22 September 2008

Stepping into the story

More and more and with increasing fervor in the recent past, two what I will call battle cries have come to define the essence of a segment of American society: the phrase under God in the Pledge of Allegiance and the primacy of the Ten Commandments as core rules to guide private and public life. I don't have any problem with either of these well-known statements. Both contain something of the best of humanity, setting out pretty clearly who we want to be, setting a standard. I have found it interesting, however, that these two statements have kept coming to mind, to my mind, as I have watched over these months the financial crisis brew and finally boil over.

Seventy million dollars in annual compensation is hard for me to comprehend. That anyone, from a CEO who accepted it to a board of directors who proposed it to auditors who knew about it, that anyone thought such a sum was OK prickles the hair on the back of my neck. Whose daily labor, behind a desk or in a trench, is worth that?

Then there's the strong possibility, even as the country contemplates putting up seven hundred billion dollars to bail out the financial industry in order to save the globe's economic structure, the recipients of that incomprehensible sort of annual compensation are simply going to walk away. I don't want a public lashing; I'm not looking to humiliate or to demonize anyone. As a fifty-five year old woman sitting at her kitchen counter typing, I'm merely observing an inequity. Companies have been run into the ground. Essential institutions have been gutted. The American public -- not to mention the entire world -- has been harmed. And, no one is going to admit guilt or fault, no one is going to express any remorse. They're going to walk away -- with their packages.

I'm witnessing a disconnect between the Pledge of Allegiance's under God and the Ten Commandments' shalls and shall nots and our conduct. And, I used the word our on purpose. As we watch in disbelief as the horror unfolds and as we bristle at the seventy million per year, we are not, none of us, entirely blameless. Under God has come to mean God on our side. The notion that we have God so we can do anything. The very next phrase in the Pledge is with liberty and justice for all. How many of us take the liberty and justice pretty seriously for ourselves and let the "for all" descend into a mumble? The Ten Commandments offer a way for us to live with each other; they are about communal life. We are individualists pretty much, living out the attitude that when I have what I need, I cannot, don't want to, muster up any sympathy for those who don't. In the same way I suspect that someone making seventy million a year cannot understand my fears over the state of a stock account or the reliability of a future pension.

For society to work, or for that matter for religion to be worth anything, we must be able and willing to self examine and self regulate. Where you and I might fail at either or both of those in the lives we are leading day-in and day-out and convince ourselves that at our level it really doesn't matter very much, we can all see how very much it does matter when major financial institutions fail and their innards are splashed all over the landscape. The individuals leading those companies didn't think self-regulation, self-examination mattered either. It matters.

There's not much any of us can do about the political debate over deregulation vs increased regulation for our country's governmental and private institutions. The politics of that may be more than we want to or can tackle. But, truth is, we pretty much have all we can handle -- in ourselves. The story being played out on our national financial stage isn't foreign to us. It's a story very local and very personal. And, it's THAT story, only that story, over which we have direct control.

The questions I have to ask myself? What in the life I am leading might constitute my seventy million? How -- from whom, from what -- am I walking away? Who's suffering because of my actions and my attitudes?

Do you have questions of your own to ask?

No comments: