I taught university level courses in sociology and criminal justice for over 30 years but now I'm retired and at 72 was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, bone marrow cancer. This site is now a chronicle of my journey with myeloma.
Way to go, Rick Mercer! I’ve been dogged by depression my whole life, but that hasn’t immobilized me and I think I get along quite well most of the time. It does make daily activities a challenge at times and it is a constant struggle. The top administrator at St. Joseph’s hospital in Comox told me a few days ago that anxiety and depression are the leading reasons for hospitalization. We often think of illness as a quality of the individual. We think of it as idiosyncratic. We acknowledge that environmental degradation can cause illness, but we seldom think that illness can have social roots. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that much illness is social in origin, ‘mental’ illness particularly so. We drive each other crazy all the time and the anxiety caused by uncertainty over mundane aspects of our lives combined with the certainty of death is a killer. I think that the incidence of mental illness, distress and anxiety is highly underreported. After all, no one wants to be labelled mentally ill. That label carries with it profound consequences as the video shows. Who wants to face the rejection and opprobrium that comes with a diagnosis of mental illness?
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about quality of life since I’ve been working on the Comox Valley Social Planning Society’s 2013 Quality of Life Report. I’m trying to whittle down the idea of quality of life to a few key concepts and I’m trying to think about the issue of quality in general. It informs how I approach my current research and writing.
I’ve come to the conclusion over the past while that quality of life can be summarized along two major continua, mobility and sociality. Mobility encompasses many forms including physical mobility or the ability to move around, from place to place. Mobility can be hampered by illness, injury or the lack of monetary means. No money, no go. Sociality is a term that refers to our need to be around other people, to be social. That need has a biological basis but is reflected in most of what we do and are in life. There are many aspects to sociality. I’ve written before about what happens when children are left alone without contact. They die at a rate 4 times what we might consider normal. The harshest punishment in Canadian prisons is solitary confinement. Solitary means no sociality and no mobility either which means in my analysis here, just about the worst condition a human can suffer. Of course there are always exceptions to every rule. There are people who shun the company of others and some who are content to sit still for days on end. And, of course there are subjective and objective dimensions to mobility and sociality. Whatever we ‘feel’ about mobility and sociality, there are social values and norms, moral codes, that determine how we should think about these things. We know that ‘idle hands do the work of the devil,’ and that warm feelings can be had with the company of family and friends. We have all kinds of ‘sayings’ that glorify mobility and sociality. Just listen for them. They’re everywhere. Even when we glorify individualism or expressions of individuality, we do it only when it conforms to social moral standards.
In fact, our whole morality is built on the glorification of mobility and sociality and the deprecation of immobility (idleness, laziness, indolence, etc.) and standing alone and away from the group (snobbishness, lone wolf, unfriendly, self-centered). Movies are based on these themes, so is music. We go to a party and are asked what we do for a living. Well, what you do for a living tells a lot about how mobile you can be. The more mobile we are, the more social prestige we are afforded. ‘Planning any trips?’ That’s another one of those questions that is aimed at getting at how mobile you might be. To put it bluntly, we afford people highest prestige points for being wealthy and healthy. There are some very primal themes at work here if you think about it.
Mobility equals life, immobility equals death. Living things move, generally and dead things don’t, at least on the face of it. In reality the situation is much more complex than that, but for now, let’s stick with the appearances of things. It’s not surprising then that we value life over death, even though one cannot exist without the other. Well, at least we often say that we value life, but that’s often conditional; there are strings attached. For instance we generally don’t eat live things so we obviously value death and dead things…we just don’t like to think of it that way. It’s not surprising, then, that we would value highly things that move…the faster the better. I could write a book about this, but for now, just a few hints at what is to come.
