Dealing with Debt

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2010. “Sirens that clamor today.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (December 8): 9A.

A few days ago I flew into Boston to make an invited presentation at MIT. I returned with a book in hand: Declan Kibbard’s Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in [James] Joyce’s Masterpiece. Already it’s inspiring me to think more deeply about the relationship between community, story, and debt.

The night before buying Kibbard’s book, I spent several exhilarating hours talking with MIT students about the story of America, about how we Americans have lost our sense of who we are, where we came from, and where we’re headed. The more we talked, the more we sensed that our country needs a new energizing myth that can give us a better sense of collective purpose and destination.

Shortly after buying the book, I found myself sitting in O’Hare Airport waiting for my flight to Cedar Rapids. Tired, I closed my eyes and listened to what was going on around me. At first I could only hear a steady murmur. Soon, however, specific voices and sounds clamored for attention:

“Just throw it to me, okay? To be honest with you… The TSA has limited the items that…The current threat advisory level is orange.…United Airlines is paging John Norton.… (Cough. Pages being flipped. Rollers on a luggage carrier.) You going to sit here? I’ll just carry it. (Beep!)…board our flight to Washington Dulles through the C concourse.…Well, and there’s some deals that we’d like to start talking with you about… Oh, Jesus! Ha, ha.…I mean. Gotcha. (Roar of a jet.) Excellent! Email me… Yeah. No. I appreciate that.…Hi Chuck. I’m doing pretty good.”

I couldn’t keep doing that any longer. It felt too much like watching cable TV news. Silence. I longed for silence.

Which made me recall a British Buddhist nun I met at a Zen Center north of San Francisco fourteen years ago. She had just returned from three years of silent meditation in a Tibetan cave. Surely she’s nuts by now, I thought. But no, she was lively, funny, and profoundly centered. One night she guided forty of us through a meditation designed to transform one person’s profoundly negative energy into love for that person.

What does this have to do with Ulysses, community, and debt?

Our everyday lives are barraged with voices telling us what to think about, what to buy, who to support, who’s winning and who’s losing.

Right now those Sirens are clamoring for action on budget deficits and the national debt. I too worry about our long-term debt. We cannot continue to consume more wealth than we produce. But the real questions are: Cut spending on what? Increase taxes on what? And reduce deficits to what end, other than getting the numbers to come out right?

While these Sirens clamor, the unemployment rate remains an unbearably high 9.8%. To dramatically cut expenditures now while one-tenth of us are unemployed will widen the divide between the rich and the rest, and thereby create social costs and resentments that will resonate long into the future.

Likewise, to demand action now to control projected increases in debt while simultaneously refusing to respond to the growing threat of global climate change will only worsen our long-term debt to the natural systems that nurture us.

Collectively, we need to get out of the airport, calm our minds, and discover for ourselves what’s really important. As James Joyce did with Ulysses, we need to look carefully at our everyday lives, and see connections between them and the debts we, as a national community, are incurring. And then talk with others about what they think, letting their ideas affect our own, and transforming negative energy into something positive. With quiet minds, we could then collectively craft a new energizing myth that gives us a shared sense of purpose and direction.

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