Friday, November 14, 2008

Sense in the Time of Hardship

As economic misery mounts for the average American, pundits are busy pointing fingers. You can almost hear them coo: “I told you so!” Yet the same pundits told us before the bubble broke that we were in the era of limitless prosperity, that only the sky was the limit for hedge funds and stocks. The laissez faire market stretched to its extreme has gone bust. Bankers don’t regulate banks any more than inmates regulate asylums. (Coming to think of it, that’s what has been going on in these institutions of higher capitalism!) Ascribing altruism to Wall Street executives makes as much sense as asking a tyrant to punish himself for his crimes.

With the onset of the credit crunch and the scaling down of various forms of want, I have noticed a rather funny reaction among my fellow Muslims. It is a variation of “I told you so,” only more arrogant. If only people were not as greedy or selfish or unjust, this would not have happened, they say, conveniently forgetting that on average, Muslims are as guilty of unchecked materialism as anyone else. All scriptures advise believers not to live beyond their means, not to consume recklessly, not to engage in usurious transactions. But, of course, belief is easy and action difficult.

We need to change our habits and attitudes. Looking back, I see how much “stuff” I bought over the years that I had no use for. My overfilled garage bears testimony to my expensive foolishness. I had to have these things because … well, it was cool to have them. It satisfied a primal hunger for possessions that I felt helpless to resist until economic reality set in. Now the latest in digital cameras and smart phones and smarter toasters leave me looking the other way, in disgust or indifference.

I doubt that we will ever return to the “less is more” trend of the ‘60s and ‘70s but at least we are beginning to reflect on what is important and what is not, what is "need" and what is "want." We knew all along that as the newness of a gadget or a tool or a car or a house wears off, it loses its grip on our psyche and on our sense of happiness. But it made no difference to our desire to acquire, relentlessly and indiscriminately. Tough adjustment, however, has revealed the stark emptiness of toys, gilded or plain, and we are the better for it. If only this sense lasts even if the “good times” were to return!

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