Compared to What?

I received an e-mail message from a colleague on the East Coast earlier this week that concluded with the words, “People are scared.”  I believe she was referring to the current economic situation and the uncertainty we all face regarding jobs and financial security.  Few of us are immune from concerns about the economy, and even fewer can escape the media’s new fascination with grim financial statistics.  I know the concerns are legitimate, but I’m also convinced we can’t let fear dictate our response to the situation.


The conditions we face today, and are likely to confront in the months ahead, may seem hard in comparison to better times in the past.  By almost any other measure, the circumstances of our daily lives should be cause for celebration.  I have seen what can happen when people focus on what they lack instead of making use of what they have.


I was a member of a team sent to Indonesia in 2001 to work with newly formed local government associations on building their organizations.  Indonesia had no history of local government because it had essentially been ruled by a dictatorship for generations.  My most vivid memory of the assignment was when an official told us that the biggest problem his country faced was a lack of “people resources.” Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world; and a brief tour of its capital, Jakarta, is an object lesson in the consequences of cramming too many people into too little space.  I think the real problem in Indonesia was a long history of government trying to control and suppress “people resources,” rather than creating conditions where people could work together to solve problems. 


Much of Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise where advanced civilizations once flourished centuries before Christ.  When I visited the country in 2006, the downtown area of the capital city, Colombo, resembled an armed camp.  Resources that might have gone to improve living conditions for a high percentage of the population living in what we would consider extreme poverty were instead dedicated to fighting a vicious, decades long civil war.  During the course of my work, I learned that the annual budget of a community of about 15,000 people in the northern part of the country was approximately $55,000.  The jurisdiction employed 15 people and was responsible for solid waste disposal, a preschool, planning, a library and a variety of administrative tasks. 


The fact that people are suffering around the world probably comes as no surprise, and I’m sure offers small consolation to someone who has just lost a job.  What should give us hope is the recognition of the many advantages we have and the lessons we can learn from other places.  We are endowed with a legacy of prosperity, education, and freedom.  If we respond to challenges to this heritage with fear manifested as intolerance, anger, and despair, we risk what is most important to us.  Compared to most, life is good here.  We can keep it that way by sharing our blessings rather than our fears.