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.

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”