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Culture of Pessimism

These are troubling times. Unless you have your head in the sand or make more than $250,000 per year (the current definition of rich), you are likely anxious about your economic circumstance. Of course, a certain percentage of the population is anxious because they have an anxiety disorder. They can be on the beach in Maui sipping their favorite beverage and feel horrible. Circumstances don't matter much to those folks. These times probably just add to their anxiety; but what about the rest of us? How are we coping with the edginess we all feel when we are told we are about to fall off the economic cliff of "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression." Wow. My folks lived through that and World War II and they never talked about either very much. We usually don't like to talk about painful experiences unless we have to or need to.

So what to make of all this; how are you feeling? I, for one, keep wondering if the other shoe is about to drop even though I have no idea what that shoe is or what the drop entails. I just have this feeling of waiting for something really bad to happen. But hasn't something really bad already happened? Not to me, not yet anyway. But something bad is always happening to someone somewhere and in this economic crisis a lot more people have lost their jobs and practically everyone has lost much of their monetary worth. But there clearly are worse things than losing these things.

I think things feel worse than maybe they are (that other shoe might drop but if it is only an economic loss, meaning we have to lower our lifestyle and endure forced discipline of doing without, that might be a good thing), and this malaise has other reasons or causes. I don't pretend to know exactly what is going on or what the answers are but I can describe some of the symptoms that might help us name what is going on in our malaise. Allow me to give juxtaposition:

Stephen L Carter in his Author's Note of Palace Council , a novel set in the sixties comments "I mark the sixties as two decades, not one, the era beginning with the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and ending with President Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. Brown, like the Cold War and the Apollo Program, was a product of the nation's buoyant postwar optimism. Nixon's fall from power reflected the nation's newfound pessimism. The Vietnam War formed the bridge between the two. Like so many wars, Vietnam began in idealism and certainty, but ended in cynicism and doubt….The end of the war in 1975 marked the beginning of the end of rule by the World War II generation, and the dawn of modern America—the mean-spirited America of me-first, trust-nobody, sound bites, revile-anyone-who-disagrees, and devil-take-the-hindmost. All of this misbehavior is a mark of our timidity, not our confidence. Americans across the political spectrum cannot bear dissent, because we lack the courage to meet it squarely."

The contrast is from Henri Nouwen's Bread for the Journey: "Love unites all, whether created or uncreated. The heart of God, the heart of all creation, and our own hearts become one in love. That's what all the great mystics have been trying to tell us through the ages. Benedict, Francis, Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Brabant, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Dag Hammarskjˆld, Thomas Merton, and many others, all in their own ways and their own languages, have witnessed to the unifying power of the divine love…It is in the heart of God that we can come to the full realization of the unity of all that is, created and uncreated."

Mean-spirited-me-first-revile-anyone-who-disagrees-with-you pessimism or our-hearts- becoming-one-in-love-because-all-that-is-created-or-uncreated-is-from-love optimism? Seems like an obvious choice but most of us are not mystics, we are modern or post modern everyday Americans trying to make it through. Maybe we should consider becoming mystics. Especially if it means that I can love you even though I vigorously disagree with you. Maybe then you and I will have hope and optimism not because someone promises it to us to win an election but because we become love ourselves.

If Stephen Carter is right, and I believe he has eloquently named our current condition, then this economic mess we are experiencing is only a symptom of Carter's pessimistic America. The cure then is not throwing more money to Wall Street or Ford; it is becoming the optimistic America that believes in itself because it believes in one another not as an enemy to destroy or prove wrong but as a brother or sister who needs one another. As the mystics express it, it is love that unites us, and the root of our culture of pessimism is our loss of knowing what love is and how to love. Maybe the root of our pessimism is wondering if love even exists.

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