In terms of sociality, well, it’s pretty clear that we value collective effort, unless it’s in a union of if there’s any hint of ‘communism’ attached to it… Teams that win do so because of the collective effort, the dampening of individualism. After winning the big game, you’ll never hear the top player look into the camera and say: “Yeah, I carried this team. If it wasn’t for me we’d have lost this game!” No, no. It’s always, “Well, the team came together on this one. We’re all in this together.” We don’t like loners and we’re not too sure about hermits, either. Lots more to be said…maybe I’ll visit here a little more often. I am busy though, so don’t expect too much from me just yet.
By the way, rummaging through my papers a couple of days ago I ran across a plan I had put together for a book I intended to write some day. Still looks interesting. I’ll have to share that with you here sometime.
So, I’m back at it. Lately I’ve been reading a book called The Truth About Art: Reclaiming Quality by Patrick Doorly. Doorly refers to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig in very flattering ways. Persig’s book is all about quality and what it means. For Persig, quality is in the interface between things. It’s not a thing itself. As an aside, nowadays we’ve perverted the concept of quality to the point where quality only means ‘good’ or ‘high’ quality. Apparently poor quality doesn’t exist anymore. Now, when we speak of quality goods we always mean good quality goods. That’s pretty stupid, in my mind, but that’s the way language seems to evolve. Returning to my point, there is no question in my mind that quality exists in the interface between things. I, being a thing, can find another person, also a thing, either good or bad, of high quality, or of questionable character and quality. Quality is in the judgment I make about something even if that judgment is largely socially constructed. I may find a Mercedes of higher quality than a Toyota Tercel but ‘society’ has already made that judgment for me by reference to the price of the vehicles in question. The value of the vehicles, strangely enough, may have little to do with price. But I’ll leave that seeming contradiction for a discussion at another time, after I’ve finished reading Doorly and re-read Persig. Again, back to my story.
So, quality of life is partly an individual thing, a judgment about how a life is lived, but it’s also about the ‘price’ and ‘value’ of that life itself and how it can be lived. Life implies mobility. Dead things don’t move. The more we have ‘life’ in us, the more we move. In our world, personal, individual mobility is gotten by having money and good health, of course. No money, no mobility, no life. Poor health equals poor mobility. So, having money means to be alive and to be poor means to be immobilized and socially dead in the eyes of the majority of people in our world, including poor people themselves when they (generally) buy into the moral assumptions about quality and value that drive us in our daily lives. So, what is a high quality of life in our (moral) world? Well, it’s having some mobility and the ability to make choices the immobilized cannot make. The poor and unhealthy are essentially stuck, blocked and unable to move in the marketplace or in just plain physical terms. Being stuck/blocked is essentially the definition of guilt. Guilt here is a social concept, addressing just how well one ‘fits’ within the moral wall of the ‘community,’ large or small. In our world, being guilty is not being mobile, without wealth or health. We [as a pronoun here used in the broadest and most inclusive of terms] generally have no great sympathy for the poor or the ill. We speak sympathetically of the poor and the ill but culturally we have institutionalized suspicions that the poor are that way because they are morally weak and people who are ill have only themselves to blame or their families, who should look after ‘their’ ill because they are often responsible for whatever family illnesses there are. Never mind that most ‘poor’ people are that way not out of any moral weakness but because of circumstance, family history, and the fact that there are rich people in the world. ‘Poor’ people are as necessary to a ‘properly’ functioning society as wealthy people but we can’t let them think they are important or necessary. We need to make them feel guilty for not being wealthy. After all they are poor because they are morally weak. Let’s be clear about what it means to be morally upstanding in our world.
