Whose reality, really?


I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine today. We were talking about the bad economy and she was saying how a number of her friends aren’t “facing up to reality”. I asked her what she meant and she told me that they just weren’t “dealing” with the enormity of the economic crisis in before us. In what way, precisely weren’t they dealing, I was curious. Had one of them just lost their job but was spending like a drunken sailor? Were they about to get laid off? Were they out of work but not looking? My friend told me it was none of these, but they just seemed blithely unaware that the economy is in TATTERS, and that this is BIG. People all around them are losing their jobs, and they just go on with their lives. I asked my friend what exactly she expected them to do, but no information of that sort was forthcoming. She repeated her line about them not facing up to reality, and I pointed out that at a macro level, there is not much that any one person can do about what is happening in the economy. And what good did it do to worry about it? I get the feeling my friend feels that if we are sufficiently freaked out about something bad, that we are living in “reality” and if we are not, that we are in “denial”.

Applying this to my own life, I must not be living in “reality”. I don’t have enough work to live off of completely yet (although my contracts are growing), but I am not especially freaked out. I am doing what I can to generate more, and not terribly concerned. I find it a useful exercise to imagine the very worst possible thing that could happen in any situation, and realize it usually isn’t the end of the world. In my case, the very worst thing that could happen in me not finding enough work would be that I would have to go live with friends in California or with my family in Indiana, both of whom have offered me shelter and food if I need it. Neither is hardly a terrible outcome. When I look at it this way, I feel comforted and very lucky.

I asked my friend to imagine similarly what would be the very worst thing that could happen to her in this terrible economy and she talked about losing her home and everything in it, likewise being forced to move in with some family member. But for her, this was clearly a fate too horrible to imagine, and it really made me think again about a subject I often return to, our possessions. We are a society of consumers, and at least partially status and self esteem in our society comes from one’s possessions. The more one accumulates (and the more one spends), the more one takes part in the economy and society. In a very real way, one’s value in a consumer culture is directly proportional to what one spends and is capable of spending. The problem with owning a lot of stuff is that it requires a lot of care and upkeep. Our possessions end up owning us as much as we do them. Especially for large purchases (like a house) is is natural to feel a greater attachment and weight, as the effort to acquire is so much greater. I realize after my years of travel that I really have little desire to acquire such things. At least, If I do head down that road (which may be inevitable in a society such as ours) I hope to be calm about the possibility that it could all disappear tomorrow. All the better to enjoy life’s gifts in the present. We of course do what we can, but complete control is an illusion. The reality is just much more chaotic.


  1. Mom says:

    So true. On the other hand, many people are genuinely suffering, and through no fault of their own. They aren’t just losing “things,” they are losing the ability to care for their families. Some are going hungry, have lost access to medical care, had to drop out of school…these things require our concern, compassion and whatever help we can provide. It may be that your friend was simply decrying a lack of empathy/recognition of that reality. (I watched a segment of 60 minutes in which people suddenly jobless when a factory closed were interviewed. Many had worked there 30 years and were devastated. You couldn’t watch it without crying.)

  2. Stephen says:

    That is true as well, and our empathy for the suffering of people is warranted. But these people need more than just us taking note and feeling bad for their situation. They need a social safety net to provide help right now. We are a society of plenty (even in these times), but we would much rather spend on arms than alms.

  3. Cindy Britt Kuipers says:

    Great synopsis Steve. You should send this to the New York Times my friend.