You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to uncover clues that our country is going through difficult times. Most recently, the unfolding drama on Wall Street looks like a scene from “Extreme Makeover” and does little to instill public, let alone investor, confidence in our financial and regulatory institutions. Fuel prices, which skyrocketed over the summer, continue to create both pain and panic at the pump. The cost of groceries is also rising at an alarming rate, making it more difficult than ever for families to put food on the table. We’re now all too familiar with the mortgage meltdown, with the housing and credit crises, with bank closings, as well as with the steady loss of jobs, including the all-too-frequent draconian job cuts, in corporate America. The U.S. economy, according to many observers, is derailing and on the brink of a recession. And to complicate matters further, the political landscape, domestically and internationally, and the global economy are uncertain and volatile. To say the least, we are living in a highly stressful environment. And within this environment, more and more people are facing formidable challenges in their personal and work lives as they struggle to make ends meet.
It is probably fair to say that most children in America today have never witnessed such hard times, let alone have had to experience this kind of situation before. And although we may hate to admit it, our children (o.k., many parents too!) have become spoiled, for lack of a better term, by what they now “expect” from life in the contemporary era. Increasing societal affluence has brought with it more choices, especially in the material realm (for example, think about the constantly-changing trends in fashion and the continuous barrage of technological “gadgets” that apparently one cannot live without these days!), most of which carry a high price tag not only in financial but also in emotional terms for American parents and their families. Indeed, the disturbing implications of both the “paradox of choice” and what is now being called “affluenza,” a new disease-like phenomenon of epidemic proportions, have become so ubiquitous in society today that you can even find books with titles bearing these exact words in your local bookstore and library!
It is against--and in response to--this increasingly complex backdrop, with its pervasive symptoms, that Americans, both individually and collectively, now find themselves looking for answers.
Many of you may remember the words uttered not too long ago by former U.S. Senator and economist, Phil Gramm, who downplayed the idea that the nation was in a financial recession; instead, he “diagnosed” the situation as a “mental recession,” likening the country’s (and its citizen’s) ills to what we all know as mental depression. In this regard, Gramm provocatively said that “We have sort of become a nation of whiners,…complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline.” Although I don’t happen to agree with Senator Gramm’s diagnosis, I do believe that Americans, like all people, must consciously and deliberately resist the human tendency to become “prisoners of their thoughts.” Only in this way may we increase our capacity to cope effectively and creatively with whatever comes our way in life--from the smallest disappointments to the most formidable of life’s challenges. And this includes our capacity, as individuals and as a nation, to deal with the current financial crisis.
In this regard, I learned not many years ago from Thomas Moore, psychotherapist and author of the bestselling book, Care of Our Soul, that our most soulful times are when we are “out of balance,” not when we are in balance! In other words, it is when we are facing formidable challenges and when we are dealing with crises, that we are most likely to do some really deep “soul-searching.” And it is during these especially difficult times when our will to meaning, that is, our authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals, comes into sharp focus and we are prompted to make key choices about what really matters to us and in our lives.
Even our choice of attitude, I should add, is put to the test! We must remember that, although we may not be totally free from the various conditions or situations that confront us, we always can choose how we respond to them, at the very least through our choice of attitude. This means (no pun intended) more than having the “audacity of hope”--for hope, by itself, is not a strategy. Importantly, it requires that we assume personal (and collective) responsibility for exercising this ultimate freedom by taking action, albeit through a positive mindset focused on the power of intention, rather than resorting to a “poor me” attitude and a “victim” mentality. Perhaps this is what Phil Gramm really meant, to afford him the benefit of the doubt, by his insensitive-sounding diagnosis!
I also want to underscore that one of the real powers of positive thinking and what the world-renown psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, referred to as “true optimism,” is that it is good for your physical, mental, and spiritual health! As I describe in my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, this intrinsic “power” (a true form of “empowerment”) not only helped Dr. Frankl survive the horrors of the Nazi death camps but also provided a meaningful platform for creative expression and action that he used throughout his life. By “releasing” himself from a self-imposed thought prison, Frankl was able to open up possibilities for creative action while maintaining a positive vision of the future. This, in no way, is intended to marginalize or minimize his concentration camp ordeal.
