Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Notions of Regret

A lot of people have been edgy for the past year, on the heels of the so-called "global economic downturn". With so many people having seen their investment portfolio diminish by 30% or more overnight (actually, I think the dreadful event - the unprecedented collapse of the stock market - took place exactly a year ago today), and the subsequent worldwide bankruptcy of major financial institutions, the loss of jobs and the foreclosure and repossession of over-leveraged houses, it is small wonder people are still feeling timid, unsure and less than buoyant. It is especially disturbing that no one is immune to the effects of the catastrophe. There was a time, for example, when those employed in the public service, including teachers, would not have imagined that anything as pedestrian as the private sector economy would have impinged upon their accustomed daily routine and reality, but the shake-up is generally acknowledged to be pervasive, if for no other reason than that the malaise goes to the heart of pensions (the well-known provocation for public service). Add to this the further indignity of a rash of perfidious financial advisors who have spent the private resources of their Clients, and the balance of the world seems even more precarious.

As with any failure, the repercussions include self-recrimination and admonishment. Many people are for the first time in their lives facing the reality that they have not only lost substantial but saved nothing. If one’s employment is on the line at the same time, the prospect of the future is hardly inviting. Even for those who were smart enough to have set aside money in their RRSPs, the combined erosion of those funds and the evaporation of their pensions from such former giants as Nortel, presents a formidable adjustment to one’s plans. It has been reported that, in the United States, people in record numbers are now hoarding whatever cash they have, their consciences stung by the realization that fortunes can change in an instant.

Keeping one’s head above water in these difficult times is for many a constant concern. Even if the events of one’s life are for the time being comfortable enough, the possibility of deterioration looms like a specter on the horizon. The agitation is compounded where young people are involved - our youth - since the need for employment is obviously so pressing for them as well.

In an odd obsession, I regularly catch myself - especially in the middle of the night when clear thought is not always featured - contemplating the overwhelming detail which figures in the conduct and management of daily commercial enterprise, anywhere. Perhaps it’s because I feel inert at the time of night that I am so apparently submerged and drowning in particulars and minutia. I view this distortion as a metaphor for the life-line (mastery of detail) which I imagine connects me to what is at least external stability (even if my inner thoughts and perceptions share a lesser permanence and steadiness). I suspect that if I were to unravel this routine even further it would highlight some deeper paranoia which may in fact have nothing whatever to do with its apparent target. There have to be thousands like me who compensate for what was a broadside earlier in life, an event or series of events which upset the equilibrium. On the other hand, maybe it’s nothing more than the instinctive wariness which comes from running your own business for your entire life, having no one else to rely upon.

Being in the mix, going to work and doing things, inevitably calms the churning waters. Assuming one isn’t completely distraught, there can be reasonable satisfaction from attending to daily exigencies, generally taking care of business. Things aren’t always as active as one might prefer, but recalling the larger picture can often assuage the temporary uneasiness. If nothing else, the troughs of inactivity provide a moment for recapitulation and reflection, but not always with any useful purpose. Hounded by distrust and suspicion, the record of the past, albeit persuasive, is often neither comforting nor determinative.

It is undeniable that financial insecurity is a malignant disease. Nonetheless, to equate happiness with the size of one’s bank account is a disservice to the broader purpose of life. Such magnanimity of spirit may present an intellectual hurdle at first blush, but I believe it is worth the effort, if for no other reason than to preserve the dignity of oneself. It hardly bears repeating how many people have in the past suffered unfathomable setbacks; but equally undeniable is the number who have grasped the situation and turned it around. The madness of life is that it stops for nothing; and, unless you hang on, you’re easily disengaged and hurled aside as so much human debris. On the contrary, persistence, even if unglamourous at the start, can provide untold compensation and rewards, very often transcending with enviable commendation the pitiable calamity we seek to overcome. The depth of one’s stamina can become a veritable well of nourishment and resource, opening avenues of contemplation and experience hitherto uncharted and untraveled. It is naturally more evocative for an outsider to weigh in on the advantages of toughness and endurance, but after a while the staying power has its own unimaginable treasures, frequently strengthened by altogether unexpected though welcome outcomes. It is at moments of heightened sensitivity that one is introduced to the unanticipated breadth of human experience, its poetry, its magic, its sheer profundity. Lamentably it often requires the collision of will and way to secure one’s release from the containment of our ritual and uninteresting experience. We are after all more than cartoon characters; and, it’s a big step into the real world.

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