestyle. We installed a layer of insulation in the spring, and I’ve strictly avoided do-it-yourself roof projects at the two homes we’ve owned since then.
It’s worth mentioning that I’m apparently more afraid of heights than most people, which might be a reason that this memory rolls around in my head with some pride at this time of year. I like recalling both the sense of adversity I felt as the icy snow pellets stung my cheeks and the warmth of the woodstove afterwards, as I realized with satisfaction, and a mug of hot chocolate offered by my wife, that I had overcome my fear to do what needed to be done.
Adversity is a feature of every life, affecting both individuals and whole societies. Certainly our nation has known adversity, including the long and nearly failed fight for its independence, the bloody turmoil of the Civil War and the economic calamity of the Great Depression, when one-fourth of the workforce couldn’t find any job.
Many Americans proudly consider resiliency an aspect of our national character, though the country likely benefited more from favorable geography than any inherent indomitable spirit: In the 1800s, it was an abundance of natural resources, isolation by oceans from potentially hostile powers and a determination to brutally suppress disparate indigenous tribes that gave rise to the United States of America as a global force, far more than anything that might have been fundamental to the character of the descendants of European settlers.
Still, the capacity to overcome adversity has long figured in our national psyche. Yet we seem now to be straining to find both the will and the way to confront truly adverse situations while at the same time manufacturing conflicts that can only induce more stress. Maybe we’ve lost the energy needed to face adversity; perhaps our resilience has been worn away by the untreated stress of a pandemic and by political chaos that has torn away the pride we’ve long felt in our stable democracy.
There are undeniably real pressures causing distress in America, though they’re far from the stressors that daily face most people in the world. Think of grieving refugees in Gaza, families facing famine in central Africa or whole communities terrorized by bloody political violence in Sudan. That’s not what worries Americans: Pew Research Center reported last summer that adult Americans considered the nation’s top problems to be, in order, inflation, health care costs, drug addiction and gun violence.1
Those likely contribute to what the American Psychological Association recently referred to as “collective trauma” that APA says is hurting American society in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The long-term stress sustained since the COVID-19 pandemic began has had a significant impact on well-being, evidenced by a significant increase in reported mental health conditions and chronic illnesses,” the APA noted in a Nov. 1 report. On a scale of one to 10, where one means little to no stress and 10 means the stress is almost intolerable, nearly a quarter of adult Americans rated their average stress between eight and 10 – up by one-fourth from before the pandemic.2
You might think, then, that the issues that matter most to a stressed-out nation would be at the top of the agenda for their elected leaders. That’s partly so: Nothing has drawn as much attention from Washington during the Biden administration as inflation, which is part of the reason prices have largely stabilized in recent months, even as the economy has grown (stocks hit an all-time high this week) and joblessness has remained low.
As to those other major issues worrying Americans, well, they aren’t what you hear about most – at least, not from candidates in the Republican primary season, nor when you track what’s drawing the attention of Congress. Confronting those issues would require politicians to display a level of bravery that most seem to have abandoned in the interest of ambition.
There is virtually no federal initiative to curb gun violence, for example – though homicides by firearms are by far higher in the U.S. than in any other high-income country – for one reason: The Republican party remains committed to allowing the easy access to firearms that is unique to this country. Absent that lack of political will to act, there would be fewer guns, and one study after another has concluded that more guns lead to more gun deaths.
Health care costs are such a voter concern that it’s an unavoidable topic for politicians, but Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential candidate, talks about it only in the context of promising, still, to repeal the Affordable Care Act – that is, Obamacare, enacted 14 years ago – which now provides health insurance for 20 million people who would otherwise have trouble affording it.
And while there’s bipartisan agreement that the addiction crisis is ripping apart families at all socio-economic levels, the attention of the House of Representatives isn’t on expanding drug treatment or reducing the supply of drugs; it’s more focused on a single recovering addict: Hunter Biden, the president’s 53-year-old son, who has struggled with addiction on an off for three decades. With the justice system already addressing his alleged minor criminal activity, there is no evidence that he deserves the harassment of the U.S. House of Representatives for his drug-induced behavior. There’s so much more that ought to draw congressional action, but it’s the partisan effort to sully the father by the son’s travails that gets attention.
Yet even as the political system largely fails to address the key issues that most concern Americans, a swirl of anxiety-inducing turmoil is being created by a growing group of politicians who clearly value ideology and careerism over integrity and honesty. Donald Trump’s hold on a majority of Republican primary voters and his bullying personal style have become enough to scare most party insiders to back his dangerous candidacy and embrace his lies. Yes, we should be fearful: Trump is open in his praise of dictators around the world and his promise that in a second White House term he would exercise expanded powers ruthlessly against his personal enemies, even if it means abandoning constitutional requirements and political norms. With the encouragement of a right-wing media ecosystem led by fact-challenged Fox News, millions of Americans have embraced Trump’s flagrant demagoguery.
