Sometimes it helps to step back and view a whole nation as if it was a person. Right now we are told that America is in crisis, and solutions are being offered from every quarter. When a person is in crisis, the search for a solution runs into conflict and confusion. The worst scenarios run through one’s imagination. Reason wars with emotion. We see the same in America today. The impulse to throw reason out the window is expressed through Sarah Palin, who makes a very nice living, thank you very much, by throwing tantrums in public. The impulse to blame somebody, anybody is expressed through the Tea Party. The cool-headed police officer or firefighter who comes to your house to handle an emergency is expressed through President Obama. As for Congress, it expresses the country’s refusal to accept that a crisis exists, since for all its hot air, Congress is dedicated to doing the same thing it has always done.
Yet people do get out of crises and so do countries. They do so by discovering that they are stronger, better, and more resilient than they ever thought they were. The first rule is that when they fall, souls bounce, they don’t break. I’ve put this in spiritual terms because leaving religion aside, spirituality has always been about the endurance of the soul and the possibilities of a higher vision. When terrible things happen in their lives, people don’t immediately find a spiritual solution. They first go into shock, numbness, denial, and fear. These forces take time to dissipate. It’s a slow process but a reliable one. The downturn of 2008 is fresh in everyone’s mind; the backlash of the midterm elections evidenced just how shocked and afraid the public still is.
But with an eye to recovery, here are the ingredients of solving a crisis when the time finally comes.
1. It doesn’t have to hurt.
2. You get to lead a better life than before.
3. You learn from your mistakes.
4. You stop listening to fear and anger.
5. You let go and surrender.
I think of these as spiritual qualities and therefore essential to the soul’s healing. Let me expand upon each just a little.
1. It doesn’t have to hurt. The reason that a very intelligent leader like Jimmy Carter failed was that he told people that recovery would hurt. That’s not a message anyone in crisis wants to hear or can hear. By comparison, Ronald Reagan, whatever his faults, made recovery seem like a happy prospect. No one wants to go to a dentist who says, “This is going to hurt, but it’s good for you.” Genuine healing makes you feel better. Forced improvement leads to resentment.
2. You get to lead a better life than before. America can seem, at its worst, like a country of endless consumerism, but it also stands for progress and personal growth. There’s a spiritual underpinning for this kind of optimism. The world is not a vale of tears but the vale of soul-making. The tendency of life is to evolve, which is why the best way out of a crisis is to grow out of it. When critics claim that America can’t grow out of this crisis, they offer the counsel of despair, which helps no one and is spiritually misguided.
3. You learn from your mistakes. Crises aren’t curses from God. They are opportunities for a breakthrough. Change and transformation are always possible. The difference between people who find a way to change and those who don’t isn’t simple, but a major ingredient is the willingness to learn from the past so that old mistakes aren’t repeated. In the current crisis America’s past mistakes are not exactly a secret. Time will tell if we decided to learn from them. At the very least, huge deficits and adventuring into foreign wars aren’t things most people are eager to repeat.
4. You stop listening to fear and anger. When someone is filled with fear and anger, the underlying condition is insecurity. If fear becomes endemic, the underlying situation is victimization. Our failed foreign wars were symptoms of both fear and anger, but since wars are never healing, there’s been no change in the insecurity that lies beneath the surface. The present crisis is worsened by demagogues of the Palin stripe who fatten off other people’s misery, but at least nobody is hiding from the emotional difficulties the country is going through. The key here is for leaders, who are not afraid, to keep encouraging others to stop listening to fear. Economic recovery will do a lot to relieve the malaise, but it’s worth remembering that America was prosperous when 9/11 happened, and wealth didn’t protect us from anxiety.
5. You let go and surrender. On both sides of the political divide, tightness and tension prevail. When no one is able to let go, relax and find their comfort zone, there’s no chance for reducing the level of stress that fuels crises. Letting go has more than one face, of course. But at its most basic, people should stop throwing kerosene on the fire. As a society, we are still incredibly privileged; we have the resources to overcome any difficulty and the world continues to look to us for leadership. All of that is nullified when we feel defensive and beleaguered. Feelings are real, but they aren’t always realistic. By letting go of the worst things (militarism, reactionary politics, greed, lack of empathy for immigrants and the poor), we will find that the best remains. Surrender isn’t failure. It’s giving up illusions so that our better nature can show the way forward.
It doesn’t matter if we attach the label “spiritual” to any of these points. They stand for a solution to the present crisis that is based on human nature, which is always pulled between its best and worst impulses. Having seen, time and again, that people pull out of crisis when the best part of them prevails, I’m confident that the same is true of this country as a whole.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle