Who Germany Wants to Be
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Zoe Chace’s report for Planet Money on the budgetary meltdown in Greece has got to be one of the better pieces of information journalism I’ve heard on NPR’s morning air. Lost in the debate of bailout-no bailout over Greece’s debt — and the necessity of Germany floating it — runs an undercurrent: the narrative of belonging to a unified Europe, and the varying perspectives of Germans on their responsibilities and the kind of community they want to be part of.
Chace’s focused narrative and inclusion of the voices of Germans from several walks of life deepen our understanding of some of the motivating factors driving this debate. She gives the listener a sense of history: how that past is living forward in the German psyche and how their identity — as a broken people, a vibrant culture, and a affluent nation — is predicated on the past and on whom Germans want to be in the future.
My only regret is the reporter’s use of “Kumbaya” in the piece. As I’ve shared before, I’ve taken Vincent Harding’s story to heart and will never use that reference again in such a way. Nonetheless, it’s a slight quibble and this type of reporting on thick subjects is something I long to hear more of.
Did anybody else listen to this? What’s your take? I’m also thinking through this as we push forward with a more ambitious agenda for On Being online in the coming year. Let’s talk.
Reinvesting in a Renewed American Dream of Family and Home
by Caitlin Shetterly, guest contributor
What is the American dream, anyway? Do any of us know anymore? Is it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s vision of a “green light” and an “orgiastic future” that forever eludes us? Is it our founding fathers’ notion that all men are created equal to pursue happiness? Is it a house with a perfect lawn, an SUV, and all the material things we could want? What I do know is that many of us in the working middle class grew up believing in the promise of “fruited plains,” ours to harvest if we worked hard enough. America was “made for you and me.”
Three years ago this month, my new husband, Dan, and I packed up our small car and, with most of our worldly belongings and our cat and 90-pound dog, started driving west from Portland, Maine to Los Angeles, California. It was early 2008, and the recession had only just begun. But maybe I speak for many Americans when I say that my husband and I didn’t have any idea that the downturn would become as devastating as it did.
I’d always wanted to go west, ever since my mother sang me to sleep with "Red River Valley" and my dad read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books out loud to me before bed. Dan, too, was beckoned by the sunny skies and seemingly endless horizons of Los Angeles. I hasten to add that we weren’t completely naïve. Friends of ours were making good money in photography and film, as TV writers, and also NPR, for whom I worked as a freelancer, said they could use me covering stories from L.A. So we hit the road full of hope, the American dream unfolding in front of our windshield, ours if we just reached for it.
For a few months, our lives in California seemed to be slowly building toward the dream: I was pregnant with our first child, Dan was working. We had landed a small but comfortable apartment near the Venice Canals, a neighborhood we liked. Then, shortly after President Obama’s election in 2008, California was hit hard by the recession. But Dan had jobs lined up into the summer.
The week our son was born, the first week of 2009, every job Dan had through May was canceled. We had a new baby and were in a terrifying economic free-fall.
Over the next two months, we blew through the tiny bit of savings we had while Dan applied to hundreds of jobs and went door-to-door handing out resumes all over the city. Two weeks after our son was born, I went back to work filing freelance pieces for NPR. The little I made covered a few groceries and some gas.
Finally, the jig was up. I called my mom and said I didn’t know what to do. She said, “Come home, Cait.” So we packed up our two-month-old son and drove back across America, staying with friends who reached out to us on the long journey home.
Now, for some people, moving home and in with one’s mother (or, in Dan’s case, mother-in-law) would be a fate worse than hell. But what we found there in the six months we lived with her was something deeper and stronger than the American dream we had chased with such gusto just a year earlier. At home with Mom, as we planted the garden and baked bread, as we helped her as she helped us — the recession was hard on her, too — we were a family coming together to survive.
Dan and I had subscribed to a fundamentally dangerous notion that young families like mine think we should be toughing it out alone as if we were pioneers with nary a neighbor in sight; instead we should be asking for help and reaching out to help others.
Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” I know from personal experience that’s not true. There, at home with Mom, we reconfigured our dreams so they were no longer about material things or images of a house with a perfect lawn and two cars out front. We got lucky, eventually. When I sold my memoir about our experience with the recession, we had $16 in the bank.
When I tell people my story they say, “Only in America!” or “That’s the American dream!” Perhaps. But I’d add this: by investing in our families and communities — as Dan and I have learned to do — we will be sustained through tough times. And with some communal baking of bread and a few extra hands we can get through anything, even if the American dream is on life support.
Caitlin Shetterly is the author of Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home. She is a contributor to National Public Radio and artistic director of the Winter Harbor Theatre Company. You can read more of her writing at Passage West.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
A Better Life: Creating the American Dream
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
Our organization has done some shifting and reorganization in recent months and one of the immediately rewarding upshots for me is that I’ve been spending a little bit of my time with other programs produced here at American Public Media, including American RadioWorks. ARW is an award-winning documentary unit, and it is a real privilege to be involved with them. As part of the APM cross-program project, “The Next American Dream,” they produced this fabulous video. Enjoy!
Repossessing Virtue: Sharon Salzberg on the Humiliation of Suffering
» download (mp3, 9:17)
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I saw Kate immediately after she interviewed Sharon Salzberg for our series on the economic downturn. Kate was awestruck by her simple profundity. And, after I listened, I understood why.
The Buddhist teacher sees the plight of suffering in the U.S. as a source of shame for most people, a kind of humiliation. We are ashamed of losing control. We fear uncertainty.
This burden denies us the right of being human. We’re vulnerable and so we isolate ourselves. So, instead of reaching out to others and finding comfort and strength in our families and communities, we hide. This point gave me pause and, I hesitate to write this, an unsettled feeling — of shame and embarrassment.