“Each of us has his own inner concentration camp…we must deal with, with forgiveness and patience¾as full human beings, as we are and what we will become.”¾Viktor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D.
On the contrary, among the many lessons to be learned from Viktor Frankl’s life and legacy is one of hope and possibility. Dr. Frankl saw the human condition at its worst, and human beings behaving in ways intolerable to the imagination. He also saw human beings rising to heights of compassion and caring in ways that can only be described as miraculous acts of unselfishness and transcendence. Indeed, there is something in us that can rise above and beyond everything that we think possible. Our instinct for meaning, in our personal lives and in our work, is ours right now, at this very moment. As long as we are not prisoners of our thoughts.
Sometimes it is only when we enter a state of “creative destruction” that the keys to our liberation from our inner concentration camp become visible to us. Just like we can only recognize “light” by knowing “darkness,” we can only move ourselves (and help others to do the same) towards the light by moving away from darkness. By the same token, acknowledging the existence of despair is the first step towards meaning and “enlightenment.” Again, without sounding like I’m trying to marginalize or minimize the significance of the current financial crisis, including the human suffering that it leaves in its wake, the inherent darkness that it brings also provides a platform for taking creative action towards the light of opportunity.
People’s lives will undoubtedly change and be changed. The existential question, however, remains: is it change that you (and we) can believe in? Coping with, surviving, and thriving through such times are not only about finances per se. We also need to remain cognizant of the emotional, and, yes, spiritual, sides of the equation. As odd as it may sound, there is always something positive that may result from, or at least be associated with, something negative. Think about it. As one door closes, another one opens (If, of course, we are “open” to such possibilities and are willing to take responsibility for walking through the door.). As one door closes, we are given an opportunity to learn even more about ourselves, including our true, core values, than we might have thought was possible (If, of course, we really want to learn and grow from our life experiences.). As one door closes, we are also challenged to find creative solutions to our plight in ways that may even surprise us (If, of course, we choose not be become or remain a victim of our circumstances.)!
Finding “meaning” in the financial crisis, to be sure, is much easier said than done. Let’s face it, it’s hard work! And it often requires making sacrifices; sacrifices that we don’t really want to make. Who really wants to take a family “staycation,” that is, a vacation spent at home, rather than going away to some exciting vacation spot? At first blush, it doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? However, besides creating an opportunity to save money and thereby place less strain on the family’s budget, what else does this creative idea promise? Well, families who have chosen the staycation route have made a commitment, conscious or not, to spread the “sacrifice” by holding all family members, parents and children alike, responsible for making it happen, as well as for making it happen for the benefit of everyone. It’s no longer just the parents who must sacrifice something for the sake of living in a postmodern world where the “paradox of choice” and “affluenza” run rampant. Moreover, going on staycation has actually brought family members together in authentic and meaningful ways. And I suspect that when the family eventually does plan for a getaway “vacation,” it will be valued more highly and result in an even more memorable and, again, meaningful, experience! Now start your creative engines and explore other ways in which you can find meaning in the financial crisis, regardless of your personal circumstances! And how can this new-found meaning guide you in a positive way through the abyss?
On a more macro level, of course, the possibilities for finding “meaning” in the financial crisis are also unlimited. In this connection, think about how various societal ills, at all levels, may actually benefit from the forces of “creative destruction” that we are witnessing in today’s world. I know that it sounds a bit far-fetched and perhaps insensitive, but stay with me for a moment. Have you ever known somebody who appeared to live her or his life on “cruise control” or “auto-pilot?” You know, unaware of what really mattered? What was really important to them and to those around them? And then they faced a major, maybe even life-threatening, crisis--effectively, a life “wake-up call?” More often than not, these people would describe such an experience as transformative for them. On both personal and collective levels, the “meaning” of the financial crisis also holds the promise of being a transformative experience. But it can only be so if, and this is a BIG if, we do not allow ourselves to become “prisoners of our thoughts!” Like Viktor Frankl, I sincerely believe in the power and resiliency of human beings and the human spirit. Yes, my dear Watson, there is a financial crisis but you will get through it!
Dr. Alex Pattakos
author, Prisoners of Our Thoughts
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