Friday, June 5, 2009

Real Capital

For every outer challenge in the world there is an internal place to stand that enables us to meet that challenge with courage, conviction and generosity. The present difficulties of the world - economic, existential, or ecological - call for a radical shift in our wants and needs and therefore our very identities. - David Whyte

I have seven friends and colleagues who are losing their jobs or who are unemployed: seven highly educated, experienced, professional people. Three of them have been been unable to find work for more than six months, despite every effort. I know other people who have lost nearly all of their savings in the last few months. Amidst the news of "recovery", I'm seeing something unprecedented in my lifetime, and despite the positive headlines, almost everyone I know feels frightened. What had seemed like solid ground beneath our feet - a job, a house - now heaves and swells like a raft in mid-ocean.

And beneath the immediate questions of livelihood lurk deeper, even more unsettling questions about the world, and many people I know feel these questions at the edges of their consciousness too, a sense that perhaps something is coming to an end, whole ways of life falling into bankruptcy, the unsustainable now evident, cracking and shifting at the seams.

I've had conversations about buying gold, buying land, growing food - all the tricks of survival - and I think those conversations are helpful as we grope toward new, and perhaps more sustainable ways of living. But I sense that all strategies of survival depend ultimately on a kind of desperate individuality, a "gonna grab me a gun and dig a hole in the ground" mentality.

And I wonder: what are the true sources of security and prosperity? How can we - I - best take of ourselves as the world bends dangerously around us? I don't pretend to know the answers, but these are some of my thoughts, based partly on the life I've been living for much of the last three years - without a home or a job, radically contingent and dependent on circumstances and on kindness.

These are the words that come to mind when I think of real security:


All the rest - savings and gold buried in the ground, or a gun in your pocket - might buy a little safety, for a little while, but I don't know if I'd trust any of them in the long term. That's just me, I know, and maybe for someone else those things would be enough. But let me tell you why I think friendship and gratitude and path are the real capital in a human life.

Here's a story about friendship: I know a generous, warm-hearted man who, when an old college friend of his moved to his city, offered a room in his apartment until his friend got settled. He told his friend not to worry about rent until he had a job. Eventually his friend found a very good job, and then bought a house in Seattle, and invited my friend to rent a room from him. They've shared the house for years. Now my friend is unemployed, and his savings are running thin. But his friend has already told him that if he can't pay the rent for a while, that's all right. The man I know doesn't have to lie awake at night wondering where he will live if he doesn't find a job soon. Their friendship is true capital, for both of them, as is history of generosity between them.

In my own hard times, my friends have been my deepest resource. I remember when my marriage ended and I was utterly lost, I knew that without the love of friends I would have been swept under. And at other times I have held up my friends, knowing that some day we would change roles. I can barely imagine the narrowness and vulnerability I would feel without their imperfect yet steadfast love.

When we are planning for the future, wouldn't it make sense to consider how we can best nurture our friendships and relationships? Relationships pay dividends twice, to all who are part of them: in the present, through the joy and love we can feel in one another's presence, and in the future, through the support we can offer each another if times get hard - if illness strikes, or sadness, or a hundred other difficulties.

Recent studies have shown that friendships and relationships increase longevity and happiness. And yet some people I know treat friendships as a luxury or a burden, something extra around the edges of making a living or the many tasks that can fill our days, rather than central to a human life. What if we valued others' love, and took care of it, as much or more than we valued our retirement accounts?

There's a story from the life of the Buddha of a time when his attendant and cousin, Ananda, came to him with a revelation. "Honored one," he said, "half of the holy life is in our friendship with one another." The Buddha replied, "No, Ananda, that is not right. All of the holy life is our friendship with one another."

And then there's gratitude. I've thought a lot about gratitude in the last few years, and developed a practice of it, and I've decided that it's a kind of magic. Gratitude turns fear and disappointment into a broader, brighter road. If I wake up feeling sick and all I have is my misery, the morning is very small and difficult indeed. But if remember that I also feel gratitude for the sunlight through the window, or the cup of tea in my hand, the morning expands outward into happiness, even though the difficulty is still there. In hard and frightening times, the cultivation of gratitude in a daily way could show us the possibility of happiness even if our lives are not turning out as we would wish. Sometimes money can buy us out of difficulty, but when it can't.....what do we have? The morning sun through the window, still. The sweetness of a smile.

My favorite web resource on gratitude is a site developed by Brother David-Steindle-Rast, a joy-filled Benedictine monk in his 80's: . He has dedicated the last part of his life to teaching gratitude.

And finally, path. I was going to write, "faith", but faith is a tricky word for a Buddhist. Still, I mean faith too. What I mean is the feeling that one's life is not bound entirely by conventional identities as a consumer, or a worker, or a wife, or a student, but is instead held within a larger container, as a "child of God", or a person dedicated to awakening and compassion, or whatever it is that is a meaning far beyond and far larger than our small identities.

Several of my colleagues whose jobs are disappearing are people of faith - Baha'i or Christian - and I can see that they hold what is a disastrous event (by any standard) within a certain deep and beautiful trust. When our identities are limited, and we lose that identity, we lose everything. When we are held within vastness, within love, within a purpose beyond our small selves, the loss is different - still significant, still painful, but not shattering in the same way.

So I see these three as true capital in hard times, or for hard times to come. If each of us truly nurtured mutually supportive friendships, gratitude, and whatever path sustains us, we would be rich beyond belief, protected and blessed. The winds could roar, our house could be swept away, and we could suffer, but we would also be held by priceless gifts. What more is there to wish for in this brief life?