We can use a new year: reflections on the High Holy Days

Posted September 30th, 2008 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

We are in a new world.  Yesterday’s drama in Washington and on Wall Street was mesmerizing, wasn’t it?  When one is witnessing unprecedented events which outcomes are mostly unpredictable, and when nothing works the way it used to — not money or power — then you know that when people say we are in uncharted territory, they speak the truth.  When it is those we might have counted on to know better, it can be downright scary. 

How would you chart this, after all?  In this thicket where no one seems to be able to get a clear view, when the navigation systems are all broken, when you have lost all sense of direction, how do we begin to carve the path from here to there, even to get to a clear vantage point?

But is it all really so incomprehensible?  Check out this article from the NY Times last July, two months before the debacle:  Given a Shovel, Americans Dig Deeper Into Debt 

You see here an apt description of exactly how we got into the thicket, a fine mix of greedy financial institutions taking advantage of U.S. Americans who could not believe how easy it was to have the American Dream with no money down, charged on credit cards with monthly minimum payments that were silly compared to the actual bill and interest rates approaching 20 percent and more.

Fortunes were made not by people paying back their debts with interest, but rather by remaining always and forever in debt, paying fees and ever-rising interest on that debt while CEOs and investors made out like bandits.  Then, the financial institutions started bundling all that debt and selling the paper, with AAA ratings, and investors went crazy with greed, and then created new “innovations” for more funny paper and split-second transactions, until nobody could keep up with what was happening anymore, and now no one even knows who owns the paper or how much it is worth.

Are we insane?  Well, yes.

Or try this article, also from July: Too Big to Fail? by NY Times economics writer, Peter Goodman.  Yes, some of the convoluted (intentionally so) ways in which global finance has operated in recent decades is hard to follow, but the basic issues that have led us to this mess are not hard to understand at all.

As we wrote the other day — we have lived beyond our means at an accelerated pace, and we have arrived BLAM! at the wall.  And while we were running headlong towards that wall with all our bloated real estate values, mounting credit card debt, reckless refinancing schemes so that we could buy and buy and buy, some CEOs were happy to steer more and more of this paper wealth into their own accounts.  Besides living beyond our means, we now have the widest gap between the super-rich and the rest of us — EVER!

But here is this other thing: all of this profligacy in which most of us have played some part has accelerated something else — the pace at which we are depleting the planet.  I will write about this later this week, but today I just want to invite us to reflect a moment on our predicament:

We, my friends, have lived wrongly on this planet.  We have lost the essential meaning of the human within the evolutionary story of the planet, the universe story of which this planet is a very precious part. And we can’t do this anymore.  We are killing the ecosystems of the planet on which we depend for life, spewing gases into the atmosphere that are altering global climate, while killing the human spirit as well.

Now, if we are living wrongly, what will it mean to live rightly?  That, too is matter for further reflection on this website.  It is past time for us to start imagining a new way of life that can begin to, as Passionist monk Thomas Berry has written, reinvent the human presence on the planet.

We are celebrating the Jewish holidays of Rosh haShanah and soon Yom Kippur.  It is a period of introspection, reflection on our lives, where we have gone wrong, a time of repentence and conversion.

In looking for a reflection to share here, I turned to one of the links on this site, Tel Shemesh.    It is from the project’s director Rabbi Jill Hammer.  An excerpt:

“This is what the High Holiday season, and the harvest festival season, comes to tell us. On Rosh haShanah, we contemplate all that has happened to us in the year past. We acknowledge that we have missed the mark, and that we are angry with others who have missed the mark with us. On Yom Kippur, we seek to atone for our sins, and also to remind ourselves that it is up to us to give our fleeting lives meaning, to be people that others will remember. We make a special effort to recall the dead, and we consider the knowledge that we too are finite.

“In other words, we face the mysteries of human existence…”

The mysteries of human existence, in our time all covered over, buried, unheard amidst the noise, as we run as fast as we can from true meaning into the empty new version of the American Dream = buying stuff, and then more stuff.

“The future is uncertain, and that means we can change it,” writes Rabbi Hammer.  Yes, and yes.

There is something deeply universal in this spirituality.  I hope we can embrace it.  But first we have to stop the madness of our lives and find a new way of living, one far more in keeping with the “mysteries of human existence,” or, put another way, one that is commensurate with the true meaning of the human, which lies within those mysteries.

Blessings for 5769.

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One Response

  1. Richard Pauli

    Margaret,
    Thank you for looking at the issue directly, and emerging with hope.

    This morning, the BBC interviewed experts about the financial meltdown; their words have been echoed elsewhere:

    “We knew what was wrong, We just didn’t know how to fix it”

    It seems like an epitaph for the next crisis.