To be morally upstanding in our world is to be wealthy, healthy and male above everything else. If you aren’t those things, it’s your duty to give the best impression that you actually are those things. Drive a car you can’t afford, live in a house you can’t afford because you need to give others the impression that you are a morally upstanding member of society. It’s no surprise that most of our laws centre around private property. It lives at the core of our morality. But so does business entreprise, the factory-system, individualism, hard work and maleness to name a few. To test this view, just think of the things ‘we’ hold dear and the things ‘we’ loathe, fear, detest or for which we have little regard or esteem. Need I make a list? How about a couple of examples. In our world, individualism is a ruling moral force to such an extent that labour unions are scorned by many people even those who would benefit from their existence because they are collective organizations. We hold individualism to be of such importance these days that business corporations are now considered legal individuals. Even though corporations are made up of groups of people aligned together to produce a result, that is to make money, they are considered legal individuals. Unions are not considered legal individuals, rather they are thought to be evil because they contradict
the global love we have for individuality and it’s ideology, individualism. So, we live in a world circumscribed by a more or less well defined moral wall. Imagine a place, say an old English castle, surrounded by a high wall with the king’s residence in the middle and the rest of the people living in concentric circles around the middle depending on how close they are to the king in moral terms. You have to know where the poor live. Yes, right up against the wall and maybe even outside the wall. It’s no wonder we struggle so much trying to look wealthier or healthier than we are. We are constantly testing each other, trying to determine where we reside in our moral world. Go to a party where you don’t know a lot of people and the first question you will be asked is “So, what do you do (for a living)? If you say you’re retired then be expected to be asked “Planning any trips abroad? Our daily conversations are laced with attempts to determine where we stand in relation to others around us on the moral spectrum. How close to the king do you live?
So, to get back to my original concern here with quality of life, I have to say that quality of life is judged finally on where we ‘reside’ in our moral world. The closer we are to the king’s domain in our world, the better we think of our quality of life. But that’s not the end of the story. There is a social dimension to the quality of life and a responsibility we have as a community to respect all people who reside within our moral walls. The king could never keep his castle without the help of ‘his’ people. The wealthy in our world are the same. No poverty, no wealth. The wealthy need the poor, not only to make their lattés but to collect their garbage, repair their roads and cars and to buy the products they sell. The wealthy 1 percenters in our world would be lost without the buying power of the rest of us. Yet they have little or no respect for us. Well, why should they? The poor have no moral standing in our world. They deserve their lot in life, don’t they?
So, as I noted in my last post I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of quality of life. People use it in many different ways; it’s easy to establish this observation by just entering ‘quality of life’ in a Google search. It’s often associated with medical issues and how the quality of life is diminished with, say, the need for blood dialysis. That said, without dialysis, there is death. Take your pick, a reduced quality of life or death. I’m thinking most people would chose the former option although their opinions may change if they ever find themselves on dialysis. There is a dialysis centre close to where I live so it would be less of a hardship for me to attend it than for someone who lives a long way from a dialysis centre. But there are lots of other ways that medical conditions are thought to reduce the quality of life. Blindness, deafness, the loss of a limb and cancer are a few things I can think of that many people would argue reduce the quality of life. Maybe they do. I’m not entirely sure. I’ve had cancer and lost a kidney because of it but I’m not convinced that my quality of life was reduced because of it. Of course, I had a great medical plan and an understanding employer at the time. If I had been unemployed and poor 11 years ago when I was diagnosed with kidney cell cancer, things would have turned out very differently, I surmise. I have a lot of ‘cultural capital’ too. That means that with my Master’s degree and social status, I was able to access services and information that people with less education might have found difficult if not impossible to access or even know about. Knowing how to do research is a key to my quality of life, I can assure you. Poverty sucks! I was poor once and I’m still not wealthy by any means but I haven’t forgotten about the time when our children were very young and I didn’t get a teaching contract I expected. I had to go to the ‘welfare office.’ They turned us down. It was very difficult. Good thing we had (and have) a very supportive family. Family came to the rescue more than once for us in the days before I got a full-time teaching contract.
Quality of life is not a static thing. It comes and goes. Great quality of life very seldom ever lasts forever I would think, but poor quality of life resulting from poverty or ill health can be a life sentence for some.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my former students. I had thousands of students over the 36 years I was a college instructor, 29 of those at North Island College on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. I’m still in contact with a few of them. Some I know are now lawyers and doctors, probation officers and nurses. Some, in more recent times, have arrived at NIC from India and Africa, mostly Nigeria. They traveled a long way in an attempt to improve their education and consequently their quality of life and their life chances in general. A few of them have gone of to Saskatchewan to continue their studies. From Port Harcourt in Nigeria to Saskatoon. Now there’s a change of climate for you. It’s a good thing humans are so adaptable. The Nigerian students I had demonstrated a wonderful sense of determination and enthusiasm. They were game too. I took two of them to the lake here a couple of summers ago and they were able to paddle my canoe around (with an outrigger attached, mind you). They had a great time.
