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|Grand Illusion - Page 8|
According to the American Psychological Association's annual Stress in America survey last October, 83 percent of women and 78 percent of men report being stressed about money. Nearly half of all Americans surveyed indicated they're worried about their ability to provide for their family's basic needs. Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline increased from 39,465 in January 2008 to 50,158 in January 2009; economic stress played a significant role in the rise. On April 9, a New York Times story suggested that people were increasingly seeking therapy and getting or upping their prescriptions for psychotropic medications to cope with anxiety, panic attacks, sleeplessness, depression, irritability, eating poorly or overeating, and various psychosomatic complaints.
Clearly, "the economy" is making an appearance in therapists' offices big-time, even if in the negative form of clients who are cutting back on therapy because they can't pay for it anymore. But besides the usual things that therapists say and do to help clients get through any difficult life circumstance, what can they offer that seems germane to this particular national crisis? There's obviously no easy answer to that question. Therapists can't call a client's bank to stop foreclosure proceedings, or plead with a client's boss not to lay her off, or pony up to help a client pay down the thousands on his credit card bill. However, therapists can be aware of potentially life-changing and culture-altering shifts that might occur in our society as a result of the current convulsions. Possibly, they can help clients think more deeply about what they want from life, why they make lifestyle, as opposed to life, choices, and what a different, less consumer-oriented way of living might be.
It could be that the time is ripe for us to rethink some of our fondest assumptions about the economy as a whole, our personal family economies, and our own nature as economic animals. We may want to begin thinking about how we can strengthen what's been called the "commons"—an old but strangely foreign concept in modern America—that refers to what we inherit or create together that contributes to the good of us all as members of a human community. (There's even, of course, a website about the "commons" movement: www.onthecommons.org.) In a society so besotted with market economics, we forget that much genuine wealth is natural and social in nature, and can't be computed entirely according to strict quantitative metrics of supply and demand, profit and loss.
What belongs to the commons, for example, includes wilderness areas held in public trust, but also our social right to unpolluted air, water, and soil. The idea encompasses both volunteer and entrepreneurial efforts that support local communities and enrich small-scale public and private life—like shared city gardens and open spaces, neighborhood businesses (as opposed to the Walmartification of America), daycare coops, family farms and farmers' markets, even cyberspace (Wikipedia, for example, the all-volunteer, peer-reviewed, socially constructed, and phenomenally successful online encyclopedia). The part of humanity that would respond to the commons isn't a "sappy self-sacrificing altruist that marketophiles posit as the only alternative to their model of human behavior," says commons spokesman Jonathan Rowe. "Nor is it the grim utilitarian socialist. Rather, it's whatever resides in us that wants to be engaged with and around other people—whether to accomplish a task or just because it's fun."
Meanwhile, it's doubtful that we'll see the end of the free enterprise system anytime soon, present tribulations notwithstanding. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: what capitalism does well—bolster independence and creativity, generate enormous productive energy, and make lots of great stuff—it does superlatively well, and besides, what else is there? What Winston Churchill once said about democracy applies about as well to capitalism: "It's the worst system in the world, except for all the others." Even dedicated "commoners," as they like to be called, aren't predicting the end of capitalism—they'd just like to see a more humanely balanced political economy, a greater realization that "public" and "social" and "collective" aren't dirty words.
No matter how successful or rich, how driven or ambitious, how dynamic, inner-directed, adventurous, or just plain pushy any of us is, none of us can ever claim to be "self-made." Like it or not, we're embedded in a vast skein of individual human lives and public institutions, our path determined as much by culture, timing, birth order, social class, and sheer luck as by our own personal gifts. As the 19th-century political scientist Francis Lieber said, "Self-made men, indeed! Why don't you tell me of the self-laid egg?"
Mary Sykes Wylie, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you'll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine section.