"To preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care."


Sunday, March 15, 2020

Rising Farmer Suicides: Are These Your Brethren?

by Christopher Hodapp

Are you a member of a rural American Masonic lodge? A recent in-depth USA TODAY report has highlighted an alarming topic that may unexpectedly touch some us directly in our lodges, even if you're not aware of it. 

Nationally, suicide rates among men are already higher than they've been in thirty years, especially among the middle class. But the farmer suicide rate is even higher. Between 2014 and 2018, more than 450 farmers killed themselves across nine Midwestern states alone, according to data collected by USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. The real total is probably higher because not every state provided suicide data for every year, and some redacted some of theirs. Most of the affected farmers are between 40 and 70, and many of them may be our own lodge members.

According to a January study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide, compared with other occupations. The study also found that farmers' suicide rates overall had increased by 40% in less than two decades, and it's doubtless even higher, since deaths might be mis-classified as farm-related accidents. 

This isn't just "somebody else's" problem to deal with. Rural Masonic lodges are usually much more closely connected to their communities than urban ones. But rural lodges have been closing left and right for four decades now, and the remaining ones are farther and farther away from even their active members.

Nobody is telling you on the 24 hour news networks, but U.S. farmers are saddled with near-record debt, declaring bankruptcy at rising rates and selling off their farms in the midst of a turbulent market, caused by everything from shifting weather patterns and wildly fluctuating crop prices, to tariffs and bailouts connected to the current trade wars. Phone calls to Farm Aid's crisis hotline that formed back in the 1980s to deal with then-record farm failures have soared — more than a thousand people dialed the hotline in 2018 alone. But, feeling isolated and with limited access to mental-health care, hundreds are dying by suicide. In 2008, Congress approved the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network Act to provide behavioral health programs to agricultural workers via grants to states. Yet they appropriated no money for the legislation until last year — after more than a full decade and hundreds of farmer suicides. 

Back in the Olden Days (by which I mean 1998), the New Radicals sang, "You get what you give." Up until the 1910s, Masons understood this. Lodges actually cared for their brethren, their widows and orphans. Not through industrial-sized charities or retirement homes, but by actually doing the legwork (before telephones existed) and checking up on each other. 

My friend Roger VanGorden has always said, "All Freemasonry is local," and that really used to be the case. Lodges were local in every sense of the word, since you were FORCED to belong to the lodge physically closest to you. You went to lodge with your neighbors, the guys you walked to the local factory with, the guys in your surrounding farms, the guys who ran the shops you went to every day. Being forced to belong to that lodge only, you were also FORCED to all get along with each other, in spite of your differences outside. That was always the whole point behind Freemasonry to begin with - to cement friendships among men whom otherwise never would have spoken to each other. Lodges were small, usually under 50 members, and you knew every one of them. (Look up "Dunbar numbers" about optimal group sizes sometime)

After the 1920s, grand lodges began grading and ranking lodges based, not on their care of their members, but on scoresheets for ritual proficiency and bookkeeping. You get what you give. We got perfect ritualists and some fine looking cashbooks and ledger sheets. But personal care and contact among all brethren dropped off as the major charities grew. Lodges swelled in size (some well over 1,000 by the 1950s), and men stopped showing up for meetings. Charity stopped being about checking on each other and actually caring for our brothers and families, and became just another line on a grand lodge scoresheet, a box to be ticked on the official grand lodge donation form, and a bigger check to be written. And then those enforced territorial rules were largely dropped, too, so a man could join anywhere he wanted. And members became strangers, not neighbors.

Smaller, more isolated country lodges in very small towns or wide spots in the county road are frequently still operating under the old model, but even they are susceptible to the pressures of the Modern Age: loneliness, isolation, lack of participation, Internet anti-social media, tinier (or nonexistent) young families to carry on traditions and businesses, extended family members who move farther and farther away, along with the devastating pressures of the farm industry. The creation of the FarmersOnly.com matchmaking service for farmers and country people didn't just grow out of thin air. This isn't just an economic issue. 

Devastating economic events on their own do not cause suicides, experts say, but they can be the last straw for someone already suffering from depression or under long-term stress. And almost as commonly, their wives buckle, too. No one really bothered to register the suicide rate among farmers' wives. Thousands of farmers have lost not just their livelihoods, but their longstanding family homesteads that often date back a century and more. Too many times, they feel ashamed by what they see as their own failure.

The article zeroed in on just farmers, but much of the psychology of it applies also to men who have lost their jobs or careers after decades of working. They feel that same kind of shame, as though they had the power to prevent it. Men have historically identified themselves and their very characters with their careers, especially when that career has dominated their lives for decades. For so many men, "you are what you do." This fact alone has been the greatest tragedy of the gutting of the American working middle-class over the last 40 years as high-paying manufacturing jobs were exported overseas. A generation later, the men who "learned to code" are pressured by cheaper immigrant labor or offshoring of computer work. You no longer have to be over 50 or 60 anymore to lose your lifelong career, "what you do," and "who you are." And the gig economy is no substitute for what used to be job security. Especially if you have to work two and three jobs to come close to what you earned before.

If Masons are to be relevant to our communities and society at large again, we need to look to the past to rediscover our future. If your lodge is in a rural area and you have farmers as members, go out and meet them, offer them a ride to lodge night, or buy them a cup of coffee and just listen to their life for a while. If he's a farmer, he's getting squeezed on all sides now, and no one is really shining a spotlight on their plight. While you're at it, ask about his neighbors. Those guys are in the same boat, and as a Mason, you  need to care about your whole community. Joining a lodge might be just what they need right now.

Likewise, if you are in a more urban setting or suburban location, you are still surrounded by Brother Masons who have suffered in silence from having their livelihoods cut out from under them.  Maybe retirement - forced or voluntary - is depressing the hell out of them. Maybe you joined your lodge long after anyone recalled their name, but they're still on the rolls. Maybe they stopped coming to lodge, or dropped their membership because they couldn't afford it anymore, and figured no one would miss them - and they didn't. 

Make it your job to miss them and find them again. You, not the Secretary. You're a Brother, too.

With the latest fiasco and hysteria over the coronavirus presently going on, isolation is being enforced by circumstances for the moment. Masonic lodges everywhere have been forced by grand lodges to shut down operations and gatherings in person until at least the end of April, but no one can predict the real end of it. Be damn sure that none of your members wind up as a tragic statistic in the coroner's office because their lodge Brothers couldn't be bothered to check on them. 

If that hasn't happened already. 

It's a crying shame that all U.S. Masonic jurisdictions don't uniformly require a 'closing charge' at the end of every meeting, because the most commonly found one around the country contains the most important message our fraternity is supposed to be teaching. Our Chain of Union is supposed to reach beyond just the eight guys at your stated meeting
"Let the world observe how Masons love one another. These generous principles are to extend further. Every human being has a claim upon your kind offices.Do good unto all. Recommend it more especially to the household of the faithful.
"By diligence in the duties of your respective callings; by liberal benevolence and diffusive charity; by constancy and fidelity in your friendships, discover the beneficial and happy effects of this ancient and honorable Institution..."
If all of us heard that every month and followed its admonition, we'd all be better men for it. 

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