“Anticipation” is defined as the act of looking forward – especially a pleasurable expectation. As the daylight begins its progression to longer days and as we approach the turning of the calendar page from a challenging 2020, we are filled with the anticipation of what’s to come in the weeks and months to come.
Today’s reading is excerpted from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”. In the midst of a “run on the bank,” George Bailey tries to persuade the crowd not to take back the money they’ve invested in the Building and Loan but instead to ask for just what they need until the bank reopens.
This scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of my favorites because the hero of the film is demonstrating what he believes in. After a lifetime of longing and striving to escape the “crummy little town” of Bedford Falls and see the world, he reveals what really moves him: the love of a woman and the belief that every man deserves a home of his own. Jimmy Stewart is really good at these roles. Earnest and good looking, he can ask his dad to understand and forgive him for wanting to get away from the life his father chose even though he admits how much he admires him. That’s okay as long as his father is still back in Bedford Falls fighting for the rights of everyman, but when his father dies and the only way to beat Potter is to give up his dreams of travel and adventure and stay home to run the Building and Loan, he does it. As Clarence says, “he marries the girl.” That’s the American dream: finding your purpose in life and settling down to raise a family. George’s dreams of world travel and becoming an architect are what excite him, but what sustains him is loving Mary, carrying on the legacy his father built, and raising children in the town he grew up in. When he asks Mary why she wasn’t back in New York City with the other kids they knew, she says “Oh, I liked to visit, but I missed my home and my family.” Remember the TV sitcom “Cheers” where everybody knows your name?
For a long time, I felt about Elgin the way George Baily felt about Bedford Falls. When I moved here with my new husband right after graduating college, we were somewhat disdainful of the down. It was where he could get a good job and he found friends at the Unitarian Church, which his Quaker parents recommended we go to discover like-minded people. We both worked and we traveled with friends to Europe, bought our first house, joined friends who were starting a new creative business that served our community ideals. As it turned out, the dream that was our marriage did not last and I think I have always believed that it was I who made the choices that compromised my own happiness. But with age, we gain perspective, hopefully. I did have children, continued in graduate school, found new love, and stayed in Bedford Falls – er, Elgin.
It was the friends and family that sustained me. And the church.
Unlike George Bailey, who seemed to stand alone against the world at his darkest hour and despaired that his life was worth nothing, I was always aware how much my friends and family meant to me, though my purpose in life still eludes me much of the time. It has not revealed itself so dramatically to me as George’s Guarding Angel Clarence was able to do do for George. We should all be so lucky as to turn the corner away from despair and see the light. But that’s Hollywood, after all.
Looking back over the past fifty years, I have a perspective now that is most precious to me. And it has become more precious still during the past year. The phenomenon of finding opportunity in the midst of crisis is not new, but when it begins to reveal itself, it feels as if it’s happening for the first time. I’ve been so lonely the last several months, but I haven’t experienced illness, or loss of life among family and close friends. I just miss touching people. Hugs. Being shoulder to shoulder in a crowded room. Singing together, laughing in each other’s faces. When we compare how the pandemic has affected us and those around us, we include not only the people we know, but the people we see on the news every day. My lifelong focus on people around me, especially through the lens of social work, prompts me to consider how we got here, what choices did we make along the way that made us end up where we find ourselves? Like most of us, my tendency to blame someone else for my trouble is fairly irresistible. At the same time, I don’t much tolerate being blamed for someone else’s troubles. Funny how that works. But since this summer, my lifelong urge to figure out how we got here has overcome my resistance to take responsibility for it in whatever ways I can tolerate.
I look at what the world was like when I was growing up. Born in 1947, I see the world my parents knew as young adults and find that those post-war years were pretty good. Think about the crises that occurred in their lives one after the other. First the Great Depression, then World War II. The sacrifices they made during the war brought the US out of the depression and the unified response to fighting together and converting industry to producing all the necessities for fighting the “enemy” around the world gave them common purpose and feelings of solidarity. Giving up various comforts and small luxuries was done without complaint, and the post-war prosperity and opportunity was very real for them. No wonder they were optimistic about my future. Our nation is the great experiment: Democracy and Capitalism.
Scott Galloway says:
Now, fifty years later, American forces have been fighting in Afghanistan for 19 years, and we’ve lost 2,312 service members. The conflict has metastasized into violence spanning half the globe, with civilian deaths in the untold (literally) hundreds of thousands. During that time, we’ve seen numerous 14 mile-per-gallon SUVs with bumper stickers that say “Support Our Troops,” but have had no trouble finding chocolate, or anything else we might want. The more money one makes, the lower their tax rate, and nobody is asking us to buy war bonds or take a draft number. Instead, we have outsourced the war to a volunteer army of working young people, financed by future generations via a $6.5 trillion increase in the deficit.
