Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
January 2012 - Volume 12, No. 1
As If No Tomorrow
There’s an old Portuguese proverb, “God says, take whatever you want - then pay for it.” But with increasing frequency, I’m meeting people with whom the only way to understand their behavior is to consider that they have no sense of a future. The “take whatever you want” is operative, but the “then pay for it” is missing.
Husbands will complain of wives, and vice versa, who “spend as if there is no tomorrow.” If you want something, and you have a credit card, well, there seems to be no question. In working with couples, the most difficult area for communication and co-operation is usually finance. Sex is often second in communication difficulty, but finances is by far the major power stand-off.
I’m not a social historian, but my sense is that in earlier times, the control of the finances was the male prerogative, since he was the ‘breadwinner.‘ With the advent of more egalitarian social models, any latent disequilibrium still shows forth with money. One will hold tight to the needs and wants of today, and the other holds tight with the needs and wants of tomorrow. They become polarities - with precious little middle ground. So the games begin.
One of the best ‘games’ is that of “borrow and then die, ha ha.” If I can borrow a great sum and then die before I have to pay it back, I win! This explains, at many levels, much of what’s happening in our culture.
When I’m in an upscale shopping mall, I’ll watch the women. Beneath an often well-appointed exterior, I’ll perceive no good sex (if any at all), no meaningful communication with a partner, a soul-less social life - but by damn, they’ve got their credit card. And they use it! Even President Obama approves; he has to. I know a woman who got breast implants against her husband’s economic wishes - which of course poisoned future marital intimacies.
We are living in a time when the iconic American presumption of prosperity (trusting a better tomorrow) has been interrupted at least for a couple decades. That’s the time span of an entire generation. Retirees and pensioners grew up trusting that we had a government that cared for and guarded their future. The despair of that betrayal runs quiet but very deep. And we have a generation of young people who know nothing of a government that cares, except for its own narrow self-interest, and the narrow 1% wealthy.
Some political factions see that we’ve spent too much in the past, so the natural answer is to spend less now (where it’s politically easiest). It’s a great economic model, especially for individual persons and families. But force-apply it at a public policy level, and the suffering imposed on real people is tremendous and protracted. It’s so easy - care only about economics and don’t care about people. (That was a masterful leadership move!) So simple. Even at the ballot box. And Ronald Reagan is still lionized for it!
Yes, the “now, at the expense of tomorrow” is a seductive model. It underlies all addictive behaviors. Alcoholics Anonymous with its imminent practicality knows that sobriety is only one day at a time. There is no tomorrow - because addiction never has a tomorrow.
A currently popular religious model is the doomsday scenario. God himself will end it for us. Just trust in a God who will destroy his creation - but who will, of course, preserve a chosen “remnant.” We can read it easily into the Bible; much of the Old and New Testaments were formed in times of chaos and persecution. But then we completely miss those parts of the Bible that declare God will “never again” do that. Many Christians have always had difficulty with the idea of universal salvation. And when other religious display such a spiritual preeminence, we want to send troops to ‘deter’ them. We’ve done it many more times than we wish to admit - since we first arrived on these shores. Religion unfortunately becomes an easy handmaid for the prevailing psychology of a culture.
So let’s ask it this way - just how does someone have a future in a time like this, or at least a future that’s worth trusting?
Some people seem to be just born with hope as their primary constitution. Generally speaking they do well no matter what’s going on in the larger world.
But there are two more groups. A second group consists of those who only have hope because somebody specifically cares about them. This care can be well-planted by their family, by a system of religious belief, by a community or government, or just by particular individuals present to them.
A third group consists of those who have little hope at all, as if nobody cares about them. And that’s their ongoing experience - no matter what we might want to preach to them otherwise. Perhaps they’ll cry out “Does anybody care!” But these days they’re mostly silent.
I write this particular newsletter at the beginning of a new year - a new year in a very difficult world. My client world, my personal world, and even the world of my dreams, all direct me to pay attention to what’s going on with this double topic of having a future we can trust, of having hope.
Perhaps it’s oversimple, but let me give it to you like this: Let’s each dedicate ourselves right now
1)to a celebration of the first group - to those stalwart good folks who are able by constitution to keep it together, no matter what;
2) to the active encouragement of the second group - those who have hope only because somebody cares about them, and perhaps because we ourselves are the ones who care;
3) and to give everything we’ve got to those for whom hope and a trustworthy future are absent or at the least, fleeting.
This is a year to live from the heart - where the future and hope long to reside. Even if we’re the only ones left to do the caring, let’s do it, and do it boldly! Even if it no longer seems to work.
Two choices:Care boldly, or care boldly dammit - as if that’s all that’s left. And sometimes it is.
By a psychological “game” I refer to a predictable sequence which once triggered, inevitably (most of it unconscious) leads to a predictable outcome - usually negative in nature. In this case it’s an anger game. It’s not necessarily that I “win” - but the payoff is that I can get you to lose more - ha ha!
A cruel corollary, which itself is not a “game” is an economy which forces people to borrow or forfeit their economic future just to make ends meet in the present. Many 401ks and pensions have been borrowed or liquidated with little or no hope of future reinvestment. Here we have an economy which makes the middle class poor, and the poor poorer. Hope is literally stolen from people. Of course there have always been those who want to “win” over the carcasses of the poor. But a culture (and government) that has abdicated the control of greed openly allows (encourages?) this destruction. This is not a game (with unconscious elements), but a deliberate maneuver on the part of an emergent oligarchy.
It’s no surprise that with the absence of any effective future, the “games” of the present are fueled by a social anger that has little to do with “winning” but only with a projection of “gettingyou to lose more than me.” It certainly makes sense of our crime statistics. Then we cut back our police forces and send our young men and women as “soldiers” overseas. The message is heard clearly. Nobody up above really cares.
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