Fear: A Pile of Stones

Stones & violetsTwo years ago, when I found any stones in the asparagus bed I was creating, I threw them over to a place next to the garage, until there was a pile of stones there. Then, later, as I found more stones, I added them to the pile. This spring, the violets decided they loved the microclimate it created. So now this pile of stones has become a beautiful violet rock garden.

I woke today feeling so much fear that I was immobilized. If fear is heavy like a stone, if we accumulate all the fears and toss them into a pile, might something beautiful yet emerge? It was a particular kind of fear that arose in me, or it seemed particular to this society. It was triggered by my no longer being able to work. For me, this is not about social distancing and a closed economy, though it helps me to understand the people who are worried about that. For me, it is about chronic illness taking away my energy capacity to work.

Working signifies our ability to take care of ourselves. All our lives we have learned the American “gospel” of individualism–everything is on the individual. In some ways, this individualism freed people to become that which our families could not comprehend. Feminist. Lesbian. Activist. When women were free to work, we were free to make our own decisions about our lives.

But in other ways, it has meant we are flying without a net. If we can no longer work, what happens then? Despite its limitations, I am immensely grateful for the safety net that was created in the cauldron of the great depression–Social Security. In the midst of the heavy burden of individualism, it became a bright light of collective care for all of us. We each contribute and we all can benefit. It enables Margy and I to have our basic necessities in retirement. But this net is now in the hands of robbers and thieves, who would like nothing more to do away with it. And so I feel afraid, my heart heavy with stones.

When I read about how some countries are giving their citizens a monthly income during the pandemic–countries which also, by the way, have free universal health care–when I see what might be done, it makes me feel so sad and so afraid for all of the working people in our country. If people had a guaranteed monthly income, they might not need to clamor for businesses to reopen before this can be done safely. But instead, they are caught between a rock and a hard place–stay home and risk starvation, or go to work and risk death. It is that stark. And the fear becomes a trigger for violence, and the threats of violence. More stones.

I’m not at the stage of seeing any violets yet. I don’t know what beauty might come out of this. I am just throwing stones into a pile.

Resilience Circles

There are many people who are already hard at work building connections based on partnership and sustainability. In the fall of 2010 I had the opportunity to participate in a facilitator training for “Resilience Circles.” Resilience Circles are groups of ten to twenty people who gather together in regular meetings to support each other through economic and ecological changes.

Resilience Circle Training/ Licensed by Creative Commons

Resilience Circle Training/ Licensed by Creative Commons

Our trainer Chuck Collins wrote:

The dominant messages in the U.S. economy are “you are on your own” and “some people are going to be left behind.” Countering this isn’t easy. For many, talking about their economic anxiety and asking for help is difficult and shaming. But to survive the coming period of uncertainty, we must regain use of our mutual-aid muscles, many of which have atrophied from lack of use.

The three main functions of Resilience Circles are to increase our understanding of the larger economic forces on our lives, to open up opportunities for mutual aid and support for local economic challenges, and finally, to engage in social action to create changes that can bring about a more secure and sustainable future.

We explored questions like: Why is the economy in distress? What is our vision for a healthy, sustainable economy? What are the sources of real security in our lives? What can we do together to increase our economic security at the local level? How can we help our neighbors facing foreclosure or economic insecurity? What public policies would make our communities more secure?

Social scientists say that the stronger our social networks, the more resilient we will be in a crisis. When I was working in direct support of homeless people, I noticed how often someone became homeless because of isolation—they did not have a strong social support system, and so a crisis became a catastrophe.

There are many ways that working together can enhance our economic well-being. The Resilience Circles begin with small mutual aid projects. For example, one idea was a weatherization round robin—a team of five people agree to help each other get ready for the winter. Each host buys materials such as caulk and plastic sheeting, and then the group spends a few weekends getting all their homes ready. Another idea was a babysitting coop, where parents take turns watching each other’s children, keeping track with tokens for hours of childcare. Tool sharing, job swapping, meal exchanges, bartering—the resources we have among us are many, and the options are only limited by our collective creativity.

The underlying principle of Resilience Circles is that our greatest source of security and wealth is in our connection to each other, and our shared stewardship of the earth.

Fending for Ourselves?

There are strong pressures in our society to keep us fending for ourselves rather than finding common purpose with our neighbors. Think about some of the beliefs we have been taught about economic success and failure:

Economic struggles are a reason for personal shame.
You are on your own.
Don’t talk about your economic reality with anyone else.
You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Watch out for people less fortunate than yourself—they will want to take your stuff.
Government programs will encourage laziness.

