The Death of Hope

I was going to write another awful flowers are like people piece again, but think will skip the analogy and just get down to what is on my mind. The death of youth, expectation and hope. I don’t know if I hung out with a particularly wild or doomed set, but it seems that the past few years have been filled with funerals and many of them unbelievably poignant. Most of these premature departures have been men, and their downfall has been alcohol. This is somewhat surprisingly as narcs were their drug of choice originally, but in a contradiction   of received wisdom, the drugs proved to be the gateway to a life devoted to the pursuit of alcohol induced oblivion. These boys were all, without exception beautiful, talented, clever and funny young men. Hugely sexually successful, popular with their peers and gifted it seemed to us back in the 70s and 80s that the world, in the words of the sage Hilda Ogden, was their lobster. Their funerals all had one striking element in common: the mourners, apart from family, were composed of a core gang of friends who knew them when they were young and in their prime. There were no ‘new’ friends, work colleagues and acquaintances. Most of these friends had had no contact with the deceased for many years. It was as though their lives had crystalized at that point in their youth when they were at their peak, and that from then onwards, they had lived in a limbo – or purgatory even.  Regressing and becoming increasingly isolated and reclusive. What was it that made these boys so particularly vulnerable? What lead them to forgo careers, family life, and comfort for the rackety hand to mouth existence they lead in the end? Signing on to get a few quid to drink themselves into oblivion? Were expectations too high? Did they feel the hopes and demands of their friends and family were impossible to live up to so deliberately opt out? Or does beauty and talent always come with price? A very interesting survey is documented in a recent book Triumph of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study by George E. Vaillant (Harvard) which is reviewed in The New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell. In 1938 a professor of Harvard’s student health services launched a study of 268 Harvard sophomores (all male); selecting the best and brightest of the classes 1939-44 (Jack Kennedy was part of the study). The study continues to this day and is called the Harvard Grant study, the aim is to determine which early traits best predict a successful life. In compiling the book Vaillant, who is himself in his 80s, looked at two other studies: the Glueck study, which began to follow five hundred white male teenagers in Boston, mainly the son of Irish and Italian immigrants, who had been sentenced to reformatories for juvenile delinquents in the 1940s and the Terman Study, which began in 1920 looking at 1,500 elementary children in San Francisco and Los Angeles who had IQs of over 140. Comparisons with each group throw up some obvious conclusions – the richer and more privileged did better and men were more financially and vocationally successful than women (a truism today, even with notional equal rights and opportunities).  Reviewing the data collected the strongest indicators of a long and happy life were the quality of personal relationships, happy childhoods and strong marriages, and education. The correlation with further education was especially strong – those who continue with post-graduate work tend to live even longer their happily married well educated peers. The greatest and most devastating factor on life expectancy and quality of life was however, alcohol. According to Vaillant, alcoholism was the cause, not the consequence of unhappiness. Most of the divorces which took place among the subjects were as a result of alcoholism as were professional setbacks and early death. In other words, as Vaillent says, alcohol was the horse and not the cart. ‘The men did not drown their sorrows in alcohol, he believes, but inherited a vulnerability to alcohol, which then caused their sorrows.’

What lessons can we take from these shattered lives and the conclusions of the study? One perhaps is to take a less determinist view of the genetic disposition to alcoholism and look at the social and external causes. In Ireland getting totally insensible with drink to the point of blackout is regarded as a right of passage for teenagers and doesn’t seem to be treated with the same level of seriousness or hysteria as for example finding a ten spot of hash in a child’s trouser pocket. We as parents need to teach children to treat alcohol with respect, as something to be enjoyed socially and in moderation and not as a means to an end which is drinking to the point of oblivion, and to stress that alcohol is as much a dangerous and pernicious drug as any other class As. Aside from that we need to draw back from placing too much expectation on our children. Yes,  love and cherish your children, buy them the best education you can afford but let them know that it is ok to fail from time to time, that being young and gorgeous and clever is not necessarily a passport to success but rather a fortuitous bit of luck to help them on the way and that hard work, commitment, a thick skin and moderation in all is the path to true happiness.