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The On Being Project

What Most Deeply Sustains Us

This is a new installment in our ongoing series, “Repossessing Virtue,” which we’ve been building online and on-air since the economic downturn began in the fall of 2008. We’ve heard how changed circumstances are raising questions for many about what matters in life and what most deeply sustains us — what we are learning in this moment, and how we might live differently beyond it. We chose a cross-section of the beautiful, thoughtful essays we received from disparate places, vocations, and spiritual perspectives and called people up at home or at work. They read from the stories they’d written and had a conversation with our producers. Many essays, extended interviews, and photos are on our Web site for you to explore via an interactive map. Here’s an introduction to the voices in this radio broadcast:

Emily Muschinske, an illustrator of children’s books and mother of two young children, is thinking a lot these days about the emotional toll that cycles of layoffs are taking, as she wrote to us, “on those of us cut off suddenly from the life and people we came to know, trust, and sometimes even love.” She asks, “How do we fight the bitterness, the powerlessness, we feel after a layoff? How do we return to our work with an expansive, open spirit ready to share our lives with new people and contribute to the group in a good way?”

Marc Mullinax, a professor of religion and philosophy at Mars Hills College in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina is continuing to fast one day a week beyond the Christian season of Lent, which he’s come to understand as a form of “holy interruption.” And he’s using the notion of holy interruption — as well as scenes from the movie The Matrix — as he works with his students in navigating new economic realities and prospects.

Lia Hadley, an IT consultant, grew up in Caracas, Grenada, Palo Alto, and Montreal and is now settled in northern Germany with her husband and children. A dramatic downturn in her economic outlook came nine years ago with the IT crash of 2000, and she has been adjusting her understanding of work, money, trust, and life ever since. She’s finding tremendous hope for the renewal of global community in realms of social activism and the arts that she has discovered via online social networking.

Abeer Raazi, of Columbus, Ohio, is just about to graduate from college with a degree in economics. He wrote this to us: “I have seen problems looming for my generation grow from hurdles into mountains before my eyes: the tensing political and economic climate, the wracked Social Security system and my parents that it might not be providing for, the severe economic limitations of oil, water, and food […] These problems have really provoked me, and have got me questioning many of the assumptions I was raised with.” He hopes to travel to Pakistan to learn about microfinance projects that have succeeded there in urban areas, and bring some of this knowledge back to a U.S. city.

Ellen Williams, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer around the same time the economic crisis hit. She’s intrigued by one of the questions we’ve been posing to listeners these last months, with the economic crisis in mind: Who will we be for each other? But Ellen Williams insists that who we will be for each other will flow out of a more basic question: Who am I? She’s become increasingly aware, she wrote in her essay to us, of how we define ourselves in American society by “signifiers” of age, gender, accomplishments, education, and membership. Moments of crisis, she’s appreciating in the midst of her own, force us to answer that question in new ways.

Khalid Kamau of New York City and Oana Marian of Los Angeles inhabit very different worlds at different ends of the country. Khalid Kamau worked until very recently as a financial analyst for a nonprofit in Manhattan. She is an independent filmmaker, finding projects sporadically and working in a restaurant where she stays, despite subsistence pay, because this place anchors her sense of family and community. Both of them responded to our query about moral and spiritual aspects of economic crisis with stories of remembered kindness and remembered community, that they feel our culture has lost — but that they want to recreate for their generation.

Jim King is president of an industrial scrap plastic recycling company in Telford, Pennsylvania. He sent us this story:

“Several weeks ago I went with twelve other men to Benton, Kentucky with our chainsaws to work with Mennonite Disaster Service cleaning up properties for mostly elderly people who had been affected by a recent ice storm. I was asked by a local person why we were doing this. Why did we come all the way from Pennsylvania to help them? I responded that back home our economy is not doing well either. In fact, several of the Amish men in my group were presently out of work because the construction industry is not doing well. And since their companies were not expecting a bailout, why not use the time to go give someone else a “bailout”? What better stimulus is there than to help a neighbor in need, even if they’re 816 miles away? To me, seeing the joy on an elderly person’s face and listening to people’s stories about the ice storm was ample reward. Hearing twelve chainsaws in a backyard is stimulus enough for me!”

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