Thursday, January 29, 2009

War on Anxiety

I'm no economist, as anyone who's ever depended on me for money will tell you. Nor am I a psychologist or a political scientist. But I am an American, which means at least a couple of things: (1) I'm generally suspicious of authority and (2) I like to feel good.

In the spirit of these two character traits, I find myself disappointed with the opening days of 2009. I'm generally suspicious of the decisions of our government, and I don't feel particularly good.

The one has something to do with the other. I have been sold the economic stimulus package with a marketing strategy of fear and despair. It's horrible now, it's only going to get worse, but unless we throw nearly a trillion dollars at our economy RIGHT NOW we're all going to die. That doesn't sound like a plan, to be perfectly frank, much less like a cure for consumer confidence.

The cash and business crises plaguing the economy right now aren't immaterial, they're merely material--the types of artifacts that a disparate crowd of atomized individuals can point to and say, "This doesn't look good." It's where we turn psychologically, as a culture, from there that defines the moment. If we turn inward, if we ball up in a corner, we go nowhere. That, I think, is where we are, and we as a culture need to be roused from that pity-coma forthwith.

I've always been a fan of Franklin Roosevelt. I thought he was cool when I was about eight, and I've never changed my opinion of him. But I'd also never read his first inaugural address, which was delivered in a similar time and climate as our own. I read it today and was struck not by its attack on the material crisis of the day but rather by its confrontation of the psychological crisis of his constituents. Roosevelt wastes no time in his first formal words as president of the United States:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.


Imagine my surprise when Roosevelt's seminal line, the one he'll be remembered for forever, came not at the very end of the speech but in the third paragraph, in the sixth sentence of his presidency:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.


Roosevelt doesn't skirt the truth about the national situation; indeed, "only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment." But then--again, all of a sudden--check this out: "Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered, because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for."

Roosevelt was not afraid to call the worst practices of his culture onto the carpet of national rebuke, but he also wasn't afraid to remind people that life does not consist in an abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15):

True, they have tried. But . . . they only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves, to our fellow men.


Roosevelt's is a confederate confession, a call to enlistment:

If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize, as we have never realized before, our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take, but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective.


This is what I want. This is what we need: not to be reminded daily how unconfident we are, not to be driven by fear into policies and politics packaged in the rhetoric of fear. We've had plenty of that in the past twenty years. Now we need to be shaken from our malaise. We need to be reminded that where we find ourselves today is not where we want to find ourselves tomorrow. I want to be called onto my own carpet and confronted in my paralysis not with despair but with possibility, with responsibility.

If I may paraphrase a great speech: The only thing we need to be anxious about is anxiety itself.

3 comments:

Bob/Sir Pent said...

I don't understand this recession.

I'm told everyone is out of money but every time I'm at the grocery store, it's packed. Every time I go out to eat, there are lots of people in the restaurants.

I'm told that the auto industry isn't selling any new cars, yet when I drive down the road I see lots of new cars.

I'm told that this Christmas shopping season was dismal...down nearly 2%! The 3 or 4 times I went to the mall...in my blue collar neighborhood...in the middle of a work day...all the stores were packed.

Could this be some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? The big money movers and shakers tell us things are bad, so we make them bad?

jbull said...

Bob/Sir Pent - I see where you're coming from and I've been thinking the same thing.

Instead of owning a new car every year, I guess people are having to wait two or three years in between. The horror! What recession! Someone alert the government!

Bob/Sir Pent said...

A lot of times it seems like people that can't afford new cars seem to get them more than I do.
My current truck is 9 years old.
My previous truck was 5.

Also, to my previous post:
- I know many people that go to concerts. (Me not so much anymore with the kid and all.) They tell me that the places are packed when they go...if not sold out.
- I know many people that go to theater in Chicago. I'm told that the shows are usually pretty full, when not sold out.