It is leaving us with a nation that many of us hardly recognize – one where our democracy itself is at risk, as easy distortions draw shrugs from people who know better and cheers from the misled millions. No wonder we’re experiencing anxiety. Half of Americans look on horrified, but many of those — and I’m with you here some days, folks — are beginning to question if the fight against the Trump-addled mindset can be successful, and if the stress it creates is worth the effort.
That is, it’s growing ever harder to display resilience in the face of political adversity.
A decade ago, a team of psychologists led by a Dutch researcher set out to determine why some people were willing to confront adversity, and whether the way they approached challenges mattered in their ultimate success. Research subjects were divided into groups that either “opposed” or “coped” with a challenge. What the researchers concluded was that fighting back with an awareness of adverse conditions, rather than simply ignoring them and carrying on, was a more effective strategy – that is, that a determined pushback to adversity was both more successful and more rewarding than pretending that the challenge wasn’t present.3
Reading the research results, I was reminded of my leaking ceiling, which surely wouldn’t have benefited from my acquiescence to the ice dams forming on the edge of my roof. No wonder I felt such satisfaction from my rooftop expedition to chop ice during a fierce winter storm: It was great to feel brave in retrospect, but there’s no bravery if it’s not preceded by fear.
The resilience that we have long imagined to be an American characteristic may never be as needed as it is right now. Tempting as it is to turn away in exhaustion or in fear of what lies ahead, it’s only with full awareness of the adversity posed by the anti-democratic demagogues that we can summon the energy to overcome it. This, then, is no time to let the storms do whatever they may. The reward will be rich, friends — and I’ll serve up the hot chocolate.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Fort Myers, Fla. (Fort Myers News-Press, news-press.com)
Newark, Ohio (Newark Advocate, newarkadvocate.com)
Johnston, R.I. (Providence Journal, providence journal.com)
Fort Collins, Colo. (The Coloradoan, coloradoan.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes most Wednesdays, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Scientists: Development could wipe out panthers
Perhaps 230 panthers — or maybe as few as 120 — still exist in the wild in Florida, reports Amy Bennett Williams in the Fort Myers News-Press, but they could all be gone by 2030, and the species wiped out, if a massive development is allowed to go forward on southwestern Florida’s Gulf Coast. The 6,600-acre project of up to 10,000 homes is slated for development in a former citrus grove west of the 60,000-acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, which straddles the eastern border of Lee and Collier counties. It’s also close to Audubon’s internationally renowned Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. There also are concerns about the loss of potable water due to the developments impact on the aquifer and the potential for more wildfires. The developer insists,, “We’re doing what’s required to protect the panther.”
One man’s approach to harm reduction: bread pudding
Experts in treating substance abuse disorders have in recent years focused on harm reduction — the notion of combating the stigmatization of those who are afflicted with addiction, especially in the homeless population. In Newark, a small county seat city east of Columbus, retiree Jerry Griffin has for three years done his part for the unhoused people in his community by making huge trays of tasty bread pudding every Saturday morning. Griffin’s story was told in the Newark Advocate by Ellie Owen of TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s journalism program. Griffin is joined by two other members of the United Church of Granville — one who bakes muffins, the other a corn casserole — that they have provided consistently for years to a shelter for unhoused people. Since people who live on the street typically eat processed food, the human touch is welcome, an organizer noted. “It’s a very routine thing,” Griffin said. “I have to conclude that I actually like to feed people.”
Battle over solar farm: The shape of things to come?
In a rural-bordering suburb of Providence, a years-long fight over a proposed massive solar installation is seen as the precursor of similar controversies elsewhere. Jim Hummel reports in The Providence Journal that after residents two years ago successfully blocked a 24-megawatt solar farm proposed for a deeply forested area in Johnston, the developer has returned with a 19-megawatt plan — which is similarly drawing ire. The community’s mayor, like his father who preceded him, supports the plan, and the town council has refused to consider a proposal to bar solar developments in the town’s residential areas. As the need for renewable energy grows, Hummel reports, fights over where wind and solar installations can be built will proliferate.
Wolves released, more on the way
Colorado’s process of re-introducing wolves into the wild is moving forward, reports Miles Blumhardt in the Fort Collins Coloradoan. Ten gray wolves captured in northeast Oregon were released last month, and now the state has located 15 more wolves in Washington that will be part of the process in months to come. Experts note that wolves rarely attack humans, and that their presence stimulates a more healthy ecosystem. The process of wolf re-introduction in states where they have gone missing for decades has been opposed by ranchers, but the state of Colorado has set aside funds to pay when when wolves “depredate” on livestock.
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