In 2002, I was laid off — honestly, I still think of it as being fired — while my wife and I were living in Oxford. The dot-com company I was working for was hemorrhaging money. My boss back in the States called the head of the London office. She ushered me in to her office; over the phone, he said the company needed to cut salaries and positions and had to “let me go”; I was then told to pack up my items and be escorted out of the office immediately while the office manager observed me.
Talk about humiliation. It’s difficult enough being axed. Being the only American in the London office, being chaperoned and escorted out of the building because of standard HR policy (I still cringe at the thought of this type of inhuman treatment.), being left with a mortgage on a home thousands of miles away while your wife’s a graduate student in a foreign country — and then having to tell her about it, well, it is completely humiliating. I rode the Tube for a good part of the day avoiding the inevitable. Classic stuff I’m sure.
Of course I eventually told my wife that day. She was everything I knew she would be. But the pain didn’t lessen; it staked a larger claim. Her magnanimity and compassion were so pure that I couldn’t return the gesture in any form. I couldn’t, and she didn’t expect me to utter transcendent ideas or practice life-coaching skills, to be zen and thoughtful.
My shame increased. I avoided telling our friends taking care of our house for days, my family and other friends for weeks and months. And then feelings of inadequacy and fear and anxiety increased with each day I couldn’t find a new job. My community was completely supportive; it wasn’t enough.
I know no way around it. I know Sharon Salzberg’s suggestions of conscientious breathing and meditation are wise and helpful. That reaching out to ones close to you is the social safety net we all need. But, despite all that, I do wonder what happens once that practice ceases to embrace the reality of the situation. I’m merely a man, an ambitious American who was canned and feared he couldn’t make his mortgage.
So, where did I find community and ultimately respite? In music. I don’t recall the songs that I repeatedly listened to then, but, surprisingly, the music I’m listening to now transported me back in ways I couldn’t have predicted when I started writing. I’m posting them here because listening to them may be as telling as the paragraphs above. And, check out some of the haunting titles. Strange coincidences persist.
"Roshi’s Very Tired" by Philip Glass from The Book of Longing
"Running Scared" by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
"Rooftops and Streets" by Thunder in the Valley
"Vartani Mor Vort" by Yuval Ron
"The Romance of Wolves" by Roma di Luna
"Road to Somewhere" by Goldfrapp
"Robots" from Flight of the Conchords
"Rise" from the Into the Wild soundtrack
"River Man" by Nick Drake
Repossessing Virtue: Greg Epstein on Human Solutions and Not Divine Ones
» download (mp3, 11:47)
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
We last spoke to Greg Epstein in the wake of a Pew poll on the American religious landscape, finding that 16 percent of Americans identified themselves as unaffiliated, atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. Greg Epstein is the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and he has been an emerging leader in trying to unify that growing population of the non-religious — to create a community driven not by a stance against religion, but by positive ethical beliefs and actions.
So as we turned to Greg Epstein again, we wanted to know how he’s seen his community experiencing the current economic crisis. Epstein once defined humanism as “philosophy of life without supernaturalism that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment aspiring to the greater good of humanity.” It turns out that the current economic crisis has refocused his community’s vision of what that “greater good” should look like.
Repossessing Virtue: Pankaj Mishra on the Dangers of Progress
» download (mp3, 14:06)
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
Looking ahead to next week’s refreshed and resonant broadcast of our Buddha in the World program, here’s some new material with the guest of that program, Indian journalist Pankaj Mishra. In the original interview with Krista in 2005, he had come out of a personal adventure retracing the steps of the Buddha and reflecting on his modern-day relevance. He had some powerful things to say about globalization, so we sought out his thoughts once more, this time on the economic crisis.
Now, as he did in that program, he critiques the ideologies of progress and globalization. But his critique makes me think of something in our Recovering Chinese Religiosities program: we often measure progress solely through economic terms; we measure China’s and India’s increased economic power as invariably good. And the logic is fairly convincing: if a country has more money, its citizens must have a higher standard of living, and must therefore be happier.
But, unfortunately, the opposite must also be true — that when we lose money, we lose happiness, because we lose security. Never mind “we” — maybe I’m just talking about myself. I am secure when I know I have a roof over my head, a job, food nearby, the whole nine. Yes, I admit it: having money makes me worry less about the future.
So how do we deal with this unhappiness and insecurity? As Pankaj Mishra says, we don’t have to invent some new solution to our way of living. Our traditions already have resources to heal us. We need to live like we’re bound to the people around us. Perhaps doing so — especially in a society where we value individualism and specialization — would have prevented the larger crisis. Well, who can say. We can’t really apply that program across society, but we sure can try it in our own lives. I suppose as the news gets worse day by day, being bound to other people is one way we might collectively stay afloat.
Repossessing Virtue: Rachel Naomi Remen and Economic Crisis as Spiritual Journey
» download(mp3, 23:20)
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
Rachel Naomi Remen spoke to Krista for a program we called "Listening Generously" some time ago and re-aired recently. In it they discuss the power of story to heal and restore, as well as the power of story, or narrative, to limit and to harm. So I wasn’t surprised when, in the course of this brief interview with me, she said "our story had become too small," and asserted that finding our way back to the largeness of our collective story was part of the spiritual path we are on, as we navigate the economic crisis.
I hardly edited this conversation at all because I was so taken by Dr. Remen’s hospitality and warmth, and I wanted to share that with you. I hope you’ll let yourself sink into her wisdom on the spiritual aspects of our shared anxieties and ask yourself, as she suggests: What do I trust? What do I really need?
We’ll keep releasing mp3s of our interviews via this blog, our podcast, and now on a Web site for Repossessing Virtue. And, please share your ideas about how this downturn has affected you in terms of personal conscience and values?