Other students I had came from the local area, the majority of course. Many of those have gone off to university here and there but some have gone north to work in the oil and gas fields in BC and Alberta. They’ve left the Comox Valley and Campbell River because there is very little work here that pays a decent wage. Those students of mine who stay here to work have limited choice where employment goes. I wonder if my students who found it necessary to travel away from here to work (as thousands of men and some women have done leaving the East coast maritime provinces to work in Alberta at Fort McMurray in the tar sands industry), feel that their quality of life is improved or diminished because of what they’ve done to get work. People have migrated in search of wealth and work for centuries. Is that a worse fate than staying in one place for a lifetime?
More yet to come…
So, as I engage in producing the 2013 Quality of Life report for the Comox Valley Social Planning Society I’m struck with the number of questions I have about just what quality of life means. I’ve determined that it’s not about comfort or serenity, the lack of problems or adversity, happiness or the lack of it, wealth, health, recreation, culture, fast cars, sex, food or much of anything else. It’s not even only about personal, individual feelings and circumstances. So what is it about? There are a number of organizations that have produced quality of life indices and reports. The UN is into it: (http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/). The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW)(https://uwaterloo.ca/canadian-index-wellbeing/) has determined that the quality of life in Canada is declining regardless of the fact that the Gross Domestic Product may be rising. We are obviously into contiua here. The UN rates countries on a continuum of quality of life using a large number of indicators in three categories, heath, education and living standards. The CIW uses dozens of indicators and eight domains or categories: community vitality, demographic engagement, education, environment, healthy populations, leisure and culture, living standards and time use. Some of these domains address individual dimensions of wellbeing, others how community affects personal wellbeing. The CIW is on to something here, I find. On a continuum of wretchedness to bliss, I expect that a person living on the streets of Kolkata would be at the wretchedness end of the scale while someone living in a fancy house on the beach in Comox would be on the other (blissful) end without being too categorical about it. However, the world is never as simple as it seems and I’m not a good judge of the quality of life of a person living on the streets anywhere, especially India.
To me, some self-determination is important in thinking about quality of life as is sociality. So, for me, life in a prison isolation cell would qualify as extremely wretched even though health, sanitation and food would not necessarily be issues. And there are tradeoffs. Idleness due to unemployment may adversely affect income, but there is a certain liberation in not having to go to work. Problem is, we have developed strong moral, legal and political objections to unemployment to the point where the unemployed are considered morally weak, self-indulgent, lazy and worse. So not working (for the employable) carries a stigma and the unemployed suffer opprobrium.
I suppose, for me, quality of life hinges on a number of factors including basic health, a roof over my head, access to effective sanitation, enough money to keep food on the table, clothes on my back and maybe go out the odd evening to a movie, a day in the park or on the beach, a visit to a library or an art gallery, having friends over for tea, being able to move about without too much difficulty, and community support when things go sideways. Emergency services, then, take on more importance than they might otherwise in determining quality of life. The question is, can I count on the help of others in the community if I get sick, lose my source of income, my house burns down, I get beat up on the street or bullied at work?
Of course, comparison is the foundation of quality of life studies and indices. How do I measure my wellbeing? Well, it will be good or bad in comparison to the person next to me or in the next town, city, province or country. If I have nothing to compare my life to others, the whole question of quality of life is meaningless. As for the Comox Valley, what makes this place unique in terms of quality of life? I’m not sure there is a basis for comparison with other similar sized communities on Vancouver Island.
These are just some of the thoughts I’ve been having recently on the subject of quality of life. There’s lots more…for later.