The academics and politicians (and if they’re not utterly insane, even the really wealthy people so out of touch with the realities of everyday life for the average American) have finally admitted what most of us have known since well before the stock markets stepped off that October cliff: the economy is in trouble. Deep, deep, recessional trouble.
I count myself fortunate, because by the end of this year, I’ll have finally paid off most of my debts. I still have a few payments left on my car, and my wife’s student loans will be paid off around the same time that real racial equality is acheived (read: probably not in my lifetime), but still: much better, thanks. I’ve got a stable job (albeit one that could pay better, but it pays well enough and the benefits and – more importantly – my co-workers are great) and a second part-time gig, plus I have plenty of opportunities for freelance work, some potentially lucrative. It could be a lot better — I’m at about two-thirds the income that I was at 16 months ago — but I’ve made adjustments where necessary to make the best of what it is.
Apparently, as I get older, I’m becoming far more conservative, at least in my actions. While I’m still a big fan of abortion and devil-worship and socialism and free homosexual marriage licenses, I’m less willing to take chances with jobs, more apt to make the safe plays, thinking further ahead and diversifying my assets, so to speak. I’m really tired of working 60-70 hours a week, but keeping the second job at the bar is a good source of extra money (allowing me to divert some of my salaried check to a retirement account) and a comfortable fall-back, in case something happens to the day job. I’m more apt to for substance over style, to make utilitarian purchases, to second-guess my real interest in big-ticket items.
It’s a strange shift in perspective for me, having lived so much of my life in the moment. I imagine that was largely a knee-jerk reaction against my parents and kid sister, who always saved and thought about the months and years ahead — but that seemed so BORING. So I thought about the here and now, because what if there is no tomorrow? What were you saving for (and thus, denying yourself) then? I took it too far, over time, and ran up an extraordinary amount of debt, all in the pursuit of having what I wanted NOWNOWNOW.
I’ve learned over the past few years that delayed gratification is not so bad, and not that hard to learn. I’ve learned to live without credit; with the knowledge that outside of cars, houses, and medical emergencies, if you can’t pay for it all now then you probably can live without it until you have the total. I’ve learned that it’s not a lot of fun to pay for things that happened five, ten, fifteen years ago, or things you bought then but have long since lost or stopped enjoying.
But I’ve done what I think is the right thing and paid my debts. I could have wriggled out of them, declared bankruptcy or ignored the creditors’ calls or pretended like none of it had ever happened. I didn’t, though, and although I sometimes feel more than a little bitter at people who skirt the system and still prosper while I played the game and still sometimes struggle, I”m glad I took the path I did. I learned a lot — about myself, and about how good and bad things can be. And I’ve earned a notch or two on my +2 Belt of Moral Superiority, while I’m at it.
I don’t think that you can live happily by saving and saving and saving, because for some of us tomorrow never does come, and a lifetime of self-denial is a horrible thing to go out on. I also don’t think you can completely ignore the possibility that tomorrow will come, though. It’s all about finding the happy middle ground, of taking what you have, thinking ahead enough to relax, and then enjoying the rest. And I’m not entirely there yet; the pendulum that swings from knee-jerk reaction against my family to unconditionally accepting their choices as gospel is still working to find the center of it’s arc. But I’m making progress, and that feels pretty okay.
And yet, all the rough spots I’ve felt myself in over the past two months are nothing compared to those that less fortunate people continue to experience, born into fascist regimes or abandoned by their parents on the side of a road. And while I’m not one of those people who looks in the mirror or at friends and says, “Hey, you’re lucky — it could have been worse!” I am capable and conscious of keeping things in perspective.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that a lot of us are less unlucky than we could have been. But then, when so much of what we all experience is a direct result of our own actions, it’s hard for me to listen to the endless stream of complaints without retching a little. More than a little, really.
Looking forward into 2009 is a little anxiety-provoking, admittedly. I’ve seen much better times, which pushes me forward, to keep working to get back there; I’ve also seen hard times, and the prospect of ending up back there, stressed and hungry and struggling to find energy to wake up and try again — no, thanks. But at the same time, I’m prepared, I think, and in a far better mindset to push forward and successfully push through to the next crescendo, the next peak.
It’s not like any of us has a choice, anyway. Unless that choice is to bury your head in the sand until you think it might be over, but that’s not much of a choice. I’ll continue to listen to the doomsayers and those in denial, and interpret the facts and the expert interpretations on my own, choosing to guess that the true nature of the future is somewhere in the middle of optimism and pessimism, as it usually is. And one way or another, me and those around me will be around a year or two from now to watch the sun come back out from behind the clouds. I just hope we haven’t all forgotten to appreciate what we have while we have it, to learn from that which we experience and witness every day, and to accept the reactions to our actions.
And if we do, there’s always scorn, ridicule and Rumplemintz as punishment.