During my undergrad years, a group of my friends and I loved Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. We would discuss endlessly the many possible meanings of the two characters plight as they waited for a meeting with Godot, something that would never happen. The play appealed to us, in part, because we were all in that odd but blissful academic purgatory where we could stay sequestered from the real world as we waited for the promise of some wonderful and yet distant state of achievement, lurking just beyond our mind’s reach.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that play lately.
A new year is traditionally a time to look forward. A time of renewal. A clean slate to start fresh, make promises to ourselves about how we will do better and shed bad habits that hold us back. We welcome the New Year with the anticipation of a milestone achieved. Heck, it’s not as though we did much more than survive another year, but sometimes that is accomplishment enough. And as with most milestones, getting past it means we can say goodbye to all the crap we put up with in getting there.
Nothing would be more welcome on this New Year’s day than the ability to say goodbye to the economic mess of 2008 and all of the misery it has created in its wake, not to mention the hard-earned wealth it has taken with it. Yet that’s as unlikely as a papal blessing and a presidential pardon for Bernie Madeoff.
In the throes of uncertainty
The reality is that we are in the midst, perhaps even at the leading edge, certainly not at the end, of the economic turmoil that started with the subprime crisis and has since encircled the globe in financial uncertainty. The latest exuberance around the drop in mortgage interest rates and home refinancing may buy us some more time, and offer a little near-term hope by pumping money into the pockets of homeowners, but that does little if anything to change the underlying problem of distrust that has now gripped the economy.
So how do you restore trust? In a word, “slowly.”
As we continue to bail out sectors of our economy that are already well past their natural demise, we will only increase the sentiment that something is very, very wrong with the underpinnings of the U.S. financial and industrial systems. This is not going to be an easy or quick process. We will have to face some awful truths that do not sit well with Main Street American psychology. Truths such as the fact that manufacturing just can’t survive, or that despite that last point we have started heading down the slippery slope of subsidizing to nationalizing the automobile industry, or that we need to radically change our public K-12 school system to prepare our kids to compete in the global marketplace.
I know, it sounds as though I’m painting the picture of an impossibly complex crisis. I’m not. In a perverse way, I’m glad we are here. Although I certainly would not have chosen to take this path, my sentiment echoes that of Rahm Emanuel, chief-of-staff for President-elect Barack Obama, who said, “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.”
But the sense from most people I talk to is that we are wallowing en masse and glad to just keep doing so until something happens to break us free of our collective plight. Trying to be upbeat about something, anything, these days will get you in trouble and makes you feel as though you have been caught whistling a Disney tune at a funeral. We are waiting for some event to give us license to be optimistic, but we just don’t know what.
What are you waiting for?
Are you wating for an end to the war? This war has no end. We can pull out of Iraq, Afganistan, and every other global conflict. But that does not stop terrorism, elsewhere or at home? Terorism has no end in a world as fluid, interconnected, and interdependent as ours.
Are you waiting for Detroit to re-invent itself? In the words of Peter Drucker, “There is no more difficult task than to keep a corpse from rotting.”
Are you waiting for the stock market, home prices, and jobs to bounce back? They will, while you sit back and drain your savings, 401(k)s and 529s.
Getting the message? Stop waiting. There is no single event or any combination of events that will mark the end of this era, at least none that are worth waiting for.
In many ways that is the defining aspect of this age. Our challenge is not to eliminate uncertainty and its impact on us, which would be nice but not likely for some time. Our goal should be to learn to live with uncertainty while shedding the accompanying despondence and desperation; to stop acting as if Godot is just around the corner.
If I recall correctly, in the last scene of the play the two main characters decide to hang themselves using a belt or a piece of rope. But the rope breaks so they agree to wait until tomorrow and, if Godot does not show up, try again. Such is the miserable state of their intolerable existence, which they accept without any protest.
End of your rope?
To those who understand and begin to adapt, dare I say embrace, this fundamental shift into a prolonged era of uncertainty, to those who are starting businesses and building jobs instead of waiting for better times, to those who are investing in hope rather than trading it in at half price, to those who see opportunity now rather than wait for it, to those who REFUSE to waste the crisis – HAPPY NEW YEAR!
As for the rest of you, well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow. BTW, don’t forget to bring better rope.
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