Few people in these wicked times would deny that the dominant sentiment of our world’s elites is austerity toward the common people and a sense of insecurity about their own wealth and power in light of the seething hostility that seems at or near the surface of a world in serious trouble. While bankers are bailed out with taxpayer money, ordinary people are told to tighten their belts and make do with less. Not surprisingly, these same people are turning against their governments with rapid and strong hostility, and people and institutions and societies feel powerless to maneuver within the increasing and massive constraints placed upon them by fiscal and political realities. What are some of the hidden costs of this mood of austerity, and is there anything we can do or are willing to do about it to lessen its burden on ourselves and others?
CNBC reports, for example, that depression and suicide rates, as well as alcoholism, have risen dramatically across Europe as the financial crisis worsens . It is no surprise that unemployment, relationship breakdowns, debt, and mental illness are interrelated–I myself have had to struggle against suicidal depression in light of my own problems in those areas over the past few years . In the absence of hope for a better life, people seek what escape they can find–alcohol, medications, or death. When prognosticators say that the debt crisis could last for two decades, it would seem to consign my generation to basically permanent suffering and poverty and misery, and that is not likely to be taken patiently. The anxiety is borne by all, as everyone feels insecure, and insecurity drives people to do extremely dangerous and damaging things to themselves and to others.
As the United States is not quite so far (at least in our own consciousness) along the road to austerity, the austerity that has been shown so far in most areas has been a reduction of economic opportunity (in jobs) and an increase in dependence on government aid. For example, three times as many people started receiving “food stamps” as found jobs in the month of June in the United States , setting a new record for Americans in poverty as a combination of natural disasters and economic malaise has stalled any hopes for a recovery that benefits ordinary Americans in the short term. The austerity seen in the United States so far has been mostly austerity by the business community toward the common people (in the absence of job growth and in steadily eroding morale), but austerity is austerity no matter who is being austere. The effects are the same, as is the struggle against despair in an atmosphere of growing tensions, decreasing trust, and lessened opportunities.
What are the roots of this growing mood of austerity, and its costs on our spiritual lives? For those who are dealing with the austerity, the struggle against depression, anxiety, addictions, and suicidal tendencies (or abortions for ‘economic reasons’) lies in a crisis of faith. Europe (even more so than the United States) has lost its anchor of faith, its moorings in a belief in a God who rules over history and governs the world according to His will. Mind you, a belief in God like that does not make the problems go away, but it does at least allow the belief in a bigger plan and purpose beyond the immediate present reality to provide hope and comfort in difficult times. Without that comfort, the options are revolution or despair. And those nations that deliberately inflict suffering on their populace because of their own greed will reap the revolution that they are now sowing.
Likewise, austerity and a feeling of crisis tend to diminish our love and care for others. When we feel as if our lifestyle is threatened, no matter how much or how little we have, we tend to hoard our resources and harden our hearts against others. We are so concerned about self-preservation that we forget to open our hand toward those even more vulnerable and threatened than we are, our selfishness accentuated by our fears and worries. For just as perfect love casts out fear, so does perfect fear cast out love, and insecurity in the face of our worsened circumstances leads us to show less love and outgoing concern and generosity toward family members, neighbors, and brethren, to say nothing of those we consider rivals and outsiders and enemies. And without love and generosity, it is vastly more difficult to endure difficult times with our spirits intact.
And so, while the world looks like an increasingly harsh and unfriendly place, let us remember to overcome the times we live in and not to let our struggles against difficult circumstances lead us into either despair or a lack of love for others. If God has given us more than enough to get by, let us not forget those who are not so fortunate. If God has given us trials and tribulations now, let us learn from the mistakes that got us here, let us keep our spirits up, preserve our friendships and other relationships, and let us work toward finding a better future and preparing for the blessings that God gives to those who endure faithfully. May we all be among that blessed company, regardless of the evil times we must now endure.