Now We Know Something About What It's Like

I’ve been interested, as always, to hear the retrospectives about the year just past and reflections about what it all means.  Nearly every news program has featured at least some glimpses back into 2008, just in case we might have forgotten any of the major events of a year that seemed to be filled with really big stories.  I’ve seen footage of the Iraq war, floods (some of which nearly reached my own street), replays of the Olympics, the election of Barack Obama, the Iraq war, the collapse of financial markets, bailouts, the Iraq war and… many, many pieces about the economic pain being felt by Americans everywhere. 

It’s those personal stories of deteriorating circumstances that have dominated much of the news of late.  You know them: the stories about a retired couple having to calculate when they can have meat for dinner, the single parent suddenly out of work, the food pantry being visited by twice the normal number of those in need.  These are scary stories because they feature people just like you and me; in fact, this time the stories are about you and me.  And there are more of them every day.

The litany of economic, political, business and investment misdeeds revealed over the past twelve months has left most of us reeling in its wake.  Credibility has evaporated, opportunities have receded, institutions have failed, our 401(k) plans are now no better than 201(k) plans as one friend panned, and for some of us the grip of uncertainty about our futures has begun to plague our sleep at night.   We wonder,  how can this be happening?  How will I get by on less income?  What about the kids?  What about our house?  That knot in the stomach stems from a feeling of helplessness in the face of all the troubling news.  It’s a new feeling for lots of us, one that we have never known in our entire lifetime, perhaps, and it’s frightening.  What will we do?

I don’t pretend to offer any answers to these questions here, but sometimes in the depths of tough circumstances learning is the best that we can hope for.  Maybe that’s true today.  There is one lesson that strikes me with great clarity in the midst of this pain that many are suffering:  it must be similar to the despair that so many of our neighbors in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the world must feel every day of their lives as they attempt to cope with need and want.  Suddenly the stories of fear and desperation that always seem so far-off on the evening news are much closer to us, more real, more threatening.  And now we know something about what it’s like, when the apparent abundance of our society has left us behind, when those in power and influence have played the game to their own advantage at our cost, when the hard work we expend isn’t enough to meet our needs, when we actually have to think about needs versus wants.  Suddenly, we may find ourselves among the "have-nots."

These are experiences that we never wanted or expected or even deserved.  The potential realities tighten the gut in a way that even horror movies cannot.  But as we seek to catch our breath let’s remember the injustice of it, how wrong it feels, and how truly wrong it is….

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