Sound familiar? These beliefs go back a long time. Chip Berlet, author of Right-Wing Populism in America, writes that the anti-collective attitudes currently expressed in the Tea Party movement find their roots in earlier Protestant theologies of America.

“If you read Protestant sermons from the late 1800s, they sound like Glenn Beck on a good day. They’re anti-government, anti-collective, anti-union. The idea is that good Protestants don’t depend on the government. Individualism and hard work and capitalism are seen as a kind of package deal.”

He goes on to describe how our social safety net was not constructed until Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed back against the banks and financial sector during the depression. “That was a real change in how Americans looked at government.” And even then there was “a campaign against Roosevelt, claiming that big government was the road to socialism and fascism.” These fears had a basis in the socialist movements in Germany and Russia that had produced totalitarian governments during the 1930s and 40s.

Individualists propose that we let the market work it out. Give free reign to businesses and corporations with the expectation that, unencumbered, they will restore the economy to prosperity. Then, stock prices and jobs will rebound, and all will be well again.

Unfortunately, the problems with this analysis are extensive. One problem is that it ignores the vital scaffolding of common resources that we share and take for granted. Our economic and personal well-being is directly dependent upon things like good roads, traffic control, public transportation, community fire departments, and public schools; police protection, libraries, and public parks—all of these commonly held resources make our individual and corporate initiative possible. Yet they are not figured into the cost and benefit accounting in the market economy.

House Fire

Photo by dvs Licensed under Creative Commons

If these common resources are not protected, hazards abound. In 2010, a family in Tennessee lost their home to a fire because they had not paid their subscription cost to the local fire company. The fire fighters were under orders to let it burn down. Is that the future we want?

Another even more fundamental problem for the wellbeing of the human community is that we have treated the earth as a limitless resource to be used with no regard for future needs. Clean water, fresh air, thriving forests, and fertile soil are the underpinning of all economic and personal wellbeing, and human beings have been destroying them at an unprecedented speed. An economic model based on using up the water, air, forests, and soil is no longer feasible. An economic model based on continuous growth, as ours has been, is no longer feasible. There is only one earth, and its resources are finite. We cannot deal with this common crisis only as individuals.

Natural environmental limits are beginning to create tensions around the world. In just one of many examples, fierce battles are beginning to be waged over how we will manage increasing shortages of water in many places. While private interests are clamoring to control ownership of these resources, other are asserting that such fundamentals must belong to all Life. They cannot be separated and sold for the profit of a few.

Chip Berlet quotes from an Interview by David Barsamian, published in The Sun, November 2010: “Brewing Up Trouble: Chip Berlet on the Tea Party and the Rise of Right-Wing Populism”

Economic Insecurity

Tree uprootedOur individualistic society has brought us to a time of increasing economic insecurity. In our culture, we are taught to keep our individual economic lives a secret—more than religion or politics or sex—we just don’t talk about our income or debt or other monetary realities. But millions of people have lost jobs, or have family members who cannot find jobs, or are struggling financially. We know that millions of families nationwide have lost their homes. Many people have had to cancel retirement because their savings were decimated by the stock market collapse. It has been a collective crisis.

In my own family, two sisters in Michigan lost their jobs within the last few years. One of them was about to get married, and so had the safety net of her new husband’s income. The other sister moved to my parent’s home in West Virginia, and though she found some part-time work for a while, she was left without income, health insurance, or other resources.

Jacob Hacker has written about how common insecurities have been increasingly shifted to individuals and families as many of our social institutions have been dismantled. For example, in 1980, the majority of employers at medium to large companies paid 100% of family health insurance. Now, less than a quarter do. Medical costs were a factor in as many as 700,000 personal bankruptcies in 2001, and that situation has only gotten worse. Employer pension plans are declining and more and more families are on their own to figure out retirement options.

Fewer workers have long-term employment, and more and more are working in temporary or low-paying underemployment. Wages have been stagnant or falling, and more households have had to rely on two incomes to cover the same needs. Parents with children are most at risk for bankruptcy and foreclosure, and single parents are especially vulnerable. Support systems such as extended families are disrupted by geographic distance.

In the midst of these economic insecurities, there are basically two paths before us—in one, we each hunker down, and try to fend for ourselves as individuals and families. In the other, we turn to our neighbors, and make a common purpose to find a way forward. Ultimately, I believe the path of common purpose is the only one that will help us survive.

Figures from Jacob Hacker, The Great Risk Shift