During the Great Depression, the number of people who committed suicide rose more than 20 percent. Some experts have suggested there might be a similar spike with the current stock market crisis.
That has been the talk lately at the Urban Ministry Center, the homeless assistance center where I work.
If there is one thing people on the street can be proud of, it is this: They are survivors. They have lost not only their home, but often their job, health, family and much of the control they had over their lives.
And yet here they are. They have stared down great loss and are still standing.
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We're convenience addicts
The majority of Americans are less resilient. We are, by and large, addicted to convenience. The most recent economic turmoil has frightened us as we look at what might come.
We are as fearful of poverty as we are of death. We love our comforts.
And note that I am saying “we” here, as I am guilty. During the recent gas shortage, I was on my way home from Rock Hill late at night when my low fuel light came on. After visiting several gas stations, I found only one station with gas, but with a line at least 50 cars long. By my reaction, you would have thought the sky itself was falling.
Never before had I seen a gas station without gas, let alone five different stations. Suddenly, I had to rethink my next few days. I was forced to make changes. The grocery store trip would have to wait. I would have to think twice about going out of town that weekend.
It is telling that in the recent presidential debate, the candidates were asked what sacrifices they would ask ordinary Americans to make. The answers did not seem so sacrificial. McCain told us we would have to be OK with less spending on our private defense contracts. Obama told us we would need to reduce our energy usage, but that we would have incentives to do so.
Sacrifice? Not us
They know the American public does not want to hear about tough sacrifices. The candidates speak of change, without mentioning the lifestyles that have gotten us into an environmental and economic mess.
The moments that inspire me are not about wealth or military victory. The best human moments are those of sacrifice: the women jailed for my right to vote; the immigrant families who fought their way to opportunity; the civil rights leaders who sacrificed their lives for others to gain the most basic rights.
The current crises – whether gas, stock market or foreclosure – are an opportunity to examine our lifestyles and expectations. Instead of examination, our public policy response has been to provide a cushion from the consequences so we can continue on with our comforts, conveniences, and spending.
We should ask more of ourselves.
The folks at the Urban Ministry Center are my teachers. They have shown me how you can lose everything, but hold on strong to dignity. They have taught me how we can face anything.