Sunday, September 28, 2008

Quality of Life

I've been doing a lot of blogging recently, when I really ought to be doing real work. But I've got something personal to share, so I hope you'll stick with me here...

In the past few days, I have been processing through several seemingly disconnected concepts, and they just kind of congealed into a consistent theme this morning.

Here are the three motives, and also two figures that fill the spaces in between them:
A Global Financial Crisis has occurred because the world no longer has faith that America can make good on its debts. And I'm starting to think that they're absolutely right not to trust us--As a country, we are upside-down, deep underwater, drowning in debt, and it's entirely possible that we can't be resuscitated. As this article in Time magazine puts it:
Japan and Germany make cars. Saudi Arabia pumps oil. China supplies the world with socks and toys and flat-screen TVs. What does the United States produce? Lots of stuff, but in recent years this country's No. 1 export--by far--has been debt.

When you look at things this way, it becomes clearer what the frenzy in New York City and Washington is all about. There are major quality issues with our nation's flagship product.

I'd like to hope that we're just facing a mild recession, but realistically, if we're going to prevent a profound Depression, we have give the rest of the world a reason to have confidence in us. We need to pay back our debts (personal and national) and start living within our means.
So while today's crisis management makes a certain amount of sense, returning to the borrow-and-spend status quo afterward seems like a disastrous idea. If the U.S. is to have a future as an economic power, its long love affair with borrowed money has to end.

And so our race for a bigger and better Quality of Life has become a death march.

Two weeks ago, we had a huge windstorm in Cincinnati. Most areas lost power for days. But I've heard a lot of people talking about the good things that came out of it--Neighbors got to know each other; families played games together; we were all forced to slow down and interact with people, instead of wasting all of our free time in front of televisions and computers.

Maybe McMansions, SUVs, and HDTVs aren't the secret to happiness after all.

I believe that there's a better way to live.

About two years ago, I lost my job, and we lost 50% of our household income. I immediately rushed into another job, earning less than half of what I had been making.

It was not a good job. It was juvenile and frustrating, but I stuck to it. It took a couple of other life crises to bring me to the point where I was broken enough to quit.

The thought of being unemployed terrified me. I was afraid of fighting with my husband about money, I was afraid of losing our house, and I was afraid that my career was in a downward spiral, circling the drain. My sense of self-worth was totally tied up in the idea of earning a six-figure income.

I have to believe that the past two and a half years have been God's way of showing me that that's not what my life is supposed to be about.

You know what? Saying "God has a Plan" is just too glib, too simplistic. These two and a half years have been SO hard. I had been worried about a financial crisis, but I wound up in a crisis of faith.

I felt like every single time I got back on my feet and started moving forward, another door would be slammed in my face. I said that to my husband several months ago, and a few of weeks later, I found a couple of quotes from C.S. Lewis saying exactly the same thing:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be--or so it feels--welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.

Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not, 'So there's no God after all,' but, 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'

He's talking about the death of his beloved wife. I was grieving for my personal goals and dreams. (How crazy is that?) Fortunately, the story doesn't end there:
Your bid--for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity--will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high, until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man--or at any rate a man like me--out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.

And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: You are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.

The analogy is perfect. You have to be so exhausted, so very nearly dead, that you stop struggling and go limp, and that's when God can finally start to turn things around. That's exactly what a crisis of faith feels like.

So in the meantime, my husband and I had to cut back on ways that we were spending money. We had to give up going to Hawaii and the ski trips out West that we had been doing every year. We ate out less, and we didn't buy new clothes. I started getting books from the public library, instead of spending hundreds of dollars at Barnes & Noble. My husband deferred a lot things that he wanted to do--taking a sabbatical to finish the basement, buying woodworking equipment, purchasing an HDTV, etc.

But here's the crazy thing: We didn't really miss most of those things. And we didn't fight over money, and we didn't have to sell our house. (My husband deserves full credit for that, because he's the one who insisted on using conservative estimates for our income when we first established our budget for building the house five years ago.)

And three months ago, I wound up with a job that is a hundred times better than anything I could ever have imagined. I'm only earning about a third of the salary that I was making before, but I'm not wasting my life feeling tired, and anxious, and stressed out all the time.

I'd love to say that the story ends here. "And we lived happily ever after." But that would be glib and simplistic too.

I still have hopes and dreams that may go unfulfilled. I still struggle with thoughts like, "God, if you love me, why won't you give me the one last thing that I so desperately want?" I still have bouts of self-pity and depression. And it's still really hard for me to accept that I'm not the One in control of the Plan for my life.

So I guess you'll just have to stay tuned...

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