Negotiating the Recession: We Can't Be Forever Blessed
The New York Times reports this morning that there were 243,353 foreclosure filings in April alone, nearly three times the total in the same month just two years ago," making it all but inevitable that "many millions of American families will be losing their homes before long."
In The Scars of Losing a Home, Times writer Robert A. Shiller reports that following a brief moment of sympathy for such unfortunates, we will almost instinctively turn the full force of our judgment upon them.
[I]nstead of having sympathy for these homeowners, many people blame them for their predicaments. That isn’t surprising. It’s an example of a general tendency that was documented by social psychologists decades ago.
In his 1980 book, “The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion,” Melvin Lerner, a social psychologist, argued that people want to believe in the inherent justice of the economic system in which they live, and want to believe that people who appear to be suffering are in fact responsible for their own situations.
He provided empirical evidence, derived from experiments, that after an initial pang of sympathy, people tend to develop negative views toward others who are suffering. That negative tendency seems to be at work today.
Losing "Everything" -- How Bad is It?
When the Northridge earthquake threw me out of bed in the early morning hours of January 17, 1994, my financial life was sliding out of control. By May, I'd be laid off from my job as an associate attorney in a prominent Los Angeles law firm and by July I'd be signing bankruptcy papers. Foreclosure would follow.
More pertinent to the morning of the earthquake is the fact that neither my downstairs neighbor --the HOA's President -- nor many of the other owners in my 50-unit condominium complex were speaking to me. Not only was I failing to pay my HOA dues in a timely fashion, I had the scent of failure about me.
Neighbors in Los Angeles tend to come together only following natural disasters. Fire, flood, earthquake, O.J. These were the seasons of the year in which the the federal government erased my indebtedness; the bank foreclosed on my home; and, I was thrown up on consumerism's shores without any credit cards.
On the morning of the earthquake, the shame associated with my financial distress kept me from joining my neighbors on the sidewalk as aftershocks continued to wrench the foundations of our building. Instead, I opened the French doors to my small balcony, pulled the pillow and blanket from my bed and laid down on the living room floor in order to take comfort from the small talk rising up from the street below.
By June, foreclosure papers would be posted on my front door and I would be living in the "studio" apartment good friends created for me out of the chaos of a spacious but unused basement in their small Echo Park house. As L.A. began the slow re-construction of its streets, apartment buildings and houses, as fallen chimneys were rebuilt and freeways restored, I too would begin a recovery of my own, not only materially, but spiritually as well.
Another story in today's Times recounts the shame white collar workers experience in their hot-house communities when they are laid off from high paying jobs. In The Language of Loss for the Jobless we learn that failure leaves our friends speechless and ourselves ashamed. "Victim-blaming," writes Hoffman,
dates to Job’s mourners. “It helps people who are still employed to believe that people who have been laid off did something wrong,” Ms. Baber said. “If you can blame them, then you can feel protected. If it’s just random — ‘they moved customer service to Dallas’ — then nothing will protect you either, and that’s scary to people.”
Though we may not know what to say, most of us know what to do. As the wife of one laid off executive recounts -- “Friends have kept us alive. . . and given us clothes for our kids. One friend just found a job for my husband.”
Material Losses and Spiritual Gains
Our culture suffers from the burden of success. Not only does failure tend to cause us shame, many see the inevitable losses that necessarily punctuate even the most "successful" careers as moral failings. And let's not be coy -- often bad decisions and poor judgment cause successes that are precariously balanced and relationships that are already strained to "suddenly" collapse.
Because we tend only to share our stories of success and not our failures, we hardly know what to do when misfortune knocks on our door. That's why today's Times "recession" stories made me want to share my own tale of loss. Because we too often feel as if we can only share the "success" bits of our personal family narratives.
Here's the good news for those facing bankruptcy and foreclosure: if you are able to find a community of people who are also recovering from life's inevitable reverses, you will eventually find that success -- with its attendant pretense of imperviousness to disaster -- is actually more alienating than its opposite. I consider myself more than lucky to have found such a community. One that taught me how much more important it is for me to be of service to my fellows than to reach some perceived pinnacle of success. One that taught me that it is better to be a worker among workers than it is to be "best in show" One that taught me that my fortune lies in neighborliness and my wealth in the quality of my relationship with my fellows. One that taught me, finally, that it is better to weather flood, fire, earthquake, riot, and recession in a community in which I am simply one of its fallible members than it is to huddle under a blanket holding onto my fragile self-esteem while yearning to join the company of my neighbors on the street below.
**/ Taken from Paul Simon's American Tune,
We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest