Flight to quality

A guilty confession some years in coming: During the August 2003 Northeast blackout, I felt pretty good.

It was not too long after 9/11, so when the unexplained occurred, people still got a little nervous. The blackout hit just before I left work for the afternoon, and you could feel a slight tang of unease in the air. But as I drove home through downtown, and realized none of the traffic lights were working, suddenly things felt… good. Maybe others were a bit scared, but I was looking forward to using my basic driving skills. I felt a little braver and more alive than usual. In the midst of what could very well have been a serious national emergency or even a dreaded terrorist attack… was that wrong?

With the superheated ’00’s economy unraveling, there is a heightened awareness that, all this time, we have been exhorted to aim for certain rigid goals we weren’t sure we really wanted. Even the most naturally hardy against that sort of pressure have felt it as a constant irritant, if not a weight. (This article offers a psychological analysis of the problem – about midway through.) Now, quite suddenly, the weight of those expectations is falling away at speed. Many sufferers were probably unable to articulate the discomfort of that weight, and may be even less able to articulate the sense of freedom — not euphoria, just simple freedom — that is in the air. I wouldn’t even say, “in the air”; it is air. And not even a breeze, just more like fresh oxygen drifting from a cracked-open window.

And this sense is definitely not schadenfreude, a mean fascination with others’ colossal failures, or a desire for comeuppance of the arrogance that laid this stressful lifestyle on our society. Schadenfreude quickly loses its appeal, especially when innocents get caught up in financial pain. And anyhow, soon you won’t be able to find anyone who openly revels in hyper-materialistic values, whether or not they’ve really become truthful about how they did live. There will be no one to throw stones at. Frugality will be claimed as conventional wisdom and as a popular core value, by the very same people who wanted only to spend wildly just months before. There are some who will wisely flee to quality investments, but dishonesty will make haute couture out of sackcloth.

If you are experiencing a feeling of natural liberation, don’t feel guilty. Breathe, enjoy this gentle moment, and look deeply into it, because it won’t last long. As a society, we may be presently leaving one “ism,” but as season follows season, another set of ambitious “isms” must surely be approaching. (Mankind can’t seem to do without them for very long.)

But right now, there are none: just maybe a restirring of common sense, of common courage, and neighborliness. In between bubbles — after one “ism” pops, and before another swells — maybe we get to briefly hold what is truly real.