Breakdown or Breakthrough?

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“When everything is breaking down, something new is breaking through.”

We are living in unprecedented times.

Our economy appears to be collapsing, families are losing their homes to foreclosure, and our government seems to have run amok with no concept of restraint or responsibility.  The feeling that our lives are meaningful has been lost in the madness of this particular moment.  Some people might contend that things are dire and that we should be afraid, very afraid.

I disagree.  I believe with my whole heart that we are living on the cusp of one world that is on the verge of becoming another.  Something new will be born of this chaos.  Something bright and beautiful will be pulled out of these dark, tumultuous times.

Recently financial guru, Suze Orman, was on Oprah.  She was there to sound the alarm about our financial house of cards, encouraging all Americans to “stop lying” to themselves and living beyond their means.  A couple was encouraged to let their home go because they could not afford it.  They had $90K in credit card debt, and the husband had been out of work for 18 months.  Ms. Orman admonished the entire audience regarding the fact that Americans have lived with out of control spending in their personal lives and that that sense of entitlement has been trickling down through our economy during the past thirty years.  The crisis on Wall Street did not happen in a vacuum.  It happened because of the unprecedented spending of not only our government but of our citizens, as well as a lack of regulation to protect consumers from predatory lenders and money managers.  The fact of the matter is that wages in this country have remained flat for quite some time.  Although Americans are extremely productive and innovative, the structure of our economy has not shared the wealth that the productivity has produced. The average worker sees no difference in his or her paycheck, in spite of longer hours and more and better technology.

Still, despite the knowledge that our wages have remained flat, we continue to live (and spend money) as though our wages have increased.  Most of us live paycheck to paycheck.  I know I do.  Although everything is increasing in price, my check remains the same.  However, there are things I want and need, so more often than not, I buy them.  We all do.  Each one of us has bought into the idea that having a certain lifestyle or a certain kind of possessions says something about our worth (or worthiness).  According to Motley Fool (www.fool.com) writer, Morgan Housel, in “The Fake it Till You Make it Consumer,” “We’re a debtor nation, with the average American household being the proud owner of nearly $10,000 in credit card debt — a figure that equates to more than 20% of average income.[…] The figures on consumer credit card usage will make your brain hurt — 11% annualized growth on outstanding balances for November, and total credit card debt quickly approaching $1 trillion.”

Suze Orman contends that we have forgotten that, “people should be our number one priority.”  She asserts that Wall Street greed is the result of a fatal flaw in our system of values.  If money is more important than people, then it is OK to allow family after family to collapse under the weight of mortgages that both the individuals involved and the lenders and speculators who profited off them, knew they could not afford.  It is OK for the fabric of our society to unravel while hedge fund managers get wealthy off the mistakes and suffering of average Americans.  Who cares, right?  The “silly fools” deserve what they get.  We have all heard the chatter:

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping;

  • Sink or swim;
  • We are not our brother’s keeper;
  • Everyone needs to pull his or her own weight;
  • It is not permissible to be weak or weary or to make mistakes;
  • If you don’t have enough money, it is your fault!

It seems to me that all these crises we are currently experiencing are signs that the status quo — the way in which we have operated in the past — is no longer working.  We need to move into a new system of values.  We need to awaken to discern what is truly important: people and shared values, commitments, and responsibilities.  As a recovering shopping addict, I am beginning to see that other than food and shelter, there’s not much that I truly need.  There are plenty of things I desire, but I don’t need them.  I would love to open my heart and meet someone with whom I can share meals and conversation and silence with.  I would like to live my life on the basis of my values and convictions, offering service and caring to those less fortunate than me. All those things cost nothing.  Reading a library book or admiring the sky at night is free.  Exchanging ideas or singing at twilight has no price tag.  I do not need a thousand hours worth of videos.  I do not need a Lexus, a Rolex, or a Louis Vuitton bag.  If you truly have the discretionary income (meaning you can afford your house payment, car payment, gas, utilities, groceries, insurance, health care, and incidentals without using credit) go for it!   But for most of us, we do not have any “discretionary income.”  We just have bills to pay and a smaller and smaller check to pay them with.

To me, this whole crisis is a wake-up call.

We have wandered too far off track.

We need to get back to the heart of things: caring for ourselves and others (whether we know them or not).  How we treat the “least among us” says a lot about the heart of our values.  We can do better.  We need to take care of our planet and treat its inhabitants with kindness. We need to strive to fill our lives with meaning, not stuff. If we can do that, we will see the dawning of a different and better kind of world.

© 2008 Shavawn M. Berry

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