You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to uncover clues that our country, as well as many other nations around the world, are going through difficult economic times. The unfolding political dramas, both nationally and internationally, do little to instill public confidence in the governing process, let alone in financial and regulatory institutions that presumably are designed to safeguard and advance the public interest.
We're now all to familiar with the mortgage meltdown, housing and credit crises, bank closings, enormous national debt, as well as the steady loss of jobs, including the all-too-frequent draconian job cuts, in corporate America. The U.S. economy, it's probably fair to say, still seems far away from a full recovery. And to complicate matters further, the global economy, including the now fragile European Union, remains uncertain and volatile. To say the least, we are living in a highly stressful environment. And within this environment, more and more people are facing formidable challenges in their personal and work lives as they struggle to make ends meet.
It is against—and in response to—this increasingly complex backdrop with its pervasive symptoms that more and more people around the world now find themselves, both individually and collectively, looking for answers.
Many of you may remember the words uttered by former U.S. Senator and economist, Phil Gramm, who downplayed the idea that the nation was in a financial recession; instead, he “diagnosed” the situation as a “mental recession,” likening the country’s (and its citizen’s) ills to what we all know as mental depression. In this regard, Gramm provocatively said that “We have sort of become a nation of whiners,…complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline.” Although I don’t happen to agree with Senator Gramm’s diagnosis, I do believe that Americans, like all people, must consciously and deliberately resist the human tendency to become “prisoners of their thoughts.” Only in this way may we increase our capacity to cope effectively and creatively with whatever comes our way in life—from the smallest disappointments to the most formidable of life’s challenges. And this includes our capacity, as individuals and as a nation, to deal with the current economic crisis.
In this regard, I learned years ago from Thomas Moore, psychotherapist and author of the bestselling book, Care of The Soul, that our most soulful times are when we are “out of balance,” not when we are in balance! In other words, it is when we are facing formidable challenges and when we are dealing with crises, that we are most likely to do some really deep “soul-searching.” And it is during these especially difficult times when our will to meaning, that is, our authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals, comes into sharp focus and we are prompted to make key choices about what really matters to us and in our lives.
Even our choice of attitude, I should add, is put to the test! We must remember that, although we may not be totally free from the various conditions or situations that confront us, we always can choose how we respond to them, at the very least through our choice of attitude. Importantly, this requires that we assume responsibility for exercising this ultimate freedom by taking action, albeit through a positive mindset focused on the power of intention, rather than resorting to a “poor me” attitude and a “victim” mentality. Perhaps this is what Phil Gramm really meant, to afford him the benefit of the doubt, by his insensitive-sounding diagnosis!
“Each of us has his own inner concentration camp…we must deal with, with forgiveness and patienceas full human beings, as we are and what we will become.”--Viktor Frankl
Sometimes it is only when we enter a state of creative destruction that the keys to our liberation from our “inner concentration camp” become visible to us. Just like we can only recognize light by knowing darkness, we can only move ourselves (and help others to do the same) towards the light by moving away from darkness. By the same token, acknowledging the existence of despair is the first step towards meaning and enlightenment. The inherent darkness that the economic crisis brings also provides a platform for taking creative action towards the light of opportunity. As odd as it may sound, there is always something positive that may result from, or at least be associated with, something negative.
As one door closes, another one opens (If, of course, we are “open” to such possibilities and are willing to take responsibility for walking through the door.). As one door closes, we are given an opportunity to learn even more about ourselves, including our true, core values, than we might have thought was possible (If, of course, we really want to learn and grow from our life experiences.). As one door closes, we are also challenged to find creative solutions to our plight in ways that may even surprise us (If, of course, we choose not be become or remain a victim of our circumstances.).
Finding “meaning” in the economic crisis, to be sure, is much easier said than done. It often requires making sacrifices; sacrifices that we don’t really want to make. For instance, who really wants to take a family “staycation,” that is, a vacation spent at home, rather than going away to some exciting vacation spot? At first blush, it doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? However, besides creating an opportunity to save money and thereby place less strain on the family’s budget, what else does this creative idea promise?
Well, families who have chosen the staycation route have made a commitment, conscious or not, to spread the “sacrifice” by holding all family members, parents and children alike, responsible for making it happen, as well as for making it happen for the benefit of everyone. It’s no longer just the parents who must sacrifice something for the sake of living in a postmodern world where the paradox of choice and “affluenza” run rampant. Moreover, going on staycation has actually brought family members together in authentic and meaningful ways. And I suspect that when the family eventually does plan for a getaway “vacation,” it will be valued more highly and result in an even more memorable and, again, meaningful, experience!
On a more macro level, of course, the possibilities for finding “meaning” in the economic crisis are also unlimited. In this connection, think about how various organizational and societal ills at all levels may actually benefit from the forces of creative destruction that we are witnessing in today’s world. Have you ever known somebody who appeared to live her or his life on “cruise control” or “auto-pilot?” You know, unaware of what really mattered? What was really important to them and to those around them? And then they faced a major, maybe even life-threatening, crisis—effectively, a life “wake-up call?” More often than not, these people would describe such an experience as transformative for them. On both personal and collective levels, the “meaning” of the economic crisis also holds the promise of being a transformative experience. But it can only be so if we do not allow ourselves to become “prisoners of our thoughts!”
We sincerely believe in the power and resilience of human beings and the human spirit. Yes, my dear Watson, there is an economic crisis but you will get through it!
Dr. Alex Pattakos is the author of Prisoners of Our Thoughts  (www.prisonersofourthoughts.com ) and Dr. Elaine Dundon is author of The Seeds of Innovation  (www.seedsofinnovation.com ). They are co-authors of Innovating with Meaning (forthcoming). Note: A second, revised and updated edition of Prisoners of Our Thoughts  will be released in July 2010.