It’s hard to imagine someone, except on the far right, not sympathizing with the grievances of the Occupy movement. Women, young people, and minorities have been the hardest hit by the loss of millions of jobs. The fact that Wall Street’s recklessness brought down the entire economy led to a series of injustices: the malefactors were salvaged while ordinary citizens suffered, their excesses were not curbed by regulatory laws, and to rub salt into the wound, the same risk-takers are now enjoying huge profits, largely through the same reckless behavior.
With injustice rankling across society, it’s amazing that the Occupy movement isn’t more forceful and widespread. But I think there’s a reason why. People are tired of extreme divisiveness, even when there’s good reason to point out the bad guys and stand up to them. In last week’s failure of the super committee assigned the futile task of bringing Democrats and Republicans together on the deficit, there was a general, exhausted sense that we have been here before, over and over again.
Yet exhaustion – along with cynicism, disgust, and huge disappointment – isn’t a motivator for change. In a gloomy New York Times column, David Brooks points to ossified institutions that are not going to give up power, a public that continues to vote for divisive candidates, and the absence of viable leadership when both Democrats and Republicans are now minority parties, attracting a steady 30% of the electorate each. Brooks forecasts a bad decade ahead, seeing the only lever of change being financial catastrophe on the order of Greece.
Do we have to stagnate for a decade? There could be an opening for change at a level higher than politics. The American public is confused and conflicted right now. When individuals are in that state, the answer is self-awareness. A therapist asks simple, relevant questions. Why are you angry? How well has your anger worked for you? Do you have negative feelings toward those you love? What every American needs right now is to occupy himself or herself, which means honestly facing the conflicts roiling inside and finding a way to heal them. As long as voters complain about Washington’s inability to compromise while in the next breath supporting candidates who are rigidly tied to an ideology, conflict will continue because it exists inside the voter, first and foremost.
Presisdent Obama has been a beacon of reasonableness, and his call for a balanced approach to the deficit, along with almost all his other proposals, carries the same label: balanced. That’s the right answer, the one a therapist would give a troubled patient. Balance your anger with a sense of reasonable action. Love your partner but realize that negative feelings are permissible as long as you know how to handle them. Rise above conflict by letting go of extreme positions, for your own good. Obama has a healthy, adult sense of “for your own good.” The problem has been that a riled-up public hasn’t been in a place to listen and heed what he says.
America is far from teetering on the brink. Speaking strictly from statistics, the economy has recovered, because the gross national product is now higher than it was before the downturn in 2008. What has surprised economists, in the midst of such a robust GNP, is how badly the country reacted to the downturn. There has been a strong over-reaction on the part of timid consumers, frightened workers, cash-hoarding corporations, and overly cautious lenders. This only shows how psychological the economy is, and always has been. To alter the economy, our psychology has to change, which is why we need to occupy ourselves. Only self-awareness can lead to healing, which is the key to a real recovery and not just a list of numbing statistics.