Monday, January 14, 2013

Hitting Bottom

A few years ago I had a rather ridiculous accident that has provided me much metaphorical use. The short version is that I have finally been forced to give up any lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter.
It was a homeschooling lobby day at the state capitol—one of the best field trips ever. My daughter had a friend who lived near Austin, where we were having dinner before the three-hour drive home. The house happened to have a fireman’s pole, just for fun. Sort of like the Jonas Brothers on their TV show at the time. I was curious to see it, but I had pictured looking at it from the bottom. Instead, I ended up following the young people up the stairs to see it from above.
I had no interest in using the thing, even when the kids all tried it and landed quite safely below. But my daughter incorrectly assumed I needed the "fun and exciting" experience. I was not firm enough. I explained reasons I felt it was not safe for me to do it—and they kept addressing my concerns, one by one. So, while I don’t know if you could call it peer pressure, since I was an adult and should have known better, I gave in and tried sliding down.
As my husband said later, “You failed to do the math relating to upper body strength versus lower body weight.” True, but probably could have gone without being said to a suffering wife. I went down hard, about as fast as if I had just fallen. I knew immediately I’d hurt my ankle. But at first (and for a couple of weeks) we thought it was probably just a bad sprain. It was swollen and purple right away. I felt more than just a little stupid for having done such a thing when I should have known better. In my defense, I’m the first person, including adults, to have been injured on this fireman’s pole, and they had had parties with dozens of people, young and old, trying it out. I’m just special that way.
The thing is, I knew immediately that I’d made a really bad decision. I even said to my daughter, “I know what repentance is all about; I really really wish I had never done this stupid thing.” And here’s another thing I know about myself: I learn fairly quickly from experience. I even learn from other people’s experience, and from reading or other forms of literature. I am not someone who needs to learn the hard way.
Nevertheless, I had a walking cast for two weeks, when the first x-ray showed nothing. When it didn’t heal, I got a better x-ray with an orthopedist and learned it was broken, in the talus joint, where it was hard to see. I didn’t have to have surgery, fortunately, but I did have a cast that required elevation (and thus a need for a wheelchair) for eight weeks, followed by another five weeks with a walking boot, and several months of physical therapy. And now, almost four years later, I’m aware that there’s some minor permanent damage.
Sometimes the consequences for our actions need to be serious, even if we’re sure they are too harsh.
There are many ways this can be a metaphor for our world. But, for now, I’m thinking economics. For many of us individually, we can see that profligate spending and unmanageable debt will lead, at some point, to financial failure, possibly sudden and seriously painful. If you spend money that is unsupported by wealth, you will fall and land hard. And when you hit bottom, it might take a long time to heal. You will lose wealth-building time, an opportunity cost, in addition.
But once you realize you’ve hit bottom, when you feel the sudden sharp pain, you get very interested in taking the necessary care to bring about healing. Not everyone, apparently, has that natural reaction, however. Things are made worse when someone hits bottom and thinks, “That wasn’t so bad,” and doesn’t change behavior. Who would do that? Someone who’s drunk or otherwise mentally impaired, maybe. Someone who can’t or won’t perceive reality. In economic terms, someone perhaps drunk with the power of spending other people’s money. Someone who has never been held accountable for the reckless behavior.
The question of our time is, how do we get the monstrously insensitive “government” to stop spending money unsupported by wealth? To stop leaping off an economic cliff that has already resulted in a 5-year economic malaise including at least two credit rating downgrades?
I have seen a few people in my life who have hit bottom—well beyond what I would consider hitting bottom. But, for them, the gravitational crash isn’t hard enough to convince them to change their behavior. They somehow think, “I can endure this; it’s not that bad.” I’ve seen that happen to a loved one who went through several attempts at alcohol rehab, lost the right to drive (re-wired the car to avoid the breathalyzer), lost family, friends, jobs, health, and finally died of liver failure. Nothing ever felt like a hard enough landing to permanently change behavior. I’ve seen a friend’s child go through several years of youth rehabilitation camp, prison, loss of family, mental institution, more rehab, and using people who care about him to keep him off the street—and the result is still, “It’s not that bad; I can handle it without actually changing.”
Economically speaking, what I’m afraid of is that, what I see as already hitting bottom is considered “not that bad” by enough people that the country as a whole moves inexorably toward more pain—until things get so uncomfortable that finally people wake up and say, “Oh, now I get it; we can’t keep spending like this when we don’t have it.” The sooner the better. Repentance—turning 180 degrees to the right direction—is hard and requires possibly a fair amount of painful rehabilitation, but is very much preferable to more serious falls or death (bankruptcy or worse?), which is the ultimate bottom to hit.


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