maybe we’re dreaming

I just finished watching Margin Call (2011), a Wall Street thriller (?) set in the early hours of the 2008 financial crisis. As their world crumbles beneath their feet, one of the powerful suggests to one of his peers that perhaps it’s a dream. The response — Maybe it’s all been a dream, and we’re now just waking up.

The questions raised by that curt retort are enormous.

One of my close friends is unswervingly convinced that our entire economy is a balloon on the verge of exploding. But I’ve always leaned toward optimism, brushing off the bleak prophesies of the doomsayers. Economies rise and fall. Fortunes are made and lost. It’s a cycle.

But perspective comes with age. The older we get, the further we can see into the past. And it seems that with the ability to see into the past, we also gain an uncanny knack for peering into the future.

I can’t even begin to comprehend the complexities and intricacies of economics. But I can understand addition and subtraction. And I can understand that there just has to be a limit to spending what we don’t have. And I can understand that the world cannot go on forever with a small fraction of its population consuming most of its resources and enjoying the bulk of its wealth.

In the movie, one of the wealthy money men expresses his belief that there will always be fat cats and starving dogs. It’s clear to him that life is a game with winners and losers. You’re the first, you’re the fastest, you’re the smartest, or you lose. His point is illustrated in an almost comedic manner when two power brokers, engaged in an intense survival strategies discussion, enter an elevator and take positions flanking a cleaning woman. They continue their discussion uninterrupted as though the woman doesn’t exist. Sadly, to them, she doesn’t.

Over the millennia, people have responded to the wealth question in so many ways. Some take vows of poverty, some take up work to improve poor conditions, and others try to distribute a portion of their wealth to others in need. Some of the doomsday prophets respond by stockpiling and minimizing their connection to the grid.

But most of us generally ignore those on the financial rungs below ours, at least most of the time. Like the woman on the elevator, we don’t see them. In our orbits, they don’t exist.

So I keep returning to the question, Have we been living a dream and is the alarm about to ring? Can we really feel satisfied knowing that our IRAs are secure and growing? Can we really expect the years ahead to be as comfortable as the years behind us?

I believe Margin Call answers these big questions in a very subtle and indirect manner. Sam Rogers, a main character and one of the firm’s managers, is relentlessly clobbered with an incessant stream of difficult questions and hard dilemmas. He stands to lose his career, his fortune, and his integrity.

But he is most troubled by the loss of his dog to a malignant tumor.

To take this any further, I risk sounding pompous, arrogant, or overly religious. But the bottom line truth is inescapable. Anything and everything that is tangible will pass away. We all know it, but few of us live like we know it. Our possessions, our careers, our wealth, and even our reputations are impermanent.

Whether we live like it or not, what matters most, at the end of the day, is authentic relationships.

© panthera2, 2012.

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passing by on the other side

In large cities like Philadelphia and New York, it’s said that a person in distress should never scream for help. A cry for help is a plea for personal intervention. It’s asking someone passing by to become involved. It’s much better for someone in need to scream ‘Fire!’ Since its main focus is on a structure, a fire is perceived as less intimate, and a stranger is able to respond with less fear of becoming personally involved.

I recently watched Central Station, a movie in which Dora, a retired grade school teacher, makes a living by writing letters for illiterates in a large Rio de Janeiro train station. Dora has long given up any quest to find meaning in life, and doesn’t even bother to mail her customers’ letters.

Then, when one of her customers is struck dead by a truck outside the station, Dora is forced to watch the dead woman’s young son trying to survive alone on the city streets. Feeling a pull to do something, Dora initially sells the boy on the black market. Unable to live with that decision, however, she rescues him and sets out on a long journey to unite the boy with his remaining family in another part of the country. In doing so, Dora abandons her livelihood and the comfort of her home. She sacrifices many days and much of her savings.

I’m also thinking about an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (Season 7, Episode 9) in which Detective Goren becomes aware of inmates at a New York state prison being subjected to torture. Realizing that going through normal channels would be slow and ineffective, Goren risks his own career by going undercover without authorization to expose the misconduct. He does get results, but loses his job in the process. Goren does not regret his actions.

At this point it may be worthwhile to bring to the table a story told by Jesus.

And Jesus said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his clothing, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever you spend more, when I come again, I will repay. Which now of these three, do you think, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do likewise.

It’s interesting to note that Dora, Detective Goren, and the Samaritan are not particularly religious. But all three go far out of their way, two of them abandoning comfort and career, to become involved for the sake of someone who is suffering. Not one of them questions whether or not those suffering deserve assistance. They see a need, and they’re compelled by compassion to act.

In my experience, it is those who claim to be followers of this Jesus who are least likely to respond to a cry for help. It is they who are least likely to risk comfort, reputation, career, or their savings to reach out to those who suffer. It is they who are most likely to carefully weigh whether or not a potential recipient is deserving of their love. Too bad.

© panthera2, 2012.