Friday, May 21, 2010

Less it, more thou (Sunday Reflections for May 23, 2010)

The past month has been another roller coaster ride for Wall Street. Watching stock market gyrations in recent years has no doubt done wonders for Pepto-Bismol sales. And yet a longer term view shows that, when it comes the nation’s equity markets, things have really just been going nowhere in a hurry. With this week’s decline, the S&P 500 index (a broader measure than the DOW) is back at a point it first reached 12 years ago.

For as long as people have thought in terms of economics (a modern development, by the way), it has simply been assumed that the goal was always GROWTH—more, bigger, faster, better. In recent years there has been much worrying talk of our economy being "stagnant," "flat," or "stuck." Such conversations always occur among people with grim faces, communicating that these are seriously bad things.

There are a growing number of people, however, who are challenging that assumption. They have actually been around for quite awhile but in the past they usually were dismissed as naïve if not irrational. Not so much anymore.

It’s not that economic growth has suddenly gotten a bad name. Rather, it’s starting to become apparent that, whether we like the idea of constant growth or not, it may just not be possible anymore—at least not the way it used to be. In other words, the stock markets’ decade-plus seesaw may be telling us something important about a new world that we are entering.

The one factor leading to this new world that everyone is aware of is oil. The term “peak oil” is being discussed a lot these days. It refers to the fact that global oil production is slowly declining now—it’s “peaked.” New sources are still being found but they are (at best) only replacing depleted sources. Those new sources also tend to be harder to reach and therefore more expensive and more hazardous. At the same time, however, demand is growing as formerly under-developed countries build all the modern infrastructure of their developed neighbors. Other resources are also being strained to keep up with demand for all the concrete, steel, plastics, cables, microchips, etc these nations want. And then there’s that whole food thing (oh yeah, and water—hmm, anything else?).

Awareness of this has produced a lot of doom and gloom prognosticating. In addition to scholarly papers and books, Hollywood had found dystopian, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it sagas great ways to show off their latest special effects gadgetry (3-D!!). They’re good money makers, as well, being the newest type of horror films, and we all know how much we like being scared to death (that ancient Greek catharsis thingy still seems to work).

Yet this is all based on the assumption, so common in the business world, that if you’re not growing then you’re dying. Indeed, it is built into our culture in so many ways and we learn it almost from birth. As consumers (a great word in itself) we are taught that, whatever we have, something better will be coming soon to render it obsolete and needing to be replaced. Planned obsolescence used to get people angry but now it’s an accepted part of life. “Of course, it broke after the warranty expired. What did you expect? Just go out and get a new one.”

What happens, though, if we find ourselves in a world where you can’t “just go out and get a new one”? For most of us, me included, it’s almost impossible to imagine. We are so accustomed to our lives being a climb up a ladder of ever-growing and improving products: toys, electronics, cars, houses, RVs, etc. Indeed—and here’s the rub—it’s the way we’ve come to measure and value our lives. “If I don’t have “X” by the time I’m 30/40/50 then, I’m a failure.” What else is there?

In the last chapter of Saving Jesus from the Church (the book a group of us have been discussing at church), author Robin Meyers concludes his re-imagining of Christianity by saying religion and life itself is all about relationships. He refers to the German Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965), whose most famous book was I and Thou (Ich und Du, 1923). In his works, Meyers says, Buber “spelled out his belief that life at its depth is dialogical and that reality itself is defined by personal dialogue.”

The contrasting type of relationship is “I-It” in which a human relates to something else as an object. There is no dialog in such a relationship because the other is treated as a thing. We are unconcerned about what affect we may have on it and assume it can have no real affect on ourselves. “It” is disposable because it has little if any intrinsic value. “I-It” is the type of relationship most common in our lives, often even when we are relating to other people.

An “I-Thou” relationship, however, assumes that there will be genuine interaction. As a result of such a relationship, I will learn and grow, “I” will be affected and so will “Thou.” In the course of such a relationship, I will become a different person, and ideally a fuller and better one. Imagine if we evaluated our relationships on such a basis, and not just those with other people. Imagine if we asked about the inanimate objects that we consider acquiring, not just will it make me happy or impress my friends, but will it make me a better person, will I grow and learn from this?

It’s said that the Chinese for “crisis” combines the ideas of danger and opportunity. There is much danger in the current crisis but also real opportunity. Our current cultural lifestyle is rapidly becoming untenable. Yet most indications are that it hasn’t really been making us all that happy, anyway.

There is an opportunity here to stop and ask ourselves anew, “What really makes me happy?” Having more and bigger things hasn’t really been doing it for us. What if we saw our lives not as a journey of accumulation of things but as a journey of experiences which help us learn and grow as human beings? What if we asked of people and things, not how can we use them, but how can we relate to them and interact with them and be changed by them? Such a life would have little concern for price tags, size or speed. And the nice thing is that for that kind of growth, there doesn’t seem to be any limits.

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