The real value of hard times: retrieving our ideals

Today's difficulties won't bring reformation unless we learn to identify and value the essential over the extraneous.

Is there any truth to the assertion that "hard times bring out the best in us"? Assuming we'd want to be our best, would that not be a backhanded endorsement of hard times?

Yet few of us voluntarily choose hardship. Ads entice us by promising ease, convenience, and comfort.

What is our "best"? The complaints, accusations, and partisan posturing that mark today's hard times may not warrant Phil Gramm's "nation of whiners" tag, but neither do they exemplify our best.

There is, however, a nobler strain emerging in public discourse.

We hear of a "new age of responsibility," and that "we're all in this together." We sense a new willingness to address problems that have lingered for decades. We are compelled to take a sober look at past wastefulness. We detect a newfound respect for cooperation, accountability, education, hard work, compassion, honesty, rectitude: a mix of traditional "liberal" and "conservative" values.

This comes as our national wealth tumbles. What is it about that perilous uncertainty that moves us back in the direction of material and moral basics? As we daily learn about the faulty foundation upon which our economy towered, we learn how far we strayed from those basics.

Let's remember that economy is first about physical survival – to ensure we are fed and sheltered. Our means may be more elaborate and clever, but in that need alone, there is little to distinguish us from other creatures on earth.

Once that need is met we face a choice, whether to seek purpose beyond material achievements or to simply continue solving the problem of physical survival in its higher octaves of pleasure, luxury, or status.

In the latter case, we are often tempted beyond our means for the sake of "keeping up." But do we ever consider that even in tough times, we are surrounded with goods and products that in earlier periods or for other societies would represent the unimaginable height of marvel and affluence? Are we ever fully satisfied in this regard?

Sometimes it seems as though everything is inverted. A downward economic turn forces a search for core values. The economy deals in the outward realm of commodities and exchanges, while our values stem from some unseen center within us. The debate now seems to be what (or whose) values are needed to cause the economy to surge, establishing the former as the means and the latter as the goal.

But maybe that hierarchy also needs to be turned on its head. Maybe one of the very purposes for our daily economic exchanges is to practice perfecting our ideals. And when we drop those inner concerns as inexpedient to the goal of extra profits, it's like dropping a gem for a trinket, ironically the first step toward collective poverty.

Even the words we use to categorize our ideals can suffer this inversion. Liberal and conservative both represent something real – they are foundational principles. But each has its counterfeits. It gets confusing. Does liberal mean freedom unconcerned with the distinction between the licentious and the lofty, or the development of critical faculties intended to liberate us from such entanglements? Does conservative mean unbridled consumerism, or does it include responsible environmental conservation?

The litmus test is this: While the counterfeits reinforce partisan divides, the genuine parts of these perspectives complement and synergize, much like protective strength and nurturing compassion.

The seriousness of the situation – and the measure of our wisdom – can be gauged by how willing we are to jettison the counterfeits. If our difficulties force us to realize we can ill afford to be petty or extravagant and if they force us to identify and value the essential over the extraneous, then maybe there is value in hard times.

So as we proceed to pull ourselves out of this national ditch, let's not forget to retrieve our true ideals. Otherwise, it's a safe bet we'll simply be back here again, compelled as strangers to once more reacquaint ourselves with "the best in us."

David Arzouman is an artist, composer, writer, and educator who's developing a new art school in Tokyo.

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