Frozen in Place

There’s never been a time when the contrast between my personal life and the state of the world felt greater.

In my youth there wasn’t much contrast: I felt bad about both.

But around forty I began to learn gratitude, realizing that life is indeed unfair, but in my favor. These days I feel even more fortunate; retirement with decent health and enough income to meet basic needs is the closest thing to true freedom I’ve ever experienced. I wake up when I want (no minor perk for an inveterate late-to-riser). I wear my genuine face instead of the constant smiley face demanded by our extroverted culture. I focus on my own priorities instead of those assigned by teachers or bosses. I exercise as long as I want instead of fitting it in when I can. And if I go to bed late or have trouble sleeping, I can nap the next afternoon.

Which is why, now that we’re both retired and The Fabulous Wife feels equally grateful, we often turn to each other and ask, “Who’s got it better than we do?”

Meanwhile, the state of the world has gone the other way. In just the last three years we’ve endured the worst pandemic in a century, a vicious European land war that threatens to go nuclear, and global economic volatility. The grave long-term risks of climate change, wealth inequality, and loss of personal privacy remain under-addressed. Nor are we taking steps to minimize the existential risks emerging from developments in artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

We might stand a chance against these short-term, long-term, and emerging risks under responsive liberal democracy — the least bad form of government — but much of the world is run by deluded, dogmatic, proudly anti-intellectual authoritarians. And we in the US are heading there too. Although we focus on the January 6, 2021 attack on Congress, which was repulsed, the right-wing coup did not end there, and in the next few years the Republicans are likely to consolidate power and realize their dream of devolving the first nation built on Enlightenment values into just another Hungary — or Russia.

Well-meaning friends have told me there’s no point worrying about the outside world because we can’t control it. I agree we can’t control it. But while acknowledging that a natural cause (or impatient Berkeley driver) could strike me down anytime, it’s possible I have fifteen vital years left, maybe more, and I want those years to be as wonderful as the last few have been. All but inevitably during that stretch, though, the state of the world is going to mess with my life in a nasty way. If I wait until that moment to worry, it will be too late. (Risk Management 101: if the risk is high and the consequences severe, the time to take preventive or mitigating steps is yesterday.)

There are only three broad responses to mushrooming worldly risk: fight, flee, or freeze.

I’ve never been much of a fighter. I’ve held a gun but have never fired one, and I was in a fistfight only once, as a teenager, and it ended in a draw after thirty seconds. I suppose I could do battle using words, but only a moron goes into a knife fight with sharp sentences.

Fleeing is a possibility, but what part of the world is exempt from pandemics, climate change, or authoritarian takeover? Even if I were to find such a place, I’d spend the rest of my life lost in an unfamiliar culture, far from almost everything I’ve known. I’d try to frame the emigration as an adventure, but at my age the reality would more likely be a bitter and disorienting exile.

So for now the plan, such as it is, is to freeze. I may regret that in a few years, but I figure that whatever befalls from these short- and long-term risks and the kakistocracy that, as reality ever-more-implacably defies its will, looks not for solutions but scapegoats, I’ll at least be home, in my happy place, with friends and neighbors close by to share the challenge.

The ocean liner Pennsylvania in the early 1900s.
The Hamburg American ocean liner SS Pennsylvania, on which my grandfather immigrated to the United States as an 18 year-old. Relocation can be hard even when you’re young: family lore has it that my grandfather Europeanized my native-born grandmother more than she Americanized him.

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Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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Andy Goldblatt

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.