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When most people think of stoicism, they think of someone maintaining composure in the face of adversity. But that's only half the equation. To reach such equanimity, the Stoics expected, at every turn, that what they cared about most would be taken from them.
As Americans, stoicism isn't our cup of tea (or, rather, our 32 oz. cup of Baskin Robbins Heath Bar shake). We like our things and we won't accept anyone taking them from us. Which is why — whether we sympathize with the Tea Party or the Occupiers — we're all very angry right now.
Optimism is counter to the stoic state of mind, and optimism is at the heart of the American character. We need just a little daylight to buoy us for the next attempt, the next cause, the next goal. It's in every little cell and every little gene. And the cynics among us are just optimists with broken hearts.
This is good news. (We would take it as that even if it weren't.) We believe that our struggles mean something. That our disappointments are just cleverly disguised lessons served to us by a higher power. What doesn't kill us makes us ... etc.
But my little cells are straining these days. They bend skyward saying, "We get it. We've learned this one, big guy." Or maybe they bend to the president, or — God help us — Ben Bernanke, and they say, "Enough already. We're a beleaguered 99 percent and you seriously have to get us out of this now."
A few years ago I picked up Timothy Egan's "The Worst Hard Time," which turned out to be one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Egan beautifully illustrates that the Dust Bowl was not a simple product of bad luck, but of a boon — a few years of inexplicable rain and fecund growth. This "blessing" led overzealous landowners to plow up their grasslands and over-farm them until the normal climate — the climate that had hitherto ruled the region — eventually returned. The rain stopped, the wind picked up, and the center of our country simply blew away.
We didn't learn from the Dust Bowl and we haven't learned since. From the housing bubble back to the dot.com bubble back to the Great Depression, hope springs eternal, and our country's excesses, followed swiftly by its busts, have always been the product of the same "irrational exuberance."
Alan Greenspan, a man few would label as ebullient, was exactly that when he said that markets can "exact self-discipline" — essentially, that the orgy can last forever. However, in 2008, as he stood before the House Oversight Committee, he rescinded that claim, stating, "I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of banks were such that they were the best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in firms." And how, Alan.
That was more than three years ago. Since then, Greenspan's furrowed, crestfallen face has became the symbol of a furrowed, crestfallen nation.
So, the question for those of us who pray to either God or Mammon is: Have we truly learned this time? If the rain came and the wind died down, would I be just as willing to plow up my fields as the Dust Bowlers?
The fault lies in our exultant little American hearts. We want nothing so much as a free lunch. If the recession teaches us anything, it's that having a stretch of particularly good luck is not grounds for the belief that this is how it always will be. Or worse, if you lived through the '90s, that your luck will increase in such a fashion, exponentially, ad infinitum.
We can be proud that our business is growing, but this time, maybe we won't base the size of our mortgage (and accompanying six-bedroom house) on that rate of growth remaining constant.
I have no hope for Wall Street executives to change their dark and volatile hearts. Congress will remain feckless in passing muscular regulations. Yet, I do hope our current debacle has been severe enough that we, as citizens, won't forget it. We know what heartbreak is now. We won't believe so much anymore.
In the meantime, perhaps the best thing we can do is to remember: "This too shall pass."