01 January 2009

Beginnings

The world moves in cycles. The holidays of the year help us to find our place in the larger circle, giving us reference points that focus our attention on things that come around again and again, each time the same, yet each time different than the last. It is a spiral moving forward, yet still turning around and around, back to the same point it was last year at this time ... but futher forward in the larger scheme of things. Christmas and New Years come to us in the midst of the dark winter, every year giving us a chance to celebrate the return of the Light and to awaken hope for a better year ahead.

We are in the middle of winter, now, a time of cold and chill, a time when the weak succumb to a snow-blanketed eternal slumber. This particular winter has seen quite a few things fall into that deep frozen sleep: our collective belief in eternal economic growth; our confidence that it's safe to accumulate debt because well, we'll just pay it off later; our certainty that all we need is a 'good job' and we'll be set for life; and our certainty that the future will look much like the recent past, only brighter ... all of these things are fading into the darkness. These are big losses, big changes in our world, and the chill of their passing has hit many of us already ... the frostbitten breeze that blows in their wake is bound to send shivers down many more spines before it settles into quiet at last.

But the world keeps turning, and with the death and darkness of winter there is also the festival of the return of the Light, and the festival of hope for a new and better year ahead. There is a new beginning in every ending, and the changes we face now are no exception.

The old vision of economic growth is dying, and the markets are still reeling from the fallout. This is all bound to take some time to unravel, but in the end, perhaps we will begin once again to define growth as activites that truly create value, rather than just the shuffling of numbers from one column to another. We all know the creation of value when we see it: a farmer coaxing seeds into vegetables for the table, a carpenter building a comfortable bench where you can sit to change your shoes, a barber trimming your hair and making you look presentable again. That's value. When more of it happens, that's growth. It would be good for us to 'officially' define things that way.

For years now debt was okay, because we were certain we'd have no trouble paying it off later. If we wanted to go on a big holiday, we'd access the equity in the house. That's why it's there, right? But as the US housing market tumbles into chaos and global credit markets unwind, we see that later sometimes comes much sooner than we think. As Canadians, we may be able to learn from our southern neighbour's mistakes in time to avoid the worst of the crisis here ... but we, too, are part of the global economy and we will not be exempt. Besides, we too are in the habit of being in debt. Thankfully, the idea that 'debt is no big deal' is dying this winter, as we see the consequences of that belief playing out so painfully across the world. This is reason for hope, though: if we resolve to live within our means, and make every effort to get out of the mess we've created as quickly and safely as we can, we can move into the future with confidence, knowing there is no sword of debt over our heads, waiting to fall. This might just be the wakeup call we need to get our financial houses in order.

We have long believed that a 'good job' is the basis for a secure future... you didn't really need to worry about contingency planning, because a good job would see you through. Now, with the auto industry in crisis, Ontario alone is losing thousands of jobs, despite the 'stimulus package' ... and those were 'good jobs'. Working for GM was a guarantee of a lifetime of employment and a good pension but that is disappearing, and taking manufacturing and service industries along with it. Oil prices are down, and the boom in the Alberta oil sands is slowing. Projects are being delayed or cancelled. Where is the hope in this dark time? This is harder to see. Many families will suffer greatly from these changes, and few will have had contigency plans in place. However, for those who accept right now that there is no such thing as a secure job and make plans for coping with job loss before it happens, then there is a cushion created at the bottom of the fall, and it won't hurt so much. We can all reach out to help one another, realizing that we are not immune, and next week, it could be us in need of help. We can share what we have - food and a spare room for a friend unable to pay the rent, knowledge of how to cook cheap but healthy meals from scratch for someone getting by on EI, a spare can of tomatoes dropped in the Food Bank bin at Safeway. There is hope, even in this.

The death of our belief that the future will look much like the recent past, only brighter, is perhaps the most difficult loss of all. We who are parents dream of a future for our children that is even better than our own past. In Canada at least, that past has been free of large scale catastrophes like famine or war or economic disaster. Store shelves have always been stocked, anything we want is a short drive or a quick phone call away. However, it is plain to see that our children will inherit a world much different than the one we grew up in, and vastly different from the one we would have hoped to bequeath to them. Right now, we can't even predict what things will look like in the next few months. Even planning your fuel budget is a gamble: will gasoline cost 78 cents a litre next month, or $1.65? What will 'economic recovery' actually look like? I don't think anyone really knows.

Despite all the uncertainty about the future, though, this is where hope shines brightest. Our children have open minds, and they can learn new ways of living. They can, indeed, teach us old-fashioned grownups new ways of seeing the world in all of it's beauty and wonder. Have you ever watched a little child play with a cardboard box and wondered why you spent all that money on the toy when all they really wanted was the box? Maybe now we will come to realize that simple pleasures are, indeed, the best. We can take this chance to see the world through the eyes of our children.

To a child, it is very cool to eat carrots you grew in your back yard all by yourself.
Why not try it?

To a child who has known nothing different, taking your own shopping bags to the store is normal, and getting plastic bags is weird.
Why not get into the habit of keeping cloth bags in your car now?

To a child, it is easy to care about the polar bears losing their ice, and to care enough to want to do something about it.
Why don't you drive a little less, turn the heat down a notch,
and reduce your contribution to global warming?


We grownups are tempted to say, "Oh, nothing I can do will make a difference." But you see, it can. It does. Your one choice may not make enough difference to tip the scales back over, that's true. But the scales are affected by every choice that is made, and every wise choice is a declaration of hope in a dark winter.

Light the candles. They are hope in the darkness.

Make yours shine as brightly as it can. It matters.

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