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A Necessary Non-essential

August 10, 2009

A once comfortable class of people has descended into a condition of chronic uncertainty and deepening anxiety as the economic crisis lingers.  Despite little immediate danger of losing the essentials of life — food, clothing, and shelter for starters, many people find themselves struggling with uncomfortable ideas and emotions.  Although not yet desperate, anxiety has overtaken many people leaving them wondering and worried.

Why so worried?  What’s missing?

Many of us once assumed our future would be as secure as that enjoyed by our parents’ generation.  What we once took for granted no longer seems certain, and in some cases seems decidedly unlikely.

A good measure of the stress we experience worrying about the future is itself a product of a misplaced appreciation of the past.  For example, David Bogan and Keith Davies point out in their book Avoid Retirement and Stay Alive that our notion of retirement — the idea that people should stop working and live off their savings after a certain age — was a recent and in many respects wrong-headed invention borne of the Baby Boom.

The decline in our confidence in the future mirrors the rising tide of mistrust in government, lower levels of civic engagement, and increasing estrangement from traditional faith institutions.  The very things that gave us reason to believe we might actually get to enjoy a happy retirement have not so much betrayed us as followed us down the path we set out for ourselves.

Faith in something bigger than ourselves reflects a belief  in our own capacity to contemplate, contribute, and commit to a better future.  What once seemed as natural as breathing– believing in and belonging to something bigger than oneself — has become something strange and distant from the experience of many Americans.

Loss of faith in government reflects a loss of confidence in the ability of one person, one vote, or one voice to make a difference.  Loss of faith in one another reflects the misplaced expectation that our commitment to a relationship should be measured by what we get out of it and not what we give.

The notion that moral poverty yields material poverty (not vice versa) is almost as old as human civilization itself.  The misplaced desire to prove this dictum outdated if not outmoded has led many people away from traditional religions toward new creeds that preach self-help and promote salvation as if it was simply a matter of  individual empowerment.

We may not need faith to live a prosperous life, or for that matter even to survive.  But how much poorer are we for our lack of it?  Restoring our faith in the future requires little more of us than rediscovering our own capacity to make a difference through our relationships with something enduring and beyond ourselves through our interactions with and indeed our interdependence upon others.

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