Going to leave this brokedown palace, on my hands and my knees I will roll, roll, roll.
By The Deadhead Cyclist
The motifs of life and death are omnipresent in the poetry, the experience, and even the name of the Grateful Dead. It could easily be argued that the singularly honest way these themes are addressed across the Dead’s repertoire is the straw that stirs the multifaceted cocktail of Deadheads’ passion for their favorite band. Invariably presented in perfect yin/yang-like balance, the comedic and tragic duality of the human experience is at the forefront of tunes like Black Peter, Sugaree, To Lay Me Down, Brown Eyed Women, China Doll, and so many others. But perhaps the best example – and one that illustrates the troubled times we live in at the historic moment these words are being written – is the mixed deadaphor of Brokedown Palace. T.W.I.G.D.H. features the 11/22/85 show from Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, which opens with the equally life-death balanced Hell in a Bucket, and closes with Brokedown Palace, in its traditional spot at the end of the lineup.
For those of us who were on the bus back in ’85, we suddenly find ourselves several decades “on down the line” with a serious case of U.S. Blues, as we face an array of challenges, ranging from an ever-stubborn pandemic to the greatest threat to the American democratic experiment in our lifetimes. Any accurate journal of human civilization would have to describe life on Earth as a perennial “brokedown palace” in need of repair, but the devastating collaboration we are currently witnessing between the darker side of human behavior within our government and the most unforgiving aspect of Mother Nature has tilted the scale so dramatically that most of us have begun to wonder whether our palace is not merely brokedown, but damaged beyond repair.
In the early days of the pandemic, a perfect storm moment in history occurred that would make George Clooney and the crew of the Andrea Gail feel fortunate. The U.S. was forced to navigate the crisis under the dismal leadership of the most corrupt, ineffectual, self-serving administration of our lifetimes – and all this during an election year in which the stakes had never been higher, with trust in the powers that be at an all time low.
The years 2020-2021 will surely occupy a preeminent position of infamy in the chronicles of human history, and especially those of that erstwhile beacon of hope and opportunity whose “motto is ‘don’t tread on me.’ ” At press time, the good old US of A leads the world in COVID-19 cases (some 85 million) and deaths (more than 1 million). By way of comparison, 47,000 Americans died in combat over the course of the 20-year Vietnam War, 291,000 during the four years of World War II, and 675,000 in the 1918 “Spanish Flu” Pandemic (which killed 50 million worldwide). Perhaps most telling is that with only four-percent of the global population, the United States accounts for 20-percent of COVID-19 deaths, worldwide. Over two years into the current pandemic, it’s estimated that nearly a million Americans will ultimately “leave this brokedown palace” before their time.
Regardless of the many illusions of differentiation we humans are so adept at inventing, there is an inescapable shared destiny in that we all must grow old and die. How we conduct ourselves during this journey is indelibly determined by how we embrace our mortality. Perhaps the most powerful force in shaping our perspective is the aging process. The less time we have left, the more precious each day becomes, and the moving target of advancing age causes us to continually redefine our priorities, which in turn is reflected in our behavior.
In our youth we have the luxury of living in denial of what lies ahead, as the light at the end of the tunnel is barely visible. For most of us, that light begins to appear more prominently around the age of 40, and by the time we turn 60 it has begun to shine as brightly as “a headlight on a northbound train.” Correspondingly, our priorities begin to shift, and we find ourselves becoming kinder, more understanding, and increasingly patient. The battles we engaged in during our younger years pale in comparison to the battles that lie ahead, and we are much more likely to follow the principles outlined in the bestselling book by Richard Carlson, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – and It’s All Small Stuff.” Perhaps most importantly, our friends and loved ones become increasingly precious to us, and our relationships ascend to the top of our list of priorities. Being right takes a back seat to being certain we’re not “forgetting the love we bring.”
The year 2020 proved to be a classic case study in a shift from poor leadership (and that’s being generous) to superior, perhaps even outstanding leadership. The net positive result will become evident as we find our way to the other side of this horrible pandemic, along with the other issues we face.
At a moment like the one we find ourselves facing – with a potentially deadly virus running amok – the age-old calculus is interrupted, as we prematurely confront our mortality. This dynamic has an age-leveling effect that offers the prospect of unification. Suddenly, even those too young to detect that light at the end of the tunnel can see it more clearly. And for those who had already begun to come to terms with their final destiny, the values clarification process deepens. In short, the consequences of COVID-19 include an acceleration of the changes that typically accompany the natural flow of advancing years.
To what extent our behavior changes in the wake of this kind of life-shattering event is a matter of choice, individually and collectively. There are two broad categories of reaction to “the virus” that are illuminating in the way they juxtapose the options of continued brokenness and the promise of healing. The former exposes the selfishness and greed of an “I’ve got mine and you’ve got yours” attitude. Unfortunately, this recipe for failure has been chosen by too many of our leaders, and the result has been the worsening of the crisis for all but a select few. More lives have been lost than necessary, and the deceit and misinformation that have accompanied the politicization of this calamity caused untold suffering and a culture of divisiveness that has made a tragic situation even more disastrous.
The other, far better way forward is to join together and face this crisis with a “strength in numbers” attitude. In contrast to the malevolence of the first approach, thousands of people are now coming together to provide support and care for those who have fallen victim to this virus. It has been heartening to see this higher form of humanity take shape within the context of so much darkness.
Throughout history, both sides of humanity have repeatedly, often alternately, come forward. The deciding factor is leadership. When we have had strong, ethical leadership, the better side of human nature has come to the forefront, and we have advanced as a people. And the opposite is also true. But remember: We are all leaders in the examples we set, and in the power we bestow in our representative system of government. The year 2020 proved to be a classic case study in a shift from poor leadership (and that’s being generous) to superior, perhaps even outstanding leadership. The net positive result will become evident as we find our way to the other side of this horrible pandemic, along with the other issues we face.
We must all leave this “brokedown palace” one day. The question is how we leave it. Personally, I plan to fight for the things I believe in – even if it means getting down “on my hands and my knees” – to leave a better, healthier, fairer planet for future generations. Our parents and grandparents did their utmost to create better lives for us, and we owe it to them, and to our children, to do the same. We are the lovers that “come and go,” but “the river roll, roll, roll.”
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