As the indicators by which we've measured our collective well-being in recent years continued to plummet, I found a story of Parker Palmer echoing in my head. He and I spoke years ago about his mid-life experience of clinical depression, about which he has written searchingly and made rich sense in later life. He told me about a psychiatrist who helped him move to a new level of healing by asking him, "Could you begin to imagine your depression not as an enemy that is crushing you — but as a friend pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?" His description of the unrealistically elevated heights of ego and freneticism that preceded his psychological depression — an unsustainable, inflated sense of what is normal — was startlingly analogous with our economic present.
And of the "economic terrors that now engulf us." Parker makes this plain but startling observation: "At some level most of us knew they were coming." We know that we can't live forever beyond our means, that unregulated greed cannot end well, that a cycle of prosperity that brings unparalleled wealth while simultaneously impoverishing an ever wider population will eventually yield to that imbalance. In recent years many of us have suspended this knowledge in favor of optimism and opportunities based on facts and figures — "the numbers," as my colleagues at Marketplace say — that presented themselves and that we have collectively accepted as a harder, surer reality.
The knowledge we need to reckon morally and spiritually with the place we're in now — the commonplace knowledge that might have shielded us from some of the human wreckage that is being wrought — comes, Parker Palmer says, "from a place deeper than our intellects." During a bull market, such talk might sound sentimental, fanciful, and irrelevant. Yet as the numbers betrayed us, the talk even among economists was of a loss of "faith" in the market. We are given to realize anew that even in the realm of commerce and finance — as in fact science has been detailing in biochemical terms for years — human emotion and desire shapes our most concrete endeavors. The emotion of greed, the emotion of fear, are some of the drivers we can discern behind the Narnia-like illusions behind hedge funds, subprime mortgages, and derivatives that we accepted, for a time, as the contour of solid economic reality.
This kind of truth telling — this correction, if you will — is sobering, but it is also good news. The numbers don't become irrelevant now, but we can see them more clearly, with their limits, and give due attention to other modes of analysis that complete and anchor our humanity. We can tap more seriously into the practical resources of vocabulary and practice that religious and spiritual traditions have mined for centuries. They offer language, as Parker Palmer displays this hour, that can invigorate and refresh our common reflection — thinking about abundance and scarcity in non-material terms, about violence and nonviolence in everyday life, and teachings about acknowledging fear but not being consumed and guided by it.
This conversation with Parker Palmer is just one part of a wider and deeper project we're calling "Repossessing Virtue" and in which we hope you will be involved. We've been inviting your reflections online for several weeks. We're also calling up a range of wise former guests on Speaking of Faith and gathering their ruminations. You can listen to those briefer conversations with the wonderful religious historian Martin Marty ("America's Changing Religious Landscape") stress researcher Esther Sternberg ("Stress and the Balance Within"), Swiss banker Prabhu Guptara ("The Gods of Business"), social activist Shane Claiborne ("The New Monastics"), and Pankaj Mishra ("The Buddha in the World") and others to come.
We've also interviewed Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen ("Listening Generously") on this. She points out that the questions we're pondering in our financial and family lives now are essentially spiritual questions. What does it mean to live a worthy, if not wealthy, life? What is genuinely important, and what can I genuinely live without? What are my children learning from this moment? Who and what do I trust in, and why? And how, in my immediate world, will I respond and take responsibility for the consequences of human and societal wreckage that we are about to experience?
I note to Parker Palmer, and I'll add here, that I'm well aware of the ease — the danger — of having a beautiful conversation on the virtue that might emerge from economic crisis, when human beings are going to be falling through the cracks all around us. This on-air and online conversation must summon practical wisdom and collective courage for responding to that. I am committed in this venture, as in everything we do, to my sense that if we can speak about the important questions in our lives in new, fresh, and vivid ways, we can also live them differently together.