economy of spirit

January 13, 2003

This past week, President Bush announced a plan that, in theory, will stimulate the economy. The rich are already stimulated, so the point of invigorating them even more escapes me, but then again Washington logic usually escapes me. Perhaps this is because the people who make the decisions that affect our lives live such different lives from the rest of us.

I have no interest in talking about the Republican Party’s latest effort at redistributing wealth upward. I expect that those of you who listen to me already know my opinion on that.

The only good thing about it all is that finally, there is at least some acknowledgement that the economy is in the worst shape I can ever recall.

On the other hand, there really is no real acknowledgement of the human toll of a down economy.

I interact with people in our neighborhood everyday. I talk to friends around the country regularly every week. The people I talk to come from every walk of life and those walks are, these days, strewn with pain, fear, anxiety and the debris of wrecked lives.

This includes the folks I have met who have lost jobs — jobs they may have worked at for twenty years.

Or young people who have completed their struggle through college only to find a world of empty promises and little hope. Or seniors who relied on things like mutual funds to supplement meager pensions. Or people who live with the daily anxiety that their job will be the next to be lopped off.

I met a family a few months ago who had spent eighteen years building a college fund for their son, but in a matter of months it was gone.

I know a woman of eighty-two who lived a pretty comfortable life because of the interest from long ago invested money in mutual funds, but who is now afraid she can’t afford to spend on anything other than her most basic needs.

I have a friend who was a senior vice president of a major California-based software company who recently called to ask if I knew how to get a job in retail.

A family member of mine was laid off after twenty-five years with an auto company.

And I’m not even going into the many who have been called up to military duty or already shipped overseas with the great possibility that they will soon be at war. For working people, all this does is simply add to the burden of a weak economy.

When we lose our jobs, and our assets are diminished, the toll is much more than financial. In some ways, the most difficult toll is the emotional and spiritual toll.

I’ll share some of my story, so I may be able to help some of you who are suffering in these times.

As a professional, by dint of luck and hard work, I had achieved what I considered tremendous success and followed what my generation expected to be the American trajectory of upward mobility.

In 1978, I recall being salaried at $28,000 a year. By 1985, I was making $45,000 a year. By 1996, I made more than $100,000 a year. From 1985 until 1998, I was an independent consultant in organizational development. By 1995, clients paid me $1,700 a day for my services. I took it as normal; that was my life.

Not only did I do well financially, but my work was considered important. In 1978, I was a senior member of the Mayor’s Cabinet of Cleveland, Ohio. I worked with CEOs and mayors, and my work directly impacted tens of thousands of people. In other words, I spent my life being a big fish in fairly big ponds.

I liked living comfortably, and more importantly living a life without financial anxiety. I was blessed to do work for which I had a passion. And I have to admit, I liked being a big shot, being well known and well respected by so many for my work. In the worlds in which I functioned, everybody wanted to know me, to get next to me. Some folks called me confident, and there were a few who criticized me for being arrogant. I dismissed the latter.

In 1987, two things happened: the recession hit and my consulting business started slipping. The second was that after twenty years of living in airports and hotels, I was burned out. So I decided to take a writing sabbatical by moving back here to my old family country home.

Not long after that, a colleague called and asked me to help launch a new international periodical, so I spent a year and a half flying back and forth to Europe, making decent money and still being a big shot.

For a variety of reasons, I left that job. At that point, I was still tired and knew that I now had the luxury to do something I’d never been able to do before: with six months of unemployment comp, I could write and really have time to decide what to do next. And that was when a shaky economy shook apart.

Now by trade, I am a consultant in organizational development — and by definition, when money is tight, the first thing that business and government do is let go of those doing contract work.

Outside consultants, attorneys, marketing firms and the like often take the hit. My two best female friends live in California and both work in my profession; neither has had a client in months and both are now fearful of losing their homes. The work is simply not there.

After I took a seriously stupid foray to Seattle, my unemployment ran out. I got back to New York and took the first job I could find. I actually got lucky, and wound up working for a neighborhood retail store as a commission-based sales person. I now make less than I made in 1978.

It’s called taking a fall. And the fall wasn’t only financial, as I alluded to. The greater fall was emotional. My self-image, my sense of me in the world, my sense of importance, all suffered.

The first thing that happened, and it was like driving into a wall, was my self-image just blew apart. The stunning realization of how much I got my sense of worth from my work was a revelation. When that work wasn’t there, I didn’t know who I was or how to feel like a valuable human being.

Over twenty years ago, I had just started with an outfit and at its first national staff meeting, the CEO made a speech starting with the sentence, “There are no problems, only opportunities.” No problems, but many opportunities.

I recall cynically wondering just how long I would be able to handle working for this naïve cat. But that sentence stayed with me and I applied it to my work and discovered the truth in his words.

Only when I found myself fallen from my own pedestal did I look at applying that sentiment to my life. I realized the toll of deriving my identity exclusively from my work. The toll it took on my relationships with mates and even with my kid. I decided this was an opportunity to explore where my sense of value came from and that exploration led me deeper into an understanding that my value is innate and has always come from within me. It comes from my heart and from my soul and not from what I do but rather from who I am. That doesn’t change with a job, but it informs whatever work I do.

I learned that being a big fish is truly unimportant, but having a big heart makes all the difference.

The people who loved me still love me, and now I had the opportunity to learn to love myself. I learned that having a great job is much less important than doing whatever job I did have well. And I learned about money. I, who had always decried the American addiction to materialism, realized that I was not any less of an addict than anyone else.

It didn’t take me too long to see that all those things I thought I needed, I really didn’t. And that there was a huge difference between need and want.

I learned that living without those things wasn’t so very difficult once I let go of the judgment that I was less because I had less.

When I couldn’t afford the things I used to want, there were other things to do and my art and creativity flowered.

During the first month of my current job, every night when I left work and got into my car to drive home I found myself feeling anxious. For a month I just ignored it, but one night I got into my car feeling that way again and decided to just sit with that; to just let it be and see what it was about. What I found was my mind kept thinking that there had to be work things to plan for, to prepare for, to analyze, to worry about for the next day, because that had always been true.

And as I sat in my car, I realized that with this job, once I left the workplace I did not have to even think about it until the next morning when I walked in the door. In that moment, I saw the degree of stress I had lived with and accepted as normal my whole professional life. I breathed a sigh of relief; there was a certain freedom to this that really was an opportunity.

The truth is also that at my age, it’s scary to be making as little as I am and have nothing in the bank for when I get older. No, let me change that: it can be scary.

The real trick to life is figuring out how to make the best of what we have, isn’t it? I mean the future is out there but it’s kind of pointless if we can’t find a way to enjoy and accept our lives as they are today.

Now, my days at work are actually pleasant and most days are even fun. Life is still full of all the beautiful colors. And still, there are moments when I am miserable and busy scaring the hell out of myself. But now, at least I know how to keep those moments very short.

I do freak myself out when I begin to obsess about the future. What’s going to happen to me? Will I ever find a job again in my profession? On and on, tripping out about the future — it’ll kill ya.

There are some truths: first, is that right now, given the state of the economy there is very little I can do about the future. Given what is happening to so many of my friends, I am lucky to have a job at all.

Ah, but the fear of the future beckons like a dangerously seductive woman. But I don’t buy into it, I am not seducible. What I have truly discovered is the importance of fully living in the present. Worrying about the future adds nothing but misery. Trying to reconstruct the past has the same effect.

So when I catch myself obsessing about my future or lost in thinking about the past, I just stop. I take a few deep breaths, look around and remind myself that the present is both all there is and is actually okay — or it will be okay as long as I am fully aware in it.

That does not mean that I am giving up on planning or working on my future. It simply means that I work on the future best by being in the present when I do it.

An old friend of mine once said, “The present is God’s present to us.” It takes faith, and if you take the time to pay attention, you may notice that if we don’t resist life, somehow things really do work out.

My great hope is that sharing my story may be of some help to you who may be in a similar circumstance or offer you a way to assist someone you love who may be having a hard time of it.

Me? I’m doing just fine.

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