As I See It: Test of Character
January 19, 2009 Victor Rozek
A flock of wild turkeys regularly comes to the house, pressing their little wrinkled heads against the windows, hoping to persuade my wife to toss some corn their way. While they wait, they work the ground beneath the bird feeders, competing with the squirrels for what the birds knock down, tearing up the grass with their large clawed feet, and adorning our patio with whatever remains after turkeys digest corn, bugs, and bird food.
They like it here. Too tough to be tasty to humans, too fast to be caught by most predators, they strut and gobble and make the rounds, secure as turkeys can be. But when the flock leaves, one bird stays behind. She’s lame, lifting her right leg behind her as she awkwardly hops about searching for food. If she tries to follow the flock, it will attack her. For reasons best understood by turkeys, she has become a liability and they no longer accept her as part of the group.
They’re much like people in that regard. We instinctively want to move away from the aged, the ailing, the poor, the burdensome. It’s as if all creatures need the freedom to flee, and whatever hinders the possibility of escape becomes a threat. Thankfully, our higher angels frequently override such instincts, yet our ability to exercise compassion is generally delimited by the degree to which we believe our own survival is at risk.
Which is why times of economic stress become tests of character.
We’re all searching for the pony in the economic manure pile. It’s deep in there, and none too pleasant. Which is why, I suspect, no one is rushing to our aid. Those with influence and means have been rushing to their own aid, unconcerned with the flailing of an increasingly desperate middle class. And the deeper it gets, the more of us will play the role of the lame turkey, shunned by others intent on not being dragged down themselves. The sad truth is, once you’ve lost your job and spent your money, you no longer have standing with the flock.
There are many indications that the current recession may prove far more severe than originally thought. This year hundreds-of-thousands of additional businesses are predicted to close, leaving millions more unemployed. Already suicides and child abuse–sure signs of economic distress–are on the rise, as people are stretched beyond their capacity for resourcefulness. We pray the worse may not happen, but we would be foolish not to prepare for it.
Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Many more families supplement their incomes with credit. When these people lose their jobs, and their unemployment benefits run out, they only thing standing between them and homelessness is the support system provided by family and friends. A recent caller to NPR described a heart-breaking scenario which, with some variation, is becoming all too familiar. She was a single mom who married a single dad in June. By November her husband lost his job, and all of the financial responsibility fell to her. By January he and his children moved out, their marriage broken by the weight of financial stress. She felt guilty, he no doubt felt betrayed. If they had a support system, it failed them.
Depending on the length and severity of the economic crisis, how we emerge on the other side may well depend on how mindfully we support each other. It’s not too early to begin discussions with those closest to us as to what kind of support we are prepared to offer and able to receive.
Like so many other tests of character, supporting each other begins at home. Workplace worries and financial stress invariably take their toll on relationships, straining patience, testing loyalty, and causing commitments to be questioned. Unaddressed issues, tolerable during good times, become exacerbated during periods of extreme stress. Small irritations loom large; petty annoyances grow teeth. When times are good, the inclination is to not rock the boat; but now it becomes imperative to address things as they come up so that issues don’t amass to the point of overwhelm. The very act of sharing worries will dilute them, making them more manageable. And talking about the impact of an issue will be more valuable than talking about the issue itself. There may be little one can do about concerns such as the economy, for example, but we can manage our reaction to it.
Left unaddressed, simmering issues will manifest as anger and blame. Anger is almost always a secondary emotion masking fear, frustration, helplessness, or any number of other negative feelings. Anger is best managed by expressing it, while not directing it at someone else. People living in the same house become natural targets for our discontent, but surviving tough times will require mutual support not mutual rancor. It’s terrible to lose a job, worse to lose a home, but losing a job, a home, and a relationship can break even the most resolute individuals. Finding ways to get anger and stress out of your system–whether through jogging, or chopping wood, or screaming while alone in the car, or practicing meditation, or yoga, or beating pillows with a plastic bat, will provide a much-needed pressure-release valve. And, as the anger subsides, so will the tendency to blame.
At work, everyone faces a degree of uncertainty. As the work force is cut, the pressure mounts on the remaining employees who not only assume a greater workload, but do so while wondering “Am I next?” Those fortunate enough to stay employed may at some point grapple with the dilemma of choosing between “me” and “us.” If it wasn’t required, would you volunteer to work half time so that someone else could do likewise? Would you offer to take less money to keep others employed? Would you mentor a lower-paid colleague if higher-salaried employees were in danger of being laid off?
For that matter, would you take someone in if they had no place to live? Are you willing to help friends financially? If you are an employer, how much profit would you sacrifice to keep people employed? In other words: who would you save and who would you leave behind? These are not generally questions we are asked to grapple with during good times. Generosity is easy to practice when the fridge is full and there is money in the bank. The real test of character comes when everything we value threatens to be stripped away.
Americans have been exploited by a twisted system that rewards the guilty and punishes the innocent. It’s what Aaron Sorkin called “Darwinomics,” except it turns out that the “fittest” are the biggest crooks. But the best among us have always been those who rise above injustice and personal injury and remain compassionate–the people for whom compassion is a verb, not an adjective. Many of us have never experienced privation. We have no model for how to behave; no past experience on which to draw. The worse things get, the more reptilian our responses are likely to be. But some blessed percentage will rise above human nature and touch the divine through the one spiritual practice available to people of all faiths, in all times, in all places: kindness.
A stanza from a poem of the same name by Naomi Shihab Nye says:
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things,
One hundred fifty-five people experienced that moment recently when U.S. Airways flight 1549 lost an engine. But disaster was averted because everyone–the captain, the crew, the passengers, the boat crews–everyone did their part. Different things were required of all those aboard. The pilot contributed courage and expertise; the crew provided calm and direction; the passengers exercised patience and participated in an orderly evacuation; the boats provided transport and plucked people from the frigid waters. No one person could have done it all, but together, with everyone doing their part, all were saved.
I believe that ultimately what will get us through this crisis are not the big bailouts, nor the stimulus packages, or the tax cuts. It will be the millions of anonymous heroes who extend themselves to catch someone going over the falls.