An Epic Change

Have you noticed what an amazing time in history we are all living? I think we are a very lucky group of people to be witnessing and even participating in such incredible changes in our country and in the world. I am not referring here just to the fact that we elected our first non-Caucasian individual to the office of Presidency, although I do think that is a reflection of the shift. (Personally I am more excited about this man’s character than I am about his mixed ethnic roots.) No, I am referring here to what I believe is a seismic change of epic proportions. I hope that I will be around long enough to be able to a have conversation with my grandchildren about this shift.

I think it is time to admit that this country has been on a drunken orgy of greed and consumption, fueled by sophisticated marketing, easy credit and assumption of privilege, for decades. I would like to blame it on the current administration, investment bankers, the lending institutions, the stock brokers, and the culture of entire financial institution. But in the quiet of the night, I realize that there is plenty of culpability to go around.

I think we have known for a long time that something was wrong, but as long as we could continue to buy our flat screen TVs, our SUVs, our 3,000 sq ft houses and designer jeans, few of us wanted to rock the boat. Even though it did not seem right, few of us said much as long as the “appraised value” of our over priced homes continued to go up. I am afraid that far too many of us were addicted to a cheap drug – consumerism. Too many of us were “getting high” on our “things.” But we have discovered, like a lot of other addictive drugs, that we do not derive any long term happiness or contentment from our possessions. Consumerism is a lie.

I suspect that we are now going to have to go through a painful period of “withdrawal.” I know of few social commentators, few economists, who believe that things are going to go back to the way they were. What we had was not real, and we discovered that the “king had no clothes,” and never had clothes.

Investment banks are a thing of the past; our million dollar houses are being sold on the auction block, and cars are stacking up on the docks with no place to go. CEOs are turning down their outrageous bonuses and managing partners of hedge funds are watching trillions of dollars evaporate. The “new economy” that was being hoisted upon us by MBA grad schools for the last twenty years, is finally dead.

Please understand my family has not escaped the pain brought on by this economic collapse. I am a volunteer, living in part on a small fixed income from investments that have lost value. My wife and I have watched our meager assets diminish to a point that we know that we will have to make some significant adjustments in the future. More importantly, I am the primary caretaker for my parents, both in their mid 90’s. They are living in an assisted living home since they require daily medical care. Their small trust has been reduced by 30% and we will soon have to find another way to care for them.

Sadly, as always, it will be those on the lower end of the economic ladder who will suffer the most in this economic tsunami. For some it will be tragic and we must do everything in our power to minimize their suffering.

I find it a fascinating irony that this “catastrophe” is happening during the holiday season – the time when we honor the birth of Jesus. I have wondered what Jesus would think of our typical Christmas season that represents as much as 70% annual retail sales for many of our largest retailers. I have often wondered how Jesus would have interpreted our frantic shopping during Christmas season, in the new “temples” of our society – the shopping malls. Although no one from the first century could have possibly understood our wealthy culture and social system, but it seems clear that the teachings of Jesus warn us about getting lost in our acquisitions and hoarding of our possessions and never discovering the true things of value – relationships, community, trust in the Spirit and love, for example.

But being the eternal optimist that I am, I see a silver lining in all of this. And it is not just a theoretical lining, but one based on my observations. I have heard more and more people talking about what is really important in their lives and coming to some very different conclusions than they might have a year ago. I have listened to more than one family talk about how they are going to find creative ways to do Christmas differently. They are excited about planning experiences rather than buying gifts. I recently sat with a group of friends while one of the men shared openly about the likelihood that he was going to lose his job, his pension and severance pay. It was a unique experience to hear a man be so open and candid about his situation. There was a measurable growth in the depth of the relationships of the group.

Some people are talking about getting smaller homes and simplifying their lives. Individuals in churches are working together to find ways to help those who may be the most destitute in this economic chaos. And many people are reexamining their lives and openly trying to sort out what is truly important. Somehow all of this chaos got our attention. It woke us up, in a sense, and it appears it will continue to wake us up for some time to come.

Hard as this all may be, we are bound to see changes. I believe a lot of them are going to be good. Maybe we have broken our “drug addiction” and we will have more time to meet our neighbors and find out how they are doing. Maybe we will be more sensitive to the plight of others and we will begin to take action, both politically as well as personally. Maybe we will become more compassionate and discover when we reach out to others with love, we will feel, as in the famous Leonardo DaVinci mural, that we are touching the “finger of God.” We may even begin to discover God incarnate in the eyes and hearts of so many others that we missed before.

And just maybe this Christmas we will find that the real purpose of Christmas is not shopping or getting things. It is not about loud parties and street decorations. And it is not about crowded malls and Christmas bonuses. Just maybe we will discover that the real purpose of Christmas is birthing the Christ that is always within us. Maybe we will take this an opportunity to manifest the true spirit of Christ on this day and forever.

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