Fast forward to the Pandemic. Since the 1970s, the optimism my parents felt that their children would enjoy a life of ever greater unity and prosperity has turned out to be a real miscalculation. Time to look back and see where we may have taken a wrong turn.
Government can monitor Capitalism in order to provide the moral compass that is not inherent to that economic system. I think we have discovered that letting the free markets regulate themselves overlooks the fact that selfishness is the foundation of Capitalism. Since the selfishness has evolved to benefitting shareholders over everyone else, we must recognize that corporations are not “job creators.” Leaving billionaires to do with their billions what they will doesn’t benefit their workers at all. They are playing games with their money in order to make more money. They don’t contribute to a growing economy. Only consumers do that. If workers can’t work, they can’t buy. And billionaires don’t buy any more toilet paper than the person on unemployment who shops at the Dollar Store.
During Roosevelt’s administration, they believed that government had a major role to play in regulating the economic order to promote social justice and human freedom. They also believed that in the process the rights of the states and of individuals must be strongly upheld. Part of the New Deal included direct relief of the unemployed, a public works program, minimum wage legislation, unemployment and old age insurance, abolition of child labor, and the establishment of a true federal employment service.
Compare the American response to WWII with our response to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Decades ago, patriotism meant civic duty, sacrifice for the common good. Now patriotism means defending individual freedoms, liberty to do what seems good for you without consideration for the welfare of others. Freedom to get your hair cut and go to a bar or restaurant. Freedom to move about in public without a face mask. Freedom to gather in large crowds and travel in airplanes to be with strangers. We don’t emphasize civics and debate in public school anymore. Our universities are dominated by left-leaning faculty and the students are more and more the children of the rich. We idolize private enterprise and the wealth it creates and have come to denigrate government, science, and public servants.
Patriotism used to mean “sacrifice” and now it is “stimulus.” In the pandemic, our nation and its leaders have spoken with their actions: millions of American deaths would be bad, but a decline in the NASDAQ would be tragic. The result has been disproportionate suffering. Lower-income Americans and people of color are more likely to be infected and face twice the risk of serious illness than people from higher-income households. For the wealthy, time with family, Netflix, saving, and stock portfolio value have all increased as commutes and costs have declined.
Whether the U.S. is headed for a Hunger Games future or something brighter depends on which path we choose post-corona.
As Naomi Kein says in her lecture to a virtual UUA General Assembly this past summer (you can read an adaptation of her speech in your copy of the UU World):
Have you ever heard of generative capitalism? It’s a system that uses the principles of capitalism to generate wealth for all. Not just the owners, but the workers. And to improve quality of life for all, by innovating and researching, combining the talents of diverse workers to solve a community’s problems, the world’s problems. Capitalism is a tool, and it can benefit all as much as the few. It just depends on how we use it.
You know when I really began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and what gives me real hope today? The Anti-Racism 21-day Challenge. Reverend Leland brought this idea to us a few months ago. We’re accustomed to self-help programs, to manifesting lifestyle changes by endeavoring to change our habits. Especially as we approach a new ear, right?
A man named Eddie Moore joined with Debbie Irving, author of Waking Up White, and other collaborators to develop a 21 Day Anti-Racism Habit Building Challenge. Commit to doing something every day for 21 days that looks at the impact of racism in the world we live in. We’ve just finished three weeks of habit-building through reading, watching, listening, and conversation. What we’ve learned from our 21-Day Challenge: we pay the price for looking the other way. It’s miserable facing the history and current status of oppression and discrimination and lies every day. Some of us want so badly to believe in those we consider more powerful and therefore smarter than we are that we’ve lost our filters of common sense. We believe what “our betters” tell us. Father Knows Best, my company/President/etc knows what’s good for me, he’ll take care of me. The American Dream is something I can have someday; if he can do it, so can I.
History is full of examples of how taking advantage of others can be justified. Manipulating poor indentured Whites into seeing their connection to rich landowners instead of the Blacks newly freed from slavery who wanted the same for themselves as the poor Whites did? By getting us to fight each other, they win. Slavery has left a legacy that informs much that is not working in our American society today. What gives me hope is that my efforts to see our society as interrelated and interdependent can inform my efforts to solve so many problems I see around me. Inequality, racism, climate catastrophe, persistent divisiveness, it’s something I can learn from and grow through. All people want is a way to earn a living, support their families, create a future for their children, enjoy the camaraderie of friendship, make amends, find a purpose, and do the right thing. Our church is the perfect place to practice. As George Bailey said: “We’ve got to stick together though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”
